Is a Black Web Browser Racist?: BET x Kevin Kelly x Blackbird

by Guest Contributor M.Dot, originally published at Model Minority

Earlier this week I mentioned to my friend S.bot that I was going to write about the fact that many people thought that the Black web browser, Blackbird, was racist.

A little background. Blackbird is a web browser, created and operated by 40A, Inc., a company founded by three African American entrepreneurs, Arnold Brown II, Frank Washington, and H. Edward Young, Jr.

On Tech Crunch, Robin Wauters describes it saying,

The browser displays a pre-set news ticker on top, pulls in news content from Google News that might be of interest to African-Americans, and features a section with video content from online TV sites like UptownLiveTV, NSNewsTV, DigitalSoulTV and ComedyBanksTV. Other than that, there’s a lot of integration with the most popular social networks, a ‘Black Search’, preset ‘Black Bookmarks’, etc. There’s also a ‘Give Back’ program that streamlines donations to a number of non-profit organizations (Blackbird intends to donate 10% of its 2009 revenue to these partners as well).

Here is the Blackbird pitch,

Because we know the 20 million African Americans online need tools to build and foster community now more than ever.

Because we know that 85% of African Americans prefer online news and information from the Black perspective.*

Because we know that you are twice as likely to be among the first to discover new trends and use advanced technology compared to the general population.*

*Source: PEW Internet and American Life Project 2004

By trade, my friend S.bot is an Information Architect, so she is far more comfortable with trafficking in data than I am. I like Data too, but more for sociological purposes, but this discussion show me that she is the rare breed that is a high level aerial thinker that understands technology, business, user experience.

While I initially was going to just focus on whether BlackBird was racist, the more I spoke to her, the more I became interested in the convergence of race, data and capitalism on the internet. She likened a Black web browser to someone deciding which library she could go to. I responded saying that there are Black libraries, and that Black libraries have more Black stuff then regular libraries, so what is the difference?

She said the internet is different. The issue is about data and searching. Her question, was who is search whom and for what purpose? I didn’t get it because I was thinking about it on a one to one search level. What she was referring to was who is searching whom in a more institutional sense.

On the blog Open Anthropology, Maximilian Forte, clarified two things about Blackbird. The first issue that he addressed is around unexamined racial assumptions about other web browsers such as Google, Firefox and Explorer. The second issue is about the assumed racial “neutrality” (if there is even such a thing) of other web browsers. Forte writes,

There is no claim here that any of the other browsers are inherently “white.” What seems obvious is the desire to create what is, in a sense, a pre-loaded portal that immediately directs users to African American content online, linking them with other users at the same time in some cases.

Perhaps the problem is that of invisibility generated by assumptions, that the very conception, selection, design and layout of elements on a browser come out of a North American, white, “geek” cultural stratum, and that therefore to many white, middle class, North American users the cultural assumptions remain invisible, the browser appears normal, intuitive, self-evidently rational, etc. I have some sympathy for this argument (not that I think that Blackbird was designed to address this argument even remotely).

Once S.bot mentioned to me that it was about the data, I immediately thought that the owner of a Black web browser would be able to sell ad’s based on the number of presumably Black people who have downloaded and use it. It then appeared to me that there was a huge economic incentive to creating a Black Firefox.

cloud
(Image courtesy of Praized Blog)

She went on to say that Google is trafficking in data, not necessarily search. Then she offered that because the future of the internet is about data linking to data, that I should watch the Kevin Kelly Video.

On the Praized blog, Sebastian summarizes the Kevin Kelly video nicely when he writes,

Phase 1 of the Internet was all about linking computers together and sharing packets. Phase 2 was about linking pages (when the Web came along) and sharing links. Phase 3, the next phase, will be about linking data. Linking to the information inside the page down to the elemental unit (what I often call “atomization). This new semantic Web will understand the meaning of words. For example, ”Pacifica” (a small town near San Francisco) is a place with attributes.

I then asked what is an example of data linking? Her response. Mashups, which are largely enabled by API technology. She went on to say that API technology enables more data linking because it allows programmers to create documents that have universal extensions. For instance, a “.pdf” cannot talk to a word “.doc”, and a “.gif” can’t talk to an “mp3.” API technology makes this issue moot and will conceivably allow all documents to talk to each other.

She also went on to add that the API technology has an additional impact. First it allows for folks to build on an already existing technology, such as Blackbird how is built on Firefox. She used the example of how the original source code for Firefox is like the English alphabet and each time a coder adds something new to a program, it is the equivalent of adding more letters to the alphabet.

It then began to make sense that is about the data. At that point I started looking for a notebook to start scribbling ideas for this post.

She went on to say that she couldn’t clearly see how a Black browser could add any value.

Her rationale was that the data indexed on a Black Browser may be of interest to someone who is researching Black people for presumably Black data. I agreed. I immediately thought, this could be for good or for bad.

I then asked, what is the difference between BET and Blackbird? She pointed out that BET is a push media, it creates content whereas search engines and browsers, are pull media, they pull content. She then expressed that she wanted the broadest net possible when pulling, and doing her search. And that by using a browser that was self identified as Black, that she may be limiting herself to the number sites that the browser indexed. She also said that by appearing in a Black browser, a website runs the risk of being treated like a “Black Website”, segregated from the rest of the world. This of course presumes that
if you are indexed by Blackbird, that you will not be indexed by Google, which doesn’t make sense.

I responded saying that being Black offline is being Black online as well (with the exception of people who impersonate other races/ethnicity’s online) and that this reminds me of our tendency to think that the internet will serve as some digital race cleanser.

The internet is created and used by human beings, human beings that may or may not suffer from the ism’s. Racism. Sexism. Ageism.

This does not disappear once you log on.

Then I began to think, is a browser for women sexist? If not, then why is a Black browser racist? I thought back to S.bot’s statement that she didn’t want a Black browser because it would limit her “library.” I immediately thought of two things.

The first is that information has always been political tool in African American history.

Second, we come from a people who were punished for learning how to read. We live in a country that once deemed it illegal to teach us how to read.

Thirdly, we live in a country that was once so staunchly segregated that the only way to get Black news was by creating Black newspapers, because “regular” newspapers did not hire Black folks.

In fact, it would be amazing to see Blackbird index Black publications prior to integration. But I digress.

Many of the comments made about Blackbird being racist reminded me that when thinking about technology, we operate from the assumption that there is a racial clean slate, which can’t be further from the truth. The biases and assumptions that we have offline, are sitting there on the keyboard with us online.

Only when we acknowledge that, can we have an honest discussion about race, data and technology.

Is a Black web browser, racist?

Why were white people so offended by a Black Web Browser?

Why is there a need to NOT be segregated on the internet?

Would you use Blackbird?