Charlton McIlwain, Black Software

photo of Charlton McIlwain
Reimagining the Internet
Reimagining the Internet
Charlton McIlwain, Black Software
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We’re incredibly excited to have Charlton McIlwain join us for an interview about the history of the Black Internet and his book Black Software: The Internet & Racial Justice, from the AfroNet to Black Lives Matter. As a professor in NYU’s Media, Culture, and Communications department, Charlton has studied Black spaces on the internet from the dial-up days through Black Lives Matter. At a time when so much of online culture is indebted to Black culture, Charlton asks us to imagine what it might look like for the Internet to once again be Black.​

Transcript

Ethan Zuckerman:

Hi, everybody. Welcome back to Reimagining the Internet. I am your host, Ethan Zuckerman with the Initiative for Digital Public Infrastructure at UMass Amherst. I am thrilled today to have my friend Charlton McIlwain. He’s the vice provost for faculty engagement and development. He’s a professor of media, culture and communication at NYU. Important for our conversation today, he is the author of the acclaimed Black Software from AfroNet to Black Lives Matter. You can see the cover of it above his shoulder. Charlton, it’s so good to have you here.

Charlton McIlwain:

Thank you for having me. It’s great to be with you.

Ethan Zuckerman:

So, I have wanted to talk to you since I heard you give a reading, and sort of discussion from the Black Software book more than a year ago, over at Data & Society. And really the reason I wanted to bring you here, we have a conversation on the show about imagining the internet as it could be and should be. When we imagine that we’re often thinking in terms of technological changes and affordances, but somewhere we absolutely have to imagine to the internet is an internet that is not just inclusive of black and brown voices, but is an internet co-created and filled with spaces built by black net users. And you’re an expert on this. You actually are documenting in this book kind of a secret history of black creation of online spaces go back to the 1960s. Tell us about that, tell us about AfroNet?

Charlton McIlwain:

Yeah, it’s a great way to begin. And often I like to begin by talking about a chapter that I had early on in the book, or at least a title that ultimately it didn’t make it in, but the early draft title of it was, Remember When the Internet Was Black?. And it was sort of both question and statement that A, what would it be like to think about an internet that was black? And B, there was actually the time when blackness, black culture, black cultural production was really at the core and center. And so, I like to talk about that particular moment that it was demonstrated in many ways, AfroNet is a great place to start. Here, you have… For the folks that remember the early days of bulletin boards and so forth, this was the network that was created in that BBS system.

It was carefully curated. It was black only. And so, system operators who would connect black populations from East Coast to West Coast, stretched on up into Canada. And so, the AfroNet was this group of people who came together really to just have community. It was interesting when I would talk to folks members of AfroNet, and asked them about what was this moment like? Why was this moment called into being? And I sort of had a very political lens on it, but most of them didn’t have that. It was simply, “Here was a way for me to connect with other people like me across the country.” And that might just be for very [inaudible 00:03:24], everyday interactions or gossip or what have you, or something that might be more political, but the impetus was simply connecting with other black folks.

Ethan Zuckerman:

There’s a lot of cyber-utopian rhetoric about that moment of the net, right? We’ve got folks like Howard Rheingold singing the praises of The Well, which is in that Bulletin Board System moment. I think a lot of the white imagination of that moment is of the emergent net as a space without race, a space without class, you can be whoever you want. What’s so important about making sure that there are black spaces online?

Charlton McIlwain:

Yeah. I think a lot of this is about A, a very long history of exclusion. And so, black folks wanting to say, “Look, there is room and certainly buy-in into this utopian vision of race not mattering in certain ways, but not in all ways,” and sort of embracing this need that, “Look, we have grown up in a society that has historically excluded us, has barred us from entry into certain spaces.” And a by-product of that is the need and desire to create spaces of our own. And I think that that became a necessity both as a retreat, but also as a way of protection in a wider culture, even an internet culture that is certainly well beyond blackness and black folks.

