Blackbird: Battles over a browser

O Blackbird! sing me something well: While all the neighbors shoot thee round, I keep smooth plats of fruitful ground, Where thou may’st warble, eat and dwell.

— Lord Alfred Tennyson


Continuing from the last post on the subject of Blackbird, a new Internet browser ostensibly designed to cater for African American interests, it seems that a heated set of debates has erupted around the launch of the browser, with various charges and counter-charges of racism.

The designers of Blackbird offer the following up front as their reason for designing and offering this browser:

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

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. It is part of an effort aimed at specialization. As one analyst quoted by InternetNews commented: “I think that the driving factor is people want more impactful user experiences. Marketers want to impact users, users want more responsive experiences and vendors want to get their technology out there, so you have three different self-interests that are pushing this forward.”

That is where the debate seems to begin, where ideas of racialized identity intersect with technological specialization:

  • Whose idea of specialization?
  • Specialization, but for what purposes?
  • How specialized is it, really?
  • Does specialization homogenize the intended users?
  • Does specialization run counter to individual customization?

The author behind Seed of Life’s Blog has posted a detailed and very thoughtful assessment both about why white anger against the browser is telling and unwarranted, and about the limitations of the browser from a technical standpoint, ending with questioning why it is really needed (from what might be called a cosmopolitan perspective).

The Angry Black Woman, a blog that I like to visit with some frequency, also posted: “Blackbird browser — because the Internet isn’t black enough.” She criticizes the effort as one designed to make money off the African American community:

BlackBird is a sneaky application. Because while there is all this talk of building online communities and bringing Black People together, the real reason this browser exists is targeted marketing. There are ads in the browser – oh yes – and ads on the pages the browser helpfully points you to.

I also worry that the people behind it, about whom there is little information, will be more concerned with serving the advertiser’s needs than the users.

She is certainly correct that we know next to nothing, even from the Blackbird site itself, about who are its creators.

Tiffany B. Brown also left a comment at Racism Review that echoed some of the same sentiments, while raising the specter of homogenization: “I won’t say they ‘don’t give a shit,’ but this browser isn’t some straight-up altruistic black nationalist thing either. It’s a product aimed at black people as though we are some monolithic market niche because we are black. Um. No.”

Racism Review has itself become one of the central loci for the debates around racism and Blackbird, concerned especially with some of the high-pitched racist commentary launched against Blackbird precisely for even wanting to cater to African Americans.

Sharing a similar disgust with the racist commentary as Racism Review, Roney Smith’s Seed of Life also targets is an article about the browser, and comments, that were published by TechCrunch. He writes:

“Historic trends outside of the recent US presidential elections…consistently indicate that whenever there is anything geared toward benefiting and enabling the communication skills of African-Americans, the enabling technology whether human or machine must be savagely demonized from coast to coast and time zone to time zone nationwide for the entire world to see….TechCrunch is suffering from the same cultural blindness that is par for the course throughout the web2.0 world in that most tech reporters, editors, pundits, gurus, and experts alike already have the ability to make virtually all minorities invisible outside of entertainment and sports industries within the United States. One, I doubt that there are any minorities within these companies and then two, I doubt that they are given any attention beyond that given to the janitorial staff or a nuisance.”

The point made by some commenters is that the other browsers, by catering to a majoritarian mainstream, are in fact catering to white users. Some object to that, arguing that a browser is inert, like a television set, and this would be like arguing that a television set is racist, regardless of what is actually shown on that set. Moreover,  some might argue, there is nothing that Firefox or Explorer do to actually block, filter out, or minimize African American content.

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).

To say that a browser is technology unmarked by the culture from which it sprang, would be to argue that a browser reflects the fact that all humans universally see the world in the exact same ways, or that the structure of Internet browsing is somehow akin to basic, universal human thought processes, that all humans would all invent the same browser if they were to be isolated from one another. That is the old cultural evolutionist “psychic unity of mankind” argument, and for many good reasons anthropologists since the early 1900s have largely defeated that argument on many grounds.

I look forward to any feedback on these issues, especially since writing about  issues such as software design is very rare on this blog.

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5 thoughts on “Blackbird: Battles over a browser

  1. seedoflife

    Thanks for including my thoughts within your post on Blackbird.

    Somehow the statement being attributed to the Racism Review are actually my words that were included in my original post.

    Keep shining a light on the situation and technological progress.


    Roney Smith

  2. Maximilian Forte

    Thanks so much Roney, especially for your own post which really shed a lot of light on the issues wrapped up in this. Sorry for mixing your words in with the same paragraph with Racism Review, I was trying to find common arguments, and I will edit it now for greater clarity.

    Thanks also for visiting and commenting.

  3. Dave

    Hi Maximilian. As a programmer who specializes in ergonomic issues and as a student of human tendencies, I’d like to address some of the ideas you raise.

    The first is the use of the word “black”. I’m beginning to understand that “black” is no longer a reference to a person’s skin color. Thurgood Marshall, Bill Cosby and Colin Powell, for instance, might have been “black” twenty years ago. They are now “white”. “Black” has become a cultural reference, not a skin color. I’m having a tough time wrapping my mind around that but I’m getting it. I suppose it’s preferable to thinking that people would differentiate themselves, and believe that they think differently, based on the amount of melanin in their skin. That would be silly, right?

