Web Pioneer Lynne d. Johnson


Photo credit: Cecily Walker

“It’s difficult for me to
imagine the web without Lynne,” said black gay blogger J. Brotherlove of Lynne d. Johnson. He echoes the sentiment of many folks of all colors who
have been movers and shakers online since the first website went online in 1991.

Johnson, who is currently editor
and community director at FastCompany.com, is an out African-American
technology expert with a hip-hop sensibility, an encyclopedic knowledge of
music, killer fashion sense and an afro-futuristic outlook. It is no wonder
that A-list bloggers have no qualms showering her with well-earned accolades.

“When I think about black
females on the web with technology, Lynne’s name easily comes to mind,” said
Karsh, founder of the Black Weblog Awards and blackgayblogger.com.
“She has masterfully been able to understand and bridge the gap between
online and print media in a major way, from her work with Vibe magazine to her current work at FastCompany.”

Born in the late 1960s, Johnson
grew up in the birthplace of hip-hop, the Boogie Down Bronx. That music, she
wrote on her blog in 2002, “is
woven into the fabric of her existence. … There she Patty Duked and Smurfed to
whatever the DJ scratched scientific, while the MC waxed poetic.”

But don’t be fooled into thinking
that her old head hip-hop outlook confines her musical sensibilities. Along the
way Johnson has also developed a deep appreciation for “underground
punkdafiednewavism” and an eclectic array of other types of music that she
parlayed into becoming a respected music reviewer.

Her love affair with technology
began when she was a high school student in the mid-1980s and began programming
on a Commodore 64. Being a computer geek in hip-hop’s
epicenter had a profound effect on Johnson.

“Hip-hop was all around
me,” she said. During that period she began hanging out with rappers, sometimes
spitting her own rhymes, and eventually becoming a respected spoken-word artist,
performing at such hallowed venues as the Nuyorican Poets Cafe. Her poem “The
Flow,” a tight piece evoking the history and rhythms of hip-hop, was
published in Bum Rush the Page: A Def
Poetry Jam
alongside heavy hitters June Jordan and Amiri Baraka.

As a young adult weaving in and
out of the world of rap, Johnson was not open about her sexuality with her peers,
who were mostly young black and Latino men with whom she forged strong bonds —
her running buddies. She was accepted as one of the crew. She was the cool
little sister or the girl you had a crush on but knew you didn’t have a chance of
dating. Later on, after she came out, many of her old male friends in the hip-hop
world told her they knew about her all along.

“But they were like, you’re
still Lynne,” she recalled. “We love you. You’re mad cool. I knew, but
I still had a crush on you.”

After receiving a degree
in journalism at SUNY New Paltz, Johnson did a lot of freelance writing as a
cultural critic of hip-hop and black feminism, penning essays and reviews for
publications such as New York Press, ColorLines, Paper and even the Wall
Street Journal

It was the mid-1990s, and
the web was about to explode. Those early years were exciting for black techies.
Digital spaces sprouted like weeds, and Johnson seemed to be involved in almost
all of the most popular ones, from the pioneering internet community New York
Online to the offline outposts of the tech world like the Brooklyn
cybercafé Kokobar.

Johnson was an editor at
the now-defunct Digital New York
magazine and working in the trenches of blackplanet.com as a writer and editor,
which by the late ’90s was the top website aimed at creating community among African
Americans. During those years, Johnson began to hone her knowledge as an online
social networking expert. She took those skills with her when she was hired to
be the online editor for Vibe magazine’s
website in June 2002.

And that’s when her star
began to rise in the intertwining worlds of the World Wide Web and music. At Vibe, she was not afraid to step out on
a limb, and she often took a lot of heat while testing out tools and
applications with the aim of creating online community. One of her projects,
tying user-submitted comments to the magazine’s online articles, was met with
derision by those above and below her on the masthead. Nowadays, that wouldn’t
raise an eyebrow, but back then, it was still a new idea.

“Some people hated
it,” she said. “Some of them worked for me.” But she was undaunted:
“I thought it was a great idea.”

She introduced mobile text message voting back in the late 1990s, a feature that fans of American Idol probably take for granted, for Vibe‘s extremely popular televised awards show. Her risks in the uncharted territories of social networking — before MySpace.com and Facebook.com — garnered her respect among her former peers at Vibe.com, who only realized her vision after she left.

“The ad sales guy said he misses me because I got it,” she said. “We were the profit center of the company at the time,” she explained, referring to the Vibe/Spin ventures. “The magazine was flat, but [online] ad sales were growing.”

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