So, I think that need for a community, for spaces that were produced by us and for us, or the reverse for us, by us as the adage and commercial appeal in the early nineties. That was necessary, and so not only to have a sense of being represented, but to know somewhere, whether it’s physically, virtually, what have you, I have a place to go where being who I am is not questioned, talking about the things that I want to talk about is not questioned, taken at a given, my value as a person, as a group of people are taken as a first principle and agreed upon. And so, I think that’s really the value of having those kinds of spaces that we’ve needed offline, and needed online as well.

Ethan Zuckerman:

You and I are of the same generation. We were both in college in the late eighties, early nineties. A lot of the debates that I remember from my college years were about creating those sorts of spaces. Beverly Tatum ended up publishing a book, Why Are All The Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? And it’s a book that ends up being really revelatory about that incredible importance of having spaces where you don’t have to explain aspects of your identity, where you’re allowed to be who you are, and particularly on the internet, which so often sort of refuses to acknowledge race and to acknowledge difference of experience.

I think the importance of those spaces can’t be overstated. The other day, I was teaching an early Danah Boyd paper on definitions of social networks, and she’s listing social networks that are starting to emerge in the early 2000s. There are a wave of networks that are based around identity in one fashion or another, including of course, black [inaudible 00:07:21], which I know that you’ve written about. What happens in that moment, and how do we lose that moment? Why have those communities been subsumed into Twitter and Facebook?

Charlton McIlwain:

Well, wow, it’s a big question. And starting with the fact that as you said, these types of networks really proliferated on the early internet, and survived for quite a while and then a fairly abrupt ending. Number one, I think that they existed because they were part of what came before, meaning like in the cases of your AfroNets of the world and so forth, when folks were trying to think about how do we profit in this new kind of space, this new venture online? I think a lot of people smartly looked back and said, “Well, we want to replicate these kinds of communities in this new space.” And they look back to your AfroNets of the world to say, “Hey, can you reproduce that in this online forum?” And so, you look at your AfroNet, you look at one proposed venture that was GO AFRO by CompuServe in the early mid-nineties to compete with NetNoir which was AOL’s version and product that grew up with Malcolm CasSelle and David Ellington. Black Voices was another one that followed closely on with that very, very profitable.

So, all of those, I think were seen as, “Hey, here’s a way of creating value in this new space, which is simply bringing people together, and people coming together around what are clear similarities, clear points of contact.” And so, I think in those early days, you could see really the value of that at the relatively small scale that they appeared. And then I think in a lot of ways, I think the internet just got big and more complicated, and its structure grew such that those kinds of networks no longer flourished, and people were not seeing and investing in them as very viable places to produce and to make money from. And so, then it became, “Let’s reproduce these within a larger framework that we know is possible and profitable,” so your Facebook, your Twitter, your Myspaces, et cetera, where folks can have their own communities within this larger umbrella.

Ethan Zuckerman:

It is fascinating to think about these mega corporations with CompuServe and AOL being willing to sort of say, “Yeah, we should have a dedicated black space. We should have an Afrocentric space.” But of course, once we get to Facebook, the message is, “No, this is for everybody. Your space is our space.” And it is not to say that there are not black spaces on Facebook, but that Facebook’s identity tries to sort of trump all the rest of those. Can we talk about the special case of Twitter. Black Twitter has emerged as a political and social phenomenon. Do you see lines going back through AfroNet, and that early nineties period into Black Twitter? Is this really different phenomenon that emerged?

Charlton McIlwain:

No, I really see as a straight line between AfroNet, between the early Usenet groups where black folks would congregate and really connect and battle it out. You see the same kind of language conventions use, you see the same kinds of interactions when you look at an AfroNet chat and look at Twitter today. You see a lot of the short form, the playful nature in which people are engaging and interacting, and you see the way in which race and blackness is front-loaded in those interactions, and assumptions made about who that collective is, and who understands the tropes and so forth that are being bandied about. And what the calling card in some way is, as well as recognizing the wide variety and diversity within black culture, and in a lot of ways, taking those things to task and those kinds of conversations.

