What Creating The Black Weblog Awards Taught Me
The Black Weblog Awards looked like a big success. But harassment, a lack of funding, “allies”, and lukewarm community support made it a constant struggle to keep going.
In 2004, I founded the Black Weblog Awards: an online event that showcases Black bloggers (and those of the African diaspora) which were largely overlooked by other Internet award events online. The first event happened in 2005 and it grew fast — traffic quadrupled each year, thousands of ballots were submitted, and it caught the attention of a few big media outlets like NPR, The Los Angeles Times, and The Washington Post.
From the outside, the Black Weblog Awards looked like a big success. But behind the scenes, harassment, a lack of funding, “allies”, and lukewarm community support made it a constant struggle to stay motivated to keep the event going. In 2011, I let it all go.
These are some of the lessons I learned during those years.
Fill A Void
Before the Black Weblog Awards, there were two big blog awards events — The Weblog Awards and the Bloggies. One thing I noticed from both of those events were that very few (if any) Black blogs and bloggers listed as nominees or finalists.
I searched around to try and find a comparable event like this specifically for Black bloggers and all I could find were the Online Hip-Hop Awards, which were canceled in 2001. I saw an opportunity here, and on a whim, I bought the domain and that following year launched the event.
In short, it was about acknowledgment. I closely followed sites like Urban Exposé and Urban Box Office, and I knew of a lot of black bloggers doing great things online but not getting the recognition I felt they deserved. My hope was that the Black Weblog Awards would help shine a light on what these bloggers were creating.
Even though I knew I was filling a void with the Black Weblog Awards, gaining awareness about the event was an ongoing challenge. Keep in mind I started before Twitter was founded and before Facebook opened up to the entire world. People mainly found out about the Black Weblog Awards by word of mouth. I didn’t have connections to press or money for advertising, but our traffic was on the rise every year, as well as the number of nominations.
That means someone had to be paying attention, right?
As the years went on, that momentum kept me going. The Black Weblog Awards were doing something no one else was doing at the time, and I thought it was a great opportunity to showcase the talent out there in the blogosphere.
Mistakes Will Be Made
I had no background in organizing online events, so putting together the Black Weblog Awards that first year was a baptism by fire.
I created the categories by looking at several hundred blogs and finding patterns in their topics. Once I had the categories, I created a basic HTML form and included that on a page for people to submit their nominations. I also came up with several rules to keep the voting fair.
Well…all of that failed. I quickly learned how unsympathetic web hosts are about bandwidth costs when you get a surge of incoming traffic. Also, people sent in their nominations without reading the rules, so there ended up being several ballots that couldn’t be used. And of course, there’s always spammers. On the first day of nominations, I also discovered that the ballots from that HTML form probably shouldn’t go to my personal email address. I wasn’t aware of the kind of feedback I would get, but that first year I received close to 1,000 emails a day. Yikes.
So what did I do? I gauged how bad the situation was, apologized to visitors for any downtime due to high traffic volume, and worked quickly to bounce back. I learned to go with a solid web form provider (an early-stage Wufoo), and I eventually moved to a more secure web host and went with a custom-built nomination and voting system.
I probably had at least one major mistake each year (voting system, prizes, etc.), but what’s important to note is that when mistakes happen, you have to respond quickly to mitigate any loss. Learn from your past mistakes, and prevent them from happening in the future. Don’t beat yourself up over the mistake — no one’s perfect.
There Will Be Trolls
The 2006 Black Weblog Awards almost ended up being the final year for doing the event. While the Black Weblog Awards is a very positive event, the amount of hate mail — and even a doxxing attempt by an Internet celebrity — really made me reconsider if this was even a necessary event to continue hosting every year. People were always calling the Black Weblog Awards racist just because “black” was in the name of the event. There were constant critiques about the design and UX of the site and the voting forms. Nominees that didn’t win would get angry and stage comment sit-ins on posts. As the event continued, the trolling intensified.
Racial slurs. Death threats. Calls to my job. Someone even made a call to my mother! Sadly, the amount of hate from people was a constant part of the event every year. Even after I sold the Black Weblog Awards in 2011, I still received messages for years to come, being told that I “gave up on my people” or “sold out”. (The Black Weblog Awards are now run by Gina McCauley, founder of the Blogging While Brown Conference.)
Critiques about the event were fine with me. I used those to improve the site and make voting easier. Try to be as transparent and neutral as possible when it comes to dealing with harsh negative feedback from your user base. Getting snippy with someone in a response might make you feel better initially, but it’s doing damage to your reputation and to your event.
To that end, I think it also helps to not take every piece of feedback to heart. I know it’s hard when you’re personally connected to what you’re doing, but you can’t look at every dissenting question as an attack. How’s that saying go? “When you’re a hammer, everything looks like a nail”? Don’t be that hammer.
Wait awhile and cool off before responding. Have someone else look at the message. Count to ten, take a walk, have a few deep breaths — do something. It sounds horribly cliché, but I promise you that it works.
Self-care is extremely important when you’re getting harassment like this online — even more so when it seeps into your offline life. For me, I spent a lot of time in nature, I meditated, and I hung out with friends. I did things that had nothing to do with the Black Weblog Awards, like playing video games or cooking. Stuff like that took my mind off of the problem so I could approach it later with a clear head.
Finally, if you’re getting messages or phone calls or any types of communication where you feel physically threatened, involve the authorities as soon as possible. You have every right to make sure you are safe. Don’t let these motherfuckers online get to you over something you created that they didn’t.
Funding Is Very Difficult
After paying thousands of dollars for infrastructure (hosting, web forms, etc.) and other things in 2006, I knew I needed to have sponsors for the Black Weblog Awards to keep it going and to grow the event. People wanted a mobile app, a better voting system, and a host of other improvements that I didn’t have the time or money to make happen.
