The Curious Case of a Black Browser: Cultural Values as a Predictor of Technology Use


>> And being rather new to Google, I wasn’t really
aware of what Google’s kind of attitude was towards raising the Internet so I thought
what a great way to find out would be to bring Andre in and have him give a talk. So he’s
here actually in town for the iConference, which is happening in Seattle this week. And
so I stole him away for a day to come in and talk to us about raising the Internet and
he’s talking about Blackbird, which was a browser that I knew nothing about until I
got the abstract for this talk. Apparently it was designed for the African-American community.
And so I’ve–I’m very interested in this talk and I hope the people at Google are as well.
Anyway, so Andre, take it away.>>BROCK: Okay. Gee, I don’t know how to begin.
I–can we do interruptions? Do I have to talk straight through?
>>Yes, you can do interruptions.>>BROCK: Okay. So feel free to interrupt
at any point if it gets too unwieldy and I don’t think I’ll be able to finish in time.
I’ll just cut the questions short. But I have a lot of information packed. This was a 40-page
paper and now it’s like a 15-slide presentation. So there are going to be some gaps. And you’d–have
be–I’d appreciate if you pointed some stuff out that you think I might–I could probably
add to the presentation. So, my name is Andre Brock. I’m a faculty at the University of
Iowa, the School of Library and Information Science. As Cameron said, we were in the same
PhD cohort at Illinois. And so my degree is Library and Information Science as well. But
I also have a background in Rhetoric. So one of the things that drew my interest to this
particular case was I love looking at Information Technology products, but I also like looking
at the ways in which people understand themselves in relationship to the product. And so this
case came up to be–this specific case study came to be really interesting for me. So I
call it the Curious Case of a Black Browser, and my apologies to Benjamin Button or is
that–so, cultural values as a predictor of technology use. So when people say that I
was on the Internet, they take for granted that their friends will understand if they
use a browser to access the Web. And it’s not difficult to see why. Browsers frame the
content, media and protocols–we know it’s the World Wide Web–and they have become part
of our social life, our work routines and our leisure activities. As such, the browser
is a cultural artifact. Defining it’s users as technologist and as social actors, it’s
part of our communicative infrastructure and usually it’s invisible to our literacy–information
literacy practices until a rupture occurs. One such rupture found form in the 2008 introduction
of the Blackbird browser, which developed by three guys at a company 40A, and it was
designed to serve the browsing needs of African-Americans. The cultural focus of the browser engendered
a really kind of scaling response from black and white Internet users alike because it
apparently contravened popular assumptions of the browsers’ cultural neutrality. So where
most tech products are evaluated in terms of their ease of use, there user interface
design or their feature set, Blackbird’s reception as an ICT artifact, and by ICT, which I’m
going to say a lot, I mean, Information and Communication Technology. So Blackbird’s reception
as an ICT artifact was colored by the racial frames of the pundits, bloggers and commenters
who discussed it. So let me give you a little bit of my analytical background. This is what
Blackbird looks like. This is the Mac version. It’s ugly. I will be honest and say that it’s
ugly. But we’ll talk about it a little bit more further in the presentation, but I just
want to give you an idea what it looks like. It’s a branch of Firefox, and so I can use
the plug-ins that Firefox uses. It uses basically the same themeing set and everything, but
there are some special features and I’ll talk about those in a little bit. So my research
area is–I’m examining cultural biases encoded within information and communication technologies
and I pair them with insights into the technological biases expressed to the culture of the users.
And this is one approach to which cultural and racial motivations can be apprehended
as functional rationales for technology use. So this lovely triangle here is the beginning
of my–of an illustration I came up with to talk to and show my research approach to ICT
usage. This particular approach was originally conceived by Arnold Pacey, but it also draws–I
don’t know how many of you who are com study scholars–on James Carey’s on communication
technologies and belief. So Pacey described technology as having three components. The
first one is the material artifact or in this case, the code; the second is the practices
necessary to employ the artifact; and then the third is the beliefs of the user. And
Pacey argued that tech artifacts are usually understood by describing either their form
or their use. I contend along with Mr. Pacey, who’s much smarter than I am, that the cultural
and social beliefs of technology users play a significant part in the design, adoption,
dissemination and use of any tech. And these can range from unconscious design decisions
based on physical traits, right-handed dominance or to deeply held cultural associations between
race and intelligence. So I have my triangle. So this is–if you–if you read anything from
Wired, or Gizmodo, or even the New York Times technology section, they primarily focus on
what Artifact does and what you can do with it. Nobody really talks about Belief except
for me because I’m a groundbreaking researcher in this field. Okay. Yes, let me make sure
I got the right slide here. So I employ a structural approach to information technologies
and I argue in my work that ICTs operate as projects linking social structure and cultural
representation. They frame this cursive representations of cultural phenomena. So blogs, bulletin
boards, advertisements, search engines and the like, and they work to organize resources
along particular cultural lines. The browser represents a belief and implicitly unmarked
technological space. But the openness of the platform obscures the fact that most content
available to the browser articulates very culturally-specific representation of race,
gender and class. And, yes, I am aware that the browser gives you the freedom to navigate
to those particular cultural resources that may be of interest to you. But if you consider
that many Internet users are technologically unsophisticated, a lot of them never change
the start page of their browser, or–well, this isn’t as bad as it used to be–many of
them were AOL addicts and or are very much aware of the AOL correlation of the Internet
and are not necessarily as comfortable with the Internet Explorer/Firefox freedom to navigate
freedom. Okay. So my argument is that even if it is an open space, that open space is
still framed by a certain cultural and technological considerations. For the U.S. and much of the
West, the cultural representations dropped primarily upon white identity markers and
values. One of my favorite theorists, Richard Dyer, argues that whiteness that once represents
the sign of humanity and the marker of individual agency. And my favorite example of my new
favorite example is that if we consider recent violent killers, Jared Lee Loughner of Arizona
fame, is a troubled individual with no ties to the Tea Party, although he shot a congressman
and all other kind of stuff; while Major Nidal Hasan, the Fort Hood shooter from last year,
was suspected of being a radical Muslim extremist despite a documented history of mental problems.
