The Initiative for Digital Public Infrastructure

@ UMass Amherst

Reimagining the Internet

Omar Wasow (Pomona College, Black Planet)

September 30, 2021

Well before Facebook achieved social media dominance, Black Planet was the online home to millions of Black Americans. The site’s founder Omar Wasow joins us to talk about why it was so important to create an online space for Black people, and what a next generation of the Internet might look like for such communities.

Omar Wasow is an Assistant Professor in the Politics department at Pomona College and, in our coming bonus episode, will talk about his recently published paper on the political consequences of the 1960s civil rights movement.

This episode is the first part of our series exploring the history of Internet communities, “How the Internet Was Imagined.”

Transcript

Ethan Zuckerman:

Hey, everybody. Welcome back to Reimagining the Internet. I cannot tell you how pleased I am today to have with me my friend, Omar Wasow. Omar until very, very recently has been an assistant professor of politics at Princeton University. He's just moved to Pomona College. The West Coast's gain is the East Coast's loss.

Omar is someone whose work I've been fascinated with for literally decades. Because before he became really one of the most insightful and methodologically apt political scientists out there, he was an internet pioneer. I want to start the conversation there, but first of all, Omar, welcome.

Omar Wasow

Thank you so much for having me. Really excited to be here. The feeling of admiration is mutual, so I am excited to have this conversation with you and grateful for the opportunity.

Ethan Zuckerman:

And we should disclose, Omar and I have known each other for decades. Omar's wonderful and amazing and spectacular wife, Jen Brea, is someone that I've advised and worked with in the past. So if this feels like old friends talking, there may be a reason behind that one. But introducing my old friend, I want to talk about BlackPlanet. Omar, what was BlackPlanet and what is BlackPlanet?

Omar Wasow:

Yeah. In September of 1999, it's ancient history in internet terms, we launched an online community for African-Americans. I think just to take people back to that moment, what's hard to appreciate is that in that era of the internet, the dominant story was the information superhighway. It was Al Gore and the internet was going to be this giant encyclopedia, right? What people were excited about was a kind of massive Wikipedia kind of thing, which of course Wikipedia is awesome, but the social dimension of the internet was not even an afterthought. It wasn't even considered really part of what was the promise of the internet.

Ethan Zuckerman:

This was a reference library, not a bar.

Omar Wasow:

That's right. That's right. That's right. What I was trying to champion with some of my work was the internet as a supper club, exactly as you're saying, not as a superhighway. It's also important to appreciate that if we think about some of the underlying technology, we go to a webpage. This was fundamentally the both technical and conceptual metaphor was books, and so you really had to hack it to make it social.

Ethan Zuckerman:

Right.

Omar Wasow:

What we did at this company Community Connect that was running a network of Asian American, African American, Latino focused websites was to build from scratch technology that allowed this very in some ways antisocial technology to become social.

Ethan Zuckerman:

And this is a moment in '99, so we have the web. The web is invented in '89, but it really comes to public consciousness around '93, '94. My company Tripod hits its apex around '98, and it's absolutely a page-based paradigm, right? We're trying to be social, but the idea is you have a webpage and that is your presence. And that's the extent of the sociability. How does BlackPlanet differ from that. What are the spaces in which people are interacting on BlackPlanet?

Omar Wasow:

What I love about that question is the specificity. So there are a handful of really key, in some ways small, they would seem trivial now, but really powerful from an experiential standpoint things that we built. A tiny example is I might go visit your page at BlackPlanet, and if you had just logged in, you were active on the site, there'll be an asterisk next to your name. From a technical standpoint, that meant every page was being dynamically built, which was computationally really demanding.

Ethan Zuckerman:

Yeah.

Omar Wasow:

But it meant that people felt like, oh, I'm not alone here. Early on in the first couple of weeks, a friend of mine said, "It's so impressive that when I go to your homepage, it says there are a thousand people on BlackPlanet now, but don't you worry that that seems like not that many?" We were like, "Well, it was a hundred a week ago. It's a thousand this week." And it just took off. The demands computationally of that were such that we just had this process. We set aside a million dollars of a marketing budget to try and generate outreach, and we had to freeze that because the growth was so fast. We had put everything into servers to handle that kind of demand.

