Social media. Internet publishing. Privacy. Three phrases that have seemed to be at tenacious odds with each other in a multitude of subtle and not-so-subtle ways. For people like me, who have progressive views about sexuality, these three things are constantly on our minds. How do we participate in the online revolution without being forced to “come out” about every sex act we enjoy, some of which are still illegal thanks to draconian restrictions on sexual freedom, even (and especially?) in America.
This month, a new social network called Blackbox Republic (BBR) is attempting to tackle this head-on and aims to create a place for, as Marshall Kirkpatrick put it, this particular
large and unserved group of people. Although BBR is clearly a business, it’s a business whose creators have laudable intentions for positive social and cultural change. In that respect, and in many others, Blackbox Republic is worth a close look.
I was informed about the venture via Clarisse Thorn many months ago. I got in touch with BBR and signed up for a limited-offer “founder” account—basically a private beta. The founder account gave me free access to the features of the BlackboxRepublic.com website for what would normally be a $25 monthly subscription fee.
So, without further ado, here are my impressions about Blackbox Republic, and how its launch may be just what the Internet needs to get us moving in the right direction with regards to personal privacy, and mainstream awareness of the different needs of different people on the Internet.
Mainstream sex-positivity or a VIP room in cyberspace? Or both?
Over the past few months, Blackbox Republic has been building a marketing arsenal of anticipation and intrigue. Its creators are successful in non-sexuality-focused spheres of influence: Sam Lawrence is the respected former Chief Marketing Officer of Jive Software, Inc., and April Donato, has experience in community management. They also both jive (pun!) well with the sex-positive movement, discussing it at length in the early stages of their marketing efforts after de-cloaking the new company.
In an interview for Social Networking Watch, Sam Lawrence said,
[Sam Lawrence:] The co-founder [April Donato] and myself are part of [the sex-positive] community. Sex positive means that your sexuality is not an issue. You don’t have an issue with other people’s sexuality. You’re open to what other people are interested in and what their boundaries are, and you’re open with your own.
[Interviewer:] To what extent do you practice a sex-positive lifestyle?
[Sam Lawrence:] From the perspective of sex not being an issue, I think that love is generated by people being open enough about who they are as people to put all of themselves out on the table. As far as putting all of myself on the table, it’s something that I do every single day.
I have an enormous amount of respect for anyone able to so capably present themselves as authentically as Sam does. On the eve of KinkForAll New York City 2, I met Sam and April at one of their “founder meetups” and had the chance to talk to them face-to-face. Our conversation revolved around the importance of steadfastly holding true to one’s own desires and having appropriate places to express those things with appropriate communication tools. I really liked their emphasis on self-identification over labeling throughout our discussion.
I also really appreciated the way that Sam and April spoke about their target audience. Blackbox Republic will welcome everyone, but it’s not designed for everyone, and I think that’s a good thing. David Evans writing at Online Dating Post says,
BBR has room for everyone, but is not for everyone. Definitely catering to non-mainstream folks, it will soon feature a constellation of micro-communities, or groups, called Camps. BBR doesn’t tell people how to organize their camps; we’ll do it ourselves, thankyouverymuch.
So is Blackbox Republic a dating site, or a social network? Well, both, kind of. Part of BBR’s slogan includes, “Dates will happen. Sex will happen. It matters how you get there.” The implication, of course, being that the current suite of tools for finding love or play online—sites like Alt.com, OkCupid, and countless personals boards—focus too strongly on the end result, turning matchmaking into a meat market instead of the natural process of getting to know one another. The focus BBR is placing on each person’s “journey” is an extremely welcome paradigm shift in the online dating world.
Along with the welcome and (IMHO, painfully obviously better) new approach to online dating, however, Blackbox Republic faces some real challenges. For new users, the service costs a minimum of $5 a month to use (and $9 per month for new sign-ups starting in 2010), which gives access to basic features like a personal profile. For $25 a month, members get added features like the ability to list real-world meet-ups, send private messages, and partake in a virtual “gifting” economy (think LiveJournal’s “virtual gifts“).
