Speaker 1: Whiteness is considered a default for everything, for existence, for online existence, for how we think about the world existing.
Rachel Hampton, Rachel Hanson: Hi, I’m Rachel Hampton.
Nadira Goffe: And I’m Nadira Goffe and you’re listening to I see. Where am I?
Rachel Hampton, Rachel Hanson: In Case You Missed It.
Nadira Goffe: Slate’s podcast about Internet Culture.
Speaker 4: Welcome back, Lydia.
Rachel Hampton, Rachel Hanson: I am always thrilled to have you here, especially after an extremely thirsty episode on Wednesday was a highlight of my week.
Nadira Goffe: It was the highlight of my entire existence. I lived to 300.
Speaker 4: I would just like to thank the academy. You should be so lucky. Well, I.
Rachel Hampton, Rachel Hanson: Am lucky because you’re here. And you’re also here to talk about something that I think we’re both really excited to talk about. Black spaces online. I feel like a running theme of this show is that a lot of the trends and topics and vernacular that we’re discussing start in black communities and then make their way over to the general populace. But we rarely talk about primarily black spaces, and so that’s what we’re going to talk about today. And so to get us started, I want to ask, what is the first space you remember participating online that was mostly black?
Nadira Goffe: I think the answer is black Twitter. And I feel like that might be a little late than what most people would expect. But I feel like I never saw it. Black Community Online because my sense of it in real life was so strong. Like, I’m really surrounded by my family. Most of my family still lives in the same city, and I’ve really built a strong group of friends who were black that I could talk to and geeky with. And so I really didn’t anticipate or expect or hope to find a black community online until I sort of encountered black Twitter and then found myself being represented almost every day, every time I opened up Twitter and the thoughts that I had about memes or videos or whatever.
Rachel Hampton, Rachel Hanson: I mean, I think that makes sense given resiliency is basically and given when Twitter started, I think it’s been around for most of our lives. So I would say that makes sense. I would probably say a mixture between black Twitter and black Tumblr, and I say a mixture because I can’t remember which one I encountered first, but I would probably say that I participated in black Tumblr more first and then started participating on Twitter later. But black Tumblr was like just it was jokes. It was serious racial analysis. It’s where I learned the word hegemony. It was entertainment. It was jokes on Twitter as well. But yeah, Tumblr is where I picked up, I think a lot of the kind of racial analysis that I hold near and dear to my heart.
Nadira Goffe: So those are our earliest encounters with black online spaces. But they were obviously going on even before we logged on. Like I mentioned with me, I IRL with my family and friends. After the break, we’ll be back to discuss the early years of black online spaces, how those spaces have grown and changed over the years as non-black people started seeping in, and if it’s even possible to create exclusively black spaces online anymore.
Rachel Hampton, Rachel Hanson: And we’re back. And in the beginning there was Black Planet, except not really, because the internet is fairly new. But I do feel like in the kind of chronology of popularly adopted social media spaces, most people pinpoint MySpace as the first one where the real draw wasn’t the actual platform, but the user generated content that populated it. You know, we all still have fond memories of Tom.
Nadira Goffe: I was about to say Tom’s everyone’s favorite friend. How sweet.
Rachel Hampton, Rachel Hanson: But the thing is, there were others that came before it and importantly that were really popular, others that came before and directly inspired MySpace into Black Planet. So it was launched in 1999, and Black Planet did what pretty much every single social media platform promises to do, which is connect people with people. Except in this case, it was connecting black people with other black people. Black plan is started with customisable web pages. Do you remember using MySpace and like learning how to use HTML to get following stars on your page?
Nadira Goffe: A little. I wasn’t really up on MySpace like that, but I remember being like, Oh, you have to work for this. I don’t think that’s okay then.
Rachel Hampton, Rachel Hanson: Yeah, you might not have liked Black Planet because you did have to work for it.
Nadira Goffe: I would work for my community, though.
Speaker 4: Okay. Yes, yes, yes.
