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  1. 1. Walter Mosley Nathan Parham I. INTRODUCTION Black Planet and Offline Social Groupings In addition to the varying interests or hobbies of those within the black community, offline social issues also affect Black Planet members. Within the black race, as within any race, there is a wide range of diversity in thought, religion, political beliefs, and social morality. The history of oppression that blacks have experienced in America has contributed to a fragmentation in the black community based most prominently on class and gender, among other things, that have created a constellation of social groupings in the offline black community. For example, after the civil rights movement and subsequent integration, there has been a trend to move out of predominately black urban neighborhoods to predominately white suburban neighborhoods leading to a tension between the relatively new integrated black middle class and the poor urban lower class (Alkalimat & Williams, 2000). The result of the fragmentation in the black community is what West (1999) describes as nihilism or a lack of sense of self. Black Planet provides an opportunity for people with access to the Internet in these fragmented social groups to negotiate their offline black identity in America in the online environment with other black people. As one member commented, “how else can you just start randomly talking with someone.”
  2. 2. Walter Mosley Nathan Parham Black Planet as a Third Place The fact that Black Planet attracts people on the basis that they can have informal interactions with others appears to mean that offline society does not fully satisfy members’ human need for social interaction. For years, black churches and barbershops have served as social institutions in which people could meet as equals and build informal relationships with each other (Harris-Lacewell, 2001). However, although it is not clear whether there has been a decline in church attendance in black communities, Putnam (2000) presents evidence that nationwide church attendance has been on the decline for decades. Regardless, the problem could be that the church or barbershop are not truly sufficient for social interaction to begin with and too focused on carrying out a task (cutting hair or worshipping) instead of purely relaxing. Oldenburg (1989) speaks to the lack of informal public gathering places where people can gather to dialogue and experience positive social interactions free of their roles at home and at work. Third places, as Oldenburg describes them in his book The Great Good Place, are an essential part of a triumverate of personal life institutions that also includes home and work. Although many European countries still emphasize the importance of the third place, Americans have become so fascinated with their own personal lives that they no longer value the third place. The result is a society that uses the highest percentage of mental health medicines in the world (Oldenburg, 1989). Nevertheless, the human desire for informal social interaction still drives people to look for third places and in their absence, Americans have replaced the third place with a stronger desire for privacy and material possessions. Our argument is that Black Planet
  3. 3. Walter Mosley Nathan Parham may be a new type of online third place that allows people to meet, dialogue, and build important social bonds that have become lost in American society. Oldenburg characterizes the third place as having many key aspects related to the role it plays in the community, the roles people play within its boundaries, and the activities that people within the third place pursue. First of all, the third place provides a neutral ground where people can comfortably come and go as they please and not be subject to rules or social roles. Consequently, a third place is also a leveler or a place where there is no set criteria for inclusion and people have the power to choose their associates based common interests instead of just physical proximity as in work or at home. Third, enjoyable and relaxing conversation is the main activity on the third place. Fourth, a third place must be accommodating to the people that patronize it, in that there are not scheduled meeting times for conversation and people can come at times that are convenient for them. Fifth, regulars drive the activity in the third place and give the place its character. Sixth the mood of the third place is playful, setting a social norm of inclusion and entertainment, even at the expense of others. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, the third place is a home away from home in which people can come, relax, and feel as though they are among friends. Black Planet fits Oldenburg’s characterization and thus the third place is a good framework within which to understand Black Planet, although the online nature of Black Planet slightly separates it from the traditional third place.
  4. 4. Walter Mosley Nathan Parham The Online Bar Scene Just as Oldenburg used English pubs, German bier gartens and classic small town American bars to illustrate the character of the third place, we believe that Black Planet is also much like a bar scene, but an online bar scene. The main difference between the online bar of Black Planet and an offline bar, such as that depicted on the popular TV show “Cheers”, is the lack of physical presence online. Oldenburg (1989) says regulars give the atmosphere character by coming in and initiating lively conversations. However, on Black Planet, we will show that regulars not only have a lesser role in starting conversation, but also aren’t even identified as regulars by the other members of the community as a whole. As a result, each person can set their own “tempo” while interacting with the community. The lack of awareness of an individual’s participation by the community also leads to an environment where members are able to interact with each other but still maintain a level of privacy that is not possible in physical interactions, if they choose. Oldenburg (1989) explains that as a result of the lack of third places in society, Americans have retreated to their private places and place an increasingly exaggerated value on their privacy. Therefore, we will show that Black Planet provides a third place environment where people can interact on a very deep level yet maintain their privacy. We also believe that unlike other online communities where people may manufacture identities to play with, Black Planet members are more interested in meeting people based upon their real world personalities and interests although other fringe aspects of their identity may change. People also bring their online social norms of interaction with them, although they do
  5. 5. Walter Mosley Nathan Parham have to learn how to find their niche on Black Planet prior to exercising social interaction. Almost every member uses Black Planet as a source of social entertainment where they can meet people based on common interests and compatible personality traits outside of the restrictions of the physical world. In the hectic pace of the real world, two people might not immediately realize that the person walking by them is reading the same book and buying the same music without extensive conversation; an online medium such as Black Planet not only facilitates the transfer of that knowledge, but makes it much easier to make those connections. In a society in which black people sometimes feel isolated in their social environments, Black Planet becomes the one space where black people can interact with each other for fun not because they have to, but because they choose to enjoy each other’s company.
  6. 6. Walter Mosley Nathan Parham II. Company Overviewi Figure 1 In 1996, Community Connect Inc. (CCI) president and CEO Benjamin Sun, then a Merrill Lynch investment banker with a focus on technology companies, became intrigued with the idea of online communities. A second-generation Asian American, Mr. Sun particularly understood the importance of community. Combining the strong affinity that members of ethnic groups have with the connectivity of the Web seemed a winning combination. Hence, the initial seeds for Community Connect Inc. were planted. Collaborating with Mr. Sun to execute and fine-tune the vision were company co- founders Grace Chang, Mike Montero, Peter Chen and Calvin Wong. The five-person team began to architect and roll out what would be the company's first online ethnic community: CCI's approach would be to provide its site members
  7. 7. Walter Mosley Nathan Parham with tools such as free, customizable personal home pages as well as relevant news and content. Moreover, the company would build its own proprietary software. Community Connect Inc.'s launched on July 21,1997 to rave reviews from the Asian American audience it targeted. Thousands of new members registered with the site, primarily through word-of-mouth marketing. In just six months, boasted more than 30,000 members. CCI had to increase staff to handle the new site traffic and overall administration. With the popularity of, Community Connect Inc. was ready to expand its roster of online communities. They choose to target other US ethnic audiences. The African American community, a group recognized for its tremendous purchasing power and its exploding online presence was a logical next step for the company. The vision for an African American online community site came to fruition with the addition of Internet entrepreneur Omar Wasow. The company launched in September, 1999, with Mr. Wasow leading the charge as Executive Director. was built around its own dedicated site team consisting of accomplished marketing professionals, journalists and content producers - all members of the African American community being targeted. Only a few months into its launch, proceeded to take off even faster than In just eleven weeks after its launch, registered more than 60,000 members and
  8. 8. Walter Mosley Nathan Parham generated over one million daily page views. The site reached one million registered members shortly after its first year of operation. To further expand its network, CCI launched (pronounced mee-Hen-te) in October, 2000. Targeted to the growing US Latino community, would follow similar paths as and by building dedicated site teams to deliver content and online community features of relevance to US Latinos. is growing similarly to CCI's other sites, with thousands of new members registering each month. Today, Community Connect Inc. is an established developer of dedicated online communities targeted to US ethnic audiences. The company's sites, leaders in their respective categories, have received industry accolades and media recognition. The proprietary technology gives members the tools that enable them to form and engage in culturally-oriented communities. More than the content, however, the sites offer members instant communication and networking opportunities, resulting in a highly personalized and meaningful community experience. Each one of the sites has free personal pages, email, forums, news, chat, instant messaging, games, promotions and online events. Members claim that the site has become an integral part of their lives, online and offline. The New York City-based company currently has more than 100 employees.
  9. 9. Walter Mosley Nathan Parham Mission1 For the Company: To build and grow highly desirable online destinations for the exploding population of US ethnic groups For the Members: To provide our members with a safe and dynamic online destination where they can voice their opinions, interact and access a world of information and services relevant to their specific needs. Black Planet Overview Figure 2 1 These are the mission statements as written by Community Connected Inc.
