When people say, “I was on the Internet”, they take for granted that their friends will understand that they used a browser to access the Web. It is not difficult to see why. Browsers frame the content, media, and protocols we know as the World Wide Web; they have become part of our social life, our work routines, and our leisure activities. As such, the browser is a cultural artifact, defining its users as technologists and as social actors. It is part of our communicative infrastructure, invisible to our information literacy practices until a rupture occurs.
One such rupture found form in the 2008 introduction of 40A’s Blackbird browser, designed to serve the browsing needs of African Americans. Blackbird’s cultural focus engendered a scathing response from Black and White Internet denizens alike because it apparently contravened popular assumptions of the browser’s cultural neutrality. Where most tech products are evaluated in terms of their ease of use or feature set, Blackbird’s reception as an ICT artifact was “colored” by the racial frames of the pundits, bloggers, and commenters who discussed it.
My research examines the cultural biases encoded within information and communication technologies and pairs them with insights into the technological biases expressed through the culture of the users. This is one approach through which racial motivations can be apprehended as functional rationales for technology use. This diagram illustrates my research approach to information and communication technology use; this was originally conceived by Arnold Pacey, and also draws upon elements of James Carey’s work on communication technology and belief. Pacey described technology as having three components - the material artifact (or code), the practices necessary to employ the artifact, and the beliefs of its users. Pacey argued that technological artifacts are usually understood by describing their form or their use. Pacey (and I) contend that the cultural and social beliefs of technology users play a significant part in the design, adoption, dissemination, and use of any tech. These can range from unconscious design decisions based on physical traits (right handed dominance) to deeply held cultural associations between race and intelligence.
Before i continue, let me clarify: i employ a structural approach to Information technologies. I argue in my work that ICTs operate as projects linking social structure and cultural representation; they frame discursive representations of cultural phenomena, and work to organize resources along particular cultural lines. The browser (in its guise as the Internet) represents a belief in an implicitly unmarked technological space. The openness of the platform obscures the reality that most content available through the browser articulates specific representations of race, gender, and class. For the U.S. and much of the West, those representations draw primarily upon White identity markers and values. Richard Dyer (1999) argues that Whiteness is at once the sign of ‘humanity’ and the marker of individual agency (Dyer 1999) For example, Jared Lee Loughner is a troubled individual with no ties to the Tea Party, while Major Nidal Hasan (the Fort Hood shooter) is suspected of being a radical Muslim extremist despite a documented history of mental problems. The browser has a universal and an individual identity that maps closely to Dyer’s definition of Whiteness. The universal traits of the browser are evidenced through its access to and command of temporal, geographic, and economic networks. The widespread adoption of the browser as a communication device obscures its utility as an artifact of communication networks aiding in bolstering economic and sociocultural hegemony. The browser implies the exercise of democratic values and universal (access to) information through the display of unlimited content. In reality, however, “democracy” is simply a disguise by volume of the cultural hegemony of content designed by and for mainstream audiences. From an individual perspective, current generation browsers enact the personalization of Web use. Users can change themes, block advertising, and even alter style-sheets of existing websites. They are encouraged to store confidential information (password managers) or maintain a library of notable sites (bookmarking). Thus, while many people use the same browsing software few will experience the Web in the same way. The dual experience of universal application and individual preferences, then, prejudices users to assume that the ‘universal’ web, configured to their liking, is similarly configured for every other user. In the same way, Western culture assumes that the ‘universal’ values touted by the mainstream are equally valid and desired by every individual under their aegis.
