Wired Like Me

Linking Minorities Online Is a Major Challenge

Three months later, the U.S. Commerce Department issued its own report on the matter, finding that twice as many whites (40.8 percent) owned computers as Hispanics (19.4 percent) and blacks (19.3 percent); even larger differences were apparent for Net use, the report said: 21.2 percent of white households were surfing the wires, compared to 7.7 percent of blacks and 8.8 percent of Hispanics.

These stats did not seem promising for anyone interested in creating an Ethnet site. But critics like the Center for Media Education, a public policy advocacy group in Washington, D.C., were outspoken on the realities of the studies. "When it comes to access to technology for persons of color," says CME executive director, Jeffery Chester, "the dividing line is income, not race. You have equal number of poor whites who have the same kind tough odds of getting access as African Americans or Hispanics."

Maybe so, but Ethnet producers say that many advertisers and digerati still think of the Net as the World White Web. After eight years working in print journalism, Lavonne Luquis realized, like Sun, that there were few communities offering content and interaction specifically for nonwhites. In 1995, using her credit cards and some bank loans, she launched Latino Link, a Hispanic community site based in California. It was only after the site went up— when she was faced with the tasks of raising more capital and selling advertising— that she encountered the blank stares. "When I tell people that this is an Hispanic site," she says, "what comes to [their] minds is the stereotypical image: poor farm workers out in some field. I have to convince them that there's a whole world of Hispanics who are middle-class professionals."

Benjamin Sun (second from left) hopes Asian Avenue will have broad niche appeal.
Andrew Goldberg
Benjamin Sun (second from left) hopes Asian Avenue will have broad niche appeal.

Luquis believes that one of the reasons she's been able to navigate the misconceptions in the new media business is because of how well she "blends in." With dirty-blond hair, light skin, and no discernible Hispanic accent, she says she encounters less resistance from other professionals: [Stereotypes] "would probably be more of an issue if I looked differently."

In Silicon Alley, diversity is seldom, if ever, addressed by the more prominent organizations. At a New York New Media Association meeting last fall, says executive director Alice O'Rourke, one member stood up in the back and asked why there weren't more people of color on the panel. O'Rourke estimates that maybe 10 percent of her members are nonwhites. "Could that number be better?" she asks. "Should it be better? Absolutely."

McLean Greaves, CEO of Virtual Melanin, a company that has designed sites for Spike Lee and Puff Daddy, founded one of New York's first black bulletin-board services, Café Los Negros. After three years of good vibes and good press for what Greaves calls a "GenXfro site," the money ran out. Despite having about 15,000 members, there wasn't enough financing in the way of advertising or investors to keep CLN afloat. Now Greaves has launched Digital Downlow, a bare-bones community that relies almost entirely on message boards and member content. The big game to build profitable ethnic communities, he says, has grown more competitive and, ultimately, diluted.

Many Ethnet communities, he points out, are either owned or heavily financed by large, white-owned media corporations. The Tribune, a Chicago-based newspaper publishing company, owns Black Voices, a popular community site. Cox Media in Atlanta backs another African American site, Black Families. Even NetNoir, which Greaves respects for its longevity, is on the AOL dole. The cumulative effect, he asserts, "is a lot of homogenized content."

"Ethnicity" has even become a keyword on AOL. Type it in and you'll go to a subset of the Lifestyles section that is devoted to different ethnic groups. There are sites and information like NetNoir, Black Voices, Arab news, plus a smattering of Native American links. According to Mark Dewey, the group programming director for AOL who oversees the Ethnicity section, the content fits nicely in line with AOL's original vision. Communities, he says, have always been "the lifeblood" of AOL. "That could mean people with a common ethnic background," he explains, "or an interest in classic Mustang cars."

It's the end of another long day at Asian Avenue. Benjamin Sun is making the rounds at the computers, checking on the staff's progress. This month, there's an ongoing debate under the rubric "Everybody is Kung-Fu Fighting: 'Chop Socky' or 'Chop Suey'— Are Asian Stars Promoting Old Stereotypes." An evolving showcase section features art and essays about Asian women in childhood. Meanwhile, sweetpersuASIAN and GQ— NAM chat it up in the Filipino lounge.

For Sun, it's a perfect little moment, a snapshot of what an ethnic community can be online. Even more to the point, he says, is the story of Cindy Moy. Last year, her family came onto Asian Avenue because Moy needed a blood donor as she was dying of leukemia. Her best chance of finding the right blood was in the Asian community. The Asian Avenue members quickly rallied to her side, organizing trips to blood donation centers, creating an online message forum specifically for her. Within weeks, there were hundreds of postings.

Moy ended up finding a donor in Singapore, though tragically it was too late. Despite her death, the Cindy Moy message area still thrives on Asian Avenue. "You won't find that kind of connected passion on big free homepage sites like GeoCities or Tripod," Sun says. With a recent influx of about $1 million, Sun hopes to expand Asian Avenue and, soon, launch similar sites for African Americans and Latinos. Rather than using his Asian American staff to run those sites, he intends to hire people from within those community groups.

Currently, there's only one non-Asian on staff and that's Mike the engineer. And whereas in the traditional TV sitcom— and other mainstream media— the Asian guy often gets stuck playing the help, in an episode of Liquid Soap, Asian Avenue's online comedy, the waiter is Mike.

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