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Will Solange’s new album release revive BlackPlanet?

The social networking site catering to African-Americans has seen an uptick

Grammy Award-winning singer Solange released her fourth album, When I Get Home, early Friday morning.

And while the covert release — the album had been announced only hours beforehand — of the follow-up to 2016’s critically acclaimed A Seat at the Table was unexpected enough, it was the way the singer chose to promote the mysterious project that’s been the buzz across social media: using BlackPlanet.

BlackPlanet is a social networking site catering to African-Americans that rose to prominence in the early 2000s, ahead of the launches of MySpace and Facebook. With its customizable profile pages, message boards and unintended matchmaking services, BlackPlanet was one of the most popular websites of the new millennium. BlackPlanet reportedly had 20 million registered users — then-President Barack Obama used the site as recently as the 2012 presidential election, and NBA player Kevin Durant’s page has been the source of much ridicule since it was uncovered in 2016 — by 2008 before its sale to black media conglomerate Urban One (then Radio One) that same year.

On Feb. 26, Solange announced to her nearly 8 million combined followers on Twitter and Instagram that they could “find me on black planet.” What followed over the next two days were cryptic posts across the platforms — still photos, videos with music snippets, anonymous quotes — that sparked speculation that the singer would be releasing new music. (It also led to rumors that Solange had purchased the social media platform. Those at BlackPlanet say that is not true.) By the afternoon of Feb. 28, with the cat nearly out of the bag, Solange announced that the album would be released at midnight on March 1, and two days later she livestreamed a viewing party of the visual component of the album on her BlackPlanet page.

When I Get Home’s promotion on BlackPlanet and later release took less than four days, but the entire process had been a year in the making.

In early 2018, Solange tweeted that she wanted to release a cover song on the site but she “couldn’t figure out how to work Black Planet in 2018.” After reading the tweet, which Solange eventually deleted, the BlackPlanet team “freaked out,” according to Detavio Samuels, president of iOne Digital, a subsidiary of Urban One. Samuels and his team at first failed to make contact with Solange, but eventually Urban One social media manager Gabe Williams connected with the singer’s people, who said Solange was interested in collaborating with BlackPlanet for her next unannounced project.

With more of an emphasis on the black diaspora and black spirituality in her recent work, it was important to Solange that she collaborate with a black-owned platform, said Marve Frazier, the chief content officer for iOne Digital.

“And since BlackPlanet has that historical blackness attached to it, it was kind of a no-brainer,” Frazier said.

Solange had been intrigued by the “nostalgia” of BlackPlanet, according to a report by HelloBeautiful, another subsidiary of Urban One, and she wanted to work with a black platform to use as a “hub” for her project rollout, said Samuels.

Throughout 2018, the two sides had been in regular conversation on what that would look like, which eventually became Solange eschewing her personal website to send users to the curated BlackPlanet profile.

Since Solange’s initial posts last week directing her followers to her profile page, the site has seen 10 times the daily user registrations from last week alone, leading to thousands of new or returning users. Samuels chalks that up to both Solange’s influence and black people’s desire to have a platform to call their own.

“Black people are looking for safe spaces,” he said. “And as Facebook has come out less than credible in a lot of different ways, we think that there’s probably an opportunity for something like BlackPlanet to be relevant again.”

(Asked whether Solange’s older sister, Beyoncé, will join the site as well, Samuels said Solange would have to be the one to make it happen, but “if that happens, game over.”)

Solange declined to comment for this story.

BlackPlanet was founded in September 1999 by tech entrepreneurs Omar Wasow and Benjamin Sun. The two created the site in part to combat the so-called “digital divide,” which was the disparity in access to the World Wide Web between white and black Americans. Wasow, now an assistant professor at Princeton University, told Black Enterprise magazine in 2000 that he wanted to create a “watering hole” for black communities to meet and interact online and to teach users HTML coding to personalize their custom profile pages, a skill lost in the age of predesigned pages and scrolling news feeds.

“We encouraged people to get their hands dirty playing with the technology,” Wasow said.

The site had 200,000 registered users in its first month and averaged 3.5 million daily page views after less than a year. With nearly 100 million monthly page visits in 2000, BlackPlanet was one of the top websites in the country based on individual time spent on the site. With an assist from Kanye West’s 2004 song “Get Em High” — You know how girls on BlackPlanet be when they get bubbly — the website had become a part of the black zeitgeist.

“If you were at an HBCU [historically black college or university] between 2003 and 2004, everyone was on it,” Wasow said.

But where BlackPlanet may struggle in today’s age is persuading users to sign up for another platform or download another application on their smartphones. The social media environment is already cluttered with Facebook, Twitter (and its ecosystem, Black Twitter), Snapchat and Instagram. Not to mention platforms already dedicated to music (SoundCloud) and dating (BlackPeopleMeet.com). This “new” BlackPlanet — the site had a redesign this past summer — will have to find a way to distinguish itself while also poaching elements of the more popular apps, said Bärí A. Williams, a vice president at artificial intelligence startup All Turtles and former executive at StubHub and Facebook.

“The co-sign [from Solange] is great,” Williams said. “But what’s really different? What will make you log in?”

Samuels listed three priorities of BlackPlanet over the coming months to build on this new momentum: incorporate more music and influencers, facilitate the site’s renowned dating component and be the central hub for “all things black.”

The last point could open up BlackPlanet to accusations of “reverse racism” by those who can’t help but ask: What about “WhitePlanet”?

The site’s leaders shoot back that most mainstream media outlets are for white audiences by default, which makes sites such as BlackPlanet, Bossip (the answer to TMZ) and other black-centric sites necessary. “WhitePlanet is everywhere already,” Frazier said.

That being said, Samuels added, “BlackPlanet is for everyone.”

Solange’s use of the site to promote When I Get Home, Wasow said, could not only lead to more people being exposed to the platform but also help bring back the cultural force it was nearly two decades ago.

“Solange’s takeover could lead to the rebirth of BlackPlanet,” he said.

Martenzie Johnson is a senior writer for Andscape. His favorite cinematic moment is when Django said, "Y'all want to see somethin?"