So even in individual cases, there are still cultural frames that–through which we understand
content. So the browser shares this universal and individual identity and it mask closely
on to whiteness. So the universal traits of the browser are, as I mentioned a few minutes
ago, evidence to us access to and command of temporal, geographic and economic networks,
and informational. The widespread adoption as a browser–of the browser as a communication
device does speak to its universal qualities, but it also obscures as a utility as an artifact
of information networks that bolster economic and social cultural hegemony. So if you think
about the case where Microsoft was bundling the IE browser with Windows installs and how
Europe made them de–break it away from that because what they found out was that that
bundling led people to automatically use that browser and not exercise their freedom of
choice. I’m making the same argument that browsers in general, not just browsers bundled
with the system, but browsers framed the away that we understand the way the Web works.
There’s an individual piece of this though. The current generation of browsers enact a
lot of personalization. So there’s recent that shows that a browser usage can be as
individualized as a fingerprint. Users can change themes, they can block advertising,
and they can even alter style sheets of existing websites. They encourage us to store confidential
information, password managers, or maintain a library of notable sites. So while many
people use the same browsing software, few will use them in the exact same way. And you
this if you ever tried to use somebody else’s laptop, right? Because it is always configured
in a way that seems completely–oh, can I use retarded in a presentation? In a way that
seems completely incomprehensible to someone who doesn’t use it everyday. So the experience
of universal application and the individual preference then prejudice its users to assume
that the universal web configured to their personal liking is similarly configured for
everybody else who use it. And in this way and in the same way, western culture assumes
that the universal values that are part of the mainstream are equally valid and desired
by every individual under their sway. And so that’s the meat of my argument. So there’s
a lot of room–there’s some wiggle room in there because it is structural, but I try
to account for the fact that there’s individual preference that is part of and yet diversely
represented within cultural frames. Let me know if I’ve lost you. I forgot my lovely
animations. Hey, whiteness. Okay. The browser is a software artifact, but it’s also a communication
product. So C. Edwin Baker, who wrote the book Mass Media and Democracy, argued that
communication products offer different benefits depending upon the role that various stakeholders
and [INDISTINCT] design, dissemination and consumption. Media content contributes to
the rationalization of particular behaviors as well as affecting the significance of those
beliefs. And he adds, and I’ll quote him here; “Even more than it’s direct value to the audience,
the media’s greatest value maybe for third parties. Even if they do not consume the media
concept themselves, they can be wonderfully or gravely affected by the media’s influence
on its audience’s construction of reality and on their resulting behavior.” And my example
for this is if you consider the adoption of Facebook. Can I say Facebook at Google? Okay,
good. So Facebook prior to, say, a couple of years ago was becoming a watchword in certain
text circles, certain educational circles, but it still was at the tip of the–it wasn’t
quite at the tipping point where it became–gathered a huge mainstream adoption. As recently as
2008, Facebook didn’t have as many users as Myspace. I know that’s kind of hard to believe
at this point. And so I don’t know about the communities that you come from, but the small
town Louisiana that I grew up in and the neighborhoods of New York, my parents and my grandparents
referred to Facebook as the Facebook. Right. And they have a very different understanding
of why somebody would want to post their personal lives on a platform that’s available for people
to basically consume at their [INDISTINCT]. Right. So there’s a different understanding
of Facebook depending on your level of technological savvy, your level of technological experience
and your attitude toward information technology in general. Baker concedes that his arguments
have to be significantly expanded to encompass the Internet as a media product. For example,
he reasons that the Internet’s lowered copy and delivery cost greatly increased economic
incentives to provide everyone with the same good, but also create parallel incentives
to orient content to our universal motifs. So sex is a really good one. Violence and
good versus evil, and this leads to the sacrifice of culturally-specific content. These universally
understood themes are those that generate the greatest profit and then leads to a further
commodification of content. So, the content that appeals to most people is the one that
people makes the most–make the most money off of. Porn would be a really good example.
And so although the browser does not directly represent or embody the content displayed
within this interface, and I’m willing to argue that with you, its role in delivering
and framing that content connects it ideologically to the cultural values transmitted within
a content. Okay. So the meat of it. For my analysis, I conduct an interface analysis
of the browser briefly reviewed–although I won’t talk about it here. The–its history
and practices of web browsers in general and Blackbird in specific. I also carried out
a close reading of blog posts and associated comments on six blogs, mainstream–two mainstream
and four African-American interest blogs to understand how they conducted the browser–constructed
the browser, sorry, in terms of their experience and identities. And so my close reading focused
upon instances of dispersive association between cultural–culture and technology. So if somebody
said, “I am X,” and I use this product or I think X people use this product in this
way, that’s the stuff that I picked up on and coded for, right? Positive, neutral or
negative across the general categories of the blogs they are found on. So I separated
out the tech blogs and general interest blogs. And then deep observation and analysis were
laid out against some of the critical race framework that I’ve talked about briefly earlier,
the whiteness in western culture and the technicultural stuff; the Artifact, Practice, Belief triangle.
