The early internet had a thriving ecosystem of sites that were made by and for the black community. Let’s bring that back.
The days of June 1996 were honeyed with promise. In San Francisco‘s SoMa district, electronic music animated a loft dance floor as E. David Ellington and Malcolm CasSelle raised their glasses in celebration. Along with friends and colleagues, they had gathered to toast the success of their new platform, NetNoir Online, a hub of “Afrocentric culture.”
Though scrubbed from so much official history, black culture on the web thrived in the mid-’90s. NetNoir launched on the 130th anniversary of Juneteenth, a day that marks the end of slavery, and users flocked to its news articles, online classes, and discussion forums.
The platform soon found itself among a loose constellation of digital havens that together constituted “the soul of the internet”: Melanet, GoAfro, Universal Black Pages, and the Brooklyn-founded Cafe Los Negroes, whose advertising copy exclaimed “Representin’ Bed-Stuy in Cyberspace” (years before the neighborhood assumed a ghostlier hue). Naturally, black users were not alone in jockeying for visibility. Sites like LatinoLink and CyberPowWow built communities of their own.
For a time, these sites operated as self-governed metropolises. Charlton D. McIlwain, author of the new book Black Software, notes that the black footprint on the early internet “was relatively enormous.” Of NetNoir, he writes: “They had accomplished something truly great and consequential for black America to think that blackness was at the center of the internet universe, something responsible for ushering the masses online.” You could read music reviews by Greg Tate, dine out on the latest sports commentary (“If O. J. is ever again mentioned here, we do not mean Kato’s friend. We mean orange juice”), or gossip with friends—a pioneering model for community building when people were still figuring out the rhythms of being online.
It didn’t last.
Functionally, the web is still very black. Our identities are embedded in Black Twitter-fueled memes and reaction GIFs, from Kermit sipping tea to Real Housewives star NeNe Leakes’ virtuoso shade-serving. Black culture is likewise a major artery of platforms like TikTok and our beloved Vine (RIP). Even the very modes of exposure find root in blackness: Black death and its digital-era companion, the police brutality video, became a terrifyingly mundane 21st-century spectacle, recorded, uploaded, and shared with perverse frequency. “Blackness gave virality its teeth. Turned it into trauma,” the writer and academic Lauren Michele Jackson has said. In life and in death, black people are the bones and lungs of the web, its very body.
Yet as the web has scaled, with corporate gentrifiers like Google and Facebook moving in and taking over, the black-owned presence has shrunk. Today, there seem to be fewer websites, networks, apps, and cultural ports in which to find a kind of sanctuary for black people—perhaps when we need it most. “The provincial portals that once invested heavily in steering users to black content suddenly had little stake in doing so,” McIlwain writes, blaming Google’s “traffic cop” algorithm in particular. “Those walled gardens came down. The web opened.”
What I’m proposing is not a firewalled splinternet; it has more to do with where I see us evolving as a society—into enclaves.
But what if it hadn’t? What if the fortunes of NetNoir and Cafe Los Negroes had stayed strong? What if BlackPlanet—which predated even Friendster—had ballooned into a global diasporic nerve center? What if CyberPowWow became an identity-specific Twitter and Universal Black Pages our Google? What if alongside Reddit we had LatinoLink? To push the thought experiment a step further, let’s imagine that these cultural sites not only endured but, as a result, created a more segmented, racially divided internet. What I suppose I’m asking is this: Would the internet work better if it were more segregated?
I admit it’s an ugly question, one that betrays the values of inclusivity. It shouldn’t sit well. It’s not meant to go down easy. But if we begin from a place of discomfort, maybe we can get to a place of illumination. In fact, my premise is not without precedent.
Separatist societies are mainstays of popular culture. There’s the futuristic East African nation of Wakanda from Black Panther, which thrives in isolation. The town of Ruby, Oklahoma, from Toni Morrison’s Paradise, is populated by black residents who carry “eight-rock” blood. Think, too, of Themyscira from the Wonder Woman comics and the town of Macondo from Gabriel García Márquez’s kaleidoscopic sagas.
The most potent example, though, comes from real life. The Greenwood district of Tulsa, Oklahoma, was known as Black Wall Street during the early 1900s. The freedom colony was home to 10,000 residents and was one of the wealthiest black communities in the US until 1921, when a white mob burned it to the ground. On HBO’s tangled superhero crime noir Watchmen, creator Damon Lindelof uses the Tulsa race riots, and the violent destruction of that self-sustained black enclave, to lob a question at the American center: How would the world be different if white supremacists had not done what they always do—take what is not theirs?
Juxtapose the vision of Greenwood to Mark Zuckerberg’s original mandate to make Facebook into a utopia, a one-size-fits-all network for your every need. Even as the company has shifted toward corralling users into Groups, they’re stuck in a spiderweb of chaos, prone to bullying, harassment, and campaigns of disinformation that read like the twisted fantasies of Orwell’s juiciest fiction. Imagine, instead, an internet of micro-utopias.
What I’m proposing is not a firewalled splinternet; it has more to do with where I see us evolving as a society—into enclaves. In one form or another, this sort of purposeful bundling already informs our day-to-day life. Netflix groups its users into “taste clusters.” The global population has become more siloed with the mass introduction of premium subscription and paywalled services—those who have and those who don’t. On Reddit, users bond and bicker in shelled communities. We’re already walling off.
So why not be more intentional about it? What many black, brown, and even queer users are losing in this digital jambalaya is a sense of ownership—all of us remain beholden to the reach and grip of Big Tech. You could assume the worst, of course—that in an internet of micro-utopias there would be, say, a NaziGram. But communities of hate already and will always exist, in the name of “free speech.”
Culturally, our differences are what make us. There’s no shame in wanting to protect and even ossify that camaraderie. “Someone could call it separatist. I would call it survival,” McIlwain tells me when I propose a newly segregated internet. “The way I get ahead is the way that other folks have gotten ahead. It doesn’t mean I stay walled off and disconnected. It means I start from a place of strength, which is a network of people I consider my people, and I build from there.” When I joined BlackPlanet in high school, around 2002, I had that very feeling—it all seemed so idyllic and endless then. It felt like home. Like mine. Like ours.
The real danger, it seems, is not in asking for my own internet. It’s the fear and confusion such a prospect instills in the minds of everyone else. In spaces for us and by us, black users can talk and build and innovate the way we want, without the threat of thievery by the mainstream. We can build our own Wakandan corner of the web—and decide for ourselves what we want to give away.
All Rights Reserved for Jason Parham