The point being just that part of why it hadn't been done was that it was technically quite hard. There were other things, like we built our own little instant messaging app that allowed people to have live, dynamic conversation. Again, built entirely out of webpages. We had other elements that are quite common but weren't always a standard part of a webpage, message board. You could sign somebody's guestbook. All of those elements together.

I guess the last thing I would say that really mattered from a technical standpoint was that there were definitely tools that allowed you to do each of these things that other people had built. They hadn't all been integrated into one relatively seamless platform except on services like America Online where you were paying $20 a month. So we were offering a free, highly social alternative on the web and so for people, particularly groups like college students who had access to fast internet, it just took off like wildfire.

Ethan Zuckerman:

So it wasn't necessarily any one particular technical innovation. In many ways, it was taking things that we'd seen on the web, things that we'd seen on dial-up services. Of course, in many ways you'd worked on some of these dial-up services earlier. You had worked on New York Online. How did that relate to this whole development of BlackPlanet?

Omar Wasow:

Yeah. This moment, a kind of golden age for those of us of a certain age of bulletin board services. So pre-web, the social internet, it's not really the internet at that point, but the social online medium is dialing into a computer in often a hobbyist's home that might have anywhere from two to 20 phone lines. And the most famous of those were services like The WELL. In New York, there was one called Echo. They were built around social interaction, but they sit in this slightly intermediate space because they weren't connected to the internet typically, except maybe for limited email, and they were often text based so the interface is super... demands a fairly committed user.

That whole history just sort of disappears once the web takes off and even AOL gets knocked out as the largest bulletin board service we had. But what's important about that history is that's where the proof of concept of a social online medium was demonstrated, that actually what really matters is interaction with other people.

Ethan Zuckerman:

There's enormous amounts of literature around this, right? I mean we've got folks like Howard Rheingold writing some of these first celebrations of internet community, and those are not web communities. Those are these text-based communities like The WELL and like something like New York Online.

Omar Wasow:

Yeah, that's right. I think there's two dimensions to which this early bulletin board service world matter. One is that's where I cut my teeth. My dad comes home with one of the early Macs, like the one behind your shoulder, and, "Ta-da." Has a 1,200 baud modem. This is mid-80s. I'm totally geeking out here, but indulge me. 1,200 baud at the time was as fast as you got, because other people had 300, but it meant that text loaded slowly. And it was awesome, but it was like the idea that you were going to download a photo was just inconceivable, let alone video.

In that world, what's exciting? What's exciting is interaction. That can be very engaging and low bandwidth. That's partly where I learned what pops online is when I was a kid joining online bulletin board services, and then I came out of college and I didn't see anything that was a multicultural online community in a way that really tried to plant a flag as this is who we are. So that led to me about a year after college starting a service called New York Online that was 20 phone lines into my Brooklyn apartment.

Ethan Zuckerman:

Oh, wow.

Omar Wasow:

Yeah. The phone company thought I was running a phone sex operation because they were like, "Why would you want 20 phone lines?" I'm like, "This is not an apartment where I could fit 20 people." This was a bootstrap kind of operation, but it was again an opportunity to test this idea that what really is powerful is connection with other people. It's not to say that information isn't also really vital and valuable, but it's not the only thing that moves people online. In fact, it may be that information is second or third order as compared with connection. That was another period where we were running this highly... Each of these bulletin board services had its own identity, and our metaphor was we're like the subway. We're a network that connects the whole city. That was really important to me.

Just one other going back in time sort of memory is that it's also important to appreciate that at this moment the black community is thought of, one of the dominant stories about black folk and the internet is the digital divide. Even friends of mine who were lawyers or bankers were like, "Who wants to go online to talk to each other? Why wouldn't you just pick up a telephone?" I mean it just didn't make sense to people that this was a profoundly social medium, particularly outside of the most techie communities.

There was a process of educating the world about how magical online social media could be and that was part of what I learned in running BlackPlanet and... sorry, running New York Online. And that laid the groundwork for then as the web took off in the mid-90s to say, "Okay, let's rethink this idea of multicultural online community but rebuilt from the ground up for the web."

