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Earlier than Fb, There Was BlackPlanet

A few years in the past, Stephanie Williams and her husband fielded a query from their son: How had they met?

So that they advised him. They’d first encountered one another on a web site known as BlackPlanet.

To the 5-year-old, the reply appeared fantastical. “He clearly didn’t hear ‘web site,’ ” Williams, a author and comedian creator, advised me. “He was like, ‘Wait, you all met on Black Planet? Like, there’s a planet that’s stuffed with Black folks? Why did you permit?!’ ”

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Williams needed to clarify that they’d really been proper right here on “common Earth.” However in some methods, their son’s wide-eyed response wasn’t so off base: From the attitude of the 2020s, there’s something otherworldly concerning the mid-aughts web that introduced his dad and mom collectively. In a social-media period dominated by the provocation and vitriol of billionaire-owned mega-platforms, it may be exhausting to think about a time when the idea of utilizing the web to attach with folks felt novel, stuffed with risk—and when a web site billed because the homepage of the Black web had hundreds of thousands of energetic customers.

BlackPlanet went dwell in 1999, practically three years earlier than Friendster, 4 years earlier than MySpace, 5 years earlier than Fb, and 7 years earlier than Twitter. In these early years, the web was nonetheless seen by many as an enormous library—a spot the place you went to search out issues out. Certain, the online had chat rooms, bulletin boards, and listservs. However BlackPlanet expanded what it meant to commune—and categorical oneself—on-line.

The positioning supplied its customers the chance to create profiles, be a part of giant group conversations about subjects comparable to politics and popular culture, apply to jobs, ship on the spot messages, and, sure, even date. It offered an area for them to hone their voice and discover their folks. A go to to somebody’s customizable BlackPlanet web page would most likely let you know the place they grew up, which musicians they idolized, and what they seemed like. “That now looks like the obvious factor on the earth,” Omar Wasow, one of many web site’s co-founders, advised me, “however on the time mirrored an actual break from the dominant concepts about how this expertise was meant for use.”

BlackPlanet is commonly missed in mainstream protection of social-media historical past. However at its peak, it wasn’t just a few area of interest discussion board. Regardless of skepticism throughout the tech {industry} {that a} social-networking web site geared towards African Individuals might be profitable, about 1 million customers joined BlackPlanet inside a 12 months of its launch. By 2008, it had about 15 million members. The positioning’s cultural attain prolonged past what numbers can seize: BlackPlanet amplified the work of rising artists, served as a robust voter-outreach hub for Barack Obama’s first presidential marketing campaign, and fostered now-prominent voices in up to date media. Gene Demby, a co-host of NPR’s Code Swap podcast, advised me he joined BlackPlanet whereas attending a predominantly white faculty as a method to make connections past his campus. “It was kind of like, ‘Give me all of the Black folks I can discover!’ ”

The positioning and its customers helped set up visual-grammar and technical frameworks—comparable to streaming songs on private pages and dwell, one-on-one chatting—that had been later broadly imitated. BlackPlanet arguably laid the muse for social media as we all know it, together with, after all, Black Twitter.

Now, practically 25 years after its launch, trying again at BlackPlanet’s glory days might be extra than simply an train in nostalgia. At present’s social-media platforms usually appear designed to reward the worst in humanity, subjecting their customers to rampant hate speech and misinformation. Maybe by revisiting BlackPlanet and the story of its rise, we are able to begin to envision a unique future for the social internet—this time, one with the potential to be kinder, much less harmful, and extra enjoyable than what the previous twenty years have given us.

Omar Wasow met Benjamin Solar within the late Nineties, after they had been among the many few folks of shade working in New York Metropolis’s tech scene. After graduating from Stanford College in 1992, Wasow had moved again to his hometown and began a hyperlocal group hub and internet-service supplier, New York On-line, which he operated out of his Brooklyn condominium. The service had solely about 1,000 customers; Wasow made his precise residing by constructing web sites for magazines. So he was excited when he met Solar, then the president and CEO of the social-networking agency Neighborhood Join, which in 1997 launched an internet discussion board for Asian Individuals known as AsianAvenue.