So, the only thing for me when you think about Black Twitter and AfroNet, or [inaudible 00:12:24], I think it was on Usenet is really some additional affordances of a Twitter platform, but it’s really the same basic thing. It’s where do we find our people in this particular space and then do what we do.

Ethan Zuckerman:

And some of the blurry edges, right? I think for many of us who are lucky enough to have colleagues who are participating in Black Twitter, we end up at least being aware of some of those discussions, even if not always participating within them. Is there something that gets lost when Black Twitter as a space, but it’s not an exclusively African American space, it’s a cultural space interacting with those other Twitter spaces.

Charlton McIlwain:

Yeah. I think there is a little bit lost. Number one, just because it’s always open for some kind of intervention, if you will by “outsiders.” You don’t have that sense of authenticity, and when I say authenticity, I mean that sort of very broadly, meaning you just have racist folks who are able to enter into a conversation, either fully aware or putting themselves and who they are out there, or posing as it were, and acting like through their interactions that they are a member of the community, but are not there in the same way that other people in good faith participate in that community.

So, I think that those are some of the downsides. I do think that people more and more are aware of other ears, other eyes that are part of that, and therefore, you don’t quite see the level of frankness and explicitness that you might in a place that you know is much more relatively closed. And there’s a way I speak to my friends and the way I speak to friends of friends who I know have some proximity to myself and my ideals and so forth, that I simply don’t with a broader community of folks who I know might judge in varying ways what I’m saying. And so, I think that’s the limitation of a platform like Twitter that provides the affordances that it does, and all the folks that get joy and many, many positive things for participating. There are those downsides.

Ethan Zuckerman:

Sure. And the openness to harassment, the openness to abuse. We’re seeing a lot of this right now with Dr. Timnit Gebru and sort of backlash to Google’s real scandalous firing of her, and some of the things that she’s absorbing in these spaces. For me, it makes me wonder whether we don’t need a return to some of these spaces that maybe had firmer boundaries and its stronger control about sort of who gets to be in and who gets to be out. Let me ask you a question on Twitter and activism. You’re co-author along with some brilliant scholars like Deen Freelon of some of the best research out there on the relationship between social media and movements like Black Lives Matter, how critical are these black spaces and social media for that organizing effort?

Charlton McIlwain:

Yeah, I think they’re very critical. And if, for no other reason around the two things that I think social media is really set up to do, which is about volume and visibility, right? So, as we all know, movements need and thrive on attention, and it so happens that that’s what these platforms are really designed to provide in many ways. So, I think it’s absolutely crucial. It is interesting. I got into a lot of discussions early on in doing research for the book and talking to a lot of Black Lives Matter activists and so forth who were very… I sort of throw in this, tell me about this kind of digital movement of Black Lives Matter. And it was initial strong knee-jerk reaction to say, “Hey, this is not about the internet. It’s not about the digital. This is about organizing. This is about building capacity of folks to do various kinds of work.”

And I would keep sort of going back and saying, “Yeah, but you couldn’t have done this. You couldn’t have done what Black Lives Matter accomplished even five years ago, much less 10 or beyond where the media environment was extremely different.” And so, I think what was absolutely the game changer about Black Lives Matter was having spaces that allowed them to amplify the message. And that is what I think you see, and what has paid off, which is millions of people who know what Black Lives Matter is knows what it stands for, and that it did something that hasn’t been done in basically about 50 years, which is to roust these issues back up to the top of the public agenda in ways that they haven’t been for half a century.

