(From the archives - 2003)
A BIT OF HISTORY, BLACK CMC
Over with the Afrofuturists, I've been going through a number of raisons d'etre and mapping out black cyberspace. Here follows materials from the archives...
The full transcript of this forum can be found at Drylongso.
When I first got on computer networks to communicate with other folks, there were very few black women or men online on at all. This had mostly to do with the fact that I was emailing on the Xerox internal network in the mid 80s long before there was a public Internet. So, I started my online discussions at a time when the builders of the networks frowned heavily on any non-technical discussion. Matters of netiquette were taken very seriously. That didn't stop me from having black oriented political and social discussions in the Xerox corporate intranet.
Since I had been fairly prominent in college as a national officer with NSBE, I felt that on the Xerox network I was continuing the discussions about the fate and future of blacks in Corporate America from a business and technical angle. It was certainly a male dominated world, but it existed primarily as a support network. Nobody took any social discussions seriously. The very idea of men and women meeting each other socially online was simply not done. Besides, most of us already knew each other. We assumed that white folks were listening in, and the biggest controversies had to do with airing dirty laundry.
A literacy project got me involved with open mike poetry in Los Angeles around 1990. Some of that got political, and it occurred to me that any black organization that would publish a newsletter would be a candidate for their own website. It was in this spirit a few years later that I created my first website with the idea in mind that many black organizations would follow suit. It was not to be. Everything associated with the information superhighway was considered elitist, and there was a sort of anxiety about it being another example of what white folks purposely did to leave black folks behind. So between black men and women there was no issue because most were not participating.
There was a golden age of black conversation on the net that took place between 1993 and 1996. For the most part, however, gender issues were deeply subordinated to racial and political issues. The core of the group of participants there came to know each other well enough to distinguish gender issues from personality issues. Nevertheless, there were always new folks coming into discussions, who would take communications issue and extrapolate them to "the problem with us." As a compiler of the FAQ for the SCAA group in 1995, gender issues simply weren't high on anyone's priority list. What was much more important was maintenance of the space free and clear of racist "drive-by" conduct. SCAA finally fell to a barrage of racists and serves no useful purpose today, diehards not withstanding.
Salon Table Talk
At Salon, we got into issues of identity and gender a lot deeper. One notable conversation there was specifically about hiding race and gender in cyberspace. Having been hardened by the experience of SCAA, it was clear to me, as the Internet was getting popular with non-technical folks, that certain mythologies were being promoted. I don't believe any of the black veterans of the SCAA wars would easily swallow the cliché on the Internet that "nobody knows you're a dog." We knew all too well that being black was more than just skin color--that identity was a crucial part of the way you saw and thus discussed things online. If anything, the anonymity of text enhanced the differences and conflicts as well as the contrasts and synergies. But it certainly did not obviate them. Cyberspace made you more of what you are; only the things you really felt passionate about would come through in a memorable way. So when this subject was breached at Salon's Table Talk, I really took a hard line against masking.
I never wanted to get into a trap with "authenticity," partially because spoofing identity was part of the fun of some cyberspace haunts. I think the nature of MUDs and IRC lend them particularly to this. But I never considered these places for the kinds of discussions I wished to have vis-à-vis black cultural production, criticism or political talk. Instead they were social adventures. I did have an online life as a girl named "Sindeetha" at a game site called "Sissyfight," which was very popular for a short time.
Black Planet, NetNoir
I have spent only a limited amount of time in black on black social forums where the primary activity is socializing and flirting. They simply came into being too late in my life to be of any use.
In general I would say that black folks' expectations for the type of interactions in which gender issues are significant came to the Internet some time after I did. In the early days, people simply didn't expect anything. People didn't expect black folks to *be* online, much less socialize there with any seriousness. Even when I had dreams of millions of black folks online, I didn't expect or desire a dating service.
I think it must be said that the contributions of black cultural production or academic quality materials has been disappointing and too little too late for me. It is in that area that I wish such matters could be handled better. I blame black professors and professionals for following the dollar instead of contributing to community. Those who are intelligent and capable of delivering evolutionary content to the web don't bother and/or take a cynical attitude towards the entire enterprise. Those who have been trained to speak about such social issues only do so to be paid, and their default in the online world leaves it to lay-people to struggle with issues to which the answers already exist. Consequently, I don't really look for much. Yet. I can admit to having exceptional expectations. That I'm not satisfied in no way suggests that a plurality of black folks can't be. I've always been the explorer looking to carve out new frontiers. Let's see what happens next.
