What Ever Happened to Blackplanet?

Posted: October 26, 2011 in Social Media
Tags: , , ,

A couple of weeks ago, I sat in a Starbucks studying with a classmate when he wanted to show me an email he had received. Before clicking on it, I noticed a list of emails from a website that went out of style a long time ago – Blackplanet. Automatically, I began laughing at him because I hadn’t heard of anyone using Blackplanet in at least the last four years. Furthermore, I didn’t even know that it still existed.

With that said, my goal is to not only explain to you what Blackplanet is, but also who it was created for, how it gratified its audience, what made it successful, and why it’s surprising that the website still exist today.

Becoming one of the first major social networking sites that catered to a minority group of people, Blackplanet hit its peak way before popular sites; like, Twitter and Facebook, were even heard of. In 1999, just two years after the first major social networking site was created, Blackplanet was launched by Omar Wasow [Stanford University ‘92] to create an experience for African Americans unlike one they’d had before. Although there were already three similar websites created for the African American community, Blackplanet stood out amongst the crowd and generated 80 million page views recorded in June 2007. The website quickly became the largest of three multicultural social networking sites (including AsianAvenue.com and MiGente.com) within Community Connect Inc., its parent company. Four years ago, Blackplanet had about 16.5 million members and according to Hitwise, it was the 4th most trafficked social networking website in December 2007.

Obvious by looking at its title, Blackplanet was meant for the African American population, but it definitely wasn’t subject to just them. At its start, the website was for dating, communicating in forums and job postings; therefore, their core demographic was between the ages of 16 and 34. It quickly switched over to more of a social networking site – sought after to connect with friends and family as more people found out about it and began to make use of it.

Page Setup and Features

Though, no matter the age of the user, the page setup was pretty much the same. There was often a main photo, an “About Me” section, a “Shout outs” section, a list of characteristics one sought after in a significant other, a list of ones favorite BP pages, small cartoon-like icons throughout the page, surveys, more photographs and a list of friends one had added. Unlike the most popular sites used today, there was also a hit counter, a list of one’s most recent visitors and the infamous guestbook.

Outside of the actual page, members had a chance to write to those who weren’t online or search for individuals (in their location or outside of their area) who were currently online.

With enough going on to keep everyone busy, members got a first look at HTML coding as well. In order to get a profile page the way one desired it to be, there was no way they could go around HTML coding. Whether the member taught himself how to do it or simply copied and pasted the material, it was something new and added a hobby for young minorities who were beginning to make icons for the web.

Since their start in 1999 and even me joining back in 2004, the website has upgraded itself from focusing just on dating, job postings and even connecting with friends through messages. They’ve added many more features such as; allowing users to make status updates, participate in blogging, and enjoy instant messaging. The website not only added new features, but revamped old ones like the chat rooms by making them more interactive and giving them a better look.  The site also gives members a chance to look at recent news updates from Interactive One and Blackplanet on a news bar.

What made it successful?

Blackplanet was successful because it offered these different outlets to its users and catered to a large audience. Of course, the website still does offer these features and cater to that audience, but the frequent activity of members has gone down tremendously [I’ll discuss that later].

I began using Blackplanet when I was in middle school and everyone had one. When I say everyone, I mean my classmates, my brothers (who are 10+ years older than me), my brothers’ friends and even my parents. There was never a clear basis on age restriction so they didn’t limit who could join and offered services that were easy enough to understand by everyone.

Just like the fame of a good restaurant, Blackplanet had the power of “talk.” What do I mean by that? More people knew about Blackplanet by word-of-mouth than seeing an advertisement in a sidebar. Benjamin Sun, the CEO of CommCEO of Community Connect Inc.unity Connect Inc. admitted that the company had gone for two and a half years before reaching its first one million users. That is, when Blackplanet joined the team.

“Once we launched BlackPlanet.com, we were soon generating over a million page views a day with no marketing budget.  This took a lot of companies $15 to $20 million to do.” – Benjamin Sun

With the money they saved from advertising, Community Connect Inc. focused more on the development of their software to support the sites growth.

So what happened?

I believe Blackplanet began to lose attention from its members with the addition of MySpace and Facebook. Eventually, if a website does not update itself enough to keep itself relevant, its members will move on to the next big thing. Even after its re-launch in 2005, the website wasn’t doing enough to keep its members attention and where the majority of members go, the rest will follow. When the website finally did begin to show signs of improvement, it seemed as though it was taking little bits and pieces from Facebook and MySpace instead of adding something completely new and more interesting along with that.

More specifically, in my opinion, the quality of the website began to falter when there wasn’t enough gate keeping. I’m not sure if my inbox messages and guestbook were full of paid advertisements or spam, but either way, nobody using social media wants to be bombarded with inconvenient advertisements, especially when many of them are vulgar and irrelevant to the user.

Lastly, one reason that I gave for their success could very well have had something to do with it becoming outdated. I like to compare Blackplanet to a hair salon with a fast food restaurant in the back and a liquor store on the side — there was too much going on. If it was meant to be about dating then perhaps they should have focused more on dating. If it was meant to be more about jobs then maybe they should have focused more on jobs or at the very least have an organizational team on deck.

What they could have done better?

I don’t think that there was much Blackplanet could have done better to survive once other websites began to grow. Yes, they should have had better gate keeping methods, but there isn’t much more that I could have hoped from them. However, there was a lack a structure and organization from within. Before I began writing this blog, I never even knew that BP started as a dating website [granted I was only 13 when I started my page so I probably saw what I wanted to see]. Had they stuck to a more specific audience and focused on catering to their needs then perhaps they would have more popularity nowadays, but in spite of technology advancing rapidly and the addition of other websites, they are still kicking and pushing on the web. In my opinion, I feel that every social networking website will eventually fall off. Think about it: I would have never guessed that I’d laugh at someone for still using MySpace, but I do. I laugh even harder when I hear someone mention Xanga.

