Race and online behavior: Do users “surf black?”

I was checking out Ars Technica about a week ago and they posted this article about Blackbird; it’s a customized version of Mozilla that’s geared toward the African American community.

The idea behind Blackbird, (CEO of 40A, Inc.) Ed Young told Ars, is “to broaden the Internet experience for African Americans. We want to offer a tool that makes it easier for this community to find resources that are geared more towards them.”


News of this this gave me, and apparently other people, pause, but not for the same reasons:

After soft launching (with no official marketing) as a beta Sunday night, Blackbird has already received a tremendous amount of interest—and mixed reactions. Young said that some early feedback has viewed Blackbird as almost a racist or exclusionary product. As an African American himself, though, Young explained that “it isn’t about exclusion, but rather inclusion.”

Well, as you may know, I am African-American as well, and I am skeptical for an entirely different reason. Namely, the fact that Blackbird, as described, presumes black online behavior to be homogeneous:

A search for “Barack Obama” in Safari’s search box, for example, will bring results like BarackObama.com, Wikipedia, and Chicago Tribune. But the same query in Blackbird’s box will return results from AOL Black Voices and blogs.bet.com.

Remember back in the day when Jet Magazine would do the list of top 10 shows in the back of the publication, and it would have stuff like “227” or “Frank’s Place” or “Amen” or other shows with primarily black casts?

These days, you’ll find shows like “Lost,” “American Idol,” or “Grey’s Anatomy.” When it comes to popular culture and leisure, the interests and consumption habits of black folks often dovetail with non-white folks. For example, check out this marketing report on tv viewing habits from marketingcharts.com:

* During the 2006-2007 television season, seven shows placed among the top 10 primetime programs among both African-American and white viewers.
* The top 3 shows last season (American Idol – Wednesday, American Idol – Tuesday and Dancing With the Stars) ranked in the same position for both groups of viewers.

And online, where we can obscure, change and even erase our ethnicity when connecting with others (via avatars, etc.) a person of color is just as likely to connect with online affinity groups based around age, interest and location as much they are around race. As we all know, there’s not just one Internet, there’s various Internets, based on extremely specialized affinity groups that drill down a lot further than most market research would reveal. I’m not saying that there aren’t race-based online affinity groups (hello, Black Planet), just that I suspect it’s much more difficult to quantify and segment what an “average” African-American online user experience is likely to be, especially among Millenials.

Gender, age, class, education and personal interests play a huge role in online user behavior. (Anecdotally, I read Crunk and Disorderly as often as I read i09, but I check out NPRmore than either. Is Blackbird for me?) Based on the example Ars Technica uses above, Blackbird’s approach to black online experience appears narrow.

But I could be wrong. I am going to do my own informal test. I have downloaded Blackbird onto my computer, and over the holidays, I plan to test out a few choice search terms myself and then with my mother and sister. We are all black, but our online behaviors are VERY different. So I’ll keep you posted on my findings

*On a related note, Flock has a customized browser for women called called Gloss that I suspect will not be an ideal place for me to keep up on the latest Dillinger Escape Plan news.

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