Wasow, the son of a Jewish economist and a Black American educator, had been interested by find out how to construct group on the web for years. Like many early tech fanatics, he frequented the bulletin-board techniques (BBSes) that proliferated within the late ’80s and early ’90s. Spending time on these primarily text-based, hobbyist-run dial-up companies helped him anticipate how widespread social applied sciences might be. Most of the BBSes had been normal tech-nerd fare—chats the place customers would focus on pirating software program or gossip about buzzy new product releases. However two websites specifically, ECHO (East Coast Cling Out) and the WELL (Complete Earth ’Lectronic Hyperlink), modeled a extra salonlike on-line expertise that piqued Wasow’s curiosity. He realized that individuals didn’t essentially need the web to be simply an info superhighway. They wished connection; they wished to socialize.

Wasow admired the cultural cachet that AsianAvenue had already amassed—sufficient, by 1999, to compel Skyy Spirits to discontinue a print advert for vodka that featured a racist picture of an Asian lady after the location’s customers protested. Solar, for his half, wished to increase Neighborhood Hook up with new boards for different folks of shade. They determined to work collectively to construct a brand new web site that will enable customers to take part in forum-style group discussions, create private profile pages, and talk one-on-one.

However Wasow, Solar, and the remainder of the Neighborhood Join workforce confronted a serious problem in launching BlackPlanet: the notion that Black folks merely didn’t use the web. It was true, across the flip of the millennium, that white households had been considerably extra prone to have web entry than Black ones. On the similar time, experiences of this “digital divide” had helped foster a fantasy of what the media historian Anna Everett has termed “Black technophobia.” Properly into the aughts, a lot of the protection of Black American tech utilization had a tone of incredulity or outright condescension. Consequently, advertisers and buyers had been hesitant to again Wasow and Solar’s web site. Wouldn’t it actually appeal to sufficient customers to be viable?

Wasow felt assured that it could. The very first week it went dwell, in September 1999, a good friend teased Wasow concerning the ticker on BlackPlanet’s homepage, which confirmed how many individuals had been logged on at any given second: “I logged in, and it stated there have been, like, 15 folks on-line,” Wasow remembered him saying. “You certain you wish to depart that up? As a result of it kind of looks like an empty dance flooring.” By the following week, the ticker confirmed nearer to 150 folks. Day-after-day, the quantity climbed greater.

Inside a number of months, BlackPlanet had so many customers that they couldn’t presumably have squeezed onto any dance flooring in New York Metropolis. Wasow started to spend a lot of his time talking at advertising and marketing conferences and promoting occasions. Nonetheless, he and Solar struggled to draw vital capital. “At the same time as the location was exhibiting actual proof of simply unimaginable numbers, folks had this story that was like, in some methods, ‘That couldn’t be!’ ” Wasow recalled. “As a result of the digital divide was the narrative of their heads … It wasn’t sufficient simply to indicate success. We needed to be insanely profitable.”

By Might 2001, lower than two years into its run, BlackPlanet had greater than 2.5 million registered customers. Wasow himself had taught Oprah Winfrey and Gayle King find out how to surf the Web on nationwide tv (after studying find out how to use a mouse, the ladies responded on air to emails from Diane Sawyer, Hillary Clinton, and Invoice Gates). BlackPlanet had secured promoting offers with the likes of Hewlett-Packard, Time journal, and Microsoft. Within the final quarter of 2002, BlackPlanet recorded its first revenue. (Fb, in contrast, didn’t flip a revenue till 2009, 5 years after its launch, and Twitter didn’t till 2017, 11 years after its founding.) By then, it was the preferred Black-oriented web site in America.

Wasow by no means forgot one seemingly trivial element from BlackPlanet’s fledgling days. When the location went dwell, “the primary one who logged in was ‘TastyTanya,’ ” he stated, laughing. “For no matter purpose, it’s now greater than 20 years later and I nonetheless keep in mind that display identify.”