So interface analysis and discourse analysis is what we’re going to talk about next. We’ll
start off with interface analysis and, again, back to the lovely Blackbird browser. You
can see it because this is a static webshot–screenshot. But if you look directly under the address
bar, you’ll see a number of headlines under there. What that is, is a moving ticker and
it represents curated content that the browser or the people behind the browser feel is of
interest to its users. And then it has a number of buttons across the top that represent various
features. The ticker can be turned off, the buttons cannot. There are also have Twitter
posts from people who they consider–although they don’t give the algorithm or the rationale
for who they selected other than that they might be black–of people who are black and
tweeting and then headlines from various African-American new sources; so News One, Black Voices, Bossip,
which is a black entertainment blog and the like. Coffee. Because a Blackbird offers a
number of features specific to its installation that make it different from a standard Mozilla/Firefox
installation. It’s very similar. I don’t know if you guys have used the Flock browser at
least before it switched to WebKit or a Gloss browser, Flock was social networking in general
and Gloss was women-centric including a pink theme because women love pink apparently.
Each variant features custom interface tweaks designed to visually identify the blowers,
so Blackbird is, strangely enough, black, and as well as plug-ins, custom searches and
other features to enhance the targeted user’s experience. Blackbird’s creators include in-browser
access so they have a side bar that you can pop open to–using one of the buttons on the
toolbar to Facebook and Myspace. But strangely enough, they didn’t offer a link to the largest
majority black social network which is BlackPlanet. And so they’re expecting their users to leverage
existing social networks accounts and they’re allowing their users to browse both their
social networks and the Web simultaneously. Flock does this as well. I think you can setup
Firefox to do it, but it’s kind of awkward. So I’ll talk about two of the features here.
Well, actually, I’ll talk about one of the features here in the interest of time. But
some of the things that Blackbird offers to its users are custom Google search. Go ahead,
Kal.>>So I just have a question. The people who
do this, the 40A, was their motivation in developing Blackbird like, financial? Is this
a product they were trying to market and sell, or were they making revenue off of people
using it somehow, or was it purely some sort of altruistic “I’m going to port this for
the African-American community?”>>BROCK: Some of it was–okay, I’m sure there
was some altruistic kernel of motive, but one of the design issues for Blackbird that
a lot of people who were discussing and picked up on is that this was a very siloed system.
So although you could import and access your Facebook and Myspace profiles, the rest of
the features, so they have a custom video channel; they have a Digg clone called Grapevine;
they have a couple of other features are only for people who sign in to the Blackbird network.
So they were planning on getting people in using Facebook and Myspace and then keeping
them there with the content and then serving ads or whatever to them in that way. So it’s
a moneymaking venture, but there is a slightly different core to it. Okay. So the features
were the custom Google search, the news ticker, which is preloaded, but customizable. There
are pre-selected bookmarks featuring African-American websites and websites of interest to African-American
people. So, there was a 2008 Nielsen survey. Apparently, black people go to the IRS website
more than any other website that they’re interested in; BET came in third. It was IRS, and I think
Yahoo!, sorry. That was 2008 though. I mean, I guess people change. There’s a feature called
Give Back which links to Good Together, which is a site that links Internet users with nonprofits,
so they can donate through the browser and those donations will be targeted to nonprofits.
In this particular case, they targeted African-American websites, which is a pretty unique feature.
There’s a customized video channel called Blackbird TV available only to Blackbird users;
local and job listings that are backed by targeting advertising campaigns specifically
for African-American communities. So in New York and Atlanta, I’ve seen advertisements
by the–in the Blackbird browser for businesses to advertise on this and have a captive audience.
And then the Digg clone Blackbird community, which is the Browser Center Social Network,
that lets user share content and vote on it. It also offers one button access to Yahoo
Mail, Hotmail or Gmail, the buttons offer unread email notifications and you could switch
between accounts without going to the address bar. And then the previously mentioned Facebook
and MySpace, again, you can switch between them with one click. And so that’s the browser.
So the part I want to talk to about in part because I’m an instigator, I want to talk
about the custom Google Search that Blackbird offers. So Blackbird has a search that is
designed to present positive results about African-American content to the people who
are using it. And so I ran a very quick and dirty custom search–I mean, quick and dirty
search using the keyword Black Girls, as Gina pointed out. I did Black Girls plural, not
Black Girl singular. And so what I get if I run the Google Search, this is–I’m not
signed in, moderate safe search applies, and these are the top five results. Sorry for
the profanity on the Google Internet. These are the top five results for Black Girls.