Rachel Hampton, Rachel Hanson: Yes, of course. So you have these customisable Web pages. They also did matchmaking and dating. They had job postings. And of course, of course, of course, wherever there are black people, there are forums. And these forums discussed pretty much everything you could think religion, identity, current events, etc., etc., etc.. Here’s where I once again admit that Nadir and I, both as millennials on the cusp of genes, the millennials. So Black Planet is definitely a bit before our time. But still, I feel like Black Planet’s impact is undeniable. Anecdotally, a lot of the older black people I grew up following on Twitter and Tumblr mentioned Black Planet with this like nostalgic reverence as this kind of formative space for what social media could be.
Nadira Goffe: Even Salon tried to bring it back.
Rachel Hampton, Rachel Hanson: And even well before that, Kanye mentioned it on College Dropout and Get Him High. Now, who.
Speaker 5: The hell is this emailing me at 1126 telling me that see 3626 plus W magazine, black planet B when they get published and why you but she hailed from Kansas right now citizen.
Rachel Hampton, Rachel Hanson: So by 2004 Black Planet had the highest traffic of any black oriented site on the Internet. And according to a 2011 interview with Black Planet’s founder Omar Wasow, quote, The guys who started MySpace were quoted in Businessweek magazine saying that they looked at Black Planet as a model for MySpace and thought there was an opportunity to do a general market version of what Black Planet was. Which sounds familiar.
Nadira Goffe: Yes, it’s very similar to the way your favorite little show Friends was a known rip off of living single. But I digress.
Rachel Hampton, Rachel Hanson: So the Friends version of Black Planet became MySpace, which launched in 2003, which directly inspired Facebook, which launched in 2004, which then inspired Twitter in 2006, and then Instagram in 2010. Which means that if you think about it and here’s where I put on my little tinfoil cap in a lot of ways, blackness is integral to the very concept of social media as we know it. Even though a mega-popular primarily black internet space hasn’t really existed since Black Planet.
Nadira Goffe: Though it is true that blackness has never really needed its own dedicated space to become the foundation of an institution or industry.
Nadira Goffe: When we first started thinking about black online spaces, though, about their history and their legacy and about where they’ve gone, we knew we needed to call Meredith de Klerk, a professor at Northeastern University whose research centers on this subject. We started by asking her about her earliest memories of black Internet spaces, and she mentioned a site called College Club, which we had never heard of before but was a competitor to Facebook.
Speaker 1: Aside from my initial sort of online homes and Facebook when it was first making its way to other college campuses, so away from Harvard and other places, that was one of the first spaces that I can remember having like a definitively black online community, because we created it through the connections that we already had in offline life. So basically I was seeing all the people I went to school with and going to an HBCU. Just about everybody is black. But then there was this short lived site called College Club and I. Was on it. It was kind of like a competitor to Facebook and the Negroes were there. The black people were on College Club.
Rachel Hampton, Rachel Hanson: So that made a lot of sense to me as a first Internet experience. I feel like most people who are not Gen Z, their earlier social media experiences were primarily dictated by the kind of boundaries of real life by people you knew in real life, if not geographically. So college campuses, interest groups in your area. And of course, the promise of the Internet was that it would, you know, get rid of borders, basically. But sites like College Club, like MySpace, they began with the kind of very basic promise that they would connect you to people in your life who you wouldn’t normally fall out of contact with. So the person you sat next to from K through 12 because your last names were right after each other.
Nadira Goffe: But Meredith also mentioned this concept called Digital Hush Harbors, which can I say we went some black people to come correct with a fire ass name, a hush harbour, the unknown.
Speaker 4: The vision.
Rachel Hampton, Rachel Hanson: I’m like, This feels like it should be the title of a movie.
Nadira Goffe: Right. I’m into it. Hush Harbor is coming at you 2024. Anyway, we’re primarily black internet spaces that existed in the comment sections of black blogs like Arabella, which Dr. Clarke described as the mother of beauty blogging, or Down from the Tower, which was a space for black academics. These hush harbors were very if you know, you know, okay. They were built on the kind of interpersonal connections you’d find by actually being in community with black people in your actual life. If you haven’t been around black people, you wouldn’t be able to last in hush harbor.
Rachel Hampton, Rachel Hanson: Or even find it.