  10. 10. Walter Mosley Nathan Parham is an online community for the African Diaspora. The purpose of Black Planet is to make money for its parent company, CCI. Their strategy to do this is by facilitating user-to-user interaction through information and communication technologies (ICTs). Members of enjoy free e-mail, games, forums, chat, news, instant messaging and Internet telephony, in addition to gifts, special promotions and online events. With the African American community now going online at more than double the rate of the general population, has been able to capture a large part of this market. The site currently has over 5 million registered users and about 30,000 members logged in at any given time.2,3 The site gets 4 times the number of hits as the Wall Street Journal4 and was listed as the Internet’s second most “stickiest” website, with an average user spending 34.4 minutes on the site per visit.5 2 According to a Nielson NetRatings (2001) report there are over 8.2 million African American Internet Users. According to the same report, has about 1 million unique users of which 83% are African America. The number of unique users has more than likely increased over the past 4 months because when we started observing the site claimed to have just over 4 million users. Currently there are well over 5 million users. 3 Nielsen//NetRatings: Internet ratings report for the month of August 2001 online: www.nielsen- See Figure 3 4 American Express E-Magazine (10-24-00) online: 5 Wall Street Journal, June 26, 2000
  11. 11. Walter Mosley Nathan Parham Figure 3 Technologies, Features, and Identifiers Black Planet makes use of a number of technologies to help their members interact with each other and build important online bonds. These include multiple real-time private and public chatting technologies, asynchronous communication technologies, static communication technologies, in addition to user and system-designed forums for communication. By giving people so many different options, members are certain to find a mode of communication that they are comfortable with. Individuals on Black Planet have a myriad of identifiers to choose. The only identifier that is mandatory for every member is the screen name. Other identifiers for individuals
  12. 12. Walter Mosley Nathan Parham include: email address, a web page, pictures, dating profiles (both text and voice), clubs/forum icons, chat tagline, friends list, and CCN number6. Groups also have identifiers such as chat room names, club titles and forum titles. The identifiers fall into three categories: 1) persistent; 2) modifiable; and 3) temporary. Throughout this discussion of identifiers we will note the category of identifier falls in. Screen Name The screen name is one of two persistent identifiers in Black Planet. The user chooses this universal identifier when registering. The screen name is also known as the username on Black Planet. Screen names are single words that cannot contain spaces. The screen name is left up to the imagination of the member, however it is limited to only letters, numbers, dashes (-), and/or underscores. The name must include at least three characters and cannot change. Screen names appended with an asterisk indicate that the member is currently logged in. Screen names may not include certain words that are considered offensive or derogatory. Such words include, but are not limited to: racial slurs such as honkie, nigga, nigger, or chinc; explicit language or cuss words. Additionally references to sexual organs both medical terms and slang terms (examples would include penis or “dick”) are prohibited. Although these words are restricted, the community has developed many “work-arounds” by using alternative spellings, different letter representations, or spacing using the underscore character. Examples might include: nigger → ni99er or penis → p_e_n_i_s. 6 The CCN number is a unique identifier that Black Planet will use in the future to track users and to enable anonymous gifts to that member
  13. 13. Walter Mosley Nathan Parham Webpage Profile The most important aspect of forming one’s identity on Black Planet is developing a personal webpage, which every user is given the opportunity to create (See Figure 5). The webpage is the member’s representation of self to the rest of the community. The web page is modifiable. Web pages include a range of information completely controlled by the user. There are five main parts to a web page profile: 1) text profile, 2) HTML profile, 3) picture gallery, 4) friends list, and 5) favorite links. The web page profile is a reification of the member’s identity or the personality they want to portray, both in pictures and words. The text profile (See Figure 4) includes: 1) time on Black Planet, 2) birth date, 3) home town, 4) race, 5) marital or dating status, 6) occupation, 7) job industry, 8) college, 9) graduation, 10) interests, 11) sexual orientation, 12) height, 13) weight, 14) nickname and 15) CCN. The text profile is right aligned. The HTML profile (See Figure 4 ) allows the user to display pictures and text using HTML. The HTML profile is the essence of the user’s page. Users can either use a template provided by Black Planet to create their page or use HTML to create their own unique page. The HTML profile looks like a traditional home page created in GEOcities. Users can hyperlink to other web pages. Many brokers use this feature to send participants to other sites.
  14. 14. Walter Mosley Nathan Parham The picture gallery (See Figure 6) allows the user to add as many pictures as they would like to their webpage. Most users have pictures of themselves, their family, and friends. The “friends” list (See Figure 5) is a set of hyperlinks to other Black Planet members’ web profiles. The “friends” list describes the user’s social network on Black Planet. This feature provides immediate association between one member and another. Some java scripts have been written to add friends to your list when you visit certain pages.7 Many of the Black Planet members we interviewed found these Java Scripts very intrusive. Most members constantly check their friend’s list to make sure that unwanted friends do not appear. 7 The pages that have these JavaScripts tend to be of a sexual nature. Usually written by members advertising another site. However we have found more and more members are using this feature to gain more hits on their page.
  15. 15. Walter Mosley Nathan Parham Figure 4 Text Profile HTML Profile
  16. 16. Walter Mosley Nathan Parham Favorite Links Figure 5 Friends List Picture Gallery Figure 6
  17. 17. Walter Mosley Nathan Parham Conversation as the Main Activity As Oldenburg (1989) states, conversation is the main activity of the third place and Black Planet certainly facilitates conversation with their wide range of communications technologies. “Nothing more clearly indicates a third place than that the talk there is good; that it is lively, scintillating, colorful, and engaging,” says Oldenburg. Oldenburg goes on to explain the concept of pure sociability and the fact that the third place allows all involved to speak their mind regardless of status and be heard equally. However, what makes Black Planet a bit different from Oldenburg’s description of the third place is that on Black Planet there are so many voices, that one individual’s voice can very easily be lost in the clamor of everyone else’s. Therefore, Black Planet supplements their wide array of “public” communications tools with personal and private communications tools that allow people to interact with each other in one-on-one relationships or small groups. E-mail and Notes Black Planet also provides users with personal email accounts in the “” domain. As an identifier, email addresses further link Black Planet members’ identities to the community. In addition, there is a “Notes” feature that allows members to send electronic asynchronous notes (email) only to each other. Notes have the same look and feel as e-mail messages but members cannot attach files to them. Notes separate internal communication within this community from the external communication individuals that have standard e-mail addresses.
  18. 18. Walter Mosley Nathan Parham Chat The chat feature allows members to communicate with each other in real-time about certain topics or themes. Chat rooms (See Figure 7) could have hundreds or thousands of members logged in which means members will generally use chat rooms as a way to meet new members. There are two categories of chat rooms: 1) main rooms and 2) member created rooms. Once members identify another member in a chat room they would like to communicate with they usually break off into private chat rooms. Members can create chat rooms that are private (by invitation only) and public (open and viewable to all Black Planet members). Chat rooms are normally dominated by one or two conversations and topics do not necessarily stick to the theme of the room. Members can view the most active or popular rooms as well as view the screen names of all the members in the chat room. Tagline Taglines identify chat room users. Each member can decide to use a tagline or not. The tagline is limited to 32 characters and gives users a name in addition to their screen name. Tagline Figure 7
  19. 19. Walter Mosley Nathan Parham Pager The pager feature allows members to instant message other members that are logged on. Again, it provides another level of interactivity and private aynchronous chatting that is much easier than having thousands of people in a room. This technology has been suspended from Black Planet as of April 16, 2002, due to member complaints about it being too invasive. Forums The forums (See Figure 8) are message boards provided to the users as a way to post public messages asynchronously about a variety of topics. The initial message or question for a thread of discussion is posted on the main forums page. Users can either reply to individual posts or just comment on the topic of the forum. These forums are generally used more as places to discuss current events or issues that affect members of the community rather than just “bar scene” mechanisms. Forums usually take on a “party-line”8 or a status quo regarding the forum topic. Members of the Black Planet community are able to create their own forum topic. 8 party-line describes a particular vantage point on a topic that is considered the status quo or the norm for that particular forum.
  20. 20. Walter Mosley Nathan Parham Figure 8 Find The “Find” feature (See Figure 9) is a convenient way for members to find one another. Members are able to search members that are currently online that match the specified criteria. The parameters of the search are gender, age, and location. The search retrieves all the online members that meet the criteria and ranks them first by whether they have set up their BP Dating voice mail box or not. All users that have set up their voice mail box appear first (See Figure 9) and in random order. After those members who have set up their voice mail box appears members who have not set up their voice mail box in random order. This find feature also allows members to see if their friends are currently logged in. By clicking on the “FRIENDS” panel of the find window, members can view which of their registered friends are logged into Black Planet.
