Saturday, December 20, 2008

"Blackbird" - A browser just for blacks?

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.

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