For that reason, BBR has been called a “members-only club.” There are some legitimate differences of opinion as to whether this is a positive or a negative thing. In a press release over the summer, Blackbox Republic is reported as stating:
Blackbox Republic will be a members-only experience that will unite the sex-positive community and give them a personal, private and secure way to connect online and in person.
Think of Blackbox Republic as a fashionable online ‘members-only’ club where you might expect to meet people with similar interests to your own, and ideally the person of your dreams. […] Blackbox Republic is arguably an Apple product to Facebook’s Windows look & feel: a much more intimately crafted, fuller featured personal user interface which should appeal to Apple generation sensibilities.
Indeed, almost everything about Blackbox Republic’s marketing and design seems to me as though it’s positioning itself as the equivalent of the hip, new, and exclusive nightclub down the street. There are images of super-chic women in short skirts and tight pants all over the Blackbox Republic promotional pages—way more than there are pictures of men. I was (yet again) put-off by this over-prevalence of women in all advertising material.
This isn’t really a criticism of the site, but rather a statement of disappointment that the marketing gurus behind the effort seemed to me to have succumbed to overwhelming cultural pressure to sell their site with old-school sex appeal: women’s sex appeal, of course. How…traditional.
Not only is the Blackbox Republic intro video markedly gender-skewed, but somewhere along the line Sam and April decided to drop the “sex-positive” phraseology from their marketing:
[L]ike most startups, Blackbox decided it needed to change up. Observers were confused by the sex-positive label.
Oh well. I think this just goes to further showcase how much more social change we really need in our culture.
However, while the clubby, cliquey feel is totally my own subjective perception, there are other issues at play here, too. Most notably, as Clarisse Thorn and many others rightfully remind us very often, the sex-positive movement is overwhelmingly white, middle- to upper-class, college-educated, and privileged in a huge number of ways that many people often take for granted. Even without a for-pay social network, not everyone who wants to can participate in the great-sex-for-everyone party atmosphere of many sex-positive niches.
Will creating a “members-only club” of sex-positivity on the Internet really be a positive thing for “the movement”? Well, maybe. Although it has the potential to exclude lower-income people from the experience, who are sadly also often the people with the most pressing need for the kinds of privacy-related tools BBR offers (school teachers spring to mind!), one upside is that Blacbox Republic promises to pledge a portion of membership dues to a charity of the user’s choice.
It’s $25 a month and $5 of those community dues go to charity. One way to think about it is if you’re sex-positive, you can either spend money on expensive coffee every month or upgrade your social life and meet other sex-positive people like you.
Inescapably, the major selling point of any social network is, of course, the network! If your friends aren’t on Twitter, then you’re probably not going to find it useful. The same truth holds for Blackbox Republic: if the users you want to interact with aren’t there, I doubt you’re going to find the experience fruitful. Due to the membership fees and the socioeconomic realities of the sex-positive community, I’m concerned that BBR’s current business model is too exclusive, and as a result it will have a lot of trouble attracting the kind of diverse community its creators seem to be hoping for.
Yet, some others think differently (pun!). For instance, Dennis Howlett welcomes the for-pay model for a social network:
anyone can join provided they’re willing to pay the $25 a month (I like that he has a pay model from the get go. That sorts out the weirdos and hangers on from day one)
I wonder if adopting a free-mium approach might work better. Still, there are real-world limits to business. Everyone needs to make money, and I don’t think Blackbox Republic’s business model is inherently more exclusive than, say, purchasing access to porn. If anything, BBR’s got some real promise to inject much-needed financial awareness to the sexually insensitive corporate infrastructure of our society. Nevertheless, convincing people to join “the Republic” is going to be a hard sell.
Show me the features!
Let’s say you do decide to join. What do you get? Other than the sex-positive mindset, what’s the benefit?
Well, the bulk of the experience is what you’d expect. Profiles (called “personas”), messaging, user search capabilities (called “explore”), and so forth. A Twitter-like “activity stream” dominates the main page where you can post text, picture, or video status updates. Event listings fill the sidebar. (I’m not going to provide internal screenshots in deference to BBR’s strict confidentiality rules.)
While that’s fun, it’s nothing special. What makes Blackbox Republic different is flexibility, and privacy.
Goodbye drop-downs, hello sliders!
