Black Web takes off

'Digital divide' aside, investors and advertisers have begun to see potential in sites for African-Americans

February 21, 2000|By Kevin Washington | Kevin Washington,Sun Staff

D. Anne Browne knows the "digital divide" is real, but she doesn't buy the underlying argument that blacks aren't online.

In fact, she's betting on it. As a Web developer, she caters to a growing African-American audience where, she says, opportunity abounds.

"I know how things about black people get distorted," said Browne, a Randallstown resident who created the site Agoodblackman. com. "Black people are too good at too many things to be lousy at this."

Her sentiments are echoed by Internet analysts, developers and Web surfers who say that a U.S. Commerce Department report on the digital divide that was released last summer doesn't tell the whole story.

Scott Mills, chief operating officer of BET.com, a subsidiary of Black Entertainment Television, doesn't talk so much about the digital divide as the "digital opportunity" that a growing black presence represents.

The launch of a revamped NetNoir.com today and BET's latest cyberspace effort, launched two weeks ago with $35 million in backing from heavyweight investors, showcase the promise of the black Web audience to Wall Street and advertisers alike.

Blacks are flocking to the Web in part because the price of computers and Internet access have fallen rapidly. And equally important, analysts say, African-Americans are starting to see themselves routinely reflected on Web sites put up by black churches, fraternities, sororities, dating services, record labels and businesses.

Mills wouldn't release statistics last week about the number of visitors to BET.com, but he said the company had to add server capacity on the site's second day.

BlackPlanet.com, a New York-based Web community launched in September, is a year ahead of its most ambitious projections, said executive director Omar Wasow. "In the first week, we would have 50 people online in a given day," he said. "Now, over 5,000 people are online at some time during the day."

BlackVoices.com, another online community, has been a hot commodity for Web surfers since its early days. Six months after its 1995 launch as part of the Orlando Sentinel newspaper site within America Online, BlackVoices was outdrawing the newspaper itself.

"That was by word of mouth," founder and CEO Barry Cooper said of BlackVoices, which offers services ranging from chat and e-mail to e-commerce.

Much of the debate in the African-American Web community focuses on the Commerce Department's report, titled "Falling Through the Net: Defining the Digital Divide." They agree that it was a well-intentioned effort to figure out who has access to all kinds of technology.

But there are mixed feelings about one of the report's conclusions: that Americans should be alarmed by a digital divide that may be widening. While blacks have less access to the Web than whites, developers and analysts say their experience tells them the situation is improving.

According to the Commerce Department, black and Hispanic households were only 40 percent as likely as whites to have Internet access at home. More ominously, the gap between white and black households was 5 percentage points higher in 1998 than in 1997.

"The central problem is that Internet use is increasing so rapidly that any snapshot in time may not be accurate," said Adam Clayton Powell III, vice president for technology and programs at the Freedom Forum, a media think tank in Reston, Va. Powell noted that the Commerce report, though released in July 1999, used information gathered in December 1998. In Web time, six months can be an era.

Critics also argue that a lack of home Internet access doesn't mean no Internet access.

Ekaterina Walsh, an analyst at Forrester Research in Cambridge, Mass., who studies Internet trends, said studies shouldn't count out people who have Internet access at work, school, libraries and community centers. If you count users who log on outside the home, she argued, you'll find a significant black online presence.

Forrester's own count in January shows that 35 percent of black households have someone online, compared with 46 percent for whites, 50 percent for Hispanics and 74 percent for Asians. Overall, roughly 46 percent of households in the United States have someone who uses the Internet.

Because blacks are behind other ethnic groups, their potential growth as an online audience is greater, analysts say. According to Walsh, the number of blacks online grew by 52 percent from 1999 to 2000.

While no one in the industry disputes the need for closing the gap, Walsh and other analysts insist that it's not so much an issue of race as a question of income, education, age and attitude toward technology.

On the other side, Marsha Reeves Jews, president of Career Communications Group Inc., thinks race plays a more important role. Jews' Baltimore-based media firm promotes engineering, science and technology to minorities and sponsored, with IBM, last week's Black Family Technology Awareness Week effort to get families connected.

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