This interview is part of a collaborative effort between the summer 2018 BKC interns and the Communications team to showcase the tremendous work and backgrounds of our 2018 -'19 BKC fellows
Jonathan Jackson is co-founder of Blavity Inc., a technology and media company for black millennials. Blavity’s mission is to "economically and creatively support Black millennials across the African diaspora, so they can pursue the work they love, and change the world in the process." Blavity has grown immensely since their founding in 2014 — among other things, spawning five unique sites, reaching over 7 million visitors a month, and organizing a number of technology, activism, and entrepreneurship conferences.
Jonathan Jackson is also a Joint Fellow with the Nieman Foundation and the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society for 2018-2019. During his time here, he says, he is looking for frameworks and unique ways to measure black cultural influence (and the economic impact of black creativity) in the US and around the world.
Jonathan sat down with the Berkman Klein Center’s Victoria Borneman to talk about his work.
Jonathan we're so excited to have you with us. Could you start by introducing yourself and sharing a bit about you and your background?
Yeah, nice to be here. My name is Jonathan. My background is entrepreneurial so for the past four years or so, I was a co-founder of a company called Blavity Incorporated. It's a media and lifestyle brand for black Millennials. Before that I worked at LinkedIn across a variety of roles, but most recently on the editorial team, where I manage the Influencer Program which is really really well-known names in business bringing their insights to about half a billion people. So my work is kind of at this intersection of media and community, black culture, ownership, digital things, which has brought me somewhat serendipitously to both Berkman Klein and Nieman, which is super exciting.
It seems like you already touched on this next question when you talked about the intersections. But you know what are you focusing on? What do you plan on looking at during your Fellowship?
I'm trying to find the right questions to ask this year. That's really my focus. I think there some like really deep work that I have to do over the next three to five years. And this is a year for me to really sit and pause and say what questions do I want to interrogate? And how deeply should I interrogate them? And what are the tools I need and the methodologies to interrogate them?
So on the Nieman side, which is really focused on sort of elevating the standards of journalism, my focus is really around the evolution of black media and what that means in an ecosystem that's fighting.
Traditionally I think black media is very much so in print, so in circulation. So you had Johnson & Johnson, you have Ebony, you have Jet, you have Essence, Black Enterprise; and so you have these really really lauded publications which is fantastic with big readership. And they were sort of like, not only indexing black life, but actually talking about very specific sectors of it.
And I think around that sort of the digital transformation in early 2000s things went online and there wasn't necessarily always the understanding that digital wasn't going away, that this wasn't like a fad, it wasn't like a past-time. This is where life would be indexed and recorded. And that transition was hard for businesses that were already trying to actually maintain themselves, promote from within, secure funding.
Some people made the leap over the chasm. Some people sort of struggled. And what we found I think with Blavity was that there was a wide open space for us because of how transformational those few years have been and where you actually get an audience from.
What happens at scale is the people who are making culture never recoup anything off it. And it's only arguably it's only valuable when someone else takes it. And I think that is a very dangerous precedent.
Berkman [Klein] actually is interesting because the other side of this is really around IP ownership and sort of this really big grey area with creativity and cultural context — and who owns what and how people can protect themselves. When they make art on platforms that when you sign the user agreement it's essentially open source. Like if you're sharing, like you don't own it anymore. So if there's not a way to think about how to monetize that or structures for yourself to be legally protected, it leaves you sort of bare. And what happens at scale is like the people who are making culture never recoup anything off it. And it's only arguably it's only valuable when someone else takes it.
And I think that is a very dangerous precedent that we see play out in a couple of different arenas.
It sounds like you have a very strong understanding of the historical landscape. And that's really valuable here when we have these conversations about digital rights intersecting with different demographics and communities. And so could you talk more about how the conversation changes about "Who Owns What" within that Black and African American context.
