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As a kid growing up in Flushing, Queens, Benjamin Sun found community everywhere he turned. He studied at a Chinese school, prayed at a Chinese American church, and ate at his parents' Chinese restaurant. Having a strong, supportive network of other Chinese Americans was pretty much a way of life.
At 23, Sun got involved with another network: the Internet. As an investment banker for Merrill Lynch, he was assigned to work on the 1996 initial public offering for Firefly, one of the first so-called community Web sites. Firefly was novel a surfer could drop by, type in the name of a favorite band, and get music and related recommendations based on the mutual interests of other members. Almost overnight, the Web entered its Soylent Green phase; its lifeblood, the e-preneurs declared, was people.
"Ultimately, the online world is based on people interacting and establishing relationships," Sun says. "There must be some shared interest and background."
Firefly succeeded because of the power of music as a binding, community force. If someone could find something equally or even more intense, just imagine the success. And that's when it hit Sun: "What's more powerful," he asks, "than race and ethnicity?"
As the CEO of Asian Avenue the first of what he hopes will be a network of ethnic online communities Sun is banking on the answer. And he's not the only one pioneering what might be called the Ethnet. Five years ago, there were only a handful of such sites, like NetNoir in California and Café Los Negros in New York; now major media companies and indie start-ups from Asian Avenue to HBO are all cultivating communities for the "urban market." This trend is a fallout of the burgeoning Soylent fever, triggered lately by the shadowing eclipse of AOL and the shattering IPOs of homepage hosting sites like The Globe and Tripod. Even portals like Yahoo and Excite are cashing in on the human element with special tools that allow surfers to create their own DIY "clubs," complete with chat, message boards, and personal profiles. The more niche (or "vertical" as the current buzzword goes) the cliques, the better. Ethnic communities, as Sun observed, are inherently niche. Problem is, they're also inherently loaded.
Shortly after Asian Avenue launched in a sunny red-brick-walled loft between Chinatown and Silicon Alley, Sun and his predominantly Asian American staff assembled a member questionnaire. As with most online communities, here surfers would log on for free and check off interests and data that would be used to help identify them to others on the service. Since this was going to be an ethnic community, Sun figured it was important to list a choice of groups something not done on a mainstream site like AOL. So they brainstormed: Vietnamese, Japanese, Chinese, and so on. No sooner had the site launched than Sun got flamed. Where, wrote a group of Asian Americans in Minnesota, were the Hmong?
"To do this kind of job," says Sun, as he tours his site, "you have to be knowledgeable about your audience. Being sensitive is the number one issue."
It was a story learned the hard way by another Asian American site, Channel A. Cofounded in San Francisco in 1996 by Steve Chin, a former journalist, and businesswoman Peggy Liu, Channel A was one of the first Ethnet communities to make a splash. The ambitious site immediately hooked up with an ambitious partner, A magazine, a large Asian American print publication. At first the idea was to build something like an Asian American AOL, filled with special interest chat and relevant news and information.
But the new media dream was subject to old media realities. "We faced the same issues as any print magazine targeted to a niche audience," recalls Chin coming up with an appropriate business model. Faced with slim revenues, Liu urged Chin to shift the focus. Channel A began hawking woks and Chinese cookbooks. "Liu's vision was to make a Martha Stewart site for Asian living," Chin says. And, in turn, Channel A acquired a Martha Stewarthued audience, since most Asians had their own places to buy oyster sauce. "We were looking where we could make sales online," Chin says, "and it wasn't with Asians."
Disheartened by losing his intended audience, Chin left the company last February. "It wasn't driven by a journalistic concept anymore," he says. "It was driven by how many people we could get into the store. That gets obnoxious." Channel A folded in August.
Generating cash is a challenge that any new media company faces, but Ethnet communities have an even greater hurdle to overcome: the digital divide between technology haves and have-nots. In order to get advertisers and investors, ethnic communities have to convince cash cows that, contrary to popular belief and what some say are misleading reports, minority groups are in fact online.
Last April, Vanderbilt University released a study that found that less than one-third of blacks owned home computers, versus nearly three quarters of whites. In addition, 37.8 percent of white students said that they had used the Web in the previous six months, compared to 15.9 percent of blacks.