According to Hitwise, Facebook was the most visited website in the U.S. in 2010. Beating out other web behemoths like Google, YouTube, and Yahoo! It's really not hard to see why. Online social networks have come to define the modern Internet experience. Besides Facebook, services like Twitter allow people to keep in touch with folks they would otherwise never see or hear from. But before today's popular networks allowed you to "like" posts, "poke" crushes, or "retweet" celebrities, web-savvy African Americans were connecting on BlackPlanet.
Founded in 1999 by self-proclaimed geek, Omar Wasow, 40, BlackPlanet became the most popular website for African Americans, and helped define what a new-age social network should be. People were allowed to build pages with photos, graphics, and info about themselves. But, more importantly, it let people connect with out like-minded people.
Twelve years later, BlackPlanet has fallen to the wayside as other networks have taken the social network mantle. But the half Jewish, half black entrepreneur isn't sad. Not in the least. The man who gained fame for teaching Oprah how the use the Internet is out of the web game, and is working toward his Ph.D. in African-American studies at Harvard. We reached out to Wasow and spoke with him about how Myspace was derived from BlackPlanet, why he was skeptical of Twitter, and if Facebook may have already peaked…
Complex: Tell us how you first became interested in technology.
Omar Wasow: It was very simple. I loved playing video games. My grandparents got me a Pong set that you plug into a t.v and it’s a little dot going back and forth. There was hockey going back and forth on the screen and those games entranced me. And I graduated into other games like Defender and Donkey Kong. I grew up wanting to be a programmer and fell in love with the world of tech. In Jr. High School I begged my way out of wood shop into computer science class. And it really changed my life. I went to being somebody who consumed video games to creating video games. That transformation going from being a consumer to a creator poured over to BlackPlanet where it wasn’t about us telling people how to use the Internet it was by giving them tools and letting them have the stage and letting them be in the spotlight.”
Complex: Take me back to the BlackPlanet days. What was it like?
Omar Wasow: When we started BlackPlanet it was September of 1999 and the big story about Blacks in technology at the time was the digital divide. We went around and told people that we were interested in an online community for African Americans and they said over and over again, “Who is going to use it?” That’s one of the [reasons] Oprah got on the Internet and it was also pretty tangled at that point. The idea of socializing on the Internet was a new concept. A lot of our competitors were much more focused on publishing content than creating a way for people to socialize. When we came along people in corporate space did not fully get it, but the users took to it immediately. It was really an amazing and wonderful experience to make it possible for people to express themselves, make friends and find love on the Internet.
Complex: You also taught Oprah how to use the Internet. In 2000, she told PEOPLE magazine, “[Omar’s] the best Internet teacher in the world because he was able to teach me how to surf the ‘Net and I am truly technologically challenged.” How did that come about?
Omar Wasow: I had been working on the side doing technology reporting. I started doing work for MSNBC and then WNBC and sometimes for The Today Show. Oprah’s folks had seen me on there and they asked me to audition for this 12 part series called, “Oprah Goes Online.” When they auditioned me they thought I would just do a few episodes, but she took a liking in me and they ended up including me in almost all of the episodes. It was a real honor and she was incredibly sweet to me. What was so nice about working with her was that she was really open to experience and understand why she had to spend a whole weekend to learn e-mail and online shopping. During the process, she was very open and had a lot of fun. It was a real pleasure to be with somebody who was so forthright and full of life.
Complex: Now Steve Jobs, Eric Schmidt, Mark Zuckerberg, and a few others are having dinner with President Obama. What do you think about the tech giants of today?
Omar Wasow: What’s nice about the technology world is that it’s very open to young people and outsiders, who have great ideas, an enormous passion to work like dogs and turn their ideas into services and products. It’s been an industry that has embraced Mavericks and outsiders for a long time. It’s gone through all kinds of boom bust cycles. I look at the current boom and I think it is great. I also know the roller coaster is going to go down too, so it just keeps you humble. It’s wonderful that President Obama is paying attention to Silicon Valley.
Complex: Mark Zuckerberg and Steve Jobs are like rock stars in the tech world. Does that bother you?
Omar Wasow: No, I’m actually thrilled. I often see, cute women on the subway now wearing, ‘I Heart Nerds’ t-shirts. There was none of that when I was in high school. The images of nerds were all awkward there was no street cred in being a techie geek. The fact that somebody like Zuckerberg and Steve Jobs can be a celebrity makes it easier for that next generation of geeks in high school to do things and not be ostracized. Part of the big trend is that we all are becoming geeks. The geeks are becoming more mainstream and the mainstream is becoming more geeky.
Complex: After BlackPlanet, the next big network was Myspace. Is it true that some of the former employees at BlackPlanet left to start Myspace using the same model?
Omar Wasow: They were not former employees of BlackPlanet. The guys who started Myspace were quoted in Business Week magazine saying that they looked at BlackPlanet as a model for Myspace and thought there was an opportunity to do a general market version of what BlackPlanet was. And that was exactly right. We had been meeting within the company and I pretty much wanted to see us grow and build on our success from BlackPlanet into a general market offering. But everybody has co-founders and it wasn’t a clear vision around that.
Complex: What are your thoughts on Twitter?
Omar Wasow: I was very skeptical of Twitter at first and I really learned to love it in. There’s a phrase that I like which is “enabling constraint.” And “enabling constraint” is sort of like if somebody gives you some limitations and you can turn those limitations into something that gives you new opportunities and new ways to succeed and in some ways you can think about as, that’s the “enabling constraints” is what we have to do to get more Black kids to become tech CEOs, right. To turn those limitations into victories, but Twitter sort of said, “How do we create something that works within in the world from a mobile phone and they focused limits of a 140 characters and said you are only going to be able to do that and turned that into a lot of people. That was much more satisfying than to try and write something longer. So I grew to really love it.
Complex: You touched on this earlier that social media is at a high point right now, but eventually like a roller coaster it will come down. Do you think Facebook has reached its peak?
Omar Wasow: Facebook is clearly going to be around for awhile. It is so deeply embedded into so many people’s lives, but as it gets bigger it also becomes less attractive in some ways, right. That kids are now a little freaked out that they have to be friends with their parents or their aunts and uncles. So it lacks some of the privacy that the smaller social networks had. I think its going to be an ebb and flow, you may see new more private social networks emerge to be overlapped in some ways with Facebook, but also they offer more privacy, more opportunities to have a small club experience that was like what Facebook offered initially when it was just for college kids.
Complex: Sounds like a new social media platform to me. Should Facebook be worried?
Omar Wasow: [Laughs] No, I’m past my digital networking days, but I do think about using social media for educational purposes. Well, nothing will happen until I finish my Ph.D, which is a year and half. If I do anything else it is going to be more focused on education.
Complex: Speaking of which, you're currently a Ph.D. candidate in African American studies and Government at Harvard. Tell us about why you choose that area of study.
Omar Wasow: I’m interested in the intersection of race and politics. In particular, what went wrong for African Americans after all the victories of the Civil Rights movement. It is a mystery to me that the Civil Rights movement was so successful in achieving its goals. Then we saw where I was growing up in New York the epidemic level of heroin and then later the rise of mass incarceration where there are nearly now 2 ½ million people in prison in this country. I wanted to try and make sense of how on the one hand, things are a lot better and on the other hand, particularly, for low income communities things have gotten a lot worst.