Nadira Goffe: True. But as Dr. Clarke explained, a lot of digital hush harbors and websites like College Club fell away after Facebook came onto the scene during the consolidation of social media as the power players in Silicon Valley like Meta and Twitter and Instagram began to emerge. It meant sites like College Club, like Black Planet, like Geocities fell out of usage and simply faded away into the lost animals of the Internet because despite what people claim, the internet is not forever. So much from the early years of the internet is lost to time because we simply didn’t know what, if any, of this would be valuable in the future.
Rachel Hampton, Rachel Hanson: I mean, it would have required a level of foresight that I think most of us did not have when we first got the Internet. Like, why would someone want my LiveJournal ramblings as an 11 year old? And yet I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again. The equivalent of a library of Alexandria is lost every day on the Internet because none of this stuff is archived. And that’s not a problem just for black online culture. But as Dr. Clarke told us, it is more pronounced.
Speaker 1: In the same way that our small histories, our personal histories, were devalued. And I think it’s a problem of both the world outside of black communities and black life and even our own worlds. That gives way to some of this devaluation. We go through our grandmother’s house when she passes away and we keep things like the photos. But do we keep the little notes about, you know, the grocery list that you’re you’re going to pick up from the store and recognize what that might help you piece together in terms of her story years down the road.
Nadira Goffe: It’s not necessarily surprising to me that the group of people that hasn’t been allowed to preserve much of their history didn’t make a concerted effort to preserve their online presence. Sometimes we, as in black people, just forget that historical preservation is even possible. And there are black digital scholars working on this very problem and working to document much more in the now so the future isn’t as lost as we currently are. But often the most extensive records exist on those larger platforms like Facebook, like Instagram, like Tumblr and Twitter. Which brings us to maybe the most talked about black Internet space, black Twitter.
Speaker 1: I would say that black Twitter, you know, predates Twitter because the way that we grouped ourselves on Twitter is reflective of the way that we grouped ourselves before Twitter was a thing. The conversations that we had and the tenor of those conversations remind folks of the barbershop, the beauty salon, you know, the church house, the mosque, the stoop. All of the places where we gathered, had conversations, talked about things that were meaningful to us in the ways that we could without being watched. We brought all of that to Twitter.
Rachel Hampton, Rachel Hanson: So I think what Meredith is saying here about the fact that black Twitter did not begin on black Twitter. Really ring true for both of us. And all of that made black Twitter the space to watch, not just for us as black people, but for other people.
Rachel Hampton, Rachel Hanson: Meredith mentioned a slate piece by Farhad Manjoo from 2010 that turned the concept of black people talking to each other on Twitter into black Twitter. Team Manjoo had noticed that young black people use Twitter differently from others. They form tighter networks and reciprocal relationships. Simply put, they formed an actual community, which meant that when these communities started talking about one specific thing like Scandal or a Game of Thrones or Thanksgiving with black families or hashtag Black Lives Matter, or the Beyonce’s surprise drop or the Beyoncé lemonade drop or the Beyonce. I’m going to stop talking about Beyonce. They now basically stop.
Nadira Goffe: Talking about the.
Rachel Hampton, Rachel Hanson: Once black Twitter started talking about something. Others took notice because black Twitter really figured out how to use Twitter to its best usage, how to make something trend. And while that meant the black sort of became a great space for black people to congregate and talk to each other online. Because Twitter is basically an open air stadium. It meant that whatever was trending on black Twitter was also trending on normal people Twitter. And that fundamentally changed the dynamics of engagement online as they had previously existed.
Nadira Goffe: It’s no secret that social life in America is still largely segregated, according to a 2014 study. Three quarters of white Americans have no black friends. No, your coworker doesn’t count. If you’re.
Speaker 4: Standing.
Nadira Goffe: Outside of whatever physical space you’re both obliged to be in, it doesn’t count. And if you’re texting someone now because I just said that they.
Speaker 4: Think.
Rachel Hampton, Rachel Hanson: The person you Venmo during the 2020 George Floyd protests also doesn’t count though feel free to Venmo us.
Nadira Goffe: Right. That you can do.