  21. 21. Walter Mosley Nathan Parham In addition to the find feature, users can locate a member’s web page profile from the Black Planet Home page if they know the member’s username. The Home page also randomly selects a list of 10 - 15 members that are currently logged. This selection allows members to find other members randomly. Presence Awareness Mechanism Members can determine whether or not another member is logged in by seeing if there is an asterisk by their name. This asterisk is persistent throughout the site as long as the user is logged in.9 Members who have set up their voice mail box Figure 9 Activities/Services Black Planet makes further use of their array of communications tools by providing members with the option to participate in a range of competitive activities and rewards contests. Oldenburg (1989) states that activities can also be a major part of the practice 9 Wherever the user’s screen name appears whether it is in the forum, chat room, or on a friends list an asterisk will appear.
  22. 22. Walter Mosley Nathan Parham of conversation by encouraging some forms of conversation. “To be more precise,” says Oldenburg, “conversation is a game that mixes well with many other games according to the manner in which they are played.” Examples of this in Black Planet are the “Say What!”, “Bragging Rights” and “Battle Board” games in which members try to express themselves in the context of a game to both get points and have the opportunity to make further social connections. Black Planet facilitates the development of social networks by placing the players’ names linked to their web profile next to anything they post. In addition, on the Leaders Board, the names of the top and bottom players are linked to their web profiles. Communities can use these competitive activities to build excitement and anticipation, highlight the skills of its members, and attract audiences to one central event (Kim, 2000). Yet the most important aspect of competitive activities is that they feature the members of the community and encourage members to earn themselves a place in the spotlight. In addition, Black Planet makes use of a number of rewards systems that are unrelated to the “special talents” of members, but instead based upon other criteria such as number of logins or clicking on advertisements. By providing rewards for basic activities, Black Planet further encourages their members to be active participants in the community. Games10 10 The Games section is adapted from Comments on the games are that of the authors.
  23. 23. Walter Mosley Nathan Parham A new season of games begins every month.11 Users accumulate points for every game that they win. These points determine a member’s position on the Leaders' Board. If a member gets their name at the top of the Leaders' Board by the end of the season, they will win a prize for their skills. Ties will be broken with a random drawing. Game Points are reset to "0" at the end of the season. Say What Figure 10 Twice a week, a new picture is posted (usually submitted by members). Members have a chance to post a caption that best describes the picture. Members will then vote for the best caption. Writers of the top three captions will receive game points. As Oldenburg quoted Laurence Wylie, in his account of a game played in a small café in a French village, “The wit, humor, sarcasm, the insults, the oaths, the logic, the experimental demonstration and the ability to dramatize a situation gave the game its essential interest.”12 Say What brings all of those concepts together thus creating a “full-fledged and spirited social…event” (Oldenburg, 1989). 11 This is information published by Black Planet. It has been our experience that the seasons last longer than a month and the points are not reset faithfully. The games section, in particular is the least managed portion of Black Planet. 12 Laurence Wylie, Village in the Vauclause (New York: Harper & Row, 1957), Chapter 11. Taken from, Oldenburg, The Great Good Place, Chapter 2.
  24. 24. Walter Mosley Nathan Parham Figure 10 Trivia Challenge Each week, Black Planet posts 15 trivia questions of a specific theme. The themes range from Black history to health to sports. The more questions that a member answers correctly, the more points they get. The difficulty of the questions vary from easy to hard. Members can only answer the trivia questions once a week. Black Jack The Black Jack game (See Figure 11) has the same rules as the casino. Members can bet up to 100 points. The interface is pretty easy to use and you can watch the totals of other members playing at the same time.
  25. 25. Walter Mosley Nathan Parham Figure 11 Battle Board Black Planet members come and write poetry or post rhymes. Users are pitted against each other. The way members when points in this game are to win a “battle.” The winner is ultimately decided by the members. Members are voted on by other members based on who has the best rhyme or poetry. Bragging Rights Users come to this web board (See Figure 12) and continue in the African slave tradition of “signifying.” Members talk about the competition in the Battle Board and brag about the skills each other does or does not have. The competition is pretty fierce and members are not very cordial with each other.
  26. 26. Walter Mosley Nathan Parham Figure 12 Game Point System Each Trivia Challenge question you answer correctly will earn you 30 points. The total score you can receive playing Trivia Challenge each week is 450 points. When competing in Say What, the top 3 submissions for the week will receive 450, 350, and 200 points respectively. Players are not awarded points for voting. In Black Jack, if you win, you get the points you bet (max:100). Users can check the status of the game competition by using the game ladder (See Figure 10). The ladder features both the best and the worst contestants.
  27. 27. Walter Mosley Nathan Parham Boondocks The Boondocks cartoon strip (See Figure 13) is available daily. The comic strip is advertised on the front page and seems to be a more popular attraction of the site.13 Boondocks is popular because it is a comic that illustrates the black experience in America through the thoughts and actions of politically aware children. It is one of the only black comic strips run nationwide and thus one of very few representations of the black experience in America in the mainstream media. It is therefore very appropriate that Boondocks should appear on Black Planet. Figure 13 Events Calendar Members can subscribe14 to post events (See Figure 14) to the events calendar. An event is anything from a party to a hair show or a conference. There are also job posting on the event calendar. The calendar is organized by both category and state. 13 The comic strip is supposed to be posted Monday thru Friday, but sometimes it is not available. On average the comic strip is posted 4 times a week. 14 A subscription fee is charged to be able to post events to the Black Planet community calendar. Members and non-members can purchase a subscription.
  28. 28. Walter Mosley Nathan Parham Figure 14 Channels Black Planet has a number of channels including books, BP Times (news about BP members), education, careers, families & homes (Food, recipes, decorating and parenting from a black point of view), heritage & culture, money & finance, movies & TV, news & politics, music, religion, small business, sports, style & beauty (latest in fashion), technology, and women. Channels consist of articles, advertisements, polls, forum topics, and special features. The news channel in particular has editorial columns by Clarence Page and Armstrong Williams. This channel also includes a reprint of a TIME magazine article reflecting Black history.ii The career channel has job postings and recommendations on how to start your own business.
  29. 29. Walter Mosley Nathan Parham BP Dating Black Planet Dating is a community tool designed for creating individual bonds between community members in the context of both homosexual and heterosexual relationships. It uses an automated matching system to connect people with others they would be interested in based on a profile they enter in the “BP Dating” area of the website. Users fill out a Dating Profile that will help identify the kind of people that a member would be interested in. This profile includes the basic qualities considered important in a person of the same or opposite sex, an essay, and a photo. This profile can also include a voice mailbox which a member can tell someone about them in their own voice. BP Dating has a 900 number for users to hear each other member’s voices. Text and voice dating profiles are both modifiable. The text profile allows users to identify the qualities they are looking for in someone. These qualities range from finances, to height, to education, to geographic location, to sexual orientation, to age, etc. The users can write essays that describe him or her as well as rate which qualities are most and/or least important. A dating profile is a reification of how you feel about dating and what you would like in a “mate”. In this way, the profile is a reification of flirting or also a reification of the user’s perspective of dating and their desires in which they want everyone else to understand. Voice Dating allows users to call into a 900 hot line to listen and leave messages for Black Planet members. Users can check their messages once every 24 hours, which is
  30. 30. Walter Mosley Nathan Parham free of charge. Checking voice dating more than once a day will cost the user the normal 900-hotline rate. This service also allows users to keep their anonymity and communicate with their voice as a substitute to communication via chat rooms and email through the Direct Connect feature. What this does is allow the user to leave a number where another member can reach them at and talk live. The calling member will never know the user’s actual number. The Direct Connect feature will call the user’s phone and notify them that another member wants to talk live. Direct Connect will play the 10-second greeting and the user can either accept or refuse the call. If accepted, the caller will be connected. The caller pays for the 900-hotline call. There are three basic ways to find people in BP Dating:  Premium Search- find the members you're most interested in  Basic Search - check out Profiles in any state  Hot List - rate and save Profiles that catch your eye Any users who have a dating profile can see a picture of the people they are being matched up with. You can vote the person up or down based on their picture, however these votes are only personal rankings that are used to organize one’s own “Hot List” of other members’ dating profiles. In order to do more than look, you have to pay the subscription cost (See ) to become a BP Dating Subscriber with prices ranging from $19.95 per month to $99.95 per month. This will allow you to contact your matches.