Blackbox Republic’s most visible feature is the way its interface allows you to flexibly self-identify various facets of yourself. Rather than give you static drop-down menus or radio buttons for things like your sexual orientation and relationship status, you’re presented with sliders you can change at will. Perhaps you’re feeling particularly same-sex attracted one day. Just move the “Orientation” slider towards the “Gay” end and away from the “Hetero” end. If that changes tomorrow, just move the slider back. Sho-weet!
BBR offers you 5 different sliders for your profile. In addition to the one for sexual orientation, you also get one for relationship “status” (ranging from attached to unattached, with Facebook’s famous “it’s complicated” neatly in the middle), whether you’re available for more partners or not, how comfortable you are with casual sexual activity, and how eagerly you’re looking to par-tay. I’m instantly reminded of FetLife‘s innovative, if dull-looking, mechanism for specifying multiple relationships. Blackbox Republic gives you similar flexibility as FetLife does but presented in a superb and far more intuitive interface.
All that said, one slider is conspicuously missing: the one for gender. The sliders are a very interesting idea and might just be the most innovative feature of the entire site. It speaks volumes about the sensitive and thoughtful mindset of the developers, and that’s why I’m so disappointed that the interface for self-identifying gender is relegated to the Sex 1.0 days of a single, binary option of “male” or “female.”
What gives? Are polyamorous people more welcome here than those who don’t fit the gender binary? I hope this is simply an omission that will be fixed as the service matures, since I couldn’t find any other reason why gender was absent from the sliders. For extra credit, I hope to see different profile options for “Sex” and “Gender,” two distinct concepts that frequently and incorrectly get used interchangeably. This would make it possible to represent complex gender presentations like additive gender on a social networking interface for the first time ever, and that’d totally be something to write home about!
Privacy and security
The other major selling point of Blackbox Republic is its careful attention to privacy. The entire offering, including its name, is predicated on letting users very carefully segment their information based on their privacy boundaries. I love some of the things BBR has done to enable this, and I can only imagine it’s going to get better from here.
Blackbox Republic’s Web of Trust
There are three levels of privacy, which (as far as I can figure out) map directly to the level of trust other members have gained within the Republic’s community. It works like a web of trust. New users are “un-vouched.” As they begin to interact with others on the site and, hopefully, make some friends, they should receive “vouches”—or votes of trust—from previously-vouched members. As a member, you get to control whether something you do, such as posting a status update, gets sent to the “public,” (i.e., the entire public-facing Internet), to all Blackbox Republic members (i.e, to both vouched and un-vouched members) or only to vouched members.
Additionally, privacy settings allow you to specify whether you want to allow un-vouched members to send you private messages, to follow your updates, to comment on your posts, or to see you in search results.
Unlike Facebook, which has very good privacy controls that almost nobody on Earth is aware of (thus negating the control’s usefulness), Blackbox Republic makes it a point to highlight their privacy controls at just about every sensical turn. Each of the settings I found defaults to the most private setting, not the most public, which is exactly the right move. I gotta say, I found turning off privacy settings instead of having to turn (or leave) them on to be a really empowering feeling.
You’re not a “friend,” you’re an acquaintance!
Moreover, the Blackbox Republic platform makes a native distinction between “friends” (again, like Facebook, or FetLife) and “followers” (like Twitter). When I friend someone, I’m connected to them in a way that I’m not if I just follow someone. I’m not yet certain what the practical distinction between “friending” and “following” are, other than the fact that your view of the people you’re connected with is segmented based on which button you clicked, but I think the distinction is a very appropriate and natural one to embed in the software.
This separation is probably the single most important innovation in the space of social networks as a medium of communication and collaboration that I can point at. I love that I can indicate without ambiguity which people I want to remain in constant communication with and which I simply want to watch from a distance. After all, aren’t at least some of your “friends” on Facebook really just “acquaintances” in reality? I think that for the first time ever in a social network, Blackbox Republic gets this feature right. Now, if only I could figure out what it actually does. :)
What? No on-the-wire encryption?!
With all that being said, there’s still at least one really frightening problem with Blacbox Republic’s careful attention to privacy: as far as I could tell, no part of my session is SSL/TLS encrypted!