If you just do a simple search, right? And I won’t leave that up there long. This is
the Blackbird results for the same exact search. The kicker for me, at least as a researcher,
is that–and I’ve talked about this a little bit with Cam–is that even in the fact that
they got a custom search turn that shows websites that are of interest. So you’ll see BET.com
is one of them; Black Enterprise is another. And then the one, the odd one, The YBF, The
Young Black and Fabulous, which is a gossip site. But these are the ones providing the
top results for the same topic. But they also have this lovely ad box on the side with how
Black Girls and Big Black Sex, which is problematic, but that’s another thing altogether. So, Blackbird–the
creators of Blackbird, they contended that the black content can be difficult to find
using regular searches and given this quick and dirty experiment, I will be tempted to
agree with them. I run–for the paper, I ran a much more comprehensive search for Barack
Obama, and I couldn’t replicate it for this presentation because at this point, Barack
Obama is the President and not a relatively unknown candidate from Chicago. And so the
search was also very similar actually at this point. So, the White House website for Barack
Obama comes up in 2010, where it didn’t come up on 2008. Let’s see. Where else was I? Oh,
the features differentiating Blackbird from other browsers speak to 40A, the developer’s
concept, of embedded social networking as one definition of a community, but also the
inclusion of contents specifically layering African-American, layers a cultural definition
of community on top of the software Internet instantiation and offers a compelling visualization
of the explicit integration of ethnic and technocultural practice. 40A’s implementation
comes across as a criticism of the structural inequities of mainstream Internet content
that privileges the information needs of middle class male white Internet users, right? And
it’s not to say that other browsers are bad, but if you are of a certain ethnic persuasion,
and it doesn’t have to be ethnic. We tried Asian Girls. I’ve tried searches for able
and disabled people and the searched tend to come up kind of random. And so there’s
obviously a need for a targeted search results if you’re searching for information that is
not porn. Okay. Racial Technoculture. As the Web has matured and reached the [INDISTINCT]
of the population, its Internet active nature enables discussions about tech objects that
expose technocultural beliefs. These discussions construct or reconfigure the property’s practices
and beliefs that people bring to their understanding of technology. So, my favorite example for
my class is the Mac. When I asked my students, and these are live Internet information science
students, many of them want to be librarians. Some of them we bring to the dark side and
make them information scientists. But when I ask them, “What type of person uses a Mac?”
They were pretty unanimous in saying they were snobs; they were–they were geeks–right?
And they wanted to be hip, right? It has nothing to do with the features of the Mac whatsoever,
but that is their perception of a Mac user. Not that, “Oh, the Mac OS doesn’t crash that
often,” or, “Oh, the user interface is clean.” They don’t care about that. They had specific
ideas of people as tech users. And so in that vein, this next part of the presentation briefly
visits discussions about the design and deployment of Blackbird by people who are Internet users
on technology and cultural blogs. So to understand this discussion, I select the six web logs
as examples–four examples of how ideological and cultural factors influence technology
analysis. An operationalized online discourse–my favorite word, “operationalized,” I still
hate that word. The selected blogs have a post specifically addressing Blackbird and
comments from their audiences that consistently address the same topic. So, very few off-topic
discussions. There are approximately 500 comments total across all six blogs in this analysis.
So the two mainstream sites–and I didn’t select as many mainstream because they had
such a high volume of comments–were TechCrunch and Ars Technica, the black tech blogs are
BlackWeb 2.0 and Roney Smith. And then the general interest black blogs are AroundHarlem.com
and The Angry Black Woman. And Roney Smith and BlackWeb 2.0 represent examples of race-oriented,
technology-focused blogging emphasizing coverage of technology specifically impacting African-American
communities. They don’t limit themselves to African-American oriented tech news, but their
intent is to address the perceived lack of coverage of technology by and about African-Americans.
So–versus for Black History Month, BlackWeb 2.0 is running 28 notable diverse minorities
intact, right? Which is probably something that you won’t to see on Gizmodo. AroundHarlem.com
is a local blog. It represent–it covers cultural events interests–of interest to the black
community in New York City, and the Angry Black Woman is one of the leading online voices
for African-American blogs addressing racism in the various media. Now, the fun stuff.
Okay. So, I guess I should read the comments for you because it’s long. So, now, I’ll talk
a little bit about it. So no one–this is from–this particular quote is from TechCrunch.
“No one is going to convince me that Google is White by default unless you want to argue
that being simple, quick and useful is “white”. LOL. The thing is that from an ideal perspective
when a user logs onto the Internet they are starting from a “unified” and “unfiltered”
position and choose to navigate toward targeted content. The difference here is that someone
has developed a “tool” that controls and filters the “experience…” I love these scarecrows–“right
from the start. They’ve found a way to create a segregated experience.” So, discussions
of Blackbird, this is a relatively unproblematic example, believe it or not. Discussion on
Blackbird on a tech blog tends to focus on an ideal browser and an ideal Internet as
the information and culturally neutral space for Internet consumption that can be configured
for individual browsing preferences. These were viewers and commenters and they’re focused
on Blackbird’s cultural features and functions, hide the cultural and ideological nature of
content while–even while speculating on the utility of features for a perspective African-American
users. So, TechCrunch, the guy who revolve–reviewed Blackbird for TechCrunch is a guy named Robin
Wauters, happens to be white and European. And he mentioned Blackbird’s content based
add-ons, the video channels, the news ticker and the like, and he said, “But their addition
didn’t seem like enough of an incentive for African-Americans to download another browser.”
TechCrunch’s commenters weren’t as circumspect in their understanding of the race utility
of a browser. One said this is an argument and I’m not–I didn’t…
>>Anonymize?>>BROCK: Thank you. I didn’t anonymize the
comments so–and I can provide you a route if you’re interested, so you can go and see
the–I didn’t modify these comments in any way. So this argument summarizes mainstream
perceptions of the Internet as a neutral cultural space. And the highlights and aspect of TechCrunch
is discursive position on technology that information technologies are objective and
it’s only the intervention of certain social and cultural forces that render them as ideological
tools. JDB’s use of the word “segregated” clues us into the types of technology that
are non-normative and ideological informational tools exemplifying the interests of Black
Internet users. So this is the nice one. These are the not, not nice ones. “If Obama starts
doing all kinds of nutty stuff, will the standard search return news articles and criticism
and the Blackbird search censor such things?” And my favorite: “So it,” Blackbird, “comes
pre-loaded with links to Public Defenders, and tips on how to beat weapons charges.”
