Blackbird is a new browser based on Mozilla that is targeted toward an African-American audience. Now, far be it from me to pooh-pooh
entrepreneurial brothers with a plan, but really — why do African Americans need a special browser?
The concept begins to break down for me as soon as the notion of a universal black culture or black experience is introduced. Blackbird’s developers have taken it upon themselves to define the universal black experience, and to distill that experience into a web browser that comes pre-loaded with content that they deem appropriate for members of this community. The problem with this kind of filtering is that the developers have used their own inherent biases and preferences to define what information is best suited and most relevant for African Americans. Who are these people, and what gives them the right to dictate what content is introduced to me when surfing the web?
Once content is filtered through a specific medium, a person’s worldview will be affected by that filter. It is as if Blackbird’s developers are saying to black internet users that the only news they should be interested in is “black” news, the only music they should care about is “black” music, and the only entertainers that have any relevance are “black” entertainers.
Maybe I wouldn’t have had such a strong reaction to this if it was 1999, or if black rates of Internet use and adoption were low and/or dropping, but this seems like an ill-timed attention- and money-grab. We’ve just seen the election of a president who doesn’t want to be the leader for only Black people, but the leader for all people. Kanye West recently said he wanted to see black hip-hop entertainers branch out, that he wanted to be like The Beatles or Elvis. Most signs point to the expansion of black thought and black culture(s), yet Blackbird wants us to make a move toward segregating the web. It feels regressive and limited. At this historical moment, we need to do all we can to make sure that we can see the whole world from our windows, not just our little patch of front lawn.
Not only that, but because I’m a Mac user I can’t even properly evaluate Blackbird, because apparently Black people only use Windows.
Understand that I’m coming at this from the point of view of a librarian, a profession that places a great deal of importance on equal and open access to information. For the longest time, librarians were the ultimate filters – we told people what they should read and why, and people thanked us because they felt that no one would know more about selecting the “right” kinds of information than a librarian. The technological landscape has shifted drastically in the last three to four years, and now almost anyone can synthesize, create, and distribute their own information with only limited interference from gatekeepers.
Rather than merely presenting targeted content to me on a plate, offer me ways to interact with this content. Don’t just filter the content for me, Blackbird, help me understand why this is important, and show me ways that I can create my own content and connect with others. Let me create, collaborate, share and brainstorm with black people — and with the world. Teach me to be a media influencer. Until and unless you can do these things, your product is little more than a shiny Firefox skin.
An aside: I was searching through MasterFile Premier earlier today and came across a piece in the New Statesman about Rushmore Drive, a search engine for African Americans. The reaction to Rushmore Drive is similar to the reactions to Blackbird; thankfully, as more people use Rushmore Drive, the relevancy and recall of their search results continues to improve. But I came across this tidbit in the article and it made my blood boil:
“I have never before typed in films, books, or anything and got black results on the front page unless I typed ‘African American’ before it.”
Darling, that’s how search engines work. Still, just because someone is too lazy, or not savvy enough to learn to use a search engine properly it isn’t reason enough to develop a community-specific search engine. As the adage says, give a man a fish, and he’ll eat for a day, but teach a man to fish and he’ll eat forever. If we work to improve information literacy for all people instead of spoon-feeding them things that we think they should know, everyone benefits.
- Tiffany B. Brown – Dear Black Entrepreneurs
- Black Web 2.0 – Blackbird: the Black focused browser speaks
- AroundHarlem.com – Blackbird: The African-American web browser and philanthropy on the web
- Karsh – Blackbird, the first web browser for African Americans