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Omar Wasow is walking through the Soho offices of Silicon Alley company Community Connect looking for some fruit. The small staff of about 24 are harried, crisscrossing the floor, shouting across the room to each other. But Wasow is relaxed and cordial to a T. He appears to be the calm before the storm. He finds a bowl of grapes and melons on the conference table in the back of the office.
"Want some?" he offers.
The reporter is more interested in the Sony Playstation hooked up to the pair of gun controllers to his left. A shoot-'em-up game called Time Crisis sits atop a stack of CDs, luring all to stop work and start shooting. The TV monitor's blank screen offers a hollow stare and a dangerous call: Play me. Play me.
But the employees are glued to their mice. Working. The Playstation is abandoned for good reason.
Set for soft launch September 1, BlackPlanet.com, headed by Wasow, claims it will be the community site for African Americans. Its chances look good, considering Community's success with AsianAvenue.com, which is number one in the Asian American space.
The site functions like an Asian American AOL, its members creating chat rooms and personal Web pages, usually in the hopes of meeting like-minded Asian Americans a prospect that is normally difficult for second-generation As Ams offline since they are usually scattered geographically.
But unlike that site, which currently faces minor competition (abcflash.com, originally a business-to-business site, has recently added editorial content), BlackPlanet will go up against a host of sites targeted at African Americans. Most notable among them are BlackVoices.com, backed by the Tribune Company, which publishes The Chicago Tribune; NetNoir.com, which launched five years ago and is the longest-running black-content site; and the heavily backed BET.com.
In a much ballyhooed press conference a few weeks ago, cable programmer Black Entertainment Television (BET) announced its new site's $35 million deal with blue-chip companies including Microsoft, Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation, USA Networks, and AT&T's Liberty Digital Media, which is run by cable magnate John Malone. It is set to launch November 1.
Wasow, however, doesn't see this deep-pocketed competition as a bad thing.
"[Community Connect's] instincts are that it'll be a good thing for the black community," he says of BET's new partnership. "Part of what's exciting about the deal is that it validates the market. John Malone and Rupert Murdoch believe there are black people online. So there's no reason to buy into the digital- divide cliché that there aren't any black people online."
The pie has gotten just big enough to support a few major players over the next year. It remains to be seen how big a slice each will carve.
Community Connect is banking on its tried-and-true formula, where the community becomes the content a common structure for sites that target affinity groups. It is a design that encourages write-in dynamics, much like Usenet, but in a graphical, more intuitive environment.
"My community, the black community, has a deep urge for a voice," Wasow says. "Especially since we haven't had a voice in traditional media."
That voice will be expressed by following AsianAvenue's model, which highlights its chat, instant messaging, personal Web page, and personal e-mail features. Even BlackPlanet's editorial channels, such as Technology, News & Politics, and Heritage, will devote as much space to its write-in component as to its original content, and will encourage members to respond to the editorial and to other members. This user-to-user environment will be the main draw.
AsianAvenue has succeeded with this model, amassing over 365,000 registered members and about 40 million page views per month in under three years' time.
AsianAvenue also offers prizes to members who click through its ads, among other things. The site gives away everything from free AsianAvenue T-shirts to Nintendo 64s. This ad strategy will also be found on BlackPlanet.
"We're moving into e-commerce strategies, but those will be rolled out slowly," Wasow says. One such model involves gift certificates. Members who have already registered information such as birth dates and favorite vendors will be notified of fellow members' birthdays and given a list of their favorite available shops. An electronic gift certificate can be arranged.
"You don't ever have to remember a friend's birthday, or what they like," Wasow says. "We'll do it for you. And the great thing is, if I buy you a gift this way, you are morally obligated to do the same."
Perhaps "morally flexible" is a term that would come to mind, considering the ease with which people can maintain friendships under this plan. But online ventures are looking for any way to "commodify viewership," as the saying goes.
The business models sound promising, and the recent hype (and money) around the African American space suggests now is the time. Web ventures in general tend to attract investors on vapor alone forget the business model.
But the folding of once promising site Cafe Los Negroes, a New Yorkbased community site that closed last year after financial difficulties, and the financing woes of The Black World Today (tbwt.com) underscore the difficulty in convincing the mostly white world of the Net that people of color are penetrating this new economy.
According to the Forrester study, African Americans are the fastest-growing group online for 1999 at a 42 percent growth rate.
"Last year the fastest-growing group was whites," says Ekaterina O. Walsh, the author of the Forrester study. "This year it's blacks. In 1999, 23 percent of African American households are online. By 2000, 40 percent of that group's households will go online."
Asian Americans are the most wired group overall, at 68 percent of households, or 2.1 million online by the year 2000. Hispanic households will increase by 20 percent, to 3.6 million in 2000. Community Connect plans to develop a Hispanic community site sometime next year.
Which brings up the question of when Community Connect plans to go IPO.
"I can't really say yet," responds Benjamin Sun, CEO and president of Community. "But it looks like 2000 will be a big year."
Community has so far raised $5 million in financing from angel investors such as Robert Goldhammer, CEO of Concord International Partners and former vice chairman of Kidder Peabody. The company will soon look to venture capital money.
"It's weird," Sun says. "When we first started back in 1996 we had the hardest time trying to convince investors that the ethnic space was viable. Now everyone's getting in the game."