    The second would be the idea that Firefox, Safari or Internet Explorer, the three most popular browsers, have “white” (I guess we’ll have to redefine what that means now) culture built into them by virtue of the fact that they have emerged from the “white, ‘geek’ cultural stratum. If that is true, I wonder whether you could provide examples of it. I’m a fan of usability studies on which much of the extant interface elements in computer science are based. I have never seen any reference to results in these usability studies that I could argue apply differently to people of different races. They are based on things like the ease of pushing the mouse versus pulling it, the response of the human eye to various color combinations, and the interaction between eye, hand and brain. If you believe and can prove that “black” people interact with software differently because of cultural differences, I would be very interested in seeing your evidence.

    Color choices are another realm where I could see what you say to be true, in theory, but in practice the three browsers on my screen right now (Safari, Firefox, Opera – I’m a web developer) are all grey and white based on the response of the human eye to these colors. You might argue that “black” culture would make different choices; research seems to bear out that the cones and rods in our eyes are not affected to any measurable degree by differences in food, music or speech. Certainly malnutrition affects the human eye, but I don’t believe you’re addressing malnutrition.

    Blackbird is Firefox with bookmarks and obnoxious code that makes it want to be your primary browser no matter how hard you try to get rid of it. The marketers of Blackbird make no claim that Firefox or any other browser caters to “white” interests or ideas or culture, as you suppose might be possible above, and I strongly believe that such a claim is unsupportable with evidence. Let’s return to what they do state is their intention: to provide online news and information from the Black perspective. Note that they don’t say anything about “non-white”, an argument that you make but they don’t. They say “Black”, and more pointedly, their graphic says, “PROUD TO BE BLACK Y’ALL!”, bearing out the idea that “Black” is a culture, not a skin color, with roots in the American Deep South. And Blackbird is a marketing tool, not a new technology, aimed at people who consider their own personalities to be culturally connected with “Black” culture.

    The human race has a strong instinct which IS heavily studied and borne out in work done by anthropologists, biologists, and psychologists. It is the tendency to divide ourselves into “us” and “them”. We don’t think about it, and we use any excuse: teams, neighborhoods, countries, skin color, hair color, eye color, tribes, height, political inclinations, sexual preference, clothing preference…you name it. We’ll find it and use it to compete against “them”. Competition takes many forms, and it’s often brutal. This trait has been proven to be biologically selective, because it helps us form groups, which are a strong biological advantage against other species.

    If the makers of Blackbird are doing it strictly for targeted marketing, as they *openly say that they are* (and we have no sound basis to assume differently), then they are hoping to use the human tendency to form groups of “us” and “them” to reform “Black” culture on the internet into groups that they can target for advertisers. Ultimately, if they are successful, Nike will place ads for shoes in their browser that are designed for “Black” focus groups, and McDonalds will place ads for foods that are similarly designed for “Black” focus groups, etc. etc. All of this logically rests on the fact that skin color is difficult to target for advertisers, and the color-agnostic nature of the Internet makes it even more difficult, but people *who group themselves based on perceived differences* are old-hat for marketing firms.

    The logical progression, once you have nudged humans into forming the group you want them to form, is to strengthen the “us vs. them” psychology of the group in order to coalesce it. The two most effective methods for doing this are sex and fear. The avenues for using sex to get people to group themselves and use a particular web browser are a little opaque to me. Maybe by using particular models or entertainment personalities they may be able to do that. But the easiest avenue, and the most effective, has always been fear.

    If you look at the Blackbird website, it doesn’t contain a whole lot of fear, but maybe it doesn’t have to say anything. What I’ve seen on your blog and several others is the argument that the Internet tools commonly available are somehow “White”-centric. There is an implied threat that “Black” people are only getting “White” news, “White” links, “White” something-that-is-not-“Black” that does not serve the “Black” human group. So maybe that’s enough.

    So you have greed, the desire of these partners to make some money, coupled with fear, the method they’ve used to get people to group themselves together and use the Blackbird browser. Maybe they’ll find a way to throw in a little sex. A product that stems from greed and fear and a little sex doesn’t, on its surface, appear to have many merits from a philosophical point of view. I personally think it’s reprehensible, and it sickens me.

    But from a marketing point of view it’s got all the right ingredients for success. Hitler, Milosevich and some recent politicians have all proven that greed and fear are effective motivators. It’ll be interesting to see how Blackbird pans out.

  4. Maximilian Forte

    Dave, great post, very welcome, and I am grateful to see it here.

    No, I have no evidence at all, to answer your question. I had a suspicion that perhaps some might make the argument of cultural bias in software design, and I indicated that I would be predisposed to listen to such arguments with a sympathetic ear. That was just abstraction and speculation, and I have no background at all in usability analyses.

    Otherwise, I don’t see Explorer, Firefox, etc., as having an inherent “white” content bias.

    Your analysis of the marketing motivation behind Blackbird seems to be right on target with what others who have installed it have also argued, and I think you take their points even further.

    Again, thanks very much for both the visit and the post.

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