I tracked down the lady as soon as often called TastyTanya, who was 20 when she joined the location. At present, she’s a married mom of two younger kids who works in accounting; she prefers to not have her actual identify connected to her outdated deal with. Once we spoke, she recounted how strangers on the location would strike up conversations along with her as a result of somebody known as TastyTanya simply appeared approachable. One man she met on the location even emblazoned her BlackPlanet profile image onto a CD he burned for her and despatched her within the mail, which didn’t appear creepy on the time. As quaint as that may sound now, TastyTanya’s expertise completely illustrates what made BlackPlanet so enjoyable. In its heyday, the location was largely populated by customers identical to her, folks of their teenagers and 20s who had been doing on-line what folks of their teenagers and 20s have all the time completed: determining who they wish to be, expressing their emotions, and, after all, flirting.

Like many early customers, Shanita Hubbard got here to BlackPlanet within the early 2000s as a school scholar, wanting to benefit from the dial-up web in her dorm room. A member of the Zeta Phi Beta sorority at a traditionally Black faculty in South Carolina, Hubbard had heard a couple of cool-sounding web site that will assist her meet Zetas on different campuses. She selected the display identify NaturalBeauty79 and peppered her profile with references to her sorority, pure hair, and the music she cherished. BlackPlanet quickly grew to become a fixture of her undergraduate expertise.

Hubbard is now a contract journalist and the writer of Experience or Die: A Feminist Manifesto for the Properly-Being of Black Girls. After I requested her how she’d describe these days on BlackPlanet to a hypothetical Gen Zer, she laughed: “I really feel like I’m making an attempt to elucidate a rotary cellphone.”

On reflection, she advised me, it was her first expertise understanding how expertise may broaden her universe not simply intellectually, however socially. On BlackPlanet, Hubbard befriended Black folks from all walks of life, together with Zetas as distant as California. “What we expect Black Twitter is right this moment is definitely what BlackPlanet was eons in the past when it comes to connecting and constructing genuine group,” Hubbard stated. “Besides there was ranges of safety inside BlackPlanet that we by no means acquired on Twitter.”

Frank Dorrey

A few of the insulation was a product of the location’s scale and consumer make-up: BlackPlanet was each smaller and extra racially homogeneous than right this moment’s main social-media networks. Its infrastructure performed a job too. Customers may see who else was on-line or not too long ago energetic, ship non-public messages, and signal each other’s digital “visitor ebook,” however group discussions of contentious subjects tended to occur inside particular boards devoted to these points, not on a centralized feed the place bad-faith actors could be prone to jockey for the general public’s consideration. There was no apparent equal to the “Retweet” button, no function that inspired customers to chase virality over dialogue.

BlackPlanet customers talked candidly about politics, debated sports activities, and engaged in conversations about what it meant to be Black throughout the diaspora. A 2008 research discovered that the “Heritage and Identification” discussion board on BlackPlanet (in addition to its equivalents on AsianAvenue and one other sister web site, MiGente), the place customers began threads comparable to “I’m Black and I Voted for Bush,” persistently attracted the very best engagement charge. The dialog wasn’t all the time pleasant, however it was hardly ever hostile within the ways in which many Black social-media customers now take with no consideration as a part of our digital lives. “There was by no means a time … the place racists discovered us on BlackPlanet and infiltrated our sorority events or flooded our little BlackPlanet pages with racist nonsense,” Hubbard stated. “It’s virtually just like the white gaze was simply not even an element for us.”

Finally, Hubbard started utilizing the location for greater than pleasant banter. “Everybody likes to faux it was all about formulating a digital household reunion,” she stated. “That’s true. However that doesn’t inform the total story.”

In 2001, when online-dating companies comparable to eHarmony had been nonetheless of their infancy, BlackPlanet launched a relationship service that price $19.99 a month and helped members display their would-be love pursuits. The positioning supplied its members one thing that’s nonetheless uncommon in on-line romance: Everybody who signed up for BlackPlanet’s relationship service wished to be paired with different Black folks.

