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Solange Knowles knows how to keep the people guessing. The build up to her highly anticipated second album When I Get Home (which was delivered as of midnight on Friday!) was full of trippy futuristic visuals and innovative marketing schemes, like releasing what turned out to be Mike Jones' phone number from the song "Back Then" where fans could hear snippets of the album.The most head-turning maneuver around the new album rollout, however, was creating a page on the website BlackPlanet, a Myspace-like forum popular amongst young Black people in the early 2000s. When she directed fans to her page, calling it the “new world wide web” in an Instagram post, Twitter immediately joked about a mass exodus to the cyber Wakanda.
In reviving BlackPlanet, a site that was very much the OG Black Twitter, Solange seems to be honoring the black community she grew up on. BlackPlanet was a futuristic project created by Stanford grad Omar Wasow in 1999, and was one of the earliest places people could creatively express their blackness online. It shocked the tech world, getting millions of African Americans hyper-engaged with the platform, until Myspace, Facebook, and Twitter took over the online world. Now, as some thought-leaders are trying to give black content creators their due, Knowles’ shoutout is directing attention back to what exactly the website was, how it influenced the internet today, and why it became obsolete.
The site was originally created as a platform for friends, dating, and eventually professional networking. When you logged on you would see who else was online, who was active recently, and you could sign a guest book if you visited someone’s page.“It was focused on being social from the beginning. And then some of the stuff like finding a job got layered on top as it took off,” Wasow told VICE.It was one of the first sites to give people an easy way to customize their own profiles with photos, about sections, and, or course, hella gifs. The site earned a line in Kanye West’s song “Get Em High” off College Dropout: "You know how girls on BlackPlanet be when they get bubbly." And Kevin Durant fans got a laugh when some savvy internet users found his high school profile in 2016, unearthing an amazing about me line that reads, “IM ON DIS JOINT CHILLEN, LOOKIN 4 YOUNGINS TO CHILL WIT OR JUS BE FRIENDS. SO IF YOU FEELIN ME GET AT UR BOY.“
So, what was BlackPlanet and what does its revival do for the culture?
“In the early days of the web the idea was that [the internet] was going to be a giant library. On most sites you were going through a series of web pages that were static. Making the internet social was still pretty unusual,” Wasow explained. “We went to great lengths to make the site feel like there are other people there.”
“In 1999 almost every story that talked about black people on the internet was focused on the digital divide, how black people were lagging behind in their use of technology,” Wasow explained. “So when we launched people were pretty skeptical that there was even a market for it.” But through creating a user-friendly site that harnessed the social culture of the black community, BlackPlanet was able to gain nearly a million users in its first year and close to five million by the end of 2005, which was a lot by pre-Facebook standards.With all the customizable options, building fire pages still took some effort, which taught people how to bend the internet to their whims. “One of the things I’m most proud of is that people weren’t just consumers of the internet but we were showing them how to build their own internet,” Wasow said. “The most important thing is that there are lots of people who became expert social media users on BlackPlanet and they were able to go thrive in different domains like black twitter.”
How did it play a role in black people becoming internet culture creators?
Depending on how deep you wanted to get you could even code your own page, which some have reflected on recently as the start of their tech careers. Black Twitter users with huge followings still shout out the site for helping them develop early tech expertise. Activist Johnetta Elzie, who has over 200,000 followers on the site, tweeted in 2017, “blackplanet had me feeling like I was an executive web designer in hs.”"Black Twitter can trace a clear lineage from BlackPlanet," says Andre Brock author of Distributed Blackness: African American Cybercultures. "It was a pioneer in encouraging users to bring their best design chops and sparked a culture of creativity centered around Black cultural artifacts."
The next big social network for black people after BlackPlanet was Myspace which launched in 2003. Wasow told Complex that MySpace creators used BlackPlanet as an early model for their site.“We made it really easy for people to build a page that has a lot of options to customize it and when Myspace launched that was their model,” Wasow said. Though it’s hard to draw any exact correlations, early Facebook and Myspace features, like listing your top friends on your page or seeing who visited your profile, were similar to the guest book on BlackPlanet.
How did it influence Myspace and Facebook?
Ironically, the question of why BlackPlanet couldn’t become its own black Twitter is now the topic of a Twitter thread. The general consensus is that the site was starting to look too outdated by the early-mid 2000s when Myspace and Facebook were taking off. “It would’ve required rebuilding the site which was a big challenge,” Wasow said. Media conglomerate Radio One bought BlackPlanet’s parent company, Community Connect, in 2008 and then decided against rebuilding it from scratch. That inevitably meant it didn’t translate well to mobile devices as social media use shifted amongst young people. “That transition from web to mobile was one that BlackPlanet largely missed,” Wasow said.
Why wasn’t it able to compete with other social media sites?
Now that Solange's album has dropped, her BlackPlanet page functions as many things: She has a visual Tumblr-esque mood board, a page for her live tour dates, and a place to sign up for a newsletter, and a link to her store (which is currently selling A Seat at The Table anniversary vinyls). The site itself has finally changed its look from the original days, and it launched a mobile app (though some are saying the app could use an upgrade). As her shout-out generates new users and renewed attention to the site’s history though, Solange made a number of people who’ve anxiously watched its downslide feel reassured.“She’s doing something that’s on the one hand futuristic and creative and forward looking. But it also taps a well of nostalgia in the black community that I’m not even sure people remembered they had,” Wasow said. “BlackPlanet went from something everyone had in college to something no one was talking about, but people spent a lot of time on that site and for a generation of African Americans it was a formative part of their internet experience.”Sign up for our newsletter to get the best of VICE delivered to your inbox daily.Follow Taylor Hosking on Twitter and Instagram.