We may not always like change, but after a while, the new stuff will call us over and do its best to make use of our time. With that said, once a website or anything is considered old and outdated, it will be hard to generate the same audience that was once had. I would love for Blackplanet to come back bigger and better, but only if it were to offer me something new and not just add what’s already been given to me on Facebook and Twitter. Unlike before, Blackplanet wouldn’t have the power of “talk,” they would have to decide if its worth spending thousands of dollars on advertising in order to come back strong so everyone can see what’s new and why they should return.

On a completely different note, I’m not so sure how a website used by mainly one race of people would do nowadays. I’m not sure if African Americans (responsible for 88 percent of Blackplanet’s membership) really want to go back to being a part of a predominately black online community since they’ve been drenched in Facebook and Twitter. Many of their upgrades are features that are already offered on Facebook. Solely speaking for myself, there’s no way that Blackplanet could convince me to utilize their website to do the exact same things that I do on Facebook except on Facebook, I can connect with African Americans AND everyone else.

Social networking has really gone from a professional standpoint to more of communicating with people that one already knows. With that said, someone like me [who is a minority in EVERY setting] may not get as much out of Blackplanet; whereas, perhaps students from historically black colleges and universities would gain more from being able to connect with classmates and friends. Nine times out of ten, my classmates and collegiate friends will never join that online community.

Where the creator is now?Omar Wasow - co-founder of Blackplanet

With the sudden rise and slight fall of Blackplanet, its founder Omar Wasow is still keeping busy. Prior to launching Blackplanet alongside Benjamin Sun, CEO of Community Connect Inc., Wasow operated New York Online, an Internet service provider that was responsible for building websites for magazines; such as, Essence, Vibe, and Latino. At the age of 40, he is currently pursuing his Ph.D. in African and African American studies at Harvard University.

Disclaimer: Yes, I logged onto my old BP page after it being untouched for approximately four years and yes, this is definitely a class assignment.


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Comments
  1. Katie Le says:

    Great article Syknese. I’m glad you wrote about this website, and admittedly I’ve never heard about it before reading your article. I think its interesting to learn about networking sites before Facebook and Twitter became popular because like any social network, they are concentrated on connecting people. Blackplanet seems to have aimed at connecting a larger community that not only alike, but share common values and beliefs.

    I’m sure had the administrators kept up with updating and monitoring the site, Blackplanet would have become relevant and much more user-friendly. I also think that Blackplanet could have done a lot more to prevent their demise, such as figuring out what their audience wanted and their behaviors and then altering the site to cater to that.

    Thanks for the article, you’re a great writer Syknese.

    • CX Simm says:

      Wow!!! I just rejoined after two years offline (left in Fall 2009) from BP and I was stunned at the forum posts being 2-3-4 weeks old since people had last responded to a dicey topic. The main forum activity used to be in the “Relationships” topics section and as soon as someone posted anything, it used to be drenched within 30 minutes of posting a topic with lurker’s comments and new commentary from new members.

      A couple of things I’ve noticed…

      *Pop up adds over the lower viewable portion of the screen and the close-ad icon is on the opposite side (left side of screen) of the user page scroll down bar (right side of the screen).—-Annoying to have to continue to move my mouse across the entire screen to exit an ad to say the least.

      *Uploading music is time consuming and if it’s not in their data bank, you can’t upload it.

      *Children are all over the site. The rappity-rapper type images are all over the website with jacked up profile pages filled with misspellings and syntax errors and omissions. As such, I do NOT wish to be associated with any group of children, let alone negative stereotypes of my own culture being generated by my own culture.

      *NOOOOO Gatekeeper ability to control who’s looking at your activity as noted above. Anyone can check out your profile and see what you’ve said in a thread or post and you cannot block anyone from reading your business “before” they have exposed that they’ve been reading your posts and thoughts….for example: A girlfriend or wife checking on their hubby’s page postings without needing to hack into his account.

      *There’s no value-added to being African-American on this highly identifiably segmented site…Something the others cleary could NOT offer.

      *Monster Job ads are ridiculous on BP. It’s an advertising machine every minute you’re online you’re exiting this promo, that promo, this announcement, that announcement.

      *One lady I spoke to that remembered me and I her from two years ago, who never shut down her page, even she spoke extremely poorly of BP and was just hoping it would turn around because she remembered how fun it was. She seemed like ONLY tied to it out of habit and fond memories.

      *In a city of 4.2 million (Houston), At noon on a Sunday afternoon during a football game (women being alone since the guys are busy watching t.v.), I searched to see who was actively online with BP at that specific moment for WOMEN, within 90 miles, between the age of 37-45. Guess how many???…26. I was like WTH??? I remember when it used to be at least over 600 and typically at the max listing and showing of 1001 profiles.

      *If it was a dating site, which it was, you’d NEVER know it was now. It seems as if it lost its vision or purpose for existing. And any site that loses its sex appeal (specifically a dating site that appealed to people by chance getting laid—Duhhhh!!!), it’s a done deal.

      In summary, I’ll probably take down my profile in a week or so ONLY because I’ve put in the work to build my profile page and want to cherish my work for at least 7 days before I take it down. Kind of like a sand castle at the beach in building it, admiring it and then before you leave the beach, destroying it. I do believe the site is dying by a death-by-a-thousand-cuts way of dying.

      CX Simm, Houston, Texas

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