Our Future is Cyberspace

Black Issues Book Review Nov-Dec 1999 cover“Outsiders” have often dictated the trends of African American Culture, sometimes doing the job themselves, sometimes using what authors John A. Williams called “surrogates.”  Both W.E.B. DuBois and Booker T. Washington accused each other of being manipulated by outsiders.

With the introduction of cyberspace, younger writers have the ability to reach audiences unheard of during the sixties when African American writers produced broadsides and saddle-stitched chapbooks.  As access to cyberspace becomes less expensive, more voices will be heard and this period, the most prolific in the history of African American Literature, will rise to worldwide prominence, no longer having to obey the tastes of the outsiders in power or the dictates of the establishment-manufactured Talented Tenth.
Ishmael Reed (Black Issues Book Review; November-December 1999)

During the period Ishmael Reed wrote this I would have agreed with him.  A year earlier, I’d started AALBC.com with just that belief in mind.  But I was naive, and today I strongly disagree with the statement.  I wonder if Ishmael disagrees with it now too.  I will reach out to him, and see if he is willing to share his thoughts here.  He is active on Facebook so…

“Cyberspace,” or the World Wide Web, as it is more commonly known today, has actually made it easier for “Outsiders” to dictate the trends of African American Culture. Nothing has changed indeed it has gotten much worse for us.

Market forces drive us to conform to the dictates of the “Outsiders” referred to by Reed. The most popular “Black” websites are not owned by Black people.  The ones that are owned by Black folks take their marching orders from the white owned sites they minick, in an attempt to attract visitors.  Anyone who has been online for 5 minutes knows about the-celebrity-scandal-click-bait content that drives our most popular, so called, Black sites.

Sure there may be more Black writers with the potential to reach more people, but they are finding it increasingly difficult to be heard, unless of course they are cosigned by one of the massive sites run by “outsiders”; which then of course requires conforming to their dictates.

Despite all of this virtually free access to the web and numerous tools to publish content, we do not drive the narrative, rather the “outsiders” created narrative drives us.  Anyone attempting to do something other than what the “outsiders” have prescribed will fail or struggle miserably.

I often read old magazines for a historical perspective.  I subscribed to Black Issues Book Review (BIBR) for it’s entire run.  The issue from where I transcribed Ishmael’s quote was brilliant.  I’m unaware of any other magazine that comes close to producing the content  Black Issues Book Review did during it’s prime.  Both the magazine and the associated website are long gone.

Part of the problem is the we simply do not work in our own self interest.  Sure there are some great exceptions, but not enough to really make a difference.  When I was a corporate employee, this was not apparent to me, but the minute I became a business owner it became very obvious. It is very sad.

For example, I would listen to Black writers give Black Issue Book Review, a lot of grief for not paying them enough, or fast enough, for the articles they wrote.  Of course if you say you are going to pay someone, you need to pay them.  But I also observed some of these very same writers proudly write for the Huffington Post for free!  Just the idea of having a HuffPost byline was enough compensation. There was never as much pride in having a BIBR byline.

Today we have fewer websites dedicated to Black books.  One would think there would be an uproar, but media, like a BIBR, who would report on this problem, no longer exists.  I’d image the general public has no idea a problem even exists.  Even saying there are few Black book websites, would not mean much absent a historical context.  Meanwhile, the “outsider” has sold us on the idea popularity on their platforms is the only meaningful measure of success.

Sites like AALBC.com who are inclined to report on this issue, an issue that does not conform to the “dictated the trend,” defined by the “outsiders,” have to fight to be heard. Trust me; it is a fight. Social media is pay to play, and search results skew away from Black independent websites.  But most importantly, our people will not sacrifice to support, no invest, in our own platforms.  Paying a bit more or clicking away from a massive social media site is apparently too much of a sacrifice for us to make, to control our own narrative.

Black websites certainly don’t matter to the massive corporations who control the World Wide Web, but based upon our behavior they don’t matter to us either.

Our future may be cyberspace, but that future looks pretty bleak.  I hope to tell a very different story in 15 years.

  • Very insightful. I think your focus on literature and how the www has failed to expand and open up opportunities can’t be argued. I remember a fertile Cushcity, AALBC, Mosaic, BIBR and a host of sites in the webring back in the day. Now the sites struggle to garner interest. Social sites have such a stronghold on the minds of the masses that we are all suffering because of it. We have to either find a way to survive inside of the machine or we die living on the outside of it. Keep fighting the good fight as long as it makes sense… and even when it doesn’t.