Rachel Hampton, Rachel Hanson: But what this means is that platforms like Twitter were the very first time a lot of non-black people had encountered unfiltered black thought, unfiltered black cultural production, black language, black jokes. If you think about it, if the only place you’re interacting with black people is at work, no one brings their full cells to work. Not least because they’re black people. Historically, that’s been dangerous. So if you’ve never interact with a black person outside of work, then you’re not really going to know the vibe, basically. And according to Meredith, that engagement, that new engagement created by the open air stadium that is Twitter is kind of a double edged sword.
Speaker 1: On one hand, you want people to understand that we as black people are as human as everyone else. And one of the ways to do that is to allow people to see what our lives look like. But at the same time, there is this preoccupation with pathologizing blackness. And so being able to watch it from a distance, often unobserved by the people who are going on about their everyday lives, means that, again, folks can extract meaning and extract value from blackness, from black collectivity, from black collaboration, from black community without any sort of consequence or recourse.
Rachel Hampton, Rachel Hanson: I don’t know about you, Nadia, but I can listen to Dr. Clarke talk for literally hours. Like, where’s the class I can take on this millennium?
Nadira Goffe: How many credits can I get?
Rachel Hampton, Rachel Hanson: How much exactly can I just get a whole degree taught by Dr. Gleick? But we do need to take a quick break. When we come back, we’ll continue discussing what happens when non-black people gain access to black online spaces and if we can or should try to make our own spaces again.
Speaker 5: And if you lose in your hat, in smoke.
Rachel Hampton, Rachel Hanson: Hi. I hope you’re enjoying today’s show. This is your first time listening to issue. I am. I been a welcome. We are so thrilled to have you here. In case you missed it. Yes. That joke gets made every single week. Our show comes out twice a week on Wednesdays and Saturdays. You’re listening to the Saturday episode. On Wednesday, we talked all about Internet birth. What makes a good Internet boyfriend? We played a legendary game of fuck, marry, kill. You do not want to miss it. And we’re back. Nadira. I feel like our primary experience growing up on the Internet because we are the millennials. I promise I will stop saying that after this moment was the kind of extractive relationship that Meredith was describing before the break. Do you agree?
Nadira Goffe: Yeah. I mean, I think this ability for non-black Internet viewers to extract black culture on the Internet without any consequences certainly showed up online. Like whenever someone who’s not black uses slang incorrectly, which always feels like a slap in the face for some reason. And offline, like with non-black people learning how to take care of what they call their frizzy, unkempt, insert negative adjective here hair which they learned from a video of a black person doing a natural hairstyle tutorial on YouTube.
Rachel Hampton, Rachel Hanson: My God, the way Tik Tok has showed me so many white women with curly hair realizing that they have curly hair, and I’m like, I knew you had curly hair.
Nadira Goffe: Now, don’t get me wrong, this extraction relationship is not new. It’s as American as apple pie. But the Internet certainly helped accelerate it. Suddenly, our culture was everywhere but a facsimile of it. Like not the real thing I would experience with my family or at the hair salon or in any majority black space. Zero.
Rachel Hampton, Rachel Hanson: Know exactly. And I feel like our first verse first. Like when we were still using Facebook, various social media experiences were a lot like murders as and they were dictated by those IRL experiences that you’re describing. But I think we moved past that a lot quicker. Facebook, for me, was on its way out by the time I graduated from high school.
Rachel Hampton, Rachel Hanson: I’d say we really kind of came of age in the influencer era, which is very much ongoing, but. It represented this kind of tectonic shift from thinking of social media as a place to form a community or to redefine the community and more as a place to build an audience.
Rachel Hampton, Rachel Hanson: And that’s created a lot of the dynamics that we constantly see discussed over and over again, that taking a bastardized and a black vernacular, the ways that platforms like Twitter and TikTok require blackness to survive but actively do nothing to preserve, protect, to promote blackness at the best, at the worst.
Nadira Goffe: Nothing at all.
Rachel Hampton, Rachel Hanson: That shadow banned black people make their experience worse. Meredith actually had a really interesting point about how that kind of observation or dynamic isn’t only harmful to black people, but to the people I think we tend to describe as culture vultures.