  31. 31. Walter Mosley Nathan Parham Dater of the Week As an extra benefit to subscribing to BP Dating, members become eligible to be the “Dater of the Week”. The Dater of the Week award does not have any particular criteria except that the “winner” must subscribe to BP Dating. The reward is simple yet effective – the Dater of the Week gets their picture posted on the BP Dating main page for a week. The advantage of this reward system is that everybody who comes to the BP Dating area of Black Planet will immediately see the winner’s picture and a short quote from their
  32. 32. Walter Mosley Nathan Parham bio. The incentive for subscribing and having a chance at being “Dater of the Week” is that everybody can see your picture. This particular reward does not necessarily reward the skill of members, but it creates incentive to subscribe to Black Planet. Additionally the picture of another member on the BP main page adds a personal feeling to the area and lets users know that there are other average people who also use the service. Gift Center The Gift Center lets you buy gifts while only exchanging member names. No real names or addresses are ever seen. You can buy candy, flowers, teddy bears, sweets, and much more. This allows members using BP Dating or just participating in the Black Planet community to distinguish themselves from the rest of the pursuers. When a member’s birthday is approaching, Black Planet will send a note to everyone who has that particular member registered as a friend a reminder that the member’s birthday is approaching and that the gift center is available to purchase gifts for that member. This further supports the fact that Black Planet tries to make connections between one’s online BP experience and their offline life – gifts are tangible items in the real world an online friend is able to send you.
  33. 33. Walter Mosley Nathan Parham Member of the Week Unlike “Dater of the Week” the “Member of the Week” is based on an ephemeral reputation system. Members can win the award by receiving votes from other members. Member’s voting power is determined by the number of member points they have at the time they are attempting to vote. The result of the whole process is that members are encouraged not only to login to the system frequently, but also to become active members of the community. Member points are accumulated by visiting sponsors, getting hits on your Personal Page, making friends, and making referrals. This member points system is Black Planet’s online loyalty system that was created to reward members for coming to the site and participating in promotions and special offers. In addition, five member points can be accumulated by referring other people to become members of Black Planet or by a member being saved by another member as a friend on their site. After accumulating points, members are allowed to vote for “Member of the Week”. The Member of the Week has to be considered an active member of and contributor to the community. In addition, Black Planet looks for those who have a unique message, describe interesting accomplishments, and are helpful to other members. Each week the Black Planet staff picks the Member of the Week from the Top 25 vote- getters. To be on the Top 25 list members must make sure the design of the web page is well done, the banner ad at the top of the member page is not blocked or hidden, the
  34. 34. Walter Mosley Nathan Parham "Sign Guestbook" and/or "Forums" button at the top of the member’s page is not blocked or hidden, the page obeys Black Planet’s Terms of Service., the member’s screen name is offensive,15 and that the member’s page has not identified as fraudulent or containing code that alters voting. Each “Member of the Week” vote costs 25 member points. Therefore, each member is allowed to vote as many times as they wish until they have less than 25 member points. Since the winner can only vote once and the typical winner gets 1000-5000 votes, the mechanism Black Planet has in place makes it very difficult for someone to rig the voting process and cheat (unless they have multiple identities). Therefore, this “Member of the Week” process is another way to encourage members to interact with each other so they can gain the support of other community members.iii The key to winning is being judged by the staff at Black Planet to be a community leader and participator. The reward one receives for being “Member of the Week” is that the member’s picture is on the Black Planet home page gaining the member more hits and more people bookmarking their site as “friends”. In addition, by putting a quote next to their picture, this feature allows members to “talk” to the entire group at one time. Therefore, “Member of the Week” not only rewards the individual winner, but also the entire community is introduced to someone else on the Black Planet network. 15 This criteria is judged by Black Planet staff.
  35. 35. Walter Mosley Nathan Parham Black Planet Rewards Black Planet also allows members to redeem their member points for various prizes. Therefore, even if a member accumulates a lot of points and chooses to never vote for “Member of the Week” they can trade-in points for prizes ranging from CDs from the Black Planet open-mic contest to Black Planet caps or briefcases. Those that redeem member points for prizes with the Black Planet logo on them not only advertise Black Planet in their daily face-to-face interactions, but the prizes are also a badge of group identity that Black Planet members can show the world. Contests Black Planet also has competitions that are based on members’ offline skills such as writing or musical talents. For example, the “Black Heavy Rotation CD” is a compilation of the Heavy Rotation Open Mic contest finalists with the winner getting their picture and profile displayed on the website. Using members’ real world talents to showcase them on the site further develops their identity within the community or at least within certain sub-groups of the community (for example, only those interested in music or poetry may know about the Open Mic contest). Contests are yet another example of ways in which Black Planet encourages members to bring their offline identity into the online community and make connections based on offline talents. The contests on Black Planet are an excellent way for members to get involved in the community by using existing talents. The contests integrate members’ existing talents
  36. 36. Walter Mosley Nathan Parham into the community and recognize them. This recognition further increases incentives to get involved and gives people motivation to express themselves in the online community. Conversation is essential to the construction of an effective third place because third places may be the only venue in a society where people can freely express their opinions on level ground without status necessarily affecting the validity of their opinions. Third places are for some people the only place where they can experience pure sociability thus making it unique and attractive for people to come to. “If conversation is not just the main attraction, but the sine qua non of the third place it must be better there and indeed it is,” says Oldenburg (1989). With the combination of opportunities to interact one-on-one, in small groups, large groups such as forums, or through the competitive context of a game, Black Planet does offer modes of conversation with other black people that are not likely to be available offline, especially for those in academia or the corporate world. Therefore, the chance to interact with a wide range of black people, male or female, is part of what makes the conversation on Black Planet unique from members’ first or second places.
  37. 37. Walter Mosley Nathan Parham III. Black Planet Community Neutral Ground As Oldenburg (1989) describes the informal public spaces as a necessary aspect of human social interaction that has been absent from American society, the draw of Black Planet is that it provides members with a neutral ground on which to come and interact without the restrictions of the physical world. Although some people only look for friends that are good looking, even those on Black Planet that are not seen as “beautiful” by society’s standards can make friends on Black Planet based on interests. Therefore, people are able to make friends and interact with others on their own terms in this neutral space instead of by the terms of society that may restrict them, such as physical appearance. “First impressions in real life can doom a relationship, because people will often judge on looks first. BP gives you a chance to meet someone without seeing them, and prove to them there worth through intelligence.” (Personal correspondence, Apr. 18, 2002) Black Planet creates neutral ground on which to interact by taking away the “dooming” effect of face-to-face first impressions and giving people a certain chance based on common interests. This makes for more informal online interactions that may be more intimate than superficial interactions based upon physical appearance. For people who have trouble making friends offline, Black Planet is a place they can be comfortable on their own terms.
  38. 38. Walter Mosley Nathan Parham In order for the city and its neighborhoods to offer the rich and varied association that is their promise and their potential, there must be some neutral ground upon which people may gather. There must be places where individuals may come and go as they please, in which none are required to play host, and in which all feel at home and comfortable… Where neutral ground is available it makes possible far more informal, even intimate, relations among people than could be entertained in the home. (Oldenburg, 1989) Another important aspect of the neutral ground on Black Planet that is important to the formation of neutral ground is that members can interact very intimately with each other based on interests, but also maintain space between themselves and their friends. The approach of ElegantThoughts demonstrates this need for space and ability to negotiate space. Tired of male members approaching her in ways that she felt were inappropriate, she decided to change the way she interacts with the community by putting up more barriers. That involved taking down her picture and providing less information about herself. On her profile she states, “If you truly want to know more me about, send me a note or sign my guestbook.” (elegantthoughts web profile, 2002) By providing this protection from others that she doesn’t want to socialize with, she makes her experience on Black Planet more comfortable. “One of the reasons I don’t elaborate about myself on my web page is because I’m trying to weed out perverts and idiots who have in the past sent me messages (that) I felt insult my intelligence,” she said. Elegantthoughts has realized that the members who are really interested in her will attempt to learn more about her by communicating with her instead of just making sexual advances at her. In her opinion, this creates more intimate interactions based upon her interests instead of her sexual value as determined by other members.
