The segregated web

I’m not sure what I think about the Barry Diller/IAC announcement of a black-oriented search engine and content site, Rushmore Drive. I get the content part, of course. I also understand specialized search engines based on need or interest — jobs v. homes v. medicine, and so on. But isn’t there a danger in creating a search engine segregated along racial lines? Does it create more separation? Does it create a new sort of echo chamber? Does it limit the world reached by the search? I would never want to use a search engine aimed at middle-aged, suburban white guys like me; I want the world. And how do they know what is black-oriented content? It almost smacks of reverse red-lining, possibly pandering: How can you tell that a given article would be of more interest to an African-American than others and who’s to say that all African-Americans would look at it the same way? Perhaps I need to hear the problem stated clearly before I can judge this as a solution.

It has been said that tools like blogging and Facebook are disproportionately white; is that the problem? Is the solution, then, a search engine that gives them more traffic? Well, perhaps. But it’s a rather indirect one; there are other ways to encourage more creation and send them more audience.

Or is the problem search itself and an inability to find some content? I did a search on teen pregnancy because I recalled a recent survey saying that the incidence is much higher in the African-American community, and on Rushmore Drive, the fourth and fifth results are about just that. Not so on Google, though adding “African-American” to the search query comes up with very good results.

I would regret seeing the open prairie of the web marred with fences. On the internet, nobody knows you’re a dog or a cat, black or white, man or woman, young or old, unless you chose to say so and unless it’s relevant. I would have hoped that we could use this vast openness to break down some of these separations, not build them back up.

  • Hmmm…. some Flickr users are staging an uprising against the addition of video uploading. They’re afraid the site might become YouTube’ish.

    Change is never comfortable, but experiments still need to be given a chance.

  • Rather a worrying concept Jeff.

    As you quite rightly say,when you search the web you search the world surely.That is the whole concept of freedom of information that the web gives.
    Start putting in barriers and the concept is finished

  • Pat Patterson

    Will there be a secret handshake before one can use this new service?

  • Nigel says: “when you search the web you search the world surely.”

    This suggests we’ve reached an endpoint that suits all needs for all purposes. The Web’s value is it’s break from simple, rigid hierarchies. Because of this you see complexities, missteps, bubbles bursting, mash-ups, angry lawyers, viral videos, exposed celebs, politicians caught in misstatements, etc with no clear idea where all this will lead to.

  • Harry

    Back in the late 1990s internet boom, wasn’t there a portal/search engine targeting Hispanics, something called or similar?

    It’s not around these days, and maybe that’s a clue that “web segregation” isn’t a smart strategy.

  • Well said, Jeff! I can’t think of a good reason for this, either. Although if one exists, I’m open to hearing it.

  • zak822

    “blogging and Facebook are disproportionately white;” because we, as African-Americans, disproportionately do not have the hardware, software and high speed access that makes these easy and fun. For example, I live in an urban areas but can’t get high speed, because Verizon won’t roll it out in my community. And they’ve strangled any competitors outside of Comcast. Not much of a choice, in my view.

    It’s not due to a lack of interest in such things. Or a lack of the necessary know-how. I was considered a DOS wizard (that’s one that’ll date you!), but I learned on a company computer because we couldn’t afford one at home. I bought our first company company from an African-American startup company that was in a YMCA incubator.

    There is no need for a search engine with an African-American focus. It’s just a question of learning how to search for what you want. Diller’s just looking for a money hook (nothing wrong with that), not filling a “need”.

    Last, I don’t believe that there are enough of us that are only interested in African-American “stuff” to make such a venture profitable.

  • Unfortunately that is not the case. Look what happened to Laura Martinez, a Latino marketing blogger. She uploaded this Absolut ad (that ran in Mexican magazines for a Mexican audiences) and she recieved more than 230 comments, most of them pretty hateful. If anything, the Web sometimes separated more than unites.
    The link to the story and the comment thread:

  • Anon Omus

    The whole idea is racist. What a bad idea. Doesn’t deciding that facebook is “white” and this new site is “black” mean that everything regarding this issue is solely based on stereo types? If that’s the case I want a “white,” “Asian,” and “insert-race-here” search engine. Hell, let’s just ask your race when you enter a website so that you get the race appropriate one?

    -worst idea ever

  • I tested it. Ran a search for my blog and 0 results came back for it. I’m black by the way. What gives? I mean it’s fairly new but what gives? Do I need to start tagging everything ‘family reunion’ now? I’m putting a picture up now for sure.

  • Michael,
    That’s a really interesting issue: How do you identify yourself? And what does that ID mean?

  • zak822

    Michael, what search terms did you use?

  • Silber Streak

    e’ Welcome to the Online Ghetto.

  • Michael Katcher

    I’m probably too late to get any response comments on this, but how is this any more or less racist than Black Entertainment Television or Ebony? Is it going to make much money? I doubt it. Will it get good traffic? I doubt it. Racist? Certainly not.

  • food for thought

    bravo bravo bravo!!!!by the way im a white guy. this a very great idea. I dont see any harm in this search engine. Look At country music television Mtv. BEt its just not any segregation. Its in your area its just more relevance to black people. Let me ask you if you go to google type in george washington, now rushmore drive type in george washington it will tell you george washington carver.

