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Feb 10, 2021

How the history of Blackness on the internet was erased

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Much of the internet's written history ignores decades of Black culture online.

When New York University media and culture professor Charlton McIlwain was doing research for his latest book, “Black Software: The Internet and Racial Justice, from the AfroNet to Black Lives Matter,” he found an encyclopedia about Black inventors, written by Black authors. And it actually said there wasn’t evidence that Black people had made tangible contributions to the development of the internet.

But McIlwain says that written history ignores decades of Black culture online, including AfroNet, an invite-only bulletin board in the late ’80s that became a haven for Black people to connect and create. Those voices played a key role in the online communities that came after. He told me a little more about what he found in that encyclopedia. The following is an edited transcript of our conversation.

A headshot of Charlton McIlwain, NYU media and culture professor.
Charlton McIlwain (Photo courtesy of NYU)

Charlton McIlwain: It basically said something like, all the evidence and literature suggests that Black people have made no tangible contributions to the origins and development of the internet. And I remember the moment reading that and thinking, No. 1, this could be true, but wow, how could someone really make such a statement? It really speaks volumes about the erasure of Black people’s contributions to technology generally, and to the internet more specifically.

Molly Wood: And in fact, a chapter in your book was going to be called “Remember When the Internet Was Black?” When was that, and what did you mean by that?

McIlwain: That was an early version of a chapter I had titled, and it had everything to do with what I discovered in [writing] this book, which I had not intended to discover, as it were, or wasn’t really even supposed to be a part of the book I was writing. But stumbling on to a myriad of contributions that Black people made to the origins of the internet, so this idea about “Remember When the Internet Was Black?” had everything to do with a period of time from the late ’80s to the mid- to late ’90s, when African Americans really played a key, central, pivotal role in the development of the World Wide Web and its first coming online in the early ’90s. And so that begins with stories about a bulletin board group called the AfroNet that sprang up in the late ’80s. And [it] really goes on through very high-profile companies like a NetNoir or a Blackvoices that sprung up in the mid-’90s and lasted through the ’90s and were extremely visible and profitable.

Wood: What were the communities that came after? I mean, AfroNet inspired a lot of sites and a lot of communities, right?

McIlwain: Yeah, it really did. In the early days of the ’90s, you had your two top internet service providers — CompuServe on the one hand, AOL on the other — vying for this new market. And CompuServe looked back to the members of AfroNet and tried to convince them to replicate what they had built. And ultimately, it failed. And AOL, with its NetNoir [and] later a similar venture called Blackvoices, ruled the day. This was an era where Black people and Black content and Black cultural production was really at the core of what became the internet as we know it today.

Wood: What do we think happened? How do you end up with an encyclopedia of Black inventors written by Black people that doesn’t credit any of this cultural development, of these inventions? How does that erasure occur?

McIlwain: The way that we talked about the relationship of Black people to the internet was always from a deficit. It was always about the thousands and millions of Black folks who don’t have access to the internet. And we ignored what was in, I think it was 1995, something like 5.6 million African Americans who owned a computer, owned a modem at home and were online. But we knew nothing about who these people were, what they were striving to do, what they had built. And so Black folks were not part of that story or image for what the early internet and computing technology looked like.

Wood: And then, of course, you have related to, of course, systemic racism, but also this invisibility. That means that as we start to develop the dot-com boom, Black entrepreneurs don’t benefit, VCs are still doing a pretty terrible job of investing in Black founders. Is all of that of a piece?