  39. 39. Walter Mosley Nathan Parham The power to negotiate one’s own experience on BP is what makes it an ideal neutral ground on which people can interact on the level at which they are comfortable. Wenger (1998) identifies the power to negotiate how on interacts with others as an essential part to forming one’s identity online. Oldenburg also speaks to how the negotiability of power to interact with other is essential to acquiring friends in the third place. “The individual may have many friends, a rich variety among them, and opportunity to engage many of them daily only if people do not get uncomfortably tangled in one another’s lives.” (Oldenburg, 1989) Oldenburg continues by using a quote from sociologist Richard Sennett. “People can be sociable only when they have some protection from each other.” Elegantthoughts learned to set her level of protection by limiting the amount of information she provides and thus socializing only with those she believes are quality people. The other half of identity formation as outlined by Wenger is the power of identification of one’s relationship to others. Elegantthoughts has chosen to identify herself as a Black Planet member who is no longer interested in dealing with the sexual overtones of the community. “Identification is one half of (identity formation), providing experiences and materials for building identities through an investment of the self in relations of association and differentiation,” states Wenger (1998). Elegantthoughts is therefore displaying the power of Black Planet members to build their image of self and invest an appropriate amount of herself in order to associate with others and differentiate herself from others.
  40. 40. Walter Mosley Nathan Parham The lack of third places in American society makes Black Planet an appealing substitute because people have the power to negotiate their interactions with others by shaping their profile in ways that attract those they really want to socialize with. As a result, members are able to feel comfortable while having informal and intimate interactions with others based on the aspects of their identity that they want to highlight. A CONSTELLATION OF PRACTICES BP does not simply provide a heterogeneous type of community in which all are the same or all act the same. The size of the community and the diversity of offline social groups translated into the online atmosphere results in a constellation of practices that are a grouping of interconnected communities of practice. In this case, we will argue that the communities of practice are based on offline social practices moreso than communities of practice developed online. However, despite the presence of offline social values and practices online we will also prove that there are still a number of behaviors, practices and activities tat are developed as a result of the Black Planet experience. Although there are multiple different groups that interact with each other, there are elements of Wenger’s concepts of mutual engagement, joint enterprise, and shared repertoire that hold the constellation of practices together (Wenger, 1998). Although these elements of a community of practice manifest themselves more broadly on Black Planet than as originally defined by Wenger, they still apply. Mutual engagement is the activities that members engage in together that can be negotiated with one another. Joint enterprise is loosely defined as the goals or jointly negotiated outcomes of members’
  41. 41. Walter Mosley Nathan Parham mutual engagement. Lastly, shared repertoire is the collection of resources developed during the course of extended mutual engagement that allows the group to negotiate meaning with each other. What follows is a description of exactly how Black Planet reflects Wenger’s concepts of a community of practice. Mutual Engagement On Black Planet, mutual engagement is enabled as people place descriptions, or reifications (Wenger, 1998), of their offline identity on their web profile to present to the rest of the community. This allows people to interact with other and attract each other by highlighting aspects of their personality that they believe might attract the people they want. Profiles include a number of identifiers that provide as much or as little information as an individual wants to provide. Many black planet members have indicated through interviews and in forum postings that they enjoy just looking at pages even if they do not actually contact other members. Once members do decide to contact one another, they will usually use some aspect of their web profile as an ice-breaker or conversation piece. Quiet-Riot says that she things the web profiles give people more to talk about when they initially contact other members thus eliminating many of the bad approaches that she experiences in the real world. Instead of a guy just complimenting a woman on her physical appearance, they will compliment her on her choice of books or favorite movie. Therefore, web profiles play a major role in enabling interaction between members.
  42. 42. Walter Mosley Nathan Parham The other aspect of enabling mutual engagement is the technology people use to contact each other. Black Planet provides a note sending system, email, chat rooms, forums, a guestbook on the member profile page, and clubs as ways for members to get in touch with those they would like to interact with. The interesting thing is that all of these one- on-one interaction tools are asynchronous and Black Planet recently eliminated the only synchronous one on one communication tool, the pager, citing complaints that it was too invasive. The elimination of the pager system seems to point to a desire by members to protect themselves from each other, which Oldenburg (1989) listed as an important factor in developing a comfortable atmosphere in the third place. The diversity of Black Planet members in terms of race, age, and location also contributes to mutual engagement by giving people an opportunity to form complementary connections, which is the process of acquiring knowledge about other groups that adds to existing knowledge (Wenger, 1989). Each person’s different perspective becomes a resource that adds to the quality of engagement in the community. Although people may not exercise the power of voice on Black Planet specifically to educate others, by expressing their opinions in a public space such as their profile, they are providing others with the opportunity to learn. “I think it is for entertainment but also for education, there are places on BP where you can learn a lot, even from members who decide to use their page for purposes other than getting a date,” she said. The outcome of mutual engagement is mutual relationships in which people interact on a deeper level than just superficial physical features or social categories (Wenger, 1989).
  43. 43. Walter Mosley Nathan Parham On Black Planet, the relationships evolves from the practice of members searching for other members’ profiles and contacting each other. In some cases, on Black Planet, conflict within forums can attract members to one another. “Disagreement, challenges, and competition can all be forms of participation,” says Wenger (1989). Black Planet makes full use of this type of participation by making it easy to click on the profile of any member who posts a message. However, members also participate in positive ways. Quiet-Riot uses a poetry forum to post her poetry, have her writing critiqued, and critique others’ poetry. If she sees a poem she likes, she might contact the author and that contact as a result of the poetry forum might initiate a new relationship. In addition, even those who do not post poetry are able to contact members whose poems they enjoy just by visiting the forum. Quiet-Riot does not consider herself as a member of a poetry community, but she does see Black Planet’s poetry area as another enabler with which to meet others. Again, since the practice of the community is to socialize and meet one another, Black Planet facilitates that practice by allowing people to easily express opinions and allow others to respond to those, either individually or in a group forum. Joint Enterprise All of the members we spoke to agree on the joint enterprise of Black Planet: the goal is to form relationships with others based on common goals, beliefs, or interests. In the forum “Why the Heck Are We Here – On BP That Is?” the overwhelming majority of the 1,592 posts since 1999 stated that the desire to make friends or the knowledge that other friends were already online motivated them to join. Since the entire community
  44. 44. Walter Mosley Nathan Parham understands that, whether they like it or not, they are able to negotiate their identity within the community such that they only interact with those they want to interact with. Elegantthoughts illustrates the knowledge of what the goal of the community is. Although she was annoyed with the way guys were approaching her, she decided to remain a part of the community instead of leaving because she understood that some people may want to interact that way in order to make their relationships. “I believe everyone has a right to be in touch with their sexual side, but I believe there is a time and place for everything,” she said. Since she does not agree with the way those people interact, she chooses not to interact with them instead of reporting them. The indigenous enterprise of Black Planet, or greater social frameworks in which the community exists, is that of the black experience in America. In America, blacks are in the minority particularly in higher education and work environments, places that Oldenburg (1989) describes as second places. Black Planet provides an environment for black people to meet other black people that they may never come across in their daily lives. In addition, Black Planet facilitates communication and negotiation of meaning of the black experience in American society. The offline black social experience greatly affects conversation and interaction on Black Planet. People respond to offline social experiences or dilemmas in forums and chat rooms, whether it is formally mandated by the community or not.
  45. 45. Walter Mosley Nathan Parham For example, the hottest topic in the education forum section is “Historically Black Institution vs. Predominately White Institution”. The member who initially created the forum explained her offline situation as the basis for her concern. As a prospective May 2000 graduate from a predominately white institution(The University of Southern Mississippi) i am often frowned upon by some of my African American brothers and sisters for attending a "white school". Why is that? By posting this forum on Black Planet, she was able to immediately gather the opinions from people who agreed and disagreed with her and thus she had the opportunity herself to negotiate a piece of her own identity. Although some forums degenerate into places where people do nothing but attack each other for fun, this forum is an example of where the founding member and others in her situation were able to negotiate their own identity conflicts. Shared Repertoire Since many members will use offline behaviors on Black Planet, the shared repertoire of Black Planet is related to routines, ways of doing things, and tools moreso than specialized language or manners. For example, waltermosley had to learn that the “G- Spot” is the guestbook on the member pages, which is a label for a tool of communication. It is not uncommon to see members complain if people visit their page and do not sign the guestbook. The guestbook has thus become part of the shared repertoire of how to interact with each other. In addition, members have to learn that different members like interacting in different ways. Before the disabling of the pager feature, some members had specific preferences about usage of the pager and it was
  46. 46. Walter Mosley Nathan Parham understood that the pager was a communication tool that should be used only to contact friends or people you know. Once people use these tools, they tend to use their own slang based on their offline vocabularies. As a result, there is not a shared repertoire of conversational language. However, some white members try to display their ability to use that offline shared repertoire on their profiles in order to gain acceptance in the community, which we will address later. For other white members, coming to Black Planet is acquiring the offline shared repertoire of language since they do not commonly use that type of language offline. Therefore, to someone who is not a member of the black community offline could interpret the language used on Black Planet as its own shared repertoire. This duality of the shared repertoire on Black Planet further illustrates the fact that it is a constellation of offline social practices and one large community. Another aspect of the shared repertoire is that members tend not to spend time reporting others. waltermosley initially reported the profiles of members that he felt were inappropriate. However, as he used the site more he was a bit more relaxed about reporting negative profiles because as Quiet-Riot put it, “The violations add to the entertainment.” Given that the goal of the community is to meet others with common interests, it is essential that everybody be allowed to express themselves in whatever way they deem best to attract other people.