I think the best example I still have is around Peaches Monroe, who is the girl who invented the term "on fleek" or the phrase rather. And so she did that in her vehicle and posted it on vine. She just got her eyebrows done and she just came up with this term to describe what the feeling of her eyebrows being magnificently displayed were! And it was hilarious. It got picked up. And Vine at the time was sort of like where a lot of black creators were sort of popping. YouTube was always sort of been there from a content perspective — but Vine it was like, if you got a funny video, you got like a five to eight second clip and you're doing something, you were getting at because it was looping so everyone was sharing it. It's a form of commerce.
And I think that's what is interesting on these platforms is like, black people use them for what they would normally do. And it's another form of communal storytelling. It's oral and it's visual, which if you think about culturally, that's how at least I learned a lot of my family history. It was oral and then visually you see the person after knowing the story.
So, she does it, she goes viral she becomes an Internet sensation basically overnight. From there the culture begins to permeate. So it's sort of like a halo effect where the person makes something and the bigger outer ring becomes this sort of, mainstream sees it. So I think Ariana Grande or somebody did a Vine around singing like ‘on fleek.’ And then from there it was over. So that then, it's an equation. It's a number. And then she was an exponent. So she multiplied the reach. So her fans like, what is this, oh my gosh.
And so people sort of know where it was coming from. But then brands got a hold of it and they were like, this everyone saying it. Right, it's in rap lyrics. It's it's on T-shirts. And so you're dealing with like Trademarks. You're dealing with distribution rights. You're dealing with like licensing agreements. And no one has ownership. So it's really just the first person out of the gate that knows how to legally do that wins. It's not about what's right. It's not about what's fair. It's not about equity. There is no law that says anyone owned it. So if I can prove that there was no ownership rights to it or claim or first use and the other person had no counsel or even knows how big of a deal this was. I win.
Can I ask you why is this work important right now from your perspective if you talk about the you know the momentum of this moment?
I saw a lot of things during my time at Blavity. I would go to large media organizations and agencies and brands. And after they believed that we weren't making it up. After they believed that four black kids made a company, and that black people enjoyed receiving news about themselves, and getting across that barrier, right — no, it sounds funny, but there it's a barrier.
Like I would walk in and they wouldn't believe it. And I would pull up the slides. And it was so tough for them for so long. So, after we got past that, there was always a moment where I felt like they were reaching to figure out what was coming next, and the reaching. They just they just wouldn't say "black." They just couldn't do it. It'll be all right. We say "black." Our audience... like you can say it. And they just they just can't deal with the idea that the highest form and the most proliferated form of cultural creation comes from an audience that is perceived as deviant. It is perceived as less than. It is perceived as less deserving. And everyone is looking for what's next. They just don't want to admit where they're looking.
And so for me, the other side of this is like, what happens when someone does have power and agency. So a Cardi B or a Lebron James who is known in an industry. But if you think about how they do business and work, they are entities like Cardi B is a media company. She raps, awesome. She hosts. She sings.
She's a personality.
She has personality. She does brand content deals. She does licensing. She has all the structures that we would underpin to a multinational corporation. It just happens to come in the form of a 25-year-old Trin-Rican woman from uptown from the Bronx.
And that's really what I think this model is and so if you take that at that scale. But if you break that down and you deal with a creator those are all things that can be structured. We can get them agreements. We can learn how to make sure they protect their art early enough. We can tell them that their digital assets are just as important as physical assets. So if you're not making t shirts but you're making pop art on Instagram, that needs to be protected too. The barrier for me is less, "do people know that their work's getting taken." It's more about, "is there a legacy of actually helping people understand how to protect themselves in this environment that is a new economy where winners and losers," — it's not a merit game — it's decided by who has access to what knowledge portals, and how widely distributed that can be.
If we already don't have ownership in real life, and life is moving to a digital space, I don't want to see us become digital sharecroppers.
So I'm not naive enough to think I can solve all of it. I just think these are really pressing questions because more of our lives are being digitized. And so if we already don't have ownership in real life, and life is moving to a digital space, I don't want to see us become digital sharecroppers. Like historically, that's where I anchor. We know what that looks like to not own land, and to have to work around things that you will never see come to fruition because you don't actually have agency. That cannot happen digitally because that will affect a multiplicity of generations. And we will have sort of walked away from a chance to actually you know find some balance or some equity.
