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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.
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."
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.