BlackPlanet’s Founder on Building Impactful Platforms and Communities

“Let the people see what I have seen.”

This is what Mamie Till, the mother of Emmett Till, said when she insisted on an open casket funeral for her brutally murdered son in 1955. Photos of Emmett’s disfigured body circulated and encouraged many to join the civil rights movement.

Darnella Frazier is the teenager that caught George Floyd’s murder on camera and posted it to Facebook. She later stated “that could’ve been one of your loved ones, and you would want to see the truth as well.” As the video circulated, it inspired protests across the country, and George Floyd’s name, image, and story, became a rallying cry against police brutality and systemic racism.

Our guest this week, Prof. Omar Wasow, breaks down the thread between the power of these images even further: “What some of these videos do, what some of these images do, is they allow people who are outside to have a window in, to have a moment of empathy, to walk a few steps in the feet of somebody who might have suffered in some profound way.”

These images clearly have the power to create understanding and power movements. These victims of brutal and heartless crimes become our symbols for change, though we must not forget that they were people, that they were just trying to exist. For example, the protests that erupted after George Floyd’s murder have been twisted into a completely unrelated conspiracy theory by QAnon.

Wasow, the founder of BlackPlanet and a professor whose research focuses on race, politics, and statistical methods, discusses how the internet gives a platform to those who might otherwise not have one, like Darnella Frazier, but also serves as fertile ground for dangerous groups like QAnon. 

Patrick and Omar also discuss:

  • The principles that made BlackPlanet a popular community for Black people of all generations and backgrounds
  • How BlackPlanet and other early social platforms inspired creativity amongst their users
  • The power and importance of documenting and sharing injustice

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Big Quotes

Wasow optimized BlackPlanet for the creativity of the community (5:38): “[The] transformation from player to programmer was really powerful and changed the arc of my life. When we were designing BlackPlanet, that was something we really wanted to offer our users as well: The experience of going from being people who are just consumers of the web, to being creators and really having it be, at core, a site where your creativity could flourish.” –@owasow

BlackPlanet brought the Black communities online (12:53): “[There were] all of these institutions that involved the Black community having deep ties to each other, [sororities, historically Black colleges and universities, Black churches], that didn’t have a home on the internet and that was something [BlackPlanet] could provide. … It’s partly about making a site that was accessible, that was easy to use, that gave people lots of ways to express themselves. It also was a site that could be used in different ways by different people.” –@owasow

What communities and dance floors have in common (31:22): “There’s a seeding function, which is getting people into the community and getting a critical mass. I used to think of it as a dance floor. You’re running a social site; if it’s an empty dance floor, that’s not a place that’s going to thrive, but if you can get a packed dance floor, that’s awesome.” –@owasow

Will social media platforms give users tools to craft their own experiences? (31:57): “If you give people more tools to manage the experience, you can take off some of the responsibility of being the moderator.” –@owasow

How videos like the one showing the murder of George Floyd can ignite a movement and lead to social change (35:00): “If we have these siloed identities, it can mean that we don’t actually have a lot of understanding of people who live in different worlds. What some of these videos do, what some of these images do, is they allow people who are outside to have a window in, to have a moment of empathy, to walk a few steps in the feet of somebody who might have suffered in some profound way.” –@owasow

Why documentation of protests and injustice is important (35:25): “If I’m a protester, if I’m an activist, [I think] like a camera. What is the moment that will be documented, that could be shared more widely, that allows people outside of this particular moment to have some sense of the larger injustice we’re trying to draw attention to?” –@owasow

How the internet provides fertile ground for dangerous groups like QAnon (44:49): “[The] capacity for outsiders to gain voice and win is a really valuable part of the internet. At the same time, what we’ve seen both in politics and media is that the absence of gatekeepers has this real downside.” –@owasow

About Omar Wasow

Omar Wasow is an assistant professor in Princeton’s department of politics. His research focuses on race, politics, and statistical methods. His paper on the political consequences of the 1960s civil rights movement was published in the American Political Science Review. His co-authored work on estimating causal effects of race was published in the Annual Review of Political Science. Before joining the Academy, Professor Wasow served as a regular on-air technology analyst and was the co-founder of BlackPlanet, a social network he helped grow to over three million active users.

In 2003, he helped found a high performing K-8 charter school in Brooklyn. He is a recipient of the National Science Foundation’s Graduate Research Fellowship in the Aspen Institute’s Henry Crowne fellowship. He received a PhD in African American Studies, a master’s in government, and a master’s in statistics from Harvard University.

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