Speaker 1: Having the culture so readily available and easily available cheats people who are outside of it and helps them to think that they somehow know it intimately. And you cannot know it intimately unless you live it. And that’s not to say that you can only know it if you’re black. But there are degrees of knowing and levels and layers of knowing that people understand because their family is black. They live in black neighborhoods. They worship in black houses of worship. They gather where black people gather. You know, they have different ways of understanding blackness, that folks that are simply relying on what happens, what is depicted, what is performed online just don’t.
Rachel Hampton, Rachel Hanson: So I definitely tie a lot of the performative elements that Meredith is talking about here to the fact that people can make money off of social media in ways that I don’t think anyone could have imagined, even as recently as ten years ago, which incentivizes non-black people to ape what is cool, what is popular, what is subversive, which is often tied to blackness.
Rachel Hampton, Rachel Hanson: But then there’s also this mode of speaking that I feel like Tik Tok has perfected in the worst way, but that’s existed forever. And it’s this kind of mode of speaking where you can tell. I can tell, you can tell when a black person is talking about a black thing, but not to black people. They’re explaining this black thing to white people and then be completely honest. Real. Recognize, real. That’s a lot of this episode. And that’s because I know a large part of our audience is white, and that’s because to have a profitable podcast, a profitable media company, on some level, you have to cater to a white audience.
Nadira Goffe: That’s sort of the definition of life as a minority catering to the majority and a part of the reason why we do it, as in you and I would assume I don’t want to speak for, you know, other people is because we’re forced into majority white spaces and are tired of having to explain ourselves over and over again.
Rachel Hampton, Rachel Hanson: And importantly, this is our job. We knew what we were signing up for. If you want to have a job in media, you’re probably going to end up working in a majority white company. But that mode of speaking didn’t always exist on people’s personal social media pages until your personal social media page could get you a sponsorship deal and your personal page couldn’t get you a sponsorship deal until social media morphed from this community to audience mode, a mode that I feel I couldn’t really exist on a site like Black Planet.
Nadira Goffe: Yeah, definitely.
Nadira Goffe: I think that this is where a lot of today’s conversations about gatekeeping online stems from. A part of the reason these online people explain black culture to non-black people. Online is because black culture is so easily consumable because it’s the zeitgeist of today. The demand for its consumption is high. But Meredith had a slightly more nuanced view.
Speaker 1: I won’t say that it’s totally linked to the influx of money. I think it’s a significant part of it. But I’m also mindful of the roles that we play well. We know that basically white people are watching. These are practices that we have been socialized into in our neighborhoods and our schools at work. And it’s not necessarily code switching. It’s just performing our lives in a certain way because we know that people with powerful influence, with the ability to shape and change what happens in our lives or to disrupt our lives are watching. And so I see that performance carried on into the Internet as well. And I think there was some of that. Before we could make money off of Twitter, before we realized that being an influencer was a thing and we could do it just by being ourselves.
Rachel Hampton, Rachel Hanson: She also pointed out that this performance, which I feel like we’ve kind of been describing pejoratively, can offer a form of protection, which is important to note.
Speaker 1: Just recognizing that, again, white folks are watching people perform in a certain way, and that is a matter of self-preservation. And to an extent, it’s a matter of community preservation. It’s like the same reason we don’t talk about family business in public. We’re trying to keep ourselves and our community safe, and so we behave in a certain way.
Rachel Hampton, Rachel Hanson: But the question I have and I feel like I’ve had for a while, is if all of our publicly facing engagement is some version of this performance, can any of it really be genuine? Like, what does it mean to be authentically black, authentically yourself online when you know that you’re being watched? When you know that a phrase you made in a joke video like on Fleek could be adopted and used by an audience you’ve never imagined, or maybe an audience you never even wanted.
Speaker 1: I think that there are like roots and shoots of realness. There are plenty of black folks who are on the internet being our black selves without any respect of who is watching. We do not care. And so I think about that as the roots of black cultural influence in digital culture. The shoots of it are those specific performances that are done because we know people are watching the things that are really obvious, the things that get reported on, so on and so forth. Those are the shoots, those are the blooms, those are the products. They will go away when the attention goes away or when we decide to retreat back to our roots and just be connecting with the community.