    • Man we are dying in the machine and out of it. Reed is a highly accomplished author–he was successful before “cyberspace” became available to the public. I’m really talking about everyone else. He was nice enough to reply, but nothing was communicated, because he missed my point, by not reading the article. Again this emphasizes my point. The only real beneficiary in this case was Facebook.

  • Ishmael Reed not at all. my online publication konch reaches an international audience. couldn’t do this with print. and with ebooks, smart phones,etc. more people can get their opinions out. in fact social media is threatening the survival of the paleo media.

    Like · Reply · 4 hrs
    Troy Johnson “Paleo media” smile emoticon If you get a chance click the link and read my thoughts, You have a broader and deeper perspective, but from my vantage point there have been no clear benefits for the Black book ecosystem. Ideally post any reaction directly on my blog.

    Like · Reply · 4 hrs · Edited
    Ishmael Reed i’ve published a number of authors by print on demand i couldn’t afford to publish otherwise.

    Like · Reply · 4 hrs
    Troy Johnson Multiply that by 500,000 (at least), the average writer earns less, more difficult to find readership, impossible to get reviewed–let along coverage. 10 years ago it was better, today it is worse.
    Please post the ISBN13’s of the books you’ve pubbed for other authors.when you get a chance I’ll make sure the books are on my website, if they would appeal to reader of Black literature.

    • This doesn’t surprise me at all. I’ve always said celebrity, even small celebs, benefit from social media. They will continuously taut the benefits of social and the people out there will buy into it. There is no reason for Reed to leave social media. All of his people are there. Stars get paid for their ability to reach people. There isn’t any incentive to venture outside of their reach. I still think it was a small victory to have him engage with you because at least you will get that bump in traffic possibly.

  • BIG ISH

    I wonder what sites he’s comparing AAlbc.com to?

  • Alan Osi

    Happy
    to share. It’s a good article. Raises good questions. What stands out
    for me, and I hope you will write a Part 2, is what do you mean by
    ‘outsiders’? Who exactly do you believe is ‘dictating’ and ‘how exactly
    are they compelling African Americans to
    some how lose their identity.’

    More importantly, give me the example of
    the ‘identity’ you believe is being undermined. When you say ‘outsiders’
    that is a platitude. When I looked at the list in your article about
    these sites not being ‘Black Owned’ I saw two things that made me
    scratch my head.

    One is, and I don’t know the answer, but I would like
    to know, how many of those sites were started by African Americans, and
    later sold to larger Corporations? This is important, since any that
    were benefited when their buyers saw the value, and weren’t able to
    crack the African American market successfully themselves. If the answer
    is many, i.e. BET, then I would submit that’s a win for African
    Americans to look at, in the same way we might might look at a start up
    that gets gobbled up by Google, that was founded by African Americans.

    Next is, I see Oprah on the list. Here is an African American who IS the
    Gold Standard not just for African Americans, but across the
    Entertainment Industry. We can huff and puff that isn’t ‘enough’, but
    again at least tell the audience where you would be satisfied. One other
    point is and to me HuffPo, is the notable exception, Huria points out
    each entity must be 51% African American owned, so how do you reconcile
    that?

    If the answer is Huria is lying, we have to call them out, and not
    imply anything else.

    My final point is, and where I completely
    disagree with you is, your inference African Americans can’t compete on
    the web.

    It is in no way ‘too expensive’ as a start up. At no time in
    history has access to a global market of buyers been more available. $25
    a month, and $25 a year gets you a domain name, and an ecommerce ready
    hosting service to put up website and begin the process of ‘finding your
    market’. That’s under $300 a year. A very reasonable cost for the
    opportunity.

    Next, you have to have a product people ‘want’ or ‘need’ to
    buy. Look around you. African Americans like all humans had no problem
    switching from landline phones to cell phones, even though cell phones
    were more expensive. Why? They are a better product, and make our lives
    better.

    So, what we need are more African American entrepreneurs
    banging their heads against the wall, like all entrepreneurs do, did,
    and will do, to create products people want and can’t live without.

    Here
    is where I will make my final point. The web, cyberspace, is color
    blind, and that too is good for African Americans who are willing to
    compete. Because when African Americans compete, they win. So, let’s ask
    the question, are enough of us competing that could be?

    Of those who
    are, why aren’t we studying them, modeling them? I haven’t done any
    research but I would contend there are many African Americans who are
    successful marketers on the web. The largest, most successful website in
    the world is…. Alibaba. Run from China.