The browser should be understood as a software artifact but also as a communication product. Baker (2002) argues that communication products offer different benefits depending upon the role the various stakeholders involved in its design, dissemination, and consumption. He notes that media content contributes to the rationalization of particular behaviors, as well as affecting the significance of those beliefs. Baker adds, Even more than its direct value to its audience, the media’s greatest value may be for third parties. Even if they do not consume the media content themselves, they can be wonderfully or gravely affected by the media’s influence on its audiences’ “construction of reality” and on their resulting behavior (2002: 47) Baker concedes that his arguments must be significantly expanded to encompass the Internet as a media product. For example, he reasons that the Internet’s lowered copy and delivery costs greatly increase economic incentives to provide everyone with the same good, but also creates parallel incentives to orient content toward universal motifs – sex, violence, and Good vs. Evil - and to sacrifice culturally specific content (Baker, 2002: 292). These universally understood themes are also those that generate the greatest profit, thus leading to a further commodification of content. Although the browser does not directly represent or embody the content displayed within its interface, its role in delivering and framing that content connects it ideologically to the cultural values transmitted within the content.
For Blackbird, I conducted an interface analysis of the browser, briefly reviewed the history and practices of Web browsers in general and Blackbird specifically. I also carried out a close reading of blog posts and their associated comments on mainstream and Black-affiliated technology blogs to understand how they constructed the browser in terms of their experience and identities. My close reading focused upon instances of discursive association between culture and technology – positive, neutral, or negative – across the general categories of the blogs they were found upon. These observations and analyses were laid out against a critical race framework that integrates elements of technocultural theory.
Constructed from Firefox’s open source codebase, it is structurally similar to the Flock (social networking), and Gloss (women-centric) Firefox-variant browsers. Each variant features custom interface tweaks designed to visually identify the browser, as well as plug-ins, custom searches, and other features to enhance the targeted user’s experience. Blackbird’s creators included in-browser access to Facebook and MySpace (but interestingly, not BlackPlanet) to leverage existing social network accounts and allow their users to browse their networks and the Web simultaneously. [Pick Two] Blackbird tailors the browsing experience by offering custom features designed around African American content: Black Search, a customized Google Search prioritizing African American contentBlackbird News Ticker, a pre-loaded (but customizable) RSS ticker toolbarBlack Bookmarks, pre-selected bookmarks featuring African American websites‘Give Back’, a feature linking users to designated charities serving African American communitiesBlackbird TV, a customized video channel available only to Blackbird usersLocal job and business listings backed by a targeted advertising campaign specifically for African American communities Blackbird Community, a browser-centered social network allowing users to share content through Grapevine (a Digg clone) Blackbird also offers web-service centered features. On the services toolbar, users can configure a button to run Yahoo Mail, Windows Live (Hotmail), or Gmail; the button offers unread email notifications and the ability to switch between accounts without resorting to a bookmark or the address bar. Users can also take advantage of a “social network” button accessing either Facebook or MySpace with one click. For both buttons, the active service will be represented by the appropriate logo on the button. Blackbird also offers web-service centered features. On the services toolbar, users can configure a button to run Yahoo Mail, Windows Live (Hotmail), or Gmail; the button offers unread email notifications and the ability to switch between accounts without resorting to a bookmark or the address bar. Users can also take advantage of a “social network” button accessing either Facebook or MySpace with one click. For both buttons, the active service will be represented by the appropriate logo on the button. Blackbird also offers web-service centered features. On the services toolbar, users can configure a button to run Yahoo Mail, Windows Live (Hotmail), or Gmail; the button offers unread email notifications and the ability to switch between accounts without resorting to a bookmark or the address bar. Users can also take advantage of a “social network” button accessing either Facebook or MySpace with one click. For both buttons, the active service will be represented by the appropriate logo on the button. Blackbird also offers web-service centered features. On the services toolbar, users can configure a button to run Yahoo Mail, Windows Live (Hotmail), or Gmail; the button offers unread email notifications and the ability to switch between accounts without resorting to a bookmark or the address bar. Users can also take advantage of a “social network” button accessing either Facebook or MySpace with one click. For both buttons, the active service will be represented by the appropriate logo on the button. Blackbird also offers web-service centered features. On the services toolbar, users can configure a button to run Yahoo Mail, Windows Live (Hotmail), or Gmail; the button offers unread email notifications and the ability to switch between accounts without resorting to a bookmark or the address bar. Users can also take advantage of a “social network” button accessing either Facebook or MySpace with one click. For both buttons, the active service will be represented by the appropriate logo on the button.
