A new version of Mozilla has appeared, dubbed "Blackbird". It’s a browser that offers features and content meant to appeal to members of the African-American (and possibly the African-Canadian) community.
The company that developed BlackBird – a group called 40A Inc, says that the browser is designed to
[…] make it easier to find African American related content on the Internet and to interact with other members of the African American community online by sharing stories, news, comments and videos.
Through the use of embedded tools such as "Black Search", Blackbird attempts to provide users with the best black content available on the web.
It’s a controversial idea, which has already stirred up a growing number of comments on the blog TechCrunch.
My initial reaction was fairly negative. Though I’m not black, I do belong to another ethnically distinct group. I shuddered at the idea of someone creating and then distributing a Jewish browser, so that folks like me can access the best of Jewish content on the web.
On the other hand, there are already plenty of web sites out there that do just that, but they typically focus on a specific activity like dating. Is an ethnically-targeted browser really any different?
I think so. Blackbird makes the assumption that the web itself can be filtered according to the tastes and interests of a specific ethnic audience. That’s a difficult and possibly dangerous assumption to make. I’m not sure how it’s even possible to determine a common set of interests, political views, humour, artistic preferences from someone’s skin colour or other ethnically-defining characteristic.
Moreover, users who choose to browse the web using Blackbird are essentially identifying themselves as black to every website they visit. An unintentional but significant lapse of privacy.
Ars Technica has a more in-depth look at the new software and spoke with its creator Ed Young, who addressed criticism that Blackbird is exclusionary:
"We call it an ‘identity browser,’" Young explained. "I could make a browser for the lovers of Warcraft. Would that be exclusionary of other people? No, I would just be bringing those people closer to the sites and resources that they are probably interested in."
Young makes a good point – there is a long history in the tech world of hardware and software being customized to reflect its users’s interests. As Ars points out, Blackbird isn’t even the first browser that’s been purpose-built to serve the needs of a specific group. A version of the social browser Flock called Gloss is designed just for women.
Now, I haven’t tried Blackbird, and clearly doing so would not give me a greater appreciation for how well the program achieves its goal – I’m just not part of its intended user base.
But if you are, and have tried Blackbird, please let us know what you think of the experience.
Please keep your comments respectful, I realize it’s a hot topic, but if you get nasty, you’ll be modded.
Update 1: After reading many of the comments below, I decided to download and use Blackbird. I agree with many of the comments that suggested I not render an opinion without first trying the product.
So here’s my take:
In terms of pure web-browsing functionality, Blackbird is indistinguishable from the other flavours of Mozilla, specifically Firefox. The most notable differences are:
The inclusion of dedicated set of buttons:
These first two buttons provide quick access to email accounts and social networks like Facebook or MySpace. The "Share" button lets users who have signed up with Blackbird Networks share web pages with other members, which are then organized by category such as "National News" or "Politics". Think of it like a Digg or StumbleUpon but with a specific demographic of voters. Results can be seen in a tab that appears on the left side of the browser window. The "Video" button opens up a similar tab and gives users access to 15 "channels" of which only 5 are currently populated with content. Videos then play in the main browser window. Finally the "Give Back" button is a shortcut to the site "http://dogood.blackbirdhome.com/" which Blackbird calls the "Do Good Channel". It’s home to a collection of community service and causes and provides information on how users can get involved and participate. 40A says that "Blackbird will donate 10% of its 2009 revenue to charitable and educational organizations that are serving the African American community."
The inclusion of a default "Black Search" option in the search bar. Searches conducted with this option simply take you to a custom Google search, which presumably has been tuned to include only sites that are considered in keeping with the African-American audience it caters to. Trying one of the suggested searches by a commenter on "firsts" yielded results from sites such as bet.com, blackplanet.com, ebonyjet.com and blackvoices.com.
A pre-populated set of bookmarks called "Highly Recommended".
A news ticker function which didn’t work for me, and also doesn’t appear to be customizable – the only options are "on" and "off".
It turns out there is little difference between Blackbird and any other browser in which someone who has taken the time to bookmark sites that have a specific theme or editorial approach.
Something that does set Blackbird apart from other browsers, is the inclusion of advertising in the bottom of the tabbed areas for video and sharing. Presumably this is what the creators are referring to when they note on the download site:
"Blackbird is free for you because it is supported by advertising and sponsorships. You don’t pay to use Blackbird."
Whether the notion of an ethno-centric browser is appealing to you or not, Blackbird is at best a mildly interesting approach to building a community. Savvy web users will be unimpressed by its limited feature set. The most compelling feature – the black search – doesn’t require Blackbird at all – you can access it here: http://www.blackbirdhome.com/search5.html using any browser you choose.