And, “If the browser, as the article states, skews results away from potentially more informative
and authoritative sources of information in favor of those that are more culture centric,
then it really is doing its users a disservice.” Now, these comments are from Ars Technica.
And the Ars Technica review was done by David Chartier, who also blogs on the Unofficial
Apple Weblog. And his review actually begins with this sentence, “The Internet may have
created a largely colorblind world web that connects users with just about any information
they could ever want.” Now, Chartier as opposed to the Wauter’s review saw the Blackbird custom
search as a positive implementation of the developers’ intentions to deliver cultural
content, but overall argued functionally that the Blackbird feature set was nothing new.
His articles restrained and it kind of reflects Ars Technica as a community of practice because
it understands Blackbird as a tool that serves a community of practice. Users who happen
to be black that want to go in the Internet, right? But the comments that follow Chartier’s
review, several of the Ars Technica audience members offer these less restrained and racialized
frameworks to describe Blackbird’s feature set. And although the last comment is less
overt than the first two, together they work to represent the spectrum of colorblind discourse
displayed on Ars Technica’s comments. The first comment is an example of deviant black
behavior–oh, I’m sorry. The second comment is an example of deviant black behavior as
a cultural touchstone for Blackbird’s intended feature sets. So, of course, only black people
have used public defenders or meet weapons charges. While the last comment employs a
rational perspective that ignores the cultural perspectives found in mainstream content and
privileges that content as being more valid and reliable than culture centric. Okay. Now,
it wasn’t all that. Like, there were–TechCrunch’s in particular, but also Ars Technica to a
lesser extent had positive racial interpretations of Blackbird’s potential. But true to the
size Ethos, the function of Ethos, they’ve remained central in the browser utilities.
So this guy says, “Blackbird isn’t about ‘walled gardens’ or ‘separatism’. It doesn’t take
you to some blacks-only internet. It doesn’t wipe your hard drive if a white person tries
to use it. It’s a product designed to appeal to the needs and wants of blacks. You can
disagree with the viability of this model, but there’s nothing wrong with the motivation.”
And so these comments focus on Blackbird’s features while skipping over the negative
stereotypes of blacks. These comments are closer to Chartier in particular, his framing
of Blackbird as a community of practice, and these sentiments are critical of the colorblind
paradigm of Internet use that earlier commenters supports. So–and this is an aside, “I am
an avid surfer of the gaming blogs and I keep in touch with TechCrunch and Ars Technica
because they’re relevant to my interest. And I find that anytime race is introduced into
a conversation or gender, that the comments quickly veer from a community of practice
thing to let me show you how masculine I can be by putting down or how mainstream I can
be by putting down other cultures.” So these are not atypical comments for a racial or
gender conversation. It just so happens that they were focused on a particular product.
And so these comments also serve to highlight another trope of colorblind ICT usage that
Blackbird’s users will be forced to segregate themselves from the rest of the Internet for
making the choice to use Blackbird. And this is something that also comes up in the Black
Box. And I’ll talk about that in a second. The technology blogs’ combination of technophilic
ethos and colorblind ideology speak to the norming of technology as a human/white discourse
of enterprise where efforts by non-whites to stake out space within the realm are [INDISTINCT].
Questions? Am I going too fast? Okay, good. Where the mainstream blogs feature comments
critical at Blackbird’s feature set in black culture, the black tech blogs critically assess
Blackbird features through their potential benefits to the black community. And so here’s
someone from the BlackWeb 2.0 website saying, “It is true that if one is very interested
in African-American perspectives on news and social issues, one has to be savvy in the
use of search engines, which do not cough up those results without good Google-fu. As
a white person with an anti-racist ideology who is interested in reading from Black perspectives,
I would have downloaded and used the browser just out of curiosity.” And so the reviewers,
Roney Smith on his own blog and Rasheen at BlackWeb 2.0, Roney Smith noted that many
African-American users access the Internet at work or school where Blackbird can’t be
installed because of administrative policies, which limits potential use and adoption. So
that’s a valid criticism and it also speaks to the possibility that–it also speaks to
the truth that many desktop PC users still have work as their primary space where they
use the Internet. And so this–because Blackbird needs to be installed and you have to participate
in those networks within the browser, many people won’t–as many people won’t use it.
Rasheen of BlackWeb 2.0 praised the video channel apparently looking for Black Girls
on YouTube is as problematic as looking for Black Girls in Google, and was encouraged
by Blackbird’s stance on philanthropy. However, he argued that Blackbird isn’t innovative
because, as Chartier said, its core function has duplicated pre-existing features that
power users could install–uninstall on their own. There was a segregation argument over
both of these–over all four of the Black Blogs. This is April from AroundHarlem.com.
April is a really experienced web user and she has a pretty decent blog empire of her
own going on. And she says, “I don’t need anyone helping me find Black content. How
is my web experience enhanced by letting Blackbird filter information through their browser?”