Blackbird’s default search is a customized Google search intended to prioritize results that may be of interest to African American users. Blackbird’s home page features a Google search bar and a button for “Black Search” and “Google Search”; this option is also available from the toolbar. Using the term “Black Girls” for this presentation, I conducted a comparative search and generated the following results. This slide is a screenshot of the first 5 URLs returned for each search:
This is the Blackbird search; note that it gives greater weight to information coming from Black cultural interest sites like BlackAmericaWeb (the Internet home of the Tom Joyner Morning Show), Essence.com’s revamped website, Black Entertainment Television, and The YBF (young, black and fabolous), a Black gossip/entertainment site. Blackbird’s contention that Black content can be difficult to find using regular searches seems to be valid, given the outcome of this comparison. The features differentiating Blackbird from other browsers speak strongly to 40a’s concept of embedded social networking as an electronic definition of a community. The inclusion of content specifically targeting African Americans layers a cultural definition of community on top of the software/Internet instantiation, and offers a compelling visualization of the explicit integration of ethnic and technocultural practices. 40A’s implementation is a criticism of the structural inequities of ‘mainstream’ Internet content that privileges the information needs of middle-class, male, White Internet users.
As the Web has matured and reached a broader swathe of the population, its interactive nature enables discussions about technology objects that expose technocultural beliefs. These discussions construct or reconfigure the properties, practices, and beliefs that people bring to their understanding of technology. In that vein, this next part of the presentation briefly visits discussions about the design and deployment of the Blackbird on technology and cultural blogs.
To understand Blackbird’s reception, using purposive sampling I selected six weblogs as examples of how ideological and cultural factors influence users’ technology analyses. To operationalize ‘online discourse’, the selected blogs have a post specifically addressing Blackbird and there are comments that consistently address the same topic; there were approximately 500 comments total across all six blogs in this analysis. The sites I examined include high-profile technology blogs (Tech Crunch and Ars Technica), Black tech blogs (Roney Smith, BlackWeb 2.0), and general interest Black blogs (AroundHarlem, The Angry Black Woman). RoneySmith and BlackWeb 2.0 represent examples of race-oriented, technology-focused blogging emphasizing coverage of technology specifically impacting African Americans. These blogs do not limit themselves to African-American oriented tech news, but their intent is to address the perceived lack of coverage of technology by and about African Americans. Meanwhile, AroundHarlem.com has achieved fame for coverage of New York City events, and the Angry Black Woman is a leading online voice among African American blogs addressing racism in various media.
Discussions of Blackbird’s feature set in the technology blogs tended to focus on an “ideal” browser as an information and culturally neutral space for Internet consumption, configurable for individual browsing preferences. These reviewers, in their focus on Blackbird’s cultural features and functions, elided the cultural and ideological nature of browser-mediated content even while speculating on the utility of the features for prospective African American users. For example, Tech Crunch’s Robin Wauters, a White European male, mentioned Blackbird’s content-based add-ons but noted that their addition didn’t seem like enough of an incentive for African Americans to download another browser. Tech Crunch’s commenters also employed racial considerations to articulate their vision of the browser. jdb's argument neatly summarizes mainstream perceptions of the Internet as a neutral cultural space. It also highlights an aspect of Tech Crunch’s discursive position on technology; that information technologies are objective and it is only the intervention of certain social and cultural forces that render them as ideological tools. jdb’s use of the word “segregated” clues us in as to the types of technology considered non-normative (and thus ideological); information or tools exemplifying the interests of Black Internet users. .