    So if the web was
    ‘segregated’ how could that be? The web is color blind. Further it is a
    false premise to suggest Google, Facebook treats an ad any differently
    for an African American than it does any one else. In the first place,
    how would it know? In the second, if it knew the bank account from which
    it was receiving funds was from one segment of society over another,
    what material advantage would it have, intentionally harming those
    people?

    What I would suggest is African Americans are missing out on
    untold opportunity because they aren’t digging in, and learning about
    what it takes to create a career from developing digital marketing
    skills. It takes tons of hours, that NO ONE is going to pay you for,
    UNTIL you are competent. Once you are, the web will knock down your
    doors to do for them, what they cannot do for themselves.

    If you don’t
    think so, when why are literally millions of Indian, and Asian
    Entrepreneurs being hired has freelancers or employees to complete web
    projects? They compete mainly on ‘cost’ but not on ‘quality’ by and
    large. Any American with solid web, and digital marketing skills should
    find no problem creating a great lifestyle and career.

    So let’s ask
    ourselves first, are there enough African Americans in Cyberspace first?
    I would submit there are not. Is there anything preventing African
    Americans from developing the skills necessary? I would submit there is
    not. Most of the best people on the web are self taught… just like
    writers. Can African Americans compete? That answer is yes. The question
    then becomes when when will we? –Alan Osi

    • Whew! There is a whole lotta stuff in there to unpack man 🙂 If knew you were gonna get this deep I would have sent to your our discussion forum proper. Which is even better suited for a broader conversation. But since I already sent you here I’ll make due.

      First, I’ve been building websites for over 20 years and teach the subject at the college level. This website has been my livelihood for almost a past decade. Just so that you know where I’m coming from.

      Don’t misunderstand me; if it is not obvious from the previous paragraph I clearly I believe that African-Americans can compete on the web. I just don’t think we are doing as good a job as we capable of doing.

      The term “Outsiders” was was taken from the Ishmael Reed quote I provided, to me it means non-Black people.

      I created Huria Search a few years ago. It looks like you missed the link to filter out the top Black sites and are owned by “others.” That removes sites HuffPost, The Root, The Griot, BET etc. I was hoping that would make it plain to visitors that many of the most popular Black brands on the website are not Black owned. More importantly the ones that are focus on celebrity.

      You say the internet is “color blind,” implying that all one has to do is create a great website and the best site wins. The is simply a false assumption. There are serious biases on the web. I guess the biggest one is discoverability. How does one find the newest great site that has been created? Huria Search was created to highlight sites that have essentially disappeared from search (I’m folding Huria Search into AALBC.com). Google controls discoverability. One might think they are getting the best site’s based upon a query on Google, but I know they are not in many cases, many of these great sites no longer exist.

      You mentioned Facebook’s treating on an ad. The only color Facebook cares about is green, but it was MUCH easier to reach people on the website BEFORE Facebook. Facebook has hurt discoverability and Google is an ally in this regard, as it often ranks a Facebook page over a individual’s own website. When I run a Google search on your name Alan Osi, your twitter page beats your website–and you barely use Twitter! So what is better your Twitter page or your website?

      You wrote it has never been cheaper (under $300/yr) to reach an audience. Let me tell you that the days of creating a website, and having it discovered organically are over. You better have some serious paper for advertising and promotion otherwise you will not make it. A celebrity cosign (or being a celebrity) can help. But the reality is that we succeed at the largess, the whim, of the “Outsider.” This is where I take issue with Reed in that he feels the web has corrected that problem. I’m arguing that it really hasn’t because Google can throw a switch and kill a website instantly.

      Finally, I know I have not addressed all of your points. I could have addressed each of them at much greater length. Again, I agree that African Americans can compete. But until we figure out a way to work together, we will continue to struggle and remain dependent upon the “Outsider” to control and be our voice on the web.

  • Blunt

    fuck you toby you knuckle dragging bootlip bitch you.

  • Blunt

    toby the tarskin nigger

  • Blunt

    fuck niggers

  • Blunt

    stupid ass fucking niggers

  • largemouth bass

    fuck u troy

  • largemouth bass

    tobes! tobes the nigger! when he watches gay porn, his cock gets bigger!

  • pickwick totse

    Fuck all “african americans” they are niggers

  • Shawntay Nomesayin

    I have come here to chew bubblegum and bash niggers…and I’m all out of bubblegum. >:-D