Site encourages tough questions Diversity: Forum lets people learn about their differences in a safe, anonymous setting on the Web.

December 14, 1998|By PATTI HARTIGAN | PATTI HARTIGAN,BOSTON GLOBE

They aren't exactly the kinds of questions you'd overhear in casual conversation at a crowded train station or in the grocery checkout aisle.

They're the kinds of things an adult might ponder in private, but only a child would blurt out in a public place.

"Why do white people smell like wet dogs when they come out of the rain?" asks Cass in Detroit. "Why do black folks get agitated when they see the Confederate flag?" asks Wallace in Suwanee, Ga. "Why do gay men feel they have to sound gay?" asks Derek K. in Duluth, Minn. "Why do Asian women seem to date more white men than Asian men?" asks Victor in Secaucus, N.J.

Why, indeed.

These are questions posted in a Web forum where folks are encouraged to seek answers to questions they'd be too embarrassed to pose in the real world.

There's nothing fancy or glamorous about this Web site. It's simply called "Y? The National Forum on People's Differences." It doesn't offer gee-whiz plug-ins, real-time audio, or images that gyrate with each click of your mouse. It's just simple text, page after page of questions typed by users worldwide, from Delhi to Duluth. It's one of the most inventive uses of a technology that is too often dismissed as a glorified toy or a gigantic shopping mall. The Web site doesn't make any money, but it might make the world a better place.

"Y?" is the brainchild of Phillip J. Milano, a newspaper editor for the Florida Times-Union in Jacksonville. Milano, 36, is a self-described "white kid," who grew up in the posh suburb of Glen Ellyn, Ill. "It was a pretty segregated place, and I didn't have a lot of contact with too many people," Milano recalls. "There was one black kid in my high school class." The fifth son of a metallurgical engineer and a homemaker, Milano was encouraged to ask questions - on music or politics or art or diversity. He was taught that curiosity is a good thing.

When he became an editor, he launched a project called the National Diversity Newspaper Job Bank, an online clearinghouse for positions at newspapers. Then last fall, he had a simple idea. What if he started a Web site where folks could ask painfully embarrassing questions in a safe, anonymous environment? What if he asked others to answer those questions? He set up the computer in his den, signed up for a Web address (www.yforum.com), and launched the forum.

At first, Milano wasn't sure it would work.

He wasn't even sure it was necessary. Are people really that isolated? But then the questions started to trickle in, and folks started posting responses. Then a startling query came across his screen: "What would take place during a typical weeknight in a black family?"

"Here was a woman in Philadelphia who was so far removed from other groups that she couldn't even imagine what it would be like to live in a black household," Milano recalls. "I went running to my wife and said, 'This is going to work.' "

And it has worked. This low-tech site gets about 400,000 hits a month, and has a loyal group of followers who check in daily.

Cindy Clardy, an industrial engineer for Ford Motor Co. who lives in Southfield, Mich., is one of those regulars. A single mother who serves on Ford's diversity council and is a member of its gay and lesbian employee group, she frequently posts answers to questions about sexuality. "Some of the questions really surprise me," she says. "I've never seen so many people who seem to think other people smell funny. Where on earth do they get these ideas?"

The fact that people have these ideas is the very reason Y? Forum works. This isn't Oprah, where audience members do the talk-show version of "We Are the World." The dialogue here can make your face red, but it's refreshingly honest.

Despite its success, the Y? Forum hasn't been able to attract many sponsors. Milano pays for the site and works on it late at night, when his three children are asleep. That might change soon, though. Milano forged a partnership with a startup interactive entertainment outfit called EnterMedia Network Co.; they're going to create a live version of the Y? Forum that starts preproduction this month and launches in January.

Pub Date: 12/14/98

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