I won’t lie — operating on a small budget (or no budget) is tough. It was really tough for me because I had high hopes and ambitions for growing the Black Weblog Awards, the audience wanted more, but I had no money and people were not donating anything (except their opinions).
I started actively soliciting donations, but this opened up a new issue: getting people and companies to sponsor a “minority” event.
Keep in mind this is 2007 — well before Kickstarter, Indiegogo, or any other kind of crowdfunding platforms. All I had was a PayPal button and an active email list. Even with that, raising money was an uphill battle. Much thanks to Liz Henry, who donated $100, the only money I ever received from supporters.
Next, I tried raising money through advertising. The Black Weblog Awards always had a steady stream of traffic, and I thought doing AdSense would help bring in some money. (It didn’t — I never hit that magical $75 threshold to get a payout.)
Finally there was affiliate marketing, but the crux there is that people visiting have to purchase from that affiliate link in order for you to make money. This ends up turning you into a salesperson, which I didn’t really have much time for while trying to keep the Black Weblog Awards going.
As much as I hate to say this, I feel that the biggest reason it was hard to raise funds was because of the name of the event. As soon as I said “Black”, people tuned out or told me how “post-racial” America is and why an event like this is unnecessary. Hearing that over and over again while also being told to pull myself up by my bootstraps was infuriating.
So how did I keep the Black Weblog Awards going? I paid for it out of my own pocket. I took on freelance work so I could have the money to pay for hosting. I sold electronics I had around the house. Any new additions to the Black Weblog Awards had to wait until I had the money to do make it happen. The downside? The Black Weblog Awards never grew like I wanted to because of lack of funding.
There go those bootstraps, I suppose.
In 2010, The National Black Arts Festival had talked with me about providing room in their programming along with theatre space for a live Black Weblog Awards event here in Atlanta. All I needed to do was raise money to cover rental, A/V, technology, and many other things. After running the numbers, I needed at least $15,000 in order to put on a modest show.
I’d like to think that the years of putting on the Black Weblog Awards helped me think about how to host a live event, but it’s a totally different beast. You have to think about venue fees, goodie bags or merchandise for attendees, food and beverages for attendees (and volunteers), printed schedules, your A/V setup for presenters or streaming video…these are your main setup costs. You want to try and break even and make as much profit as you can with ticket sales, but it’s so much easier if you have sponsors to pay for these costs. I was doing an awards show, so that meant I also needed physical awards manufactured. Imagine if you’re doing a conference with several speakers — that’s even more money (honorarium, transportation, lodging, speaker gift, etc.)
I was very scared about planning this live event. I had only raised $100 since 2007, and now I needed at least $15,000? I thought about hiring an event planner, but that would mean spending more money that I didn’t have.
Before the days of potato salad campaigns, Kickstarter was pretty stringent on the types of projects they would allow on their platform. After two rejections (they felt it was “too simple”) they finally accepted it, and I was in business. The campaign ran for two months, and I did a pretty aggressive email campaign, but it barely broke the 5% mark and went unfunded. Since I was unable to raise the money I needed, the National Black Arts Festival silently pulled their support, which completely killed the chances of a live event in 2010.
Hire To Your Weaknesses…But Be Careful
I started the Black Weblog Awards by myself, but after that first year I definitely needed help. As the event grew over the years, I brought on various people at different times: a graphic designer, a virtual assistant, an intern or two, someone handling PR, and someone to help with fundraising.
However, not all help is helpful. The graphic designer I used ripped a design from a Zune campaign, and we had Microsoft’s lawyers threatening to shut down the event. The PR person who volunteered didn’t net the Black Weblog Awards any decent press. The person doing fundraising avoided emails and phone calls and we didn’t raise a dime.
Building a team is tough, especially when you’re just beginning and have no experience. It’s even harder when you can’t pay your team for their work! (Which you can’t do when you don’t have funding.) It’s a vicious cycle. At several points throughout the early years of the Black Weblog Awards, I had people decline to help out or vanish from the project altogether because they weren’t going to be paid. If there’s any immediate benefit to funding early stage projects and events, it’s because you can hire people to do the work you can’t do yourself. So when people say “every dollar helps”? It really does.
Even if you are able to pull together a team and you’re not able to pay them, make sure they’re not holding any enmity against you because of that. I checked in with my team every week to see how they’re feeling about the project, where they’re at with their work, etc. I did small things to show my appreciation since I couldn’t pay them, like take them out to lunch. (Actually, taking them to lunch was all I could afford.) But above all else, I tried to keep their spirits high. If everyone’s stoked and working towards the same goal, then that can help keep morale high. For one of my interns, I helped her work on her resume and wrote her a recommendation letter. I made peach cobbler for another team member. It’s not a paycheck, but it’s something to show that I appreciate their work and their time.
The Black Weblog Awards are now going into their 10th year, and it’s a bittersweet accomplishment.
Even though I’m talking about an online event, I think a lot of the topics I’ve discussed here could apply to any type of tech startup. I think the main change that needs to happen with tech culture to make work like this more viable in the long term would be more varied opportunities for funding. In my case, I had an event — it’s not something I could exactly pitch to a VC, and because the event was virtual, small, and niche, it’s an extremely hard sell to companies. Crowdfunding platforms help, but you’re only as strong as your community.
I’m certainly proud of the Black Weblog Awards, and of all the people that I’ve been able to recognize. I’m glad that the event is still going strong and that the spirit of the event hasn’t changed.
And have the Black Weblog Awards changed me?
Thank goodness for small favors, right?