  • Efram Christmas

    A couple things, Jeff. Black is not a race in America. Blackness is much more a function of common experiences and interests that are a byproduct of race. So in that sense, the new site could just as well be a sports search engine, but in this sense it’s attempting to bring up cultural relevance rather than explicitly racial in a separatist way.

    The major benefit of this – once it begins to work better – is that relevance on major search engines factors in the much broader audience, so it is harder to find things by content providers. Diller’s new thing will work best really less as an organic serach engine than as a search engine/aggregation that lifts up content that is already known to be most relevant because it’s by African American content producers. If it succeeds in driving traffic to those sites, it becomes worth it because it lifts the tide for all boats.

    But even then, it’s an extension to a Google as opposed to a competitor.

  • jason murphy

    I think this is probably useful. If only to get people talking about this. The cannon of the internet, in terms of everthing is written by white people (in the english internet world that is). The fact is that the web IS mainly composed for us white people. We don’t see it that way becasue we assume our structures are universal as they sit our view of ourselves. Think about it. s

  • unless you chose to say so and unless it’s relevant
    You notice this sort of thing is usually said by someone who closer fits the profile of an older white guy like yourself? I’m not wild about this search engine and it will probably fail, but let’s not pretend that our society is colorblind – nor should it be.

  • “And how do they know what is black-oriented content?”

    Easy: if “they” are ten black guys/women sitting in the room deciding on a site or idea or item or newsgroup, they know.

  • Uh, Steve, they can judge the whole web? Just 10 people? Must be long hours.

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  • Soo Do Nim

    The fact that you can even ask about this shows that you don’t understand it. Mainstream urban african-american culture is vastly different from middle-class white culture, even though you’ve been led to believe that yours is essentially colorblind.

    Black people are overwhelmingly poor, undereducated, and more likely to be imprisoned or to come from a fractured family. They don’t trust gangsters or junkies any more than you do, but they also have strong traditions of “do what you got to do to get by” and minding one’s own business. They value loyalty and responsibility, even if they also still look out for number one. Social standing, reputation, and appearance are very important to them.

    They even talk differently. I don’t just mean they pronounce things differently or they don’t use correct grammar, they actually manipulate language completely differently from the way you or I do. They have a “high context” communication style but are stuck with the low-context vocabulary of American English. Consequently black slang often appears to not follow any kind of rules, and this is because it really doesn’t. The tropes of communication among african-american youth are pretty opaque unless you’ve had enough exposure to them that they’ve become internalized.

    How one can make a search engine that takes all of this into account is beyond me, though. I expect it will end up more like a web portal with a contract with Yahoo, Google, or ask jeeves.

  • As you quite rightly say,when you search the web you search the world surely.That is the whole concept of freedom of information that the web gives.

  • “And how do they know what is black-oriented content?”

    Easy: if “they” are ten black guys/women sitting in the room deciding on a site or idea or item or newsgroup, they know.

    Jeff Jarvis Says:

    April 12th, 2008 at 8:44 am
    Uh, Steve, they can judge the whole web? Just 10 people? Must be long hours.

    Jeff–Come on–generally speaking, if you get a group of people together (I used 10 as a for-the-sake-of-argument number) with similar interests/backgrounds/natiionalities/whatever (Buicks, hip hop, blond-haired women, sailing, whatever), they can arrive at a general consensus of what interests them.

  • Steve,
    The point is that the web has billions of pages on millions of subjects. There is no way to humanly judge this. That is what Yahoo tried to do at the beginning and it quickly gave up. This company is going to do it with algorithms. And I fear to think how the machine will end up classifying things as black. It’s automated pandering. That’s my point.

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  • Phil Loomis

    I think the point here is that this isn’t really a “black site” but a cultural site. I’m pretty sure that this site also won’t address all of black culture, but a subset. It will address common aspirations of this culture, and will more closely address some of the interests of the people in this culture — especially those which are distinct.

    Nothing new in this: almost any form of media has a target audience; this is useful: for most purposes people go to media which is relevant to their current state, or to one of their “interests”.

    It is true though that the Internet world hasn’t really focused too hard yet on building applications customized for relatively small groups. I suspect this is because it has previously been too expensive to do so. And perhaps there was some conceptual blindness around this possibility.

  • You talk about some idealized notion of the web as un-segregated and wide open… and it’s just not the case. There already is considerable isolation among the various spheres; some of it is the natural selection of topics – I don’t, necessarily, need to join the world of “new Mom” blogs, cause I’m not one, for instance. But things follow from that – how many women writers do you (generalized you, not Jeff specifically) read? How many people of color? Do you link to sites of people not like yourself, on topics different from those that interest you? These I think, are the ways to see how “open” the web is, and I’d submit that in many ways, as with much of American society and culture, the notions of openness and integration are illusory.

    I don’t know how I feel about Rushmore Drive – I suppose I’m more concerned that Diller, a white man, sees “opportunity” not justice, in what he’s pursuing; that feels exploitative… but we’ll see. But I think part of this is facing reality, not some idealized notion of how the web, or the rest of America, works. If we can’t admit the problems we have, it seems to me we can’t begin to think about solving them.

  • Kris

    You are not smart enough to even be called stupid. You should go and read Chris Anderson’s, The Long Tail to better understand the niche model.

  • I haven’t just read it. I’m quoted in it. And I have the balls to say what I say under my name, unlike an uncivilized gutless fuck like you. You live in a very tiny niche of one, I”m sure.