Face Off

Can the Web be a model for real-world race relations?

Just after the crescendo of the "Central Park Jogger" case in 1990, Stacy Horn, founder of the predominantly white New York electronic bulletin board Echo (www.echonyc.com), ventured into a predominantly black, Brooklyn BBS called the Blackboard, and the experience had her "reeling for months." On her own service, the discussions about the investigation "were similar to the ones in the media, which were sympathetic to the jogger's point of view," she recalls. "But [on the Blackboard] it was really upsetting because their sympathies were with the boys--I had never been on that side and there was a huge knot in the pit of my stomach." Separated from her usual signs of reference or cultural codes, Horn was lost. "Meaning was ricocheting all over that virtual room and I was missing most of it," she wrote, describing the experience in her book, Cyberville.

The online world has been touted as a space where identity--class, gender, even body type--is fluid, disposable, and subject to change. It's a psychological "unintegration" and malleability that social theorist Sherry Turkle tracked in her book Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet. But on the issue of race, "That's just bullshit--an out and out fallacy," says Sanyakhu-Sheps Amaré, head of the online organization National Electronic Clearinghouse Center and cofounder of the now-defunct Blackboard. "You don't lose your identity [on the Net]: As on land, so online." Even though online users shed their physicality, it seems they take their skin color with them.

In an effort to challenge the de facto segregation of many online communities, Horn and collaborator McLean Greaves of the black and Latino forum Café Los Negroes (cafelosnegroes.com) have staged an inter-racial face-off between the 3000-some Echoids and the denizens of Greaves's site about the recent resolution of the Tawana Brawley defamation case. The public conversation--which started last Friday in the "Brawley Room" of the café--addresses the 10-year-old trial and the white Steven Pagones's suit against Brawley's three black advisors (Al Sharpton, Vernon Mason, and Alton Maddox). According to Horn, it's an attempt to examine and overcome the impossible tangle of "subtexts." "I can look at this discussion and say, 'Explain Sharpton to me,'" says Horn. "I'll be able to listen better, explain better... and acknowledge there are many different points of view."

Though racially polar opposites, Echo and Café Los Negroes (CLN) are actually coming from culturally overlapping vantage points. "Our demographics online are similar--we've got artists, writers, and people with strong political opinions," says Greaves, CEO of Virtual Melanin Inc., a Web development firm that produces CLN. "We're both really progressive communities." Level of education generally corresponds to amount of exposure to the Net, and both Echo and CLN are loaded with college-educated tech-heads.

If the Brawley conversation fails to spark, the volatile Echo/CLN mixer is exceptional at least as one of the first attempts at social integration on the Net. (For Echoids, it's almost a kind of electronic "busing" into the CLN Web-based neighborhood.) The online world has long been derided as the "World White Web"--add another W for "Western" while we're at it. Although there's a raft of minority-oriented content online (like NetNoir.com and the Asian-targeted CommunityConnect.com), the impression lingers that the Net is only for a small, highly educated, and well-off segment of the population. As a result, some ventures, like Greaves's own VMI, have struggled to find their niche. VMI, which started as a company committed to cybercasting black and Latino performers, is now undergoing a dramatic restructuring because its initial audience "was too small," says Greaves. The new version of CLN (set to launch this month) "won't just be black and Latino--it'll be for anyone interested in urban culture," he says. "I want to make it more open-minded."

For minority audiences that are plugged in, it's getting harder to find a 'hood. In one of the more recent setbacks, the "modern Asian living" site Channel A (channela.com) shut down three weeks ago for lack of funds. The site, which started in 1996 as an online zine on Asian American culture and entertainment, hosted fertile public discussions on its bulletin boards. But in hopes of generating more cash for the company and broadening its appeal, Channel A switched last fall from a cultural hub into a retail outlet, shilling "lifestyle" appurtenances through electronic commerce. Jeff Yang, the publisher and founder of the Asian American magazine A., had initially allied with the site to provide articles in exchange for promotion. But he dissolved the relationship when he realized "our content was out there being used to sell jade trinkets and cookbooks."

In the transition, Channel A removed its own bulletin boards to "focus ourselves," says president and CEO Peggy Liu. The physical space of the boards still existed, but the structure for community debate and gathering was replaced by what amounted to shopping aisles. A strange decision, to say the least--a little like ditching the tables and chairs from a café to sell more coffee; the best part of electronic bulletin boards is that once you get a crowd, they almost run themselves for free.

Except you need something to draw the crowd--and just meeting identical or like-minded people may not be enough. A pointed example is sinanet.com, which is vying to become an online hub for "global Chinese." But check into the "Surviving at US Universities" bulletin board and all you'll see is the frustration of users shouting into the void. (Sample quotes from the chat: "Is anyone around??????" and "Okay, I probably need to talk to myself again.") Perhaps there are too many differences among Asians to develop one catchall site for them, as Liu argues. Or, as Yang says, the problem might be akin to the real world, where Asian Americans are "broken down into populations that are small and distant" from each other.

Ultimately, online communities can only do so much before live interaction has to cement the relationship--and this is where the Echo/CLN effort might find itself falling short, into what Amaré calls the "Now What? Syndrome." The Brawley exchange "is a great idea, but it's just another talk show," he says. Amaré is organizing online conferences where discussions are followed up by "action items"--face-to-face meetings. But if the real world meeting serves as a necessary catalyst for real growth, the online world might be the only place where such racially charged conversations can begin. "Online gives you distance and time," says Horn. "You have a place where you can cool off, think about it, and come back." As online, so someday on land. Or so we hope.


Signal and Noise

  • Heavy Weather: Ex-HotWired executive editor Gary Wolf just snagged a low six-figure advance from Random House for the tentatively titled Bengali Typhoon--the story of the wild birth, adolescence, and strange divorce of Wired Ventures from itself (HotWired, Wired News, and even Wired.com constitute a separate company from Wired since the magazine was bought by Condé Nast). The title comes from founder Louis Rossetto's infamous claim that the online revolution would hit the world like a cataclysmic storm. If the Net's going to rewrite the world, why are people penning books--as old-media as you can get--about it?

  • Web Surgery: Jorn Barger's Robot Wisdom WebLog (www.mcs.net/ ~jorn/ html/ weblogs/ weblog.html) might not be pretty, but it's one of the best collections of news and musings culled from the Web--and updated daily (Machine Age occasionally gets a nod). Last week, Barger conducted a semiscientific study on the "visibility" of news sources online by querying newsgroups. Top of the list? News.com, with 8693 mentions. The Drudge Report edged out The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, and Bloomberg. Note to Barger: just don't become a "portal."
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