Ethan Zuckerman:

I really want to lean on that question of multicultural because there's a lot being written about internet community in the mid-1990s. You've got people celebrating this idea that we have this spaceless space. We have no boundaries. It doesn't matter who you are. In the internet, no one knows if you're a dog. Of course, this is all very standard sort of dominant paradigm, white assuming rhetoric. Right? It's a lot of pale males assuming that everyone else's experience is just like theirs and that these are automatically welcoming spaces to women, to people of color, so on and so forth. In fact, they're quite actively not in many cases.

It's not necessarily that these are inherently racist or biased spaces, but they're also not making an outreach and looking for people of color, looking for people with different experiences. It's more this assumption that if we just have a common ground, the world is now equal and a level playing field. What sort of feedback did you get in creating an explicitly black space online at the moment that you're opening this up?

Omar Wasow:

It's a great question. And you're exactly right that part of the fascination with the internet was that it was this disembodied space and by extension, therefore, somehow identity free. So there was for potential investors and some people in the media a real puzzle of like, why launch a black online community? I think what helped people understand was one way of thinking about how pluralism might work on the internet, and by that I mean we pitched BlackPlanet as a kind of base camp for people. That the idea was not that your whole internet experience was going to be BlackPlanet but that you also needed to have a place you felt at home and comfortable.

Base camp meant that you could come and this is a place where you would feel not just welcome but like there would be all sorts of things that are really particular to your lived experience that are celebrated. But of course, nobody lives on one site on the internet. People were going and exploring the rest of the internet too. So one thing that I think helped the non-black world understand what BlackPlanet could do is to say, "Well, we're helping to bring a generation of African-Americans online and that's going to help make the internet as a whole better." But also that what a thriving pluralistic world and thriving pluralistic internet means is not that we all have disembodied experiences that are disconnected from any sense of self.

Some people love photography and they go to online photography communities. Some people love country music and they go to country music communities. A racial/ethnic cultural community is another kind of deeply powerful experience in people's lives and those are places that need watering holes too. I mean there was pushback, but I think people were also at some level understood that real world communities are going to want places to hang out online and that we were trying to really do that in a way that was welcoming.

Ethan Zuckerman:

Of course, part of this was this is pre-Facebook, and of course, when Facebook starts, it doesn't actually want to conquer the whole world. Facebook begins as a network for college students at elite universities, right? It's Harvard and then probably Princeton next and so on and so forth. This notion of here is a service that is open to everyone and we all use the same tools, that's actually not the dominant notion at the time that you're building BlackPlanet. I believe the network sells in 2008. Is that right?

Omar Wasow:

Yep.

Ethan Zuckerman:

At that point, it's the fourth-largest social network on the web. It's a big deal. I mean Facebook has formed then. MySpace is out there. Why was this so successful and why was that the right time to step back from it?

Omar Wasow:

Yeah. I mean, I think it's helpful to just underline a couple of points. For people who've come of age with Facebook as the dominant site or Facebook and Twitter and a couple of others, that this is an era where it's churning. We've got lots of different sites coming and going. You mentioned Tripod and there was one called The Globe that came and went in the early 2000s. Even SixDegrees.com if we want to go way back.

Ethan Zuckerman:

GeoCities, absolutely. Yeah.

Omar Wasow:

This is a kind of classic pattern we see on the internet is that there are lots of people experimenting and then there's a kind of convergence to a few dominant players. What happened, so in 2005 I actually went back to graduate school. I felt like in some ways we had done a lot of what I had hoped to do, which is to help get a generation of black folk online, get them excited about these technologies, get them excited about learning HTML to trick out their homepages. The learning curve flattened for me, and so I went back to school.

In 2008, the world, as you noted, was starting to... Facebook was essentially sucking a lot of the air out of the social world. In that period of consolidation, it made sense for BlackPlanet to join a larger company, and so we were acquired by a media company called Radio One that had a focus on serving African-Americans in both radio and television. We became the internet arm of a multimedia-focused company or multichannel-focused company targeting urban/African American audiences.

Ethan Zuckerman:

Interestingly enough, BlackPlanet has sort of rebooted and relaunched. This is a post-George Floyd, like a need for that home base, that base camp that were talking about. Have you been involved at all in the reboot or any thoughts on it?

Omar Wasow:

I haven't been involved in the reboot, but I get asked on Twitter all the time, could we... I mean, I think the thing that's really important that might help, again, going back to this question about what role does a site like BlackPlanet serve and by extension, any sort of niche-focused site, and that is that I think we often think of the internet as being a technology where there's this idea of increasing returns.