McIlwain: It absolutely is, and probably the biggest piece when we look at the gap. And the fact that for all of this showing of Black people and Black invention and entrepreneurship in the early, mid-, late ’90s, it’s also very abruptly gone by the end of the ’90s and start of the 2000s. And so several things are part of that story. No. 1, it took that amount of time, five, seven, 10 years, I think, for people to learn the real commercial potential of this medium. And so for the time, Black folks thought this was a legitimate opportunity to see some real economic advantage that would accrue to Black people, to Black communities, for their uplift and betterment. But what was happening over that period of time is people are learning, “All right, what does it take to be successful? How do we monetize?” You have your Googles of the world start to dominate. You have commercial advertising starting to play a real role in the internet ecosystem. You have your big companies starting to really get larger and bigger. And what happens is the smaller players get edged out more and more, and particularly entrepreneurs of color. And Black entrepreneurs were the ones that I think most quickly fade from that scene and get erased. And so the market matures, then all of these Black folks and entrepreneurs in particular go by the wayside.

But then, what’s really missing is that there’s no sustained impetus to support what was there for a moment in the early days of this medium. That means people who were willing to invest heavily in something like a NetNoir or Blackvoices and to see its commercial potential. And so that is what died. And you talk to Black entrepreneurs in the internet space at the time, they all have the same story, which was the capital dried up. And then, here we were, people who were the head of their craft, computer scientists, engineers, content producers trained at places like Harvard or MIT or Stanford, so the very best of the best. But they did not have the kind of networks of capital and investment where they could go and find venture-capital funding easily or where they had several alternatives when they’re trying to sell and find funding for an idea. And often the story was, “We would fight to find and get an entrance into or access to someone, and we would share our idea. And people would simply say no for no real reason.” All to find a year, two years later, their ideas had been used or stolen in some way. But they, of course, had not been part of that investment, in growing up or maturing of that particular idea. The lack of that access to these networks of capital, I think, is what spelled the real doom for that small, but oversize in many ways, group of Black entrepreneurs who had such a visible presence in the first five to seven years of the internet’s existence.

Wood: You know, it seems like in some ways, we’re seeing a reclaiming of some of these spaces. Certainly, Black Twitter has power. You’ve seen a lot of Black influence on Clubhouse. I’m hearing rumors that BlackPlanet might come back. Are you hopeful that some change is occurring or that at least these conversations are reoccurring — history might be repeating itself a little bit?

McIlwain: Yeah, I’m hopeful in some ways, in that people seem to be beginning to recognize what has been true for the last 20 years, which is that Black culture powers the internet. But I think what’s been the case for the last 20 years is that has been there, the value of Black culture has persisted, but we have not seen or pushed very specific ways for Black people, particularly Black cultural producers, to profit from that.

Photo of Kamal Al-Mansour, founder, Afrolink Software.
Early software entrepreneur Kamal al-Mansour, founder of Afrolink Software. In the early ’90s, says author Charlton McIlwain, “Black people and Black content and Black cultural production was really at the core of what became the internet as we know it today.” (Photo courtesy of Kamal al-Mansour)

Related links: More insight from Molly Wood

You heard me mention BlackPlanet, which is indeed relaunching this month during Black History Month. Last summer, we interviewed Omar Wasow, one of the early founders of the community, about the evolution of BlackPlanet to Black Twitter. You can follow BlackPlanet on Twitter for updates on the relaunch. And one amazing fact I learned is that it originally launched 20 years ago. The next incarnation, according to the feed, will be as a social media network that’s entirely Black-owned and funded.

In our conversation, McIlwain also mentioned Vine at one point (pour one out for Vine). And it’s got to be said again that one of Twitter’s great sins in killing Vine — notwithstanding the business decision, which let Snapchat, Instagram and TikTok build the thing Twitter already had — was that Vine had amazing diversity. Black and brown creators flourished on Vine. It really was a community of color and it just got neglected and killed and erased and replaced. This story from 2016 mourned that loss. Relatedly, there’s this coverage from 2018 about how Fortnite was appropriating dances, often from Black creators online. And this one has stuck with me for a while, about not sending reaction gifs of Black people if you’re not Black, because it’s reductive, reinforces stereotypes and erases the actual stories behind the gifs. Which, until I read it, is not something I’d ever thought about. Just one tiny example of why it helps to hear from all the voices.

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