Who Cares If I’m Black? The Challenges of Race in the Digital Space
A talk given November 2011
Ok, it’s official. The biggest star in the history of the modern web is…a Black man.
That’s right. Mr. Isaiah Mustafah now officially drives the #1 Most Subscribed YouTube site of All-Time, his shower vids have been watched over 200MM times, celebs swoon over him tweet after tweet, and he continues to be heralded in blogs the world over as what’s great and wonderful and “post-racial” about the world wide web.
Hey, how cool? No one is looking at his race they say. No one cares that he’s Black. He’s just handsome and sexy and completely irresistible. Sure he’s half-naked, and we really love it when he gets on top of that horse, but that has no racial overtones…it’s all about Mustafah’s abs!
So maybe Wired magazine was right when they said a few years ago that the web was “the epitome of a post-racial space…where racial tensions subside and all can come together in a pluralistic utopia”?
I mean there was nothing racial about the love given to Antoine Dodson either, right? He’s Mustafah’s co-pilot up there at the top of the charts, flying high as the Most Viewed YouTube sensation of 2010. Dodson is the American Everyman, a tank-top and du-rag-wearing sister protecting crime-fighting citizen who just happens to hot comb his hair and speak in dialect. The white kids who turned him into a star were only poking a little fun, right? Not providing a worldwide museum pass for folks to laugh out loud at whom they’ve always feared and despised and misunderstood.
And what about the marketing side of the online world? The world driven by buyers and planners and advertisers who decide the fate of all those billions of boxes and buttons and links that we’ve been habituated to try and skip. To effectively get into our pockets, do they need me to flash my race card anymore?
A smart planner can simply click on a few privacy-invading tools and know where you live, where you chill, who you hang out with, what you bought lately, with what credit card, and with what credit score, to find a fool-proof way of reaching exactly who they want at anytime.
Black female, college educated, 24-35, lives east of the Mississippi, but South of the Mason-Dixon, with less than three kids, $250 dispensable monthly income, diets on weekdays, and a Maxwell fan? Check.
And if those ad network tools get boring, Jane Planner can always have more fun scanning all those personal photos the world has uploaded or shared or tweeted to check for skin color. (Just be damned with sunless tanners, and make sure they include beige!)
So who cares if I’m Black?
Hmmm. But wait. Every study ever done has shown Black folks are 2x more likely to trust any news, tools or services given to them directly Black media, and despite all this “post-racial” talk, 80% of us still say it’s important for us to preserve our culture.
Media pioneers Oscar Michaeux, John Johnson, Bob Johnson and Cathy Hughes all created groundbreaking media empires in film, print, television and radio by specifically stepping out on…race.
Could the Internet have changed all that? Silicon Alley futurists love to claim web communities are based more on anonymous passions and interests. So then how is 600 million strong Facebook based on friends, family, and alum? Pretty traditional?
And if the web is really post-racial, then why is it so easy to find racists?
Blacks & Hispanics will soon represent 1 in 4 of all Internet users, (with a growth rate 4x faster than that of whites), but 15,000 people were not shy to put their profile picture up on the Burn The Koran group on Facebook. Google Martin Luther King, Jr. and be wary of the self-described white supremacist content that fuels the www.martinlutherking.org search result.
Twitter is no exception. At any tweet time of day, despite the fact that Blacks & Latinos comprise almost 20% of all Twitter users, you can find folks socializing around something racially inappropriate. #thingsdarkiessay
So here’s what must be true: Race matters more online than in any other form of medium. More!
The Internet is actually built for ethnic groups to thrive. Ideas around micro-blogging, super-served niche communities and the long-tail of content, are all perfect opportunities for the creation and maintenance of authentic and far-reaching cultural experiences.
The Internet, more than radio, TV or print, allows us to be visible on our own terms, and in a society where the dash between African and American connotes as much of a separation as it does a connection, that is a culture-saving, identity-saving necessity. And, of course, people of color have always made cutting edge technologies cool.
Black Planet.com invented social networking. What that tells me is that back in 1999, Black kids from the wrong side of the digital divide invented social media… [I’m glad The Social Network didn’t win the Oscar for Best Picture, because now Tyler Perry can get his when he makes the BP version!]
I mean who was the first person you know with a Motorola 2-way? And wasn’t 2Pac the first one to pimp a huge brick suitcase cell phone in his “I Get Around” video?
And check this: Even before our upcoming reboot, BlackPlanet.com users spend 2x the time on BP on average then users do on Facebook. Twice. (Doesn’t help our valuation enough, but that’s another essay.)
But because the web medium is, by definition, innovative as well as democratic, because it has a $0 cost of entry and is in no way a meritocracy, Black online media folks must be careful. We can’t just expect our Black star power to rise and get more clicks just because the audience is there, and we naturally have more hustle.
Unless you’re sprinting to an analytics-driven never-ending finish line, the Internet will zoom right past you. The iPad is the fastest selling new consumer product in history, but type in African-American in the App Store, and you get anemic results.
There’s an app for that, but is there an app for us? We must be there.
Everyday urban media professionals must prove Black and Latino online value with great data and revenue. We must support and value and invest in new digital agencies that get the tech as well as they get the culture. And we need to cultivate young ethnic online talent to blog and build and monetize around.
Now is the time, if urban culture has come to dominate all other forms of media (I mean, who would have ever dreamed that hip-hop could sell minivans and Mercedes?) then the web must be next. We can’t dis one another like Carver did Randy. The stakes are too high.
Over the past year or two, there have been some great online successes: TheRoot.com, TheGrio.com and my site NewsOne.com now reach over 3.5MM readers every month, and they were all invented less than 18 months ago!
Black women are posting 5,000 comments each week for one another on my HelloBeautiful.com, the biggest advertiser in the world, P&G put real money up for their great cross-platform Black Is Beautiful campaign, Pepsi honored African American women and created a slick online website at www.pepsiweinspire.com and check out ene-be-a, the NBA’s Spanish language web portal.
So who cares if I’m Black online? I do! We do, every time we click or touch or swipe.
And, you know what? The White House does too! Let’s make sure Valerie Jarrett’s African-American Media Summit becomes an annual event, and the President gets re-elected so he can show up again. (Yes, We Better!)
So if it’s ok to fawn at the Old Spice brother on the horse, and hide our kids and wives from the annual hot ghetto mess, then don’t forget the real challenge, the real opportunity, the real mission. To super-serve the underserved online with the best and most meaningful content that we can possible imagine!
Just make sure that when you do that huge and viral and historic program on the web for people of color everywhere, and hold a massive offline event in the new Black Capital of the World…just try not to let the white girls win…! LOL