. On Ars Technica, David Chartier’s Blackbird review begins with “The Internet may have created a largely color-blind world wide web that connects users with just about any information they could ever want.” Chartier saw the Blackbird custom search as a positive implementation of the developer’s intentions to deliver cultural content, but overall argued that Blackbird’s feature set was “nothing new”. Chartier’s article is restrained, contextualizing the developer’s decision to include culturally specific features within a “community of practice”. In the comments following Chartier’s review, several Ars Technica audience members offered a less restrained and racialized framework to describe Blackbird’s feature set. Although the last comment is less overt than the first two, together they represent the spectrum of color-blind discourse displayed in Ars Technica’s comments. The 1st comment is an example of deviant Black behavior as cultural touchstones for Blackbird’s intended feature set. The second employs a ‘rational’ perspective that ignores the cultural perspectives found in mainstream content and privileges mainstream content as being more valid and reliable than ‘culture centric’ content.
Tech Crunch’s comments hosted positive racial interpretations of Blackbird’s potential as well, but true to the site’s enthusiast ethos, they remained centered on the browser’s utility. These comments focus on Blackbird’s features while eschewing negative stereotypes of Blacks. These comments are closer to Chartier’s framing of Blackbird as a community of practice; notice also that these sentiments are critical of the color-blind paradigm of Internet use that the earlier commenters deployed. They also serve to highlight another trope of color-blind ICT usage – that Blackbird’s users would be ‘forced’ to segregate themselves from the rest of the Internet when making the choice to use Blackbird. The technology blogs’ combination of technophilic ethos and color-blind ideology speak to the norming of technology as a White/human discursive enterprise, where efforts by non-whites to stake out space within the realm are unwelcome.
Where the mainstream tech blogs featured comments critical of Blackbird’s feature set and Black culture, the Black tech blogs critically assessed Blackbird’s features through their potential benefit to the Black community. Roney Smith noted that many African American users access the Internet at work or school where Blackbird can’t be installed, which limits potential use and adoption. This criticism is valid given most corporate/institutional IT policies, which prohibit users from installing unapproved software on company machines for security. Rahsheen, at BlackWeb 2.0 praised Blackbird’s video channel and was encouraged by Blackbird’s stance on philanthropy. However, he argued that Blackbird isn’t innovative because its core functions duplicated pre-existing features that power-users could install on their own (e.g., plugins) [liberatory]
[segregation] This comment represents a prominent perspective of the Black blog’s “segregation” argument against Blackbird – one also mentioned on both the Black general interest blogs and the tech blogs. He argues that a browser dedicated to information of interest to Black people limits access to the Internet while stifling Black innovation and interest in creating content online. To support this argument, the bloggers and commenters pointed to features that constrained their freedom to surf the Internet. They also articulated a perspective that complicates pre-existing notions of the digital divide: that ALL blacks are equally skilled in finding content conducive to their information needs. Compare this with the perceptions of Black browsing activity on the mainstream blogs, where criticism focused on the cultural deficiencies of Black internet users. The Black bloggers construct a positive image of Black community in their own spaces and also in the comments on the mainstream blogs, even while critical of efforts made on their behalf. tabw and browser hijack april as Black power user
Minority users as just as diverse as mainstream users, but labor under the stereotype that they can only be understood through one identity category. this stereotype can be particularly limiting during the design and dissemination phase of ICT artifacts, as monocultural influences lead companies to focus on users like themselves. [more?] They do not operate in a vacuum. they alter time, format, ethos, and tone; they disguise ideological intent through sheer volume of disseminated content. Search engines can contribute to the confusion depending upon their ranking algorithms; their results can reflect the interests of advertisers, or the aggregate interests of the most profitable community to serve. ethical and ideological consideration of target community’s info needs - particularly tastemakers/experts. Tech design should consider the needs of a diverse set of users - gendered, raced, abled, etc. e.g., for videogames, consider allowing users to configure avatars across a wide range of body types, skin colors, hair styles, and clothing styles. For software artifacts, consider bringing in diverse focus groups to understand their information and task needs. Recent discussions about the ‘Blackening’ of Twitter reveal that high levels of smartphone penetration rates in the Black community coupled with cultural discourse styles (signifying, or the dozens) lead to a software platform dominated by Black cultural discourse topics. the ethos of your site plays a large part in the type of discussions your audience generates. Although many consider the line between freedom of speech and uncivil discourse to be a fine one, the reality is that the anonymity/pseudonymity of online discourse removes the social inhibitions against impolite discourse. The blogs examined here were critical of Blackbird’s feature set for a number of practical reasons, but also for a number of shared beliefs about what information technology in the age of Web 2.0 should do. In this, they highlight constructions of technocultural identity shaped around ICT practices and technological determinism. Racial frames, however, also shape these technocultural identities. Of particular interest for information science research is how, through the racial intentions of the browser, various respondents mediated racial identity through their articulations of information technology. By examining how these web users interpellate identity and technology through their American cultural-framed racial affiliations, we can gain a greater understanding of how belief and ideology shapes information technology use, implementation, and design.