Ethan Zuckerman:

No, it’s an extraordinary movement. I think it’s a movement that in many cases is still underappreciated even with the level of attention it’s gotten. You may have seen this new paper by Travis Campbell coming from UMass Amherst, where he’s able to demonstrate a 15% to 20% decrease in police homicides in communities that had strong BLM movements. For me, it intersects with some of the work that we did over at MIT, where we were able to demonstrate that media attention to unarmed deaths, deaths of unarmed black people at the hands of the police gain massively more attention after Black Lives Matter sort of comes onto the media narrative. I think understanding protest in terms of channeling attention and channeling media narrative is something that we’re not always very good at sort of recognizing the power around it, but is something that BLM has really drawn forward for all of us.

Charlton McIlwain:

Yeah, definitely. And I think where we often go awry is that we don’t have the ability as you were sort of mentioning with this paper putting those two things together, meaning as soon as the visibility drops on Twitter, we go, “Oh, it’s must be over. There’s nothing going on.”

Ethan Zuckerman:

What did that do?

Charlton McIlwain:

Yeah. But there’s not the corollary where folks ask me, “Where did Black Lives Matter go?” Because they don’t see it on Twitter, they’re not seeing it on Facebook in the ways that they did before. And the answer is always well, go down to your local courthouse, go down to your local city council. That’s where the fight comes from. And I think that’s really what the activists that I was talking to and about earlier were really referring to, that the groundswell of the work is on the ground in these very local contexts, but the two things go together, they’re able to do that work because of the attention first driven to the issue and the sustainment of that attention.

Ethan Zuckerman:

You document the stories of so many people who are doing such creative stuff in the nineties, through the early 2000s. As you point out, there’s this moment where the emerging internet culture sees the value of not only celebrating black culture for black audiences, but celebrating it more broadly. But I think in many cases, when we think of Silicon Valley, we think of white dudes almost exclusively. And so, do a little bit of the where are they now? What has sort of happened for some of these figures who are so critical in the late nineties and early 2000s?

Charlton McIlwain:

Yeah, it’s a great question. I would say almost two or one they’re all out of that game, per se. Some that are still like David Ellington and Malcolm CasSelle who at least up until his recent, unfortunately unfortunate passing were still entrepreneurs. Malcolm still very much in the digital internet realm in terms of New Ventures that he started, launched, et cetera. So, a few have remained successful in that space in different ways, but typically not in the same way that they started out, meaning with very focused black cultural related ventures. Really the rest to sort of faded out and most have very strong ideas about why that was the case. And most will simply say, “Look, the capital dried up.” And by dried up, we mean people did not look for us nor were we given an opportunity really to push our ideas, the technological innovations that we were doing.

I remember one of the guys that I talk about a lot in the book, Ken Granderson who went to MIT and ended up living in Boston for most of his career, starting an early internet business that had both a profit side and building software and software products, but also a public interest side, if you will in helping sort of galvanize black folks and black communities in the Boston area around the internet. But he tells I think what was that sort of familiar story, which was, you have a group of black technologists who have the ideas, who had the capability, often they’re trained at the very elite institutions, but there simply isn’t that access to capital that they have not grown up in a network that allows that, they don’t have the networks that help to make those entrees and introductions into this world.

Charlton McIlwain:

And often there are simply refusal into the Silicon Valley, into the venture capital spaces that are really needed for that kind of growth. And so when you see and think about the way that the internet changes through the rest of the nineties and your emergence of your Googles, and then later on of the platforms and so forth, it’s an enormous amount of capital that it takes to try to compete in that world. And I think that’s where everything went to the wayside. You didn’t have that level of capital investment in black ideas, in black ventures that allow those things to thrive. And I think if we’re looking to the future and what that’s going to take in terms of our current array of black entrepreneurs in the digital space of which there are many, it’s going to take a lot of that capital investment.

Ethan Zuckerman:

It feels like the narrative has sort of turned to, of course there aren’t black-run tech companies. There aren’t enough black people in STEM. What we’ll do is we’ll start changing STEM and STEAM education down at the high school level. And then maybe we’ll worry about investment 20 years from now. And of course there’s also these endemic problems of racism and gender bias and of course, [inaudible 00:25:24] where the two intersect in the venture capital community, where we know that it’s much harder for women, it’s much harder for people of color to sort of raise money. Do you have people sort of holding up your book and sort of saying, “Wait a second, we’ve had black entrepreneurs on the web going way the hell back.” Has that narrative caught on or do people sort of look at it like a historical hiccup rather than sort of acknowledging it as a past that could be a future?