Mike Bowen - Summer 2003
Becoming more real over the years in cyberspace-a distinction between expectations and reality. From: Mike Bowen
I perceive that people have come to appear more real to each other over the years in cyberspace. The convention of masking, originally established by techies, and the inability of the medium to use long names and pictures, has given way to more highly interactive virtual communities with highly stylized artifacts. I would think that BlackPlanet is a very good case in point. When content management software became available at no cost, the texture of online communities changed. Suddenly people who were very opaque in IRC using an abbreviated name and spurting short comments intermittently had the chance to put some style into a permanent website which added a dimension to their chat. With IRC, as soon as you stopped typing, you disappeared. With a website, you became permanent. Furthermore, with a website, you could attach pictures of yourself, artwork, favorite quotes and longer texts about yourself.
Additionally, people became more real in cyberspace because they volunteer information about their own circle of communicants and interests. Back in the days of Usenet before free website authoring became possible, individuals would put their �sig� at the end of each post. I have never seen a sig with a list of friends. Websites always list things that people might find interesting. So people could then be judged not only by what they say on one particular day, but by the online company they keep. Sure, you could tell something about a man who quotes Shakespeare, but he could become more complex if his best friend quotes Muddy Waters and less so if his friend also quotes Shakespeare.
Despite all of this, serious dislocations occur. The more real the cyber presentation is, the less likely one is to question your interpretation of it, and therefore the more likely you are to be shocked if you misinterpret all that you see. The problem is that as real as this cyber presentation feels and as much communication as it allows, it is not community. It still lacks the nuance we have with personal relationships offline. Whatever is established online is always and can never be more than an artificial community. We can no more have a relationship with people online than we do with movie stars or rock idols. Every communication is a presentation, and every presentation is interpreted. What exacerbates this problem is the reality of connecting with a wider variety and larger number of individuals online than offline.
Before establishing my persona of �boohab� I wrote:
Everything I do in computer-mediated communications (CMC) is an experiment in blackness as a post-modern concept. I am futzing with identity in cyberspace and trying to figure out what happens to your race when people cannot see you, hear you or smell you. (hee haw). Everybody knows that you have some freedom in CMC to choose who you be. If I choose to be black, how would I express it? If I choose to be white, how? Why? What can I say in CMC that I would never say face to face? What silences are overcome w/ respect to racial issues, which are created?
Everyone who represents consciously in a gender-specific way in cyberspace must reckon with its sensory deprivation. It�s not enough to simply write �I am female� because this is not how people perceive femininity offline. And so presenting oneself simply as female has issues not unlike presenting oneself as anything for which the imaginations of your audience cannot easily adopt. If you are attempting to be an instructive figure as well, the challenge is even more severe.
I recently got into a bit of trouble addressing someone who called herself �thuqmami�. I was looking around for black content in the blogosphere and found a registry site called blogs of color. It turned out that it was undergoing construction, but 9 out of 10 links I found were dead. I considered it an embarrassment and said so. I was certainly passing judgment from the perspective of an upper-middle class middle-aged father from the old school, but I ended up being corrected. There actually is a difference between a �thuq� and a �thug�. Thuqmami actually inherited the name and the site from someone else. After a time, we came to understand each other, but it took more than a few emails.
Goddess� remarks brought to mind something that I did see very often, which was the flaming of younger more naive persons, especially women but all newbies , who were trying to express themselves artistically without any understanding or consideration of the conventions of online conversation. I seem to recall this happening often. One spot that I used to hang out in was Caf� Los Negroes. It was chocked full of people who felt it was their appointed duty to put a personal spin on everything that happened. So it was as much a billboard for certain characters to rant on with inside humor as it was a public hangout. Anyone who felt it important to creatively express their blackness was suddenly held to very rigorous, if arbitrary standards. A certain smallish clique of members would give each other affirmations on their own style of speak and observations, and others who came in fresh, especially those considered unorthodox would get the virtual equivalent of a cold shoulder. I recall that this seemed rather cruel for some.
So I think the reality of cyberspace is that black folks feel as though the kinds of relationships they have in real life will be the same kind that they have online and are sometimes surprised and/or ill equipped to deal with the real individuality of people they do meet. People seeking affirmation of their personal lives and relationships are just as often as not given a cold reception or condescended to for opening up their feelings online. It�s very easy for people to turn you off and decide not to care. I think it is a mistake for black folks to assume that all black oriented content online is expressly for them and people like them. They must recognize that the monolith is shattered. This ability of cyberspace to create connections ends up introducing people to each other with widely differing perspectives on what it means to be black, the negative experience of a failure to create community only reinforces the stereotype of black disunity. Considering how important the idea of unity has been, it is not surprising that black folks may tend to be more disappointed with online experiences than others.
Cyberspace is capable of establishing a type of communications that you wouldn�t be able to sustain in person and that is good. Cyberspace fails to maintain the quality and nuance of multi-sensory communication of community and flattens experience into the strictly literary and visual; this is destructive of the expectation of a beloved community. The distinction between advanced connectedness, which the Internet delivers, and real community, which it does not, is the difference between our expectations and reality.
Mike Bowen - Summer 2003