The entire BlackboxRepublic.com website is served over HTTP, including the login form and—again, as far as I could tell—every page on the inside of the site. This means that it’s trivial for malicious people who don’t even have a Blackbox Republic subscription to intercept, eavesdrop, and modify my interaction with the site. They could watch—and save—private messages between me and one of my friends (or lovers!), for instance.
In Blackbox’s defense, I don’t know of any social network that protects you from this. FetLife is another example of a website that should seriously consider HTTPS-only pages, but as of this writing hasn’t implemented it. Therein lies one of the most frightening oversights in the entire social networking space: regardless of so-called privacy settings, everything you do on the vast majority of social networks, blogs, and other sites on the Internet are the equivalent of passing notes between friends in a classroom. Better hope that big bully who likes to steal your lunch money doesn’t open the note and read it himself while he’s passing along your login details!
The thing is, few other social networking sites place so strong a spotlight on user privacy and security. Since Blackbox Republic seems to be nobly and rightfully holding itself up to a new standard of privacy, I feel justified in pointing out this glaring omission in their service offering. Given everything else they’ve done so well, and how well-aligned the majority of their technical implementation seems to be with their philosophy, this omission came as a big surprise to me.
Until Blackbox Republic only serves HTTPS traffic for all private areas of their site, I can’t make a recommendation in good conscious that it’s the place to be for privacy-conscious people. But again, despite public opinion to the contrary, I’ve never been able to make that claim for FetLife either.
Blackbox Republic is one of the most interesting websites on the Internet today. Its privacy-conscious and sexually open approach to social networking and online dating deserves huge praise. Its technical implementation—although plagued with some glaring oversights for now—is to be seriously respected.
From a social change perspective, I think the site is a mixed bag. Its exclusivity arguably makes the insularity of the sexuality communities an even bigger problem than it already is. On the other hand, the market-value of that very same exclusivity, if steered toward a benevolent purpose, can end up benefiting philanthropic, non-profit, and other sex-positive endeavors that often struggle to find necessary financial support.
Moreover, Blackbox Republic’s internal gifting economy does seem to encourage a sort of altruistic nature among members. How that may or may not translate into increased support for non-commercial activists has yet to be seen. Nay-sayers should remember that this kind of thing simply hasn’t been done before and the net effect could be quite positive.
Having just launched, however, I don’t think Blackbox Republic should be touted as the go-to site for sex-positive people quite yet. Like other social networks, it needs to grow to become truly useful, and its subscription fee business model poses a serious obstacle to many people. I was fortunate to get in with a free “founder” account, but I have mixed feelings about encouraging my friends to join me knowing they—or someone nice enough to “gift” a limited-time subscription to them—will have to pay for the service.
Additionally, its focus on being, well, a black box and its commitment to not allow Google or other search engines to index its internal content simply doesn’t resonate that strongly with me.
Lawrence emphasizes that what members say in Blackbox Republic will stay private. There’s no danger of what they post inside becoming part of their “Google resume,” as he puts it. He says he would resist efforts from search engines to index content the way Facebook and Twitter allow. “The value proposition is this is the first private, large social network out there,” Lawrence says.
Put simply, and noting that I’m probably not the majority case here, I rely on my “Google résumé,” to use Sam’s words, to live the life I want. My lukewarm reaction to this isn’t a criticism of the goal, simply an observation that it turns out I’m not in the ideal target market for Blackbox Republic’s value proposition.
In other words, I think I’m “too out” for this site to be immediately useful to me. The fact that FetLife is not readily available to the public Internet is the single biggest reason why I don’t sign on to that site very often, and so I have the same reason not to spend all that much time behind the curtains of Blackbox Republic.
Nevertheless, many other people do. If you’re among the cross-section of the populace who’d like a sociosexual experience online and would also like to effectively outsource your social reputation management, if you will, but you feel that sites like Facebook just aren’t cutting it, then Blackbox Republic is definitely worth checking out.
If you do check it out, or even if you don’t, I’d love to know what you think in the comments. And if you’re definitely sold, consider signing up via my partner link. Full disclosure: signing up that way earns me a small commission. If you’d rather sign up but not give me a commission for the referral, just register from the front page.