Quickly sufficient, BlackPlanet romances had been referenced in hip-hop lyrics and on different message boards, changing into a form of shorthand for informal relationship amongst younger folks. As Hubbard put it, BlackPlanet was “Tinder earlier than there was swiping proper, honey.”

In case you wished your BlackPlanet web page to look fly—and naturally you probably did—you needed to learn to change the background colours, add music, and incorporate flashing GIFs. On the top of the location’s recognition, the competitors led some customers to guard their pages by disabling the right-click operate that allowed others to entry their HTML codes. Giving customers the chance to digitally render themselves made the location really feel much less like a staid old-school discussion board and extra like a online game. That’s how BlackPlanet sneakily taught a technology of Black web customers fundamental coding abilities, an accomplishment that is still amongst Wasow’s proudest.

Each former BlackPlanet consumer I spoke with for this story recalled doing not less than a little bit coding, although most didn’t know to name it that on the time. Some advised me they continued constructing these abilities and went on to work in tech or media, at firms comparable to Meta and Slate. For others, although, studying HTML was only a method to categorical private fashion. “We had been our personal webmaster, our personal designer, our personal developer,” Hubbard stated. “We had been sustaining it after which we’d change it up each couple of weeks to maintain it contemporary and poppin’.”

It wasn’t simply BlackPlanet customers who took word of how a lot enjoyable customizing one’s personal webpage might be. In late 2002, a person named Tom Anderson determined that he and his enterprise accomplice ought to begin a brand new social community.

When MySpace launched in 2003, the location included a number of options that had been just like those BlackPlanet had supplied for years. However the place BlackPlanet and the opposite Neighborhood Join websites emphasised the worth of shared heritage and experiences, MySpace billed itself because the common social community. “I had checked out relationship websites and area of interest communities like BlackPlanet, AsianAvenue, and MiGente, in addition to Friendster,” Anderson advised Fortune in 2006 (by then, he was higher often called “MySpace Tom”). “And I assumed, ‘They’re considering manner too small.’ ”

MySpace didn’t instantly lower into BlackPlanet’s consumer base. It will take not less than 5 years and the appearance of three extra main social networks earlier than BlackPlanet noticed a major downturn in its numbers. At the same time as late as October 2007, when then–presidential candidate Obama joined BlackPlanet, he rapidly acquired a big following.

Nonetheless, as time went on, some BlackPlanet customers discovered themselves visiting the location much less ceaselessly. Mikki Kendall, a cultural commentator and the writer of Hood Feminism: Notes From the Girls {That a} Motion Forgot, advised me she didn’t spend as a lot time on BlackPlanet as a few of her buddies did partially as a result of she considered it primarily as a gathering area for singles. Additionally, its interface didn’t enchantment to her. “BlackPlanet was each forward of its time and sadly not far sufficient forward of its time,” she stated. The positioning was stuffed with delays, and the cellular choice appeared all however unusable. “I all the time felt prefer it was the bootleg social-media community, though it wasn’t,” she added. “But it surely was run like any person was within the again with a hammer simply knocking issues collectively and hoping it got here via.”

Some observers I spoke with attributed BlackPlanet’s decline partly to the issue its founders had attracting capital. Wasow remembered Neighborhood Join bringing in a complete of $22 million by 2004. In 2007, Fb obtained $240 million in funding funds simply from Microsoft. “What does it take financially to get Fb to the place it’s? How a lot cash?” Charlton McIlwain, a professor at NYU and the writer of Black Software program: The Web & Racial Justice, From the AfroNet to Black Lives Matter, advised me. How far into “the hundreds of thousands and into the billions of {dollars} has it taken for a Google to experiment and succeed at some issues and fail at loads of issues, however then be a dominant participant in that ecosystem?” Black American tradition has all the time been a robust engine of innovation, however this has too hardly ever translated into precise monetary rewards for Black folks.