Charlton McIlwain:

Yeah. I think people are starting to recognize it. I think the folks who are probably naturally recognize that most are black technologists and those who are the folks that I’ve gotten a lot of sort of feedback from, and very, very happy to see the book because they’re saying like, “Look, we are not new. We’re a new generation, but we are standing on shoulders of people who did this before.” And it’s almost as if to say, “Look, give us the same chance that some of these folks did and we’ll show you what can be done and we’ll show you what’s possible.” And so, I think that’s the connection that’s been made. And I think that I’ve been sort of happy to see being made between what seems like a historical book, but the one that is very much tied to the kind of potential future we could have, which is to say remember, or what if the internet was again, black? Meaning what if we put black people, black culture at the leading edge of our next phases of technological production?

What if black people and black ventures and ideas and reasons for developing and producing new technologies aligned with those folks’ interests? What would that look like? And I think that is the… Number one it’s fascinating to me and it’s hard to even imagine because we haven’t had a lot of experience, at least recent experience with that. But I think that’s where I love having had the opportunity to write this book, which is to say we have a glimpse of what is possible because it has been done before. And it has been done successfully before if we provide the same types of opportunities, I can only imagine. What do you think about the kinds of students that you and I encounter on a daily basis and the kind of ideas that they have and so forth? It’s incredible to think of what might come from that.

Ethan Zuckerman:

What can we take as we sort of take on this work of re-imagining social media, as we think about what’s wrong on these platforms, as we think about how harmful they are to so many people, as we think about this idea of sort of creating new or different spaces, what’s best practices, what’s lessons learned that we can think about coming from your book and from your work?

Yeah, I think probably first and foremost is a recognition of and sort of greater valuation of history. I think what was most powerful for me coming through and writing this book was to see that man, all of these challenges and problems that we’re seeing today, that we tend to see as new as very much in the moment to go back and say, “Wow, we’ve just really been fighting the same problem for 50, 60 years now.” Right? To see things that aren’t new, even if they look in different ways, kind of novel in some respect because of the times that… This is an old battle and that battle is not particularly technological, let’s say, or at least first and foremost, that is the issue is fundamentally how do we value people? How do we value groups of people? How do we understand our responsibility to others and connection to others? And then how does that then play out in how we build these kinds of spaces?

And so I think there’s a way in which over the years we have said, “Oh, well, if we can just tweak this thing about the technology or that one, or tweak this algorithm versus this, that, and the other that will fix the problem.” And I think it’s no, what has persisted is fundamentally our drive for many reasons to exclude folks, to exert power, to cultivate power and so forth in particular areas and communities, and then shun in others. So I think that’s where we have to start. And so I think that’s one way in which the book helps us kind of move forward. That is, when we’re thinking about what’s coming next, let’s think about what we’ve seen in the past, where did we go wrong? Where have we repeatedly gone wrong? And then let’s try to do something differently. And I think that’s where a lot of the value of the book comes into play.

Ethan Zuckerman:

It’s a really inspiring book. It’s the reminder that we shouldn’t be going forward without looking backwards and that understanding the history of how we got here involves understanding histories that we may have missed along the way, including this really potent history of black technical entrepreneurship. I think it’s just so important. And for me, I’m so hopeful looking forward, this idea that there is this entrepreneurial, highly technical, highly community-centric power that’s just going untapped because of reasons of structural exclusion and racism. Charlton McIlwain, this is just such a pleasure. Charlton is again a vice provost and professor at NYU, the author of Black Software. Thank you so much for being with us.

Charlton McIlwain:

Yeah. Thank you. It’s been a great conversation.

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