And so this comment represents a prominent perspective–the Black Blog segregation argument
against Blackbird. This argument is that a browser that’s dedicated to information about
black people limits access to the Internet and stifles black innovation and interest
in creating content online. Mind you, the browser does not do that. The browser allows
you to use WordPress or Blogger, it allows you to use whatever coding tools you need
to create. But their argument was that it is a segregation device. And so to support
this argument, these bloggers and commenters pointed to features that constrained their
freedom. So April’s, in terms of her Google search and the curation of the comment, her
question was, how would people–who did they pick to pick to select this content? Who are
their experts? Who are their tastemakers that decide to do this? Another one noted that
Blackbird in a way that many Mozilla installs go hijacked her default browser status. And
so it automatically took over her pre-existing settings and she was unable to–she had to
go into the registry to edit it to get it to stop doing that, which is if she wasn’t
a power user she wouldn’t have been able to figure that out. Okay. These–while making
the segregation argument though, there is something else interesting going on and that
there are articulating a perspective that complicates notions of the digital divide,
that all blacks are equally skilled in finding content conducive to their information needs
because they have to be, right? Because they have to do an additional level of filtering
for the results that they get through search engines or the like, right? And compare this
with the perceptions of black browsing activity on the mainstream blogs where criticism focused
on the cultural deficiencies of Black Internet users. So the black bloggers construct a positive
image of black community in their own spaces and also in the comments on the mainstream
blogs because April is an active commenter on TechCrunch as well even while critical
efforts made by the developers on their behalf. Okay. Wow, 30 minutes. Gee. Yes. Okay, so
conclusion. The Digital divide is insufficient to understand the information needs of minority
users. So minority users are just as diverse as mainstream users, but often labeled under
the stereotype that they can only be understood [INDISTINCT] category. The stereotype can
be particularly limiting during the design and dissemination phase of ICT artifacts as
monocultural influences may lead companies to focus on users that are most like themselves
for their most valued customers. ICTs frame and–second one. ICT frame and configure discourse.
ICTs do not operate in a vacuum. They alter time, format, ethos and tones. So if you think
the ways in which instant messaging and text message have changed the vocabulary and expectations
of feedback from your friends and family, right? Browsers do similar work for that,
right? Because in many cases, they frame that type of messaging stuff. Blogs in particular
are susceptible to this because they’re primarily browser-based and the Internet–I can’t say
that word, theory where a non-anonymity–anonymity plus lack of feedback equals people who turn
into raving butt holes. So they change the way people operate with relation to each other
and with relationship to information. Also, browsers disguise the ideological intent of
the content they serve through sheer volume. It’s one of the reasons why search engines
are so popular because they help us to make sense of the sheer amount of information that
we are faced with everyday. And there’s a reason why Google is the number one homepage
for many people and the first place they visit because that’s how you figure out where everything
else on the Internet is. Right. Search engines can contribute to the confusion though depending
upon their rank–ranking algorithms. Their results can reflect the interest of advertisers
or the aggregate interest, again, are the most profitable community to serve. Okay.
Number three: lessons for cultural design. For–in–when designing any technologic artifact,
not just the browser, ethical and ideological considerations are the target communities’
information needs is necessary. So bring in the power users, bring in the tastemakers
and the people who are the influences in a particular community as well as regular run-of-the-mill
blue collar, whatever you want to call it, people who are going to use the device occasionally
because they will all have different perspectives on how something should be used and that will
be of value. So this is contextual inquiry user–and I can’t–I forgotten all my [INDISTINCT].
Okay. So tech designs should consider the needs of a diverse set of users. For example,
for videogames, consider allowing users to configure avatars across a wide range of body
types, skin colors, hairstyles and clothing styles, for software artifacts, the diverse
focus groups. And a really good example of a software artifact that did not have a cultural
consideration is Twitter. So, recent discussions online and in the media about the blackening
of Twitter reveal that high levels of smartphone penetration in African-American neighborhoods
plus cultural discourse styles that doesn’t or signifying, whichever you prefer, lead
to a software platform and a content platform that is dominated by black cultural discourse
topics. Okay. Number three: lessons–I mean, number four: lessons for online communities.
The ethos of your site plays a large part and the type of discussions your audience
generates. So if you are an online community designer or a web blog owner who wants to
foster community in your comments, it is very much on you to decide how your community will
interact with themselves and with the wider world. Although many considered the line between
freedom of speech and uncivil discourse to be a very fine line, particularly in the west,
the reality is that the anonymity, S-unanimity of online discourse removed social innovations
against impolite discourse. And that’s something to keep in mind if you are intent on creating
feedback platforms or feedback forums where people will give you advice on how your program
should work or your artifact. Okay. So, last word. The blogs examined here were critical
of Blackbird’s feature set for a number of practical reasons, but also for a number of
shared beliefs about what information technology and what 2.0 should do. In this, they highlight
constructions of technocultural identity shaped around ICT practices and technological determinism
so the Internet makes us do certain things or allows us to do something or certain things.
But racial frames, however, also shape these technocultural identities. For information
science research it’s of particular interest that through the racial intensions of the
browser, the various respondents mediate racial identity through their understanding of information
technology and information literacy. Right. By examining how these web users interpolate
identity and technology through their western cultural–American really, cultural frame
racial affiliations, we can gain a greater understanding of how belief and ideology,
seeks information technology use implementation and design. Done. Oh. Thanks. And this is
my contact information. If you–if any of you wish to contact me, and then this paper
among with other stuff that I’ve done is at the iowa.edu–academia.edu website. Questions,
comments, criticisms?>>So what’s the status of Blackbird today?
>>BROCK: They released the Mac version in late 2009. I could not find any–and that’s
my own unsophisticated attempts. I could not find any sign of what their browser–their
share is, but it’s definitely not worthy enough of being mentioned when people are talking
about which browsers are the ones that people use the most. I’m sure it’s less than 1%,
easily. And there are no discussions of it in the black tech communities that I follow.
It’s just not there.>>So when it was released, was there it?
