MALS Alum Feature: Jhamar Youngblood

The social media feeds which shape much of today's online experience tend to highlight popular content or users, but do not facilitate direct instantaneous communication from one user to a large group.  Jhamar Youngblood, MALS '20, is working to address this need as the founder of The Blast App Inc (TBA!), a suite of tools developed from the premise that one-to-many messaging is the next frontier of digital communication. Youngblood says that TBA!'s mission is to create "society-friendly communication software," becoming the most authentic, effective and efficient communication tool available without causing harm to society or the environment. Integral to TBA's mission of creating real value for people is the humane treatment of users as more than consumers or pieces of data—an unfortunate trend in surveillance capitalism which Youngblood is working to confront on theoretical grounds.

A native of Newark, New Jersey, Youngblood was an early adopter of many technologies and communications platforms. When he was 10 years old, his mother brought home the first personal computer in their 20-story apartment building. Youngblood was soon frequenting AOL chatrooms and staying in touch with friends on AOL Instant Messenger (AIM). As new social media platforms surfaced he was often the first person in his circle of friends to create an account: Black Planet, MySpace, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, Vine. He received undergraduate degree from Monmouth University where, after watching the film The Social Network, he was inspired to create his first digital startup: Socialnate, a platform "that allowed you to exchange goods for money that was then donated to charity," like a thrift store version of eBay in which you sell items online and the proceeds go to a charitable foundation of your choice. Youngblood also built two apps for his high school: one for teachers to send assignments to students via push notifications, and one for the basketball team to efficiently scout opponents.

In 2013, Youngblood arrived at Dartmouth to study the decline of American entrepreneurship in the Globalization Studies track of the Master of Arts in Liberal Studies (MALS) program—in particular, why fewer Americans are currently starting companies when it has arguably never been easier to do so. Two events early in his graduate career at Dartmouth point to his subsequent work on TBA! First, during a summer symposium discussion of state surveillance such as bulk data collection by the National Security Agency (NSA), Youngblood shared his insight with the group that "we are all talking about the NSA collecting our data, but there is a man [Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook] out there who started a company at 19 ,and we gave him all of our data for free. Who knows what he's going to do with it?" Second, as Youngblood was encouraged to explore and network across disciplines, he met two PhD students in Computer Science and the Thayer School, and got along so well they all collaborated on another digital startup: Jooke, a platform for users to recreate the old-school jukebox experience on their mobile devices. Youngblood's collaborators were both from China and primarily used WeChat for messaging, exposing him to a new peer-to-peer standalone messaging experience and planting the seed for his own messaging platform.

The idea for TBA! hit during Youngblood's second year at Dartmouth, when he woke up with a desire to play tennis but no good way to find a friendly opponent. His calls for other players on Facebook and Twitter were buried by feed-sorting algorithms under the flood of content by high-profile influencers, and nobody replied in a private group chat he created since most of them didn't know each other. This was Youngblood's lightbulb moment: there was a need, but no tool, for a person to directly message a large group and receive individual replies.

From this initial germ of inspiration, TBA! has developed into two launched products and another in development. First, The Blast App is a one-to-many social messaging app: "think BCC on email, but for quick and simple messages on mobile" with an option to reply privately," Youngblood says. Second, Info by TBA! is a modern, authentic public opinion tool to compete with Pew Research and Gallup. The third product, launching early next year, will be a messaging app to connect professional mentors with high school students. The first client of this new app will be West Side High School in Newark, NJ, which was recently featured on the Ellen DeGeneres Show and received a large donation from Oprah Winfrey. During his time developing TBA!, Youngblood has been featured by Black Enterprise, recruited by Facebook and Google, and described as a Black Mark Zuckerberg.

Youngblood sees great value in the humanities and interdisciplinary foci of the MALS Program. He feels that the companies of tomorrow must be founded by humanists for the good of us all, and is encouraged by the entrepreneurship he sees coming out of MALS. He sees himself as "an activist first and a business person second," endeavoring to fashion TBA! into "the Patagonia of online communication … a brand people always trust to do the right thing for society and the environment." Youngblood has supported this vision by winning a $50k grant from the city of Newark to build a safety feature into the app, enabling vulnerable users such as women or children to alert friends (or nearby strangers) when they feel unsafe either on the street or at home with an abusive partner. He is in the process of transitioning TBA! to a Benefit Corporation to align its incentive structure with this vision.

Youngblood's thesis work has evolved with TBA!, influenced by moments such as his serendipitous connection with a coding tutor from India who has become his best friend (even though they've never met in person) and TBA! business partner. Youngblood is currently theorizing and writing about the process of building software products in a globalized economy.

You are invited to be involved in this project! "Dartmouth is where  the company started, and I would love to have a vibrant presence on campus for the lifespan of the company," Youngblood says. You can see his profile at theblastapp.info/jhamar and connect with him on Instagram @theblastapp or by email at [email protected]