So the core idea of increasing returns is that as more people use something, it gets better. That's not true for all technologies, but for a lot of information technologies that's true, where the classic example is like, you're the only one in the world who has an email address, it's not very useful.

Ethan Zuckerman:

Absolutely.

Omar Wasow:

But as more people come online and use email, your email becomes more useful. For a lot of social tools, like I don't know, we can think about eBay. If it's a commercial marketplace, the more buyers there are, the better it is for you as a seller or vice versa. But with niche communities, that actually doesn't entirely work out. There can be decreasing returns because if you have...

I mean just to pick a simple example, if people are discussing, I don't know, their favorite Lebanese restaurants, it's a Lebanese community and they really know their Lebanese restaurants. If you have a bunch of people who are like the tourists who are like, "Oh, yeah. I went to a Lebanese restaurant once and here's this place." Actually, the quality of discussion can go down. Right? So you get this decreasing return and that's a core problem of a lot of social experiences on the internet is they get really big. I think it's a Yogi Berra line. Nobody goes there anymore, that bar's too good.

Ethan Zuckerman:

Nobody goes there, it's so crowded.

Omar Wasow:

Yeah. It's too crowded, right? You see that with even something like Facebook. It's so successful that you see young people exiting to something like Snapchat. It's like they don't want to hang out where their grandparents are. They don't want to hang out where their parents are. So you can get that kind of it's not just an increasing returns dynamic. It can be a decreasing returns dynamic.

All of which is to say that niche sites have real value because when people have a shared experience and shared expertise, the quality of conversation can be quite different, can be much better. That's true for super narrow communities, people who are into a certain kind of crypto or something, but it's also true of really broad cultural communities. I think the need for a BlackPlanet in a global internet remains as strong today as it was 20 years ago. It's just in some ways harder to do successfully now because Facebook is so dominant, because the niches are in some ways being subsumed by these larger enterprises.

Ethan Zuckerman:

I actually want to suggest this as Wasow's corollary to Metcalfe's Law. So Metcalfe's Law is this idea that a network's value is proportional to the square of the number or the nodes in the network, right? One email address is not very helpful, but once you've got 10 email addresses, you have 100 connections and so on and so forth. What you're suggesting, and I think you're absolutely right, is that at a certain point expanding the network actually may be decreasing the value in certain ways. What you're probably doing is you're spreading out the expertise. You may be lessening the value of any particular contributions and that having sort of niche-focused networks in some cases might actually be a more valuable space.

I've been describing this as small is beautiful, but you've actually come up with a specific reason why that might be the case, which is particularly fascinating to hear. Are there niche networks for communities of color that you find yourself following and paying attention to today, whether it's on Twitter, whether it's the newly revived BlackPlanet, or are those not the communities where you're looking for the connection and support at the moment?

Omar Wasow:

I think part of what's also happened in the last maybe decade or so is as Facebook has become ascendant, some of those communities have moved to different kind of platforms. So there are email lists I'm a part of that capture some of that community. Some of that is much more both present but diffuse on services like Twitter, where there's very much a strong black voice on Twitter and at the same time it doesn't quite have the... It's tightly networked in some ways, but it's also like, again, you're a part of this large global conversation still.

There's not one locus in the way that maybe BlackPlanet was 20 years ago. I think what gives me some hope about the opportunity for niche networks to grow is that when we launched BlackPlanet, the classic example of how hard this was was we bought an industrial strength one terabyte drive, which at the time was just inconceivably large. That cost us $100,000. It's now 100 bucks at Costco, maybe less. Just a lot of the infrastructure that we needed we had to cobble together by hand. There are more and more off the shelf, open source. You can do an instance of Facebook with open source software that's a white label Facebook platform.

I think it's possible that we will see more A Thousand Flowers bloom in the future in the way that the bulletin boards era allowed as well, but right now it's still hard because everybody has their friend networks on, maybe it's Instagram or maybe it's Facebook or maybe it's Twitter. But it's like getting people out of those networks is going to be hard except where there's really powerful niches.

Ethan Zuckerman:

Right. Trying to figure out how we beat that lock in, because of course, no one wants to lose those high school friends or grandma or so on and so forth. But also, those conversations that can happen in those niche networks really are special and are powerful.