Any positive response or was it all…?>>BROCK: I’m like, “Ooh, black people made
a browser.” And then there were some people in TechCrunch who said, you know, perhaps
Mozilla should consider hiring these guys to do cultural design even though their user
interface was ugly, but just the intent, right? Bringing a diverse perspective to saying what
type of content would be relevant. Yes.>>So, I mean–oh, sorry.
>>I was going to ask, how much do you think the benefits for what they’re trying to get
at came from the browser itself versus, say, getting a customized experience to the search
engine because you said that, you know, Google is sort of a new gateway for a lot of people
[INDISTINCT].>>BROCK: It’s a little bit of both. Constructing
a custom search engine, although it’s hell of a lot easier now than it ever has been,
is not something that most people are going take on their own. So providing it in the
form of a browser, which people are already familiar with, gives them–gives a larger
number of people access to this type of search. As one commenter said, it does take a fair
amount of Google-fu to use the term black in anything to find stuff that is not porn-related.
I’ve had that–that experience happened to me while I was doing my dissertation, right?
And so–and I think I’m a relatively capable search engine user. And so putting it in this
particular space made it more accessible than perhaps it would have been in any other way,
any–there’s really no other challenge that could’ve used for [INDISTINCT] a search engine
in particular that people would have taken up on this in particular. Although people
are now using Twitter as a way of finding information, I’m still not convinced of the
utility of that, but that’s a discussion for another time.
>>See, I’m a librarian at heart though the filtering just makes me kind of–you know.
I’m from Korea. I’m from a country where our government is actually filtering the results.
And there’s North Korea where they’re just totally blocking the entire usage or who knows
what they’re doing there. And I don’t know because I can’t read content from, you know,
North Korean and if I go through the Korean website. And it just feels like we’re trying
to shield the users from what the Internet truly is, right? We’re trying to sort of guide
them to, you know, the safe results and the results that whoever–the group of people
who’s controlling this, things just benefiting the community, and that just makes me kind
of anxious.>>Well, I mean, how does that any different
than, you know, Google engineers deciding how the search engine links relevant results
and what is determined to be relevant?>>But you’re not considering a particular…
>>BROCK: It’s not government interface.>>Well, but, I mean, it’s the same thing
as like, you know, [INDISTINCT] making some decisions about how they’re going to link
results and what they’re going to include.>>I mean, maybe part of it is the perception
in this case. I mean, that is always going to be the first search engine you see, right?
So, it’s a question of choice where it could make it easy to choose what search engine
you want. I think Google has always said we believe that people should have a choice about
what search engine they want. We’re going to do our best to make the best one. But if
there’s something else that works better whether it’s a custom Google search engine or something
else, then it should be easy to make that, the default browser. It seems like in this
case, they made that somewhat harder. I don’t know the details, but–and, I mean, can you
change the landing page or do you always–the start page or do you always end up…?
>>BROCK: Oh, you can change it.>>Okay.
>>BROCK: You can change it. But for–I mean, for their intents and purposes that is the
one that they feel best serves the base users needs, so I can understand that. Okay, kind
of to answer your question, but also to answer yours. So, to me, the interesting thing about
your question is that there’s an implicit assumption that Internet information in and
of itself is a good, right? And so there’s a case that–in which people often use that
unfiltering information is a bad, right? Because people have–should have access to all the
information they can ever be need. And then especially when you want to bring governments
into it, then people really get kind of twitchy. But my opinion is the government is necessary
in many ways to ensure that we have a civil society. So the idea of the police, right?
Given–without police, you would have lots of cases of, say, I don’t know, domestic violence,
rape, robbery, murder because people will be people, right? But the government has decided
that it is in their interest to provide a service that allows people who are not physically
strong or necessarily financially strong, although that could be argued, to have protection
from elements who would prey on them and commit crimes against them. And in some ways, I think
the government and commercial institutions have a responsibility when serving content
to both–provide for a much more diverse set of audiences, but also to understand that
many of their users are not tech-savvy. Many people do not ever do custom searches or even
add multiple search engines to their browser toolbars, right? Most of people–I know many
people when they go to the Internet to find a specific website, they type it in the Google
box the website they want to get to and then click on that search result to get there,
right? And so there’s a lot of unsophisticated information usage. And so knowing that many
people are not technologically literate and informationally literate, and that in many
cases we allow minors to surf the Internet unsupervised, I think there is a responsibility
to provide results that are not heavily dominated by porn results. But that’s just me. I mean,
the key for me is that at least for me–for this particular exercise is that black girls
is a fairly innocuous term, but the results that you get from that term are problematic.
>>But I think it’s the same with–you know, I tried White Girls just now and a lot of
the results that you get is porn. I tried Asian girls and it’s the same. So, it’s the
problem with the content itself…>>It’s the girls.
>>…that a lot of people are generating. No, no, no. I tried black guys, too. So even
if I search with just men, I get a lot of, you know, homosexual porn. So…
>>BROCK: But is that okay?>>Well, I mean–so, I think we’re focusing
too much on the porn. So, for example, if I’m Korean and I have a website that caters
to Korean people’s need and it filters the results that I see–the results that are positive
about Korea. But I think it’s important for us to also see the other side, right? If people,
you know, there are people who hate Korea, and I want to know what their reasons are
and I want to be there so I can argue with them and sort of educate them why that’s not
true and you should, you know, consider a different kind of perspective. And I think
maybe we’re sort of missing that if we’re trying to just provide the results that are
just catering to their needs. Sometimes want we want is about what we need, right?
>>BROCK: But catering to the needs means that most people are sexual beings? Yes, I’m
not uncomfortable with that.>>I mean, this is a non-sectarian question.