I think it's really powerful you sharing the pushback you get in your meetings and you're still motivated to continue. Can you talk more about what motivates you?
I think I just saw a lot of people growing up who I think were geniuses but never got to live their genius out. And that really really hurt me. And I think there were a lot of factors or a lot of reasons. There's class. There's environment. But when it comes down to it, a lot of it was the belief. Like if you can take someone's confidence early enough, you have them.
Even if they're good, you can always control the mythical ceiling. So you can you can always just keep either lowering it or raising it to measure it so that that person's ability to believe they have their own agency.
Can you define mythical ceiling?
For me a mythical ceiling is this idea that you can only be so good, at a point and then you'd run into it. So that's different than a structural barrier, which is there. A mythical ceiling is when you literally don't have one and someone is aware of your talent, but they're frightened by how broad it can be. And so they want to control your outputs such that they continue to make as much as they can off it.
I do not believe media is a cure. I don't believe it's a fix-all. But I do believe we are naturally inclined to engage with stories.
To me, I know a lot of people in bad deals. Bad deals with where they work. Bad deals with where their research is placed. Bad deals with the, you know, people around them. And so I think about that more so as how do you restore people's belief? And what is what does that look like? I have seen that most powerfully communicated through the vehicle of media. I do not believe media is a cure. I don't believe it's a fix-all. But I do believe we are naturally inclined to engage with stories. And if we can tell a multiplicity of stories with nuance and humanity, then it serves that we would have a better opportunity to expose people to the wide gamut of opportunities that they actually do have. Which runs counter to maybe what they see and their environment because exposure is a weapon, whether it's good or bad, you can't un-see things.
And so I've been fortunate to see a lot of things that changed what I thought was possible early enough. So then I was able to sort of let that distill and then I could be like, OK you know what, if that person did it, then what is the skill acquisition I need to go do that thing.
I can totally relate to growing up in black neighborhoods and seeing the genius everywhere. Whenever there is a talent show you these kids come every single year with magic and it would just be so sad when I go but I'd move away and come back, and that magic is no longer there. And so you see a lot of potential just rot.
Yeah I have, more recently I started thinking how do you cultivate that? I think being around Berkman and Nieman, the thing I appreciate is, there is an intentionality when you build a structure. And so I think I have had to think about like, what is the long term game plan here to make sure that there are places where genius can be cultivated? And the places that the cultivation happens run independent of other things. So no matter what's happening, the things can stand. And so that requires a very specific type of brick laying. The foundation has to be airtight such that the place you're building can withstand and I am like most interested in that because I think that's how you, that's one of the ways you can incubate people and help them sort of create and craft the kind of work they are supposed to do in an environment that is just feeding them.
And so if they can be fed, and they can be whole, they can go out and come back in. And it allows them sort of flexibility and agency. And so yeah I've been thinking about what that would look like. And it's been useful to see the models of leadership around Nieman and Berkman — how people are thinking about the future and what the future means, and how to make it open and stuff like that.
It fits right in with Berkman for sure intentionality is one of our pillars. But that goes into the second to last question whereas where do you see things going? Where do you hope to be in five or ten years?
I think there's some form of this work that I have to think about the distribution of it. I think thought work sometimes can get buried in academia.
So I've been thinking about like, what would getting these ideas out look like? What are the formats? What are the forums? Who need to work with? What kind of team would I need to assemble to really get this moving? The other thing I think about is how to not make it super North American. I'm West Indian by heritage. So most of my family has a tie to Trinidad and they live in different places and so my framing has been really specific to like, okay, if they know that Jonathan's doing a thing over here, how can I localize this? Like how could I make this meaningful for their lives? Outside of the fact that they just like love me by default. Could I just make it a thing. And so that's made me think about more of a global take on some of these things — which will play out differently in different cities — but the core elements of what people don't have generally remain the same.