Nadira Goffe: Okay. So that made me think about clubhouse, the dumpster fire of an app that seemed to at its start at least be a very black community. Like we said at the top of this episode, the Greeks may have invented it, but no one does a forum better than black people. Okay. Anyone could have observed clubhouse. Sure. But it was a way for black people to have black conversations with all of our vocal inflections coming through and our tone and anything that could show our mood, which is really important in the way we communicate. Before it fell off in popularity, it even hosted an entire production of the musical Dreamgirls, which is amazing, astounding, wonderful, beautiful. But it lacked the community moderating and respect the ability that the platform needed. So sometimes those roots and Dr. Cox mentioned were showing a little too much.
Rachel Hampton, Rachel Hanson: I think the thing is that a lot of Silicon Valley types like to make us think that the platforms that they create, the platforms that they have, like the proprietary information, are the key to this kind of better world we’ve been envisioning since the Internet existed, when in all actuality, they’re tools, their tools with history bound up and a lot of fraught dynamics, which means that they can be used for a recreation of Dreamgirls, or they can be used for cultural altering or, you know, discussions about 5G and vaccines that maybe shouldn’t happen. Perhaps. But, you know, perhaps that’s life.
Rachel Hampton, Rachel Hanson: I think there’s a reason that despite how onerous the dynamic of being a visible community of black people online can be, how often we talk about what it is to be surveilled, basically surveilled and extracted from. There’s still a reason that we’re still here.
Nadira Goffe: Yeah. I mean, listen, we love to get together. We love to communicate. We love to talk to each other. We love to share ideas and jokes. We love to share our experiences, whether they’re happy or sad. And I think it’s really important to have those spaces where we can do so, where we can keep evolving as a culture, where we can make some of the most fire memes have ever existed. And even though it is something that leads us to perhaps being over surveilled online and perhaps it leads us to give ammunition to culture vultures, let’s say it’s still, at the end of the day, something worth having a space where we can all be together. I think it just maybe needs a little bit. More equity and a little bit more balance.
Rachel Hampton, Rachel Hanson: I don’t think any platform will be revolutionary as what we’re ultimately saying, whether it’s created for us by us or not. At the end of the day, it’s all a tool that we have to decide how to use.
Speaker 1: It’s very difficult for me to imagine a space that is wholly black of our own creation, of our own maintenance and making. And it’s really difficult for me to imagine that with the knowledge of what the Internet was created to be. You know, the Internet was created for exchanging information from place to place among people in the military.
Speaker 1: The Internet is a tool of the state. It always has been. It will continue to be. We like to position it as a tool for democracy and what have you. And in some cases, in some applications it is.
Speaker 1: But I think it’s very creation in so many ways is antithetical to our reclaiming blackness as an identity that is not defined by deviance and not defined by whiteness, but defined through our collective experiences, through our love for one another, for our love for humanity.
Rachel Hampton, Rachel Hanson: And I would like to give one last hearty thank you to Dr. Meredith de Klerk for her time, for her wisdom, for just being an incredible scholar.
Nadira Goffe: Thanks. She also had an incredible pair of glasses on. And I just want the world to know that.
Speaker 4: She did see that. You write. You write.
Rachel Hampton, Rachel Hanson: Yeah, but I’ll write that as the show will be back in your feed on Wednesdays, so please subscribe. That is the best way to never miss an episodes. Never miss an amazing conversation on blackness on the internet. Please give a rating interview on Apple or Spotify. Tell your friends about us. Tell your black friends about us. If you have them, you can follow us on Twitter as well. I might underscore POD, which is also going to give us your questions. You can always drop us a note. I see why my sitcom.
Nadira Goffe: I see. Why am I? Is produced by Daniel Schrader and Rachel Hampton. Daisy Rosario is our senior supervising producer and Alicia montgomery is Slate’s VP of Audio. See you online.
Rachel Hampton, Rachel Hanson: Or on Twitter.
Nadira Goffe: As we are. As weak as it was, as it was, yes and no. So the future isn’t as lost as it as.
Rachel Hampton, Rachel Hanson: As it could be. But we would just like as we.
Speaker 4: As we as it was. All right. By Harry Styles or Styles?