But it seems like this is–if you take this to the extreme, it was like–okay, so a lot
of the reaction from this–for creating this was because there’s this cultural hegemony
of whiteness on the Internet, and so we want to provide something for black people and
allow the reaction against Blackbird was because it seemed like there is this assumption of
black hegemony of this is what black identity is on the Internet and this is the Black Internet.
And a lot of black people reacted negatively against that. And so it seems like, then you
take this to the extreme. It’s like, where are you going to go? You’re going to have
purely individualized technologies? I mean, and then how do you actually design for that?
Because what role is culture play and that kind of design context.
>>BROCK: I think–and this kind of relates to Gina’s question, too. I think the ultimate–the
end result will be search agents–individual search agents. And so you will have some software
tool that you can query and that will bring you information tailored to your needs whenever
you want it, as opposed to a general Google search box. That being said, I think something
will be lost in the translation because by focusing only on the narcissistic individual
and what his individual–his needs are, you kind of miss what the larger community does.
And so that’s why I bring the police and the government back in because somebody has to
have a compelling interest for the wider society, and individuals are not wired to necessarily
think of what the community needs. It will an abstract, but most people are not abstract
thinkers. It’s like, you know, master’s students. Oh, I’m sorry.
>>So, are there any questions from the VC before we kind of wrap up?
>>Hi. Thanks for presenting. What I’m curious about is there are more and more social efforts
and self-assembling communities, one of which is Rockmail, which is a browser that has been
similarly skin integrated with Facebook, as a particular community. But, more and more
of these all over the place. My question is how the self-assembling communities in a social
browser would contribute to or avoid the marginalization that you’re talking about today.
>>BROCK: I don’t know if they can. It’s–I mean, the discussion–the difference between
assimilation and accommodation is something that is played by minority community since
the beginning of the modern era, right? And so, I think Rockmail fits very neatly into
this–on this line between community of practice and community of interest, right? Where it’s
people who wants to use facenet–Facebook and a browser versus people who just use Facebook
to find their friends. And so this browser brings both those worlds together. But Facebook
is another one of those things which is intensely personal and in many ways operates according
to the principle of homophily, right? Where your friends will be in many ways much more
like you than they will be like other people’s friend, right? And so–and I mean, it will
allow people who have formed groups of social–of peers, social and otherwise through Facebook,
Rockmail will allow them to associate with them, but what chances to get them to interact
with the outside. And I don’t know if that’s necessarily a bad thing. I never thought that
being black would limit me from any opportunities that I would ever have. I just kind of run
into those obstacles from time to time. But that being said, I find immense value in seeing
the world from my identity perspective and I can’t help but think that people who use
Rockmail, or that people came up with Blackbird or use Blackbird, have some similar intensions,
like, there’s something positive to be said for seeing world in this way. So I don’t–does
that kind of answer your question?>>Sort of. As an engineer, I naturally think
of a browser as a component that is culturally and, you know, identity sense neutral. Now,
whether it ties in other pieces of the social interaction can stray from that neutrality
and in some sense having a browser, like, either Blackbird or Rockmail does not keep
you from getting to–does not prevent access to all channels that you might want to find,
but it does lead you–like you said, with particular in the browser and likewise was
Rockmail and its social features–it will lead you to like-minded people in a particular
channel of thinking that you might be searching for or searching around and vice versa.
>>BROCK: Okay. I agree. So, let me just try this from an engineering perspective. As an
engineer, the intent is design something that is functional and of use, right? And for software
artifacts, that functionality and use is in many ways integrated with our perceptions
of the world as information creatures, right? For more physical artifacts, those constraints
are often limited by material aspects. So geographic location, the type of materials
available, whatever. For the browser in particular, a lot of people are inclined to think because
we are information people that there should be no limits, right? But that in itself is
a cultural perspective, right? Gina pointed out earlier that the Korean government does
think that there should be limits on what type of access should be had, what type of
news should be had. I would argue the American government does the same thing. So even if
we desire that there are–that there should be no limits, there will always be cultural
and social limits imposed upon us and the browser goes a long way towards addressing
those things, but there are instances, and I call them ruptures, where we understand
through that rupture that there’s a hegemony of ways in which we should see the world and
then there are people who’ll see the world in a slightly different way. So, I’m not saying
that the browser is a bad thing. That’s never my intent. I’m just saying that–and this
is one way that we can understand that for many people, the browser does not serve their
information needs. This unlimited, unfiltered access to this wide world of information content
is in many ways prohibitive to their experience and enjoyment of the Internet. And that’s
a problem.>>Okay. Thanks.
>>BROCK: Thank you. Thank you for your question.

5 thoughts on “The Curious Case of a Black Browser: Cultural Values as a Predictor of Technology Use

  1. So waitaminute. you say blacks did all these great things, and ' african americans created science first empires on earth' (whatever the hell you meant by that), but then you want someone else, like White people, to GIVE you things so that you can be as great as you claim to be without them? Do you have any idea how confused you sound?

  2. You sound like a glorified 'enn word'. You all have the same pattern, verbatim. You start with 'you sound like a complete ignorant blah blah', then you retreat into ancient african glory myths, say 'even some uni says', mention a tv show IN CAPS as proof and claim to have built ancient Egypt. Does the pamphlet you read from have a 'street' side with "hey pa dat fowtyblunt foo, we'z egipshunz n sit, wez duh 1 bilt da pyrmdz but whitey not finna let us hab r sit so we kin mak uh cummup nukku" ?

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