  47. 47. Walter Mosley Nathan Parham Understanding of the shared repertoire can only be obtained through mutual engagement with other members of the community. For example, had waltermosley not participated frequently in the community, he may have never learned that the “G-Spot” means the guestbook. Therefore, it is through mutual engagement that one learns the shared repertoire. BLACK PLANET AS A LEVELER Oldenburg (1989) defines a leveler as a place that is inclusive and allows people interact as equals. A place that is a leveler is, by its nature, an inclusive place. It is accessible to the general public and does not set formal criteria of membership and exclusion…they serve to expand possibilities whereas formal associations tend to narrow and restrict them. (Oldenburg, 1989) Black Planet does act as a leveler because although there is definitely an emphasis on black issues on the website, anybody can interact as long as they have a common interest with other people on the site. On Black Planet, as Oldenburg says about leveling places, it’s the “charm and flavor of one’s personality…that counts.” Black Planet gives members the opportunity to highlight their personality through their web pages and that is the leveling influence of Black Planet. BP allows members to interact based on their interests in ways that real world identifiers may preclude them from doing. For example, satjj is interested in movies but too shy to discuss the depth of their knowledge with others in person but she is able to emphasize that part of their identity on Black Planet. Although she admits to being shy and did not
  48. 48. Walter Mosley Nathan Parham want to have a flashy page that would attract a lot of friends, she still used Black Planet as a means by which to express her opinions. By expressing her opinions on Black Planet when she may not have anywhere else, her offline shyness is no longer impeding her and thus the shy aspect of her identity that would be dominant offline is only secondary online. Therefore, BP acted as a leveler that enabled satjj to have a forum in which to break down the barrier of shyness and express herself to others although nothing about her fundamental personality offline changed. Oldenburg states that a place that acts as a leveler allows people to know each other on a different and fuller level. For satjj, Black Planet allows people to gain fuller access into her thoughts and overcome her shyness. Identity Formation on Black Planet The process of identity formation and inter-group relations is especially interesting on Black Planet because of the wide variety of offline social groupings that are translated into members’ online identities. The barriers to entry for actually creating an identity for oneself on Black Planet are rather low, although actually engaging in the community may be a little more difficult. MikeMose2000 wanted an identity that would impress women. His page was created with a background of expensive things. His text profile was “embellished” in terms of his income but most other information was accurate he says. The pictures he placed on
  49. 49. Walter Mosley Nathan Parham his web page profile indicated he owned a lot of material items and “things women would get impressed with.” (See figure 16) (Figure 16: User MikeMose2000 with 4 cell phones, Michael Jordan gym shoes, Prada Jeans, Armani Head Gear, diamond filled Cross, diamond Ring, gold chain) The identity the user MikeMose2000 was trying to create was one of money and good times. This identity helped him become successful in the Black Planet bar scene. Identity was superficially created with the text profile item of income and staged pictures. Identity Deception Members may create false identities for a number of reasons, but the primary result seems to be harm to some other individual for personal gain (Donath, 1996). Harm can come in the form of discovering information that was not meant to be discovered or using falsified online identifiers to build a relationship with someone who might not pay attention to one given their offline identifiers. However, on Black Planet just as many of
  50. 50. Walter Mosley Nathan Parham the activities are deeply rooted in offline social activities, identity deception also appears to complement offline social activities. User MikeMose2000 also created false identities in the virtual world to help him in his physical world. MikeMose2000 met his current girlfriend, AsianIsland on Black Planet. Since they are from the same area they have a lot of friends in common. When AsianIsland asked her friends and classmates about MikeMose2000, she found out that he was a “player.” MikeMose2000 defined a “player” as a person that dates a lot of different people at the same time. Also that person may or may not be truthful about their dating situation. To combat the reputation MikeMose2000 had in the physical world he created a female Black Planet identity. MikeMose2000 found pictures on Black Planet of a very attractive young lady. He stole those pictures and used them for creating a new identity. This user, an attractive woman, contacted AsianIsland claiming that she knew MikeMose2000. She how much she like MikeMose2000 but he was no longer giving her the time of day because of his new girlfriend. AsianIsland and MikeMose2000’s made up female user exchanged notes for about two weeks. AsianIsland was convinced of MikeMose2000’s faithfulness to their relationship and was even turned on by the fact that such an attractive women was interested in her boyfriend.
  51. 51. Walter Mosley Nathan Parham MikeMose2000 has also created identities on Black Planet to play practical jokes on his friends. With the same female identity he tested how far one of his male friends would go in a pursuit of a woman he met online. MikeMose2000 has successfully tricked 3 of his friends on Black Planet. These practical jokes included having his friend drive 45 minutes up to MikeMose2000’s college only to figure out that MikeMose2000 was the woman and wanted a ride back to his parent’s home. Another example of using Black Planet to deceive an offline friend is that of a Spellman College student, Christina, who created a false identity to ask about a friend’s sexual orientation pseudo-anonymously. Knowing that her friend used Black Planet a lot, Christina created the identity of a gay male, LudaLuva96, on Black Planet. Christina use LudaLuva96 to make advances at her friend trying to prove that he was gay. The friend ended up not only divulging to LudaLuva96 that he was not gay, but also that he held feelings for her. Clearly, Christina could never have discovered any of this information with her offline identity as a female friend and so afterwards she was quite happy that she had discovered her friend’s secret (Personal correspondence, April 13, 2002). One difficult aspect of this identity deception is regulating it because the cost of determining whether a new member has created a false identity without doing a full background check on each user are quite high for a community of millions. Ludaluva’s profile even used a picture from another Black Planet member’s page, which one would
  52. 52. Walter Mosley Nathan Parham think is a dead give away. However, neither Black Planet nor Ludaluva’s friend ever discovered that it was a false identity. The impracticality of checking for false identities combined with the opportunity to overcome offline barriers to discussion are what make the cost of creating false identities on Black Planet relatively low. Therefore Black Planet is actually a perfect medium of deception. As one member put it, "How else can just start randomly talking to someone (about a personal issue)?" (Personal correspondence, April 13, 2002) Race on Black Planet Since the Civil Rights movement, there has always been a division within the black community about how blacks should interact with society in order to achieve a common goal of equality. During the civil rights movement, the Black Panthers, NAACP, and Nation of Islam all had different ideas of how to achieve equality and similar ideological division within the Black Community exists today. Therefore, the large racial group of “black people” contains many different subgroups of thought. Black Planet provides a forum for all these subgroups to meet in one place and experience what we will call “internal boundary connections” where the boundary lines drawn within the group are crossed. The presence of white members also creates opportunities for boundary connections across racial boundaries. These boundary connections are normally made in forum threads. An example of negotiating the identity of the larger racial group between racial subgroups is in the forum titled: “How do you feel when you see a African American
  53. 53. Walter Mosley Nathan Parham man with a White woman? Do you feel as though that brother should be with a African American woman? Let`s be real honest.” This forum topic, although having a very specific focus, ended up bringing to the forefront many different perspectives on what it means to be black and what the accepted norms of belonging to the group are. Many subgroups of the larger black race came together in order to negotiate these norms and add their perspectives and meaning of what it is to identify oneself as part of the group. The subgroups in this case were in some cases racial (mixed race or non-americans of African-descent) but in many cases the subgroups were just informal ideological groupings that all held different perspectives on what they thought it meant to belong to the greater group. In this forum the different groups could be loosely classified as those who date all races, those who date exclusively inter-racially, those who don’t but are sympathetic to those who do, and those who disagree with inter-racial dating entirely. Though these are not formal groups that people would use to identify themselves with most likely, they are ideological groupings that people sided with throughout the course of this forum thread. Inter-racial relations For white members, the leveling process may be a bit more difficult, but that depends on one’s attitude toward race. Most white members on Black Planet are there because they also want to socialize with people interested in black culture or black people themselves. However, what they encounter is people questioning their motives for being Black Planet members.