I think I need to build stuff that doesn't need me to run. That's my new thing. Like, build it and then get out of the way
And so I think there's a world in which I have to be more global in my capacity. Some of my work will be centered on London because London is a really interesting dynamic that I think has some similarities. And then I think I need to build stuff that doesn't need me to run. That's my new thing. Like, build it and then get out of the way
But one thing I don't think we necessarily talk about, as it relates to cultural institutions and sometimes in black media, has been the lack of succession planning. So you know when it's time to go, it's time to go. And I think sometimes we we praise history without necessarily realizing the context of the present as as we need to.
So I think building structures that allow for new people to take leadership and make those mistakes and learn and grow. That's what we need. We need space and opportunity to be, to expose yourself to the full capacity. So that's kind of what I'm thinking about, is how to build something and then how to make sure my personal plan allows me to remove myself as quickly as needed so I'm not an overlord indefinitely.
Yes. I think that was beautifully put. And I also just want to flag, I appreciate your comment on going global. As tech and media are global, it's not just the landscape here in North America. And so as you think about sustainability, as you think about history, I like that you don't have a very static understanding of history and you're critical of it. So that's exciting.
And so, my last question is, do you have any-- if you had to give advice for anyone--and I wanted to ask about, you know people that maybe are similar to you, who want to get more knowledge in this landscape in terms of the business side you've described, but who also have personal insight from their real life experiences, or maybe who, just, you know, educated themselves. Do you have any advice to those people?
Yeah I would. There are a couple. So I've been very polymathic since I was really little. And that's really hard because I think there are few things more frightening than a young black kid who believes in himself enough to ask questions because that threatens everything. Because if you don't know the answer, you telling me I shouldn't ask it is in fact not an answer. And so that made parent teacher conferences really spicy for me. Thankfully my parents encouraged me to ask questions, so I owe them a large debt of gratitude there for sort of cultivating that. As you get older I think it can become a little less contentious but then it looks like you're unfocused.
Put yourself in arenas and spaces that prioritize dynamic learning or orthogonal thinking. Berkman is one of those places. Nieman is one of those places.
So I have a bunch of different interests and when I display that it's kind of like it's like looking at a buffet tray and someone's like "well, what can't you just eat this one thing." I'm like "but I want all of it." I want everything I deserve. So as it relates to having both of those counterbalances I think it's putting yourself in arenas and spaces that prioritize dynamic learning or orthogonal thinking. Berkman is one of those places. Nieman is one of those places. So for someone with a business context, it can sometimes feel like you know I could never get to academia or you might have some leftover anxiety about how hard academia was because I was a different type of learner. And I think interrogating why — looking at those anxieties and being honest about why you have them, and not projecting them into an environment that could literally be the best thing for you.
Because I'll tell you, a lot of friends didn't know what I was doing. And then when they started to look up where I was just by association, they were like, all this stuff is happening, I'm like yeah man it's like been here. But we sort of limit ourselves to where we are. And I just, I wanted more. And I think more, looked like here. And I think when you have sort of a multi-hyphenate sort of work style, you can feel intimidated. But then you can get to a place where everybody is like that, and that's like the normal. So it's like, it would be a little abnormal if I didn't have a bunch of different interests. And so it is rare in my opinion to find places like that and I think they exist. I just think they don't necessarily come in the packaging we typically think.
And so that's what I would encourage people to do is think about the places you might skip over and really investigate if you don't find anything no harm no foul. But if you do think about how you can find your way to that kind of space because it can I think multiply your your range. I think the most important thing for me is like my range is getting expanded here. And so I have, I'm like a T shape learner so I have depth in certain places, but my length is actually getting extended. And I think that is like super super exciting.
Victoria Borneman is the Communications Coordinator at the Berkman Klein Center. She got her start in summer 2018 as the Communications Intern working on various high-profile research and multimedia projects across the center.