In 2008, three years after Wasow left BlackPlanet to attend graduate faculty at Harvard, the Maryland-based urban-media community Radio One (now City One) bought Neighborhood Join for $38 million. On the time, BlackPlanet nonetheless had about 15 million customers. However with Twitter slowly gaining consideration outdoors Silicon Valley and Fb starting to overshadow MySpace, BlackPlanet merely didn’t have the sources to proceed attracting the identical mass of customers that it as soon as had. The rise of those social-media giants—and the industry-wide shift to prioritizing cellular experiences—decimated BlackPlanet’s numbers within the years after it was acquired.

Nonetheless, the location held on. In February 2019, BlackPlanet acquired a notable increase. That month, Solange Knowles launched the visuals for After I Get House, her fourth studio album, completely on the location. The undertaking arose after Solange tweeted about eager to launch a undertaking on BlackPlanet and caught the eye of Lula Dualeh, a political and digital strategist who had simply began in a brand new position there.

“Lots of people had been asking themselves the query What’s subsequent outdoors of Fb and Twitter and Instagram? ” Dualeh advised me. Possibly the reply might be a return to BlackPlanet. Within the days following the rollout of the After I Get House visuals—a set of artwork and music movies—BlackPlanet noticed extra site visitors than it had in a couple of decade, as outdated and new guests alike flocked to the location. Black Twitter was abuzz. “What I didn’t notice is that there was simply this underbelly of nostalgia round BlackPlanet,” Dualeh stated.

Regardless of the success of the Solange rollout, BlackPlanet hasn’t seen a major, lasting bump in numbers. Nostalgia alone received’t be sufficient to maintain customers engaged—regardless of how a lot worse Twitter (now X) has gotten. The BlackPlanet interface feels dated, with an early-2010s-Fb high quality to it, even because the posts crawling throughout the principle feed reference music or occasions from 2024. Alfred Liggins, City One’s CEO, acknowledges that there’s work to be completed on the technical aspect. However he argues that the location remains to be related. And though right this moment’s BlackPlanet does usually seem to be a repository for WhatsApp memes, YouTube hyperlinks, and dialog prompts copied over from different platforms, some customers do proceed to make use of it to share images and reflections from their actual life.

Within the present web panorama, discuss of eliminating hostility from giant, multiracial platforms feels idealistic at finest—notably when these platforms are owned by egotistical billionaires comparable to Elon Musk, who has used Twitter to endorse racist claims and alienate components of its consumer base. Nonetheless, there’s purpose to hope that we could also be getting into a brand new period of social networking that prioritizes actual connection over conflict-fueled engagement. A number of new microblogging platforms have launched lately. Spill, a Black-owned Twitter various co-founded by two of the app’s former staff, joins networks comparable to Mastodon and Bluesky in providing customers an area that isn’t topic to the whims of provocateurs like Musk.

Wasow, for his half, is cautiously optimistic. The emergence of smaller, extra devoted digital areas, he stated, may “take us again to a few of that thriving, ‘Let a thousand flowers bloom’ model of on-line group.” It’s not that he expects folks to cease utilizing the massive social networks, Wasow stated, simply that he can see a world the place they go browsing to Fb and Snapchat and Instagram much less.

The emergence of those new shops additionally serves as a helpful reminder: The social internet can take many varieties, and greater is just not all the time higher. The fun of the early web derived, partially, from the specificity of its assembly locations and the chance they supplied of discovering like-minded folks even throughout nice distances (or of studying from folks whose differing views may broaden your personal). Not everyone seems to be fortunate sufficient to fulfill a future partner on their internet planet of alternative. However the remainder of us nonetheless have the capability to be remodeled for the higher by the web worlds we inhabit.

This text seems within the Might 2024 print version with the headline “Earlier than Fb, There Was BlackPlanet.” Once you purchase a ebook utilizing a hyperlink on this web page, we obtain a fee. Thanks for supporting The Atlantic.

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