  54. 54. Walter Mosley Nathan Parham An example of how white people interact with the community is best illustrated by observing how they try to overcome the racial barriers of entry on their profile pages. Some white members not only try to show an understanding of the shared repertoire in the community, but go further by challenging those who might not accept them in the community by challenging the identity of the group as a whole. “For those of you who ask why white folks are on BlackPlanet, and claim that it is "your" site, you need to go back and read BP`s "Who We Are" statement. It reads, "Anyone with a respectful interest in African- American culture can join and enjoy" ” (LuvMdark member profile, 1/18/02) By showing an understanding of the mission statement and using the mission statement of the community to challenge others’ notions of identity on Black Planet, LuvMdark has made an argument for her existence in the community and self-identified herself as someone “with a respectful interest in African-American culture”. The mission statement provided this member of another racial group with common ground to try to get around the racial barriers to entry. LuvMDark then used her understanding of the underlying ideology to create an identity instead of using a picture. However, InDEEPendent has a different attitude about those who challenge her membership on Black Planet. She just discounts that as ignorance and instead of lashing back, she asks those that challenge her why they’re members. On her page, she addresses the way other white members interact in the community. “I`ve seen so many white girls on BP that for some reason have to call attention to their "whiteness" through their screen name. Yes, I`m white, too, but I felt that my name should reflect WHO I am and not WHAT I
  55. 55. Walter Mosley Nathan Parham am. All too often in this society we define ourselves by our race, and I personally don`t understand it. If you don`t feel me on this one, that`s fine. I`m just expressing my opinion.” (InDEEPendent member profile, May 11, 2001) Her attitude is that since she is also on Black Planet to socialize, she shouldn’t have to prove herself to the community. Instead, she interacts with those who want to interact with her and ignore those who ask her why she is a member of Black Planet. She uses a picture and thinks that there is no point in hiding it because she knows she is white and if people don’t accept that part of her identity, then she does not have to associate with them. However, she also admits that she grew up in a black neighborhood and has mostly black friends offline, so maybe a combination of her attitude and background make it easier for her to ignore the barriers. Nevertheless, InDEEPendent claims that she’s never received a negative note other than those asking why she’s on Black Planet, which she does not even see as negative. Since she never uses the forums, she has not seen any of the negative comments on the forums. Despite some members questioning their presence on Black Planet, white members are able to meet and make friends just as black members are. However, whether perceived as negative or not, they still have to go through some kind of proving period in order to be accepted. InDEEPendent proves herself just by being herself and stating that race should not matter, whereas LuvMdark proves herself in a more defensive manner using the mission statement to justify her existence. In addition, looking at LuvMdark’s identifier
  56. 56. Walter Mosley Nathan Parham shows that she is trying to express a love for black people whereas InDEEPendent stresses her perceived independence from race. However, what both members are doing is immediately addressing their race in some manner on their web profile in order to justify their interaction on Black Planet, whether the justification is based upon believing that it they are entitled to be or that the mission statement “allows” it. The use of the web profile enabled them to overcome a racial barrier, even if it did not fully disappear; that profile allows people to relate to them on a level beyond race with those that are willing to do so. “They are accepted just for themselves and on terms not subject to the vicissitudes of political or economic life,” states Oldenburg (1989) about the leveling process in third places. However, it is also important to note that members on Black Planet may not be accepted by the entire community based on physical appearance, political beliefs, sexual orientation, or religious affiliation. Race is just one identifier out of many that may cause a barrier. “I don’t see any difference between my experience and that of a black member,” said InDEEPendent who has black offline friends that use Black Planet. “Honestly, I’ve never thought of it and because of the fact that I’ve never thought of it I think it doesn’t differ.” Each member encounters barriers of some type and it may be that members comfortable with interacting with black culture offline are comfortable doing so online.
  57. 57. Walter Mosley Nathan Parham White members may also initially encounter personal barriers to entry on Black Planet that are not a result of other people. One white member who recently joined said that at first, she didn’t want to join Black Planet because she did not want to “interfere” with the black community. However, after she joined and read some of the forums, she was able to learn more about black culture and thus feel more comfortable with offline racial issues. Although being a member of Black Planet did not change her personality or her identification of being white, it did change her perspective on the world, which is a part of her identity – she can now be considered a white person comfortable with black people. (Personal correspondance, Apr. 15, 2002) Although her barrier was more an internal personal barrier than external barrier put up by the community, it was one that she learned to overcome as she used Black Planet more often and as a result her identity changed. Intra-Racial Relations The black race does not consist of exclusive heterogeneous thought and thus black members sometimes have to negotiate racial issues among themselves. An example of negotiating the identity of the larger racial group between racial subgroups is in the forum titled: “How do you feel when you see a African American man with a White woman? Do you feel as though that brother should be with a African American woman? Let`s be real honest.” This forum topic, although having a very specific focus, ended up bringing to the forefront many different perspectives on what it means to be black and what the accepted norms of belonging to the group are. Many subgroups of the larger black race
  58. 58. Walter Mosley Nathan Parham came together in order to negotiate these norms and add their perspectives and meaning of what it is to identify oneself as part of the group. The subgroups in this case were in some cases racial (mixed race or non-americans of African-descent) but in many cases the subgroups were just informal ideological groupings that all held different perspectives on what they thought it meant to belong to the greater group. In this forum the different groups could be loosely classified as those who date all races, those who date exclusively inter-racially, those who don’t but are sympathetic to those who do, and those who disagree with inter-racial dating entirely. Though these are not formal groups that people would use to identify themselves with most likely, they are ideological groupings that people sided with throughout the course of this forum thread. Occasionally when one person presented an opinion it offended another of the ideological groups and triggered a response from one member of the offended “group”. “And if u don`t look black?? I am so tired of this being an issue. I am half white and half black does that make me anyless black then the next person? And I do look white but I date only black males? From looking at me one does not think oh shes black they think look at that white chick with our men. I have been harrassed by black women who have no clue about my heritage. You can`t judge a book by its cover and frankly I date black men because I feel they share my views and opinions better than the other races and I personally feel they are stronger men due their trials and tirbulations.” (BP forum posting, April 14, 2002) This process of reifying different perspectives on racial identity through forum postings allows all of these subgroups to understand each other and change the concept of identity
  59. 59. Walter Mosley Nathan Parham within the larger group through mutual engagement. Race on Black Planet is sometimes a discussion between people in the same group discussing their own social practices and attitudes -- insiders negotiating with other insiders. This inter-sub-group relation is a boundary relation even though all members are a part of a larger group because these two groups are working together to address conflicts, reconcile differing perspectives, and find resolutions in order to achieve a common goal of unity among their own race (Wenger, 2000). Black Planet enables people to have these intra-racial conversations that may not occur between a group of strangers in real life who are afraid of either offending each other or being judged by others. A black male walking down the street with a white woman may be judged before being able to express his opinion. Black Planet is an environment in which that same black male who chooses a white woman as his mate can express his opinions and explain the deeper reason for why he chooses to date a white person. “This unique occasion…allows them to be more fully themselves, for it is salutary in such situations that all…reveal more of what lies beneath or beyond them,” states Oldenburg (1989). The process of leveling both allows members of other races to express their opinions and members of the same race to negotiate their meaning of the black experience through conversation with others. Other Offline Groups It is also important to note that there are other offline social groupings that are represented in Black Planet such as geographical location, age, and religion and any other
  60. 60. Walter Mosley Nathan Parham things that people consider a part of their identity. For example, the most popular category of club is the “Music” category that has 1380 messages, which is almost double the number of the next most popular category. It could be said that the popularity of the music category is a reflection of the importance of music in the culture of African descendants. However, racial and gender stereotypes, especially in America, affect people much more deeply on a daily basis because it is one of the first physical identifiers people notice in face-to-face interactions. Religion and spiritual beliefs are so important on Black Planet that it is hard not to notice them. Age is also a factor on Black Planet in that people of different age groups won’t “date” most likely. Therefore it is likely that a number of people lie about their age, but it is not a topic of discussion or conflict that comes frequently in forums or in chat/club topics. People of all ages are able to interact in forums and clubs freely and age is not something that is immediately evident from one’s forum postings, unless there is some indicator within their screen name. Age is certainly important in how people act, however it may not be as dominant as race, gender, or religion on Black Planet. ACCOMMODATION Another aspect of Oldenburg’s third places that is exhibited on Black Planet is the concept of accommodation. However, accommodation happens on two levels: accessibility and malleability. Oldenburg (1989) points to the fact that English pubs that acted as third place were open all hours of the night so that they were accessible to people coming home from work and needing a third place. For members of Black Planet, the
  61. 61. Walter Mosley Nathan Parham website is up 24 hours a day and thus always accessible, assuming one has access to a computer. However, it is important to note that due to the Digital Divide, not all black people who might benefit from Black Planet have access to computers. The fact that not all minorities are able to access an online community, Black Planet is not the ideal third place, however Oldenburg would most likely argue that the Digital Divide is just another reason why we still need offline third places instead of online substitutes. Not to mention that sitting alone in one’s home to access online third place to socialize with others seems to be paradoxical. Digital inequities aside, malleability or the ability for the third place to flexible and accommodating for the people that visit it, is also very important and a core aspect of Black Planet. “The activity that goes on in the third place is largely unplanned, unscheduled, unorganized, and unstructured. Here, however, is the charm,” states Oldenburg (1989). The individuals that participate in Black Planet’s activities govern them almost entirely. In addition, maximum strength is given to voicing one’s opinion on Black Planet in order to regulate the community. Black Planet makes changes based upon the membership’s demand or technological improvements, not on a whim. The content and activities on Black Planet are member driven so that members are able to create a meaningful experience for themselves.