The Curious Case of a Black Browser <ul><li>Cultural Values as a Predictor of Technology Use </li></ul>André Brock The University of Iowa
<ul><li>Critical Race and Technoculture Theory </li></ul><ul><li>Interface Analysis </li></ul><ul><ul><li>Examination of implicit and explicit cultural features/mechanics </li></ul></ul><ul><li>Discourse Analysis </li></ul><ul><ul><li>Associations between cultural identity and technological identity </li></ul></ul>Analysis
Blackbird - features <ul><ul><li>custom Google Search </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>News Ticker </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Give Back </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>custom video channel </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Local job/business search </li></ul></ul>
<ul><li>Techcrunch </li></ul><ul><li>Ars Technica </li></ul><ul><li>BlackWeb 2.0 </li></ul><ul><li>Roney Smith </li></ul><ul><li>The Angry Black Woman </li></ul><ul><li>Around-Harlem.com </li></ul>Discourse
<ul><li>“ No one is going to convince me that Google is White by default unless you want to argue that being simple, quick and useful is “white”. LOL. The thing is that from an ideal perspective when a user logs onto the Internet they are starting from a “unified” and “unfiltered” position and choose to navigate toward targeted content. The difference here is that someone has developed a “tool” that controls and filters the “experience” right from the start. They’ve found a way to create a segregated experience. </li></ul>Mainstream Blogs
<ul><li>“ If Obama starts doing all kinds of nutty stuff, will a standard search return news articles and criticism and the Blackbird search censor such things?” </li></ul><ul><li>“ so it comes pre-loaded with links to Public Defenders, and tips on how to beat weapons charges…Great”. </li></ul><ul><li>“ If the browser, as the article states, skews results away from potentially more informative and authoritative sources of information in favor of those that are more culture centric, then it really is doing it's [sic] users a disservice.” </li></ul>Mainstream Blogs
<ul><li>Blackbird isn't about "walled gardens" or "separatism" - it doesn't take you to some blacks-only internet, it doesn't wipe your harddrive if a white person tries to use it, it's a product designed to appeal to the needs and wants of blacks. You can disagree with the viability of this model (which I do) but there's nothing wrong with the motivation </li></ul>Mainstream Blogs
<ul><li>It is true that if one is very interested in African-American perspectives on news and social issues, one has to be savvy in the use of search engines, which do not cough up those results without good Google-fu…As a white person with an anti-racist ideology who is interested in reading from Black perspective, I would have downloaded and used the browser just out of curiosity. </li></ul>Black Interest Blogs
<ul><li>“ I don’t need anyone helping me find Black content...How is my web experience enhanced by letting Blackbird filter information through their browser?“ </li></ul>Black Interest Blogs Text
Conclusions <ul><li>The Digital divide is insufficient to understand the information needs of minority users </li></ul><ul><li>ICTs frame and configure discourse </li></ul><ul><li>lessons for cultural design of ICTs </li></ul><ul><li>lessons for online communities </li></ul>
André Brock School of Library and Information Science Project on the Rhetoric of Inquiry The University of Iowa [email_address] http://uiowa.academia .edu/AndreBrock