How BlackPlanet Works


Public Enemy's Flava Flav (left) and Chuck D. perform in June 2009.
Public Enemy's Flava Flav (left) and Chuck D. perform in June 2009.
Tim Mosenfelder/Getty Images

In 1990, rap group Public Enemy released what may have been their seminal album, "Fear of a Black Planet." It was what one music critic called measuredly, "The Sgt. Pepper's of hip-hop" [source: Kastner]. In other words, Public Enemy wasn't going to be topped anytime soon. Nor would the group have to wait long for their vision to be realized, although it came in a form Public Enemy probably wouldn't have predicted.

The black planet that Public Enemy visualized would emerge nine years after they released their album as a virtual community called BlackPlanet.com (BP). Though the location isn't quite physical, the spirit is the same. BlackPlanet is a social networking site dedicated to connecting and informing the African-American community. Its creation required no bloodshed or militant revolution; rather, the social media site was launched relatively unnoticed in 1999 amid the hype of the dot-com boom and subsequent bust.

As tech companies folded with dizzying speed -- the total value of the Dow Jones technology index dropped 86 percent from 2000 to 2002, losing around $2 trillion -- BlackPlanet weathered the storm [source: Starr]. Today it has emerged as the most heavily trafficked niche social networking site in the U.S. and remains one of the top five overall social networking sites, along with the likes of MySpace and Facebook [source: Hitwise].

Initially, BlackPlanet was designed as a way for African-American professionals to network. Since then, it's grown and evolved like any other social media site operating under the principles of Web 2.0. Users interact based on the tools (widgets) made available free of charge by the site. Members read other members' blogs, watch music videos, chat with one another, flirt, look for new careers and discuss the news.

Learn how to explore BlackPlanet on the next page.

Using BlackPlanet

A screenshot of the Style section of BlackPlanet.com.
A screenshot of the Style section of BlackPlanet.com.
Courtesy BlackPlanet

BlackPlanet is a mélange of play, work and social interaction. Its ultimate goal is to bring people together, based generally on common interests. The site maintains channels -- subsections of the site -- based on broad categories, like music, photography, video and style. BP members congregate at these community areas, increasing the possibility of two perfect strangers meeting one another online, which, of course, is the entire point of social networking.

For example, a person on the Dating channel can see the pages of other members. A member who has a hopeless attraction to Ms_ Lady111982 can let her know by sending a message. The slightly less imaginative member can use the "Send Crush" tool, which creates a note through choices made from a drop-down menu ("I like your: hair/eyes/aura"). For coy members, BlackPlanet also features a "Secret Admirer" tool that alerts a potential mate that another member is interested and offers five chances to guess who the admirer may be.

The Dating channel is merely one example of BlackPlanet's scope. The site isn't entirely based on dating and personal encounters, although they make up a substantial portion of the site. Ultimately, BlackPlanet can be divided into two categories: business and pleasure. Business-minded members can network with one another in the Professionals channel. Members seeking jobs can browse openings posted by companies and upload their resumes on the Jobs channel.

To access any of the sections, however, all BlackPlanet members must first create their own personal page. Like other social networking sites, BP requires limited information, like the new user's ZIP code or country of origin. This information categorizes site members so that, for example, a user in Atlanta automatically encounters jobs or other members in his or her area first. There's also myriad other bits of personal information that a user can enter -- like astrological sign and relationship status -- to make connecting with others easier.

Since the line between business and pleasure is a distinct one, BlackPlanet allows users to create three separate pages: the main personal page, as well as business and dating profiles. The last two can be managed through the user's personal page, which serves as the vehicle that a member uses to tool around the site. A BlackPlanet member who's logged in might go to the site's News section, read an article posted from The Urban Daily and post a comment based on his or her username.

Benefits of BlackPlanet

BlackPlanet founder Omar Wasow in 2008.
BlackPlanet founder Omar Wasow in 2008.
David S. Halloway/Getty Images

One of the biggest benefits of joining BlackPlanet is the central location it provides for users to meet and share ideas and opinions. As a social networking site, it does this by definition. Since BlackPlanet is a niche social networking site, however, it offers a more focused forum -- a place where African-Americans can talk about African-American issues and how larger issues affect their community. As a result, BlackPlanet has served as a means by which the African-American community has strengthened itself via the Internet. This has always been a goal of the site, according to founder Omar Wasow, and one it's achieved.

This is not to say that BlackPlanet is offlimits to anyone. Wasow points out that all are welcome. "Anybody can join," he told Stanford Magazine in 2004. "We found that we were not segregating the Web. Members would come and hang out at BlackPlanet, then become more enthusiastic citizens of the Web in general" [source: Wasow]. In the founder's opinion, the site has benefited what he originally saw as an underserved minority group on the Internet. Since BlackPlanet was launched in 1999, its membership increased from a few thousand users to more than 18 million by 2008, making it the fifth largest social networking site in the U.S. [source: The Free Library]. In other words, there are a lot of people to connect with on BlackPlanet.

Users aren't the only ones who benefit from the massive breadth of the BP membership pool. When Barack Obama made his bid for president, he made what many widely consider a very savvy move: He created a BlackPlanet page. (President Obama still maintains his personal BP page.) Within two weeks of the creation of the page in October 2007, Obama had 192,000 friends on the site -- more than he enjoyed on either MySpace or Facebook [source: Vargas]. Without spending any money, Obama managed to connect to nearly 200,000 potential supporters through BlackPlanet.

Since its launch in 1999, BlackPlanet has established a place for itself in the upper echelons of social networking sites. After all, when the president maintains a page on a Web site, it's officially hit the big time.

For more information on BlackPlanet and social media, visit the next page.

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Sources

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