  62. 62. Walter Mosley Nathan Parham By allowing people to express dissatisfaction and not actively enforcing minor infractions, Black Planet provides the unstructured and unorganized charming third place that Oldenburg describes. Hirschman (1970) outlines two ways in which members of a group can express themselves and thus regulate the actions of a community: voice and exit. A Different Kind of Community Hirschman (1970) presents a compelling case for the concepts of exit, voice, and loyalty within offline organizations. However, on a social website where people are using the website as a means to meet friends, voice is very important but exit and loyalty become a bit less clear. People come to Black Planet to meet friends and supplement offline interactions. Therefore, the most important activity on Black Planet for most members are the series of one-on-one boundary encounters and seeking out those boundary encounters instead of interacting with the community as a whole (Wenger, 1998). Black Planet thus becomes a social environment where each person can form their own niche within the community and be happy doing a multitude of things. In that sense, Black Planet is very similar to an offline club atmosphere. One Black Planet member described the different levels of participation at an offline club in a forum about why people come to clubs. “On my birthday I went clubbing with friends. I love to dance and danced all night long, but one of my friends never dances. However, he had a great time just watching others, soaking in the atmosphere and seeing his friends being happy. We had a huge grin on our faces each of us, all doing different things.” (BP Forums, Nov 7, 2001)
  63. 63. Walter Mosley Nathan Parham The different levels of participation possible in an offline club are very similar to that in Black Planet. Some may have more fun just being in the atmosphere listening to music, some may want to find people to date, and some may just want to discuss political issues. Therefore, exit and loyalty are not as important because people come to Black Planet to meet the people and voice opinions, not to engage in a practice determined by the community at large because just as in an offline club, one can participate however one wants to. “Why I use BP... Well, at first some long distance friends and I decided to start using BP as a way to stay in touch without the phone bills, and its a lot more creative than AOL… I love reading the forums! Some of them are full of really good advice. And some of the posts are just down right hilarious! I have met some cool people on here…it`s nice to log on and have notes from your online buddies! People automatically assume that because you post a picture and have a profile that you are putting yourself on the BP market, but I just like seeing who it is I am talking to!…Keep enjoying BP...whatever your reasons for being here are!” (BP Forum, Jan 31, 2002) As this member implied, even when the community has expectations of how one should behave, members still have the option of participating in any way they want to maximize the benefit of participating on Black Planet for them. However, as a result of maintaining one method of participation, members will encounter resistance from other members who dislike that method. For example, people that approach elegantthoughts with sexual advances will encounter resistance, even though her response may have no effect on that person’s future interactions.
  64. 64. Walter Mosley Nathan Parham Due to the social nature of Black Planet, Wenger’s (1998) concept of participation and non-participation is probably a more accurate framework within to analyze Black Planet. However, even within Wenger’s framework, there is an element of participation or non- participation defining one’s identity. For example, the member who signs up for Black Planet and creates a web profile, only to laugh at the forums still considers herself a participant. It doesn’t change her trajectory or shorten it. That’s just as far as she wants to go on Black Planet and other members do not consider her less of a member because that is all she does since her activities on Black Planet are her own in many ways. People still send her notes, yet she chooses to respond to them in her own way, not the way people expected her to. Despite the fact that Black Planet may not fit into either Wenger or Hirschman’s concepts of communities, Black Planet still has elements of what they wrote about, but they are just not exactly the same as the original authors described. Voice however is a concept that is utilized on Black Planet so that members are able to shape their experience however they want to and enforce the rules they would like to see enforced. Voice Hirschman (1970) states that voice is one way for people to express dissatisfaction about their environment. Black Planet certainly allows members to voice their opinions in order to shape their community. For example, the reason for cancelling the internal “pager” feature was that so many people complained about it being invasive that they decided to eliminate it. “In response to feedback we've received about PAGER, and in
  65. 65. Walter Mosley Nathan Parham efforts to improve overall site performance, we are removing PAGER as a feature from the site,” says the Black Planet website. This also speaks to the American need for privacy and the human need for protection from others that Oldenburg (1989) speaks to. Another example of giving members the power of voice to govern themselves is that members are able to report the rules violations of other members. However, this gives members the opportunity to make a statement both by withholding their voice or by exercising it. By withholding one’s voice, they are saying that they do not mind the rules violations just as they are saying they do mind by reporting other members. This is certainly a learned behavior on Black Planet. Members have to learn through participation that some members violate the rules. Waltermosley originally went around reporting every violation he saw before he decided to let people interact how they want to. Quiet-Riot never reported people because she always perceived the violations as entertainment. However, both members had to participate in the site before they made up their minds that these type of violations are ok. Voice is also used on members’ pages in order to attempt to govern who interacts with them. Just as elegantthoughts chose not to reveal any information about herself to keep people away, it is also common to see web profiles where women state what kind of people they do not want to contact them or how they would like to be contact. For example, InDEEPendent states clearly on her page that she would like people to sign her
  66. 66. Walter Mosley Nathan Parham guestbook and that it bothers her when people don’t. She didn’t even respond to one person’s note based upon the fact that he didn’t sign her guestbook. “It makes me feel special, I guess,” she said in response to her attitude about the guestbook. Her ability to use voice on her web profile to dictate how people interact with her is another important way that people on Black Planet regulate their personal experience. Exit Exit is another means by which members of a community can express dissatisfaction with the community, however the power of exit is limited on Black Planet (Hirschman, 1970). Exit occurs on Black Planet, however other members may not realize when a member has exited because their profile may still exist thus making them present. For example, satjj signed up for Black Planet and then for almost a year, did not use it at all for various reasons. Essentially, she had exited, albeit temporarily. However, during that time members had sent her notes and signed her guestbook thinking that she was still in the community because she had a presence via her profile. Had satjj not signed on for two years, people still may have sent her notes from time to time assuming she was there. Another form of exit on Black Planet is when a member decides to no longer use Black Planet and simply places a link to the new community they’ve joined. They are still participating in the Black Planet community and Black Planet members are still able to interact with them – other members can just click on the link. So again, although this member has exited there is still an opportunity for mutual engagement with the community.
  67. 67. Walter Mosley Nathan Parham In addition, the cost of exiting completely is extremely high and there is no reason to. Once a member has taken down their website entirely, there is no way to interact with the community, keep in touch with the friends one has made (if they don’t have email), or make new friends. Exiting Black Planet entirely is almost pointless. If you don’t want people to contact you, you don’t have to give them your external email account or you can take down your photos and information yet still have a presence so people can contact you. When members such as satjj got tired of Black Planet, she just did not log on for a while until she decided that it would be a good way to practice her HTML skills and get critiques from people. Yet her period of non- participation did not define how she felt about herself as a Black Planet member as Wenger (2000) suggests non-participation defines identity. Nor did she express her dissatisfaction by exiting the community entirely. Instead of exiting, satjj just changed her participation patterns based on what was best for her at a given time in her life. “Yeah, I’m still on (Black Planet) but I just started using it again to practice my HTML.” (Personal correspondence, Feb. 1, 2002) This type of behavior on Black Planet means that exit is rendered an ineffective means of expressing dissatisfaction although voice is very effective. Smaller Communities as Better Examples of Exit or Participation? Due to its size, Black Planet is best described as a constellation of practices as described by Wenger (1998). Therefore, there are a number of mini-communities within Black Planet that do experience exit and participation. However, clubs on Black Planet are not a major part of the community but just another avenue to achieve members’ greater goal of meeting people with similar interests. For example, Quiet-Riot uses one club and a few forums to post her poetry and read other people’s poetry. However, she doesn’t feel connected to the other people in that club – she just uses that club as a place to get