Newhouse hosts 17th Annual Conversation on Race and Entertainment Media

Newhouse hosts Conversation on Race & Entertainment Media

Blavity's Jonathan Jackson talks media, privacy and how "black gravity" inspired him to create something impactful.
Published: April 20, 2018

Jonathan Jackson, co-founder and head of corporate brand at Blavity, spoke at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications on Monday night as part of 17th Annual Conversation on Race and Entertainment Media. Blavity is described as a “venture-backed technology and media company aimed at building beautiful products and experiences for black millennials.” The talk was moderated by Doctor Charisse L’Pree, assistant professor of communications.

Throughout the course of Jackson’s hour-long lecture, Jackson covered how the origins of Blavity, its role in society, the conversation surrounding blackness in the digital age, and the ethical dilemmas surrounding digital media companies in wake of Facebook’s data breach. Jackson said he and the other co-founders of Blavity are alumni of Washington University in St. Louis. The name “Blavity” originated there, too. Citing numbers provided by the university, Jackson said that the population of the school was six percent black when he was there. Because of that, and depending on your course of study, many of the black students would find themselves alone in their classrooms. “The deeper you got in your major, the less people like you (were seen),” Jackson said.

There was a lunch table, though, that was constantly filled with 20-25 black students. It was a meeting spot, whether some students were there constantly or, if, for others, they could only get there once a week. The term for the table was called “Blavity”, or black gravity, because it brought the black community on campus together. Jackson wanted to share the platform on a digital level. That’s where Blavity came in. On one level, Blavity is an open platform that allows for ideas and issues pertinent to a global black community to be shared and discussed.

At the same time, Blavity partners with clients, including Google, Showtime, and NBC, among others. “If your goal is to figure out if (black communities) even care about you, we can do that too,” Jackson said. Jackson said that Blavity can help makes those clients, and other parties, connect with a community that oftentimes they don’t know how to reach.

For much of the night, Jackson fired off quick, well-articulated responses to questions on a number of topics. One of the few questions he had to pause before answering, though, was when he was posed giving the definition of blackness. On a broad level, Jackson said that he defines blackness as the multi-faceted experience of people of African descent across the earth.

But Jackson also conceded that he has his own struggles with defining inherent blackness. On one hand, he conceded to needing to fight against societal expectations that blacks face, mainly being likelier to end up living in poverty (he cited a New York Times report that said that what societal class black Americans are born into has no impact on their overall likeliness to end up living in poverty).

At the same time, Jackson said that mindset leads to blackness being thought of as a “lack of” culture. Jackson is hoping that Blavity will change that perception.

Jackson also addressed the moral dilemmas of owning a digital startup. Privacy concerns have been at the forefront with Facebook CEO and founder Mark Zuckerberg having to recently testify in front congress regarding a data breach. “Where is the boundary between selling a service and selling an identity that could have a negative outcome?” Jackson said of a question that “keeps me up at night.” He did say though that he tries to get past the point of intent and ensure that Blavity will protect its users’ data.

Jackson ended with advice about the world’s digital age. He stressed how individuals can be their own media companies now. But he also conceded how some companies are taking risks just on the notion of hope.

“There’s never been more opportunity,” Jackson said. “But there’s also never been more noise.”