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The Soul of the Internet : Afrocentric Sites Bring Blacks Into Global Community

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The vibrations of an electronic bass drum echo through an alley doorway in San Francisco’s Multimedia Gulch. Inside is a huge renovated loft where several dozen people dance to a DJ’s mixes and mill about exchanging handshakes and e-mail addresses.

Warehouse parties are all too common among the youthful denizens of this cyberculture mecca, but one thing is refreshingly different tonight: The faces in this crowd are of many colors. They’ve come to celebrate the anniversary of NetNoir Online, “the soul of Cyberspace.”

NetNoir, launched on June 19, was one of the first new-media production houses focusing on Afrocentric culture. And today it’s anything but alone: A search for “African American” on the Yahoo Internet directory turned up 129 links, including the Universal Black Pages, Cafe Los Negroes, AFRO Americ@, MelaNet and The Drum.

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Almost all of these companies offer magazine-style content, interactive chat rooms and discussion areas geared specifically to people of color. Most also feature online marketplaces, where people can sell products they think will be of interest to their virtual community.

NetNoir Chief Executive E. David Ellington considers the ease of online distribution to be one of the strongest forces drawing African Americans to the Net.

“I think a lot of black folks see this technology as a way to be entrepreneurial and get a small business going,” says Ellington, 36, a former entertainment lawyer from Los Angeles. “They don’t have to cut a deal with Wal-Mart to get their product out there.”

NetNoir’s original service, NetNoir Online, is an area of America Online that features news stories, online classes, chat rooms, bulletin boards and live discussions with prominent people of color, including a forum last year with Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. NetNoir began as the first outside company to be accepted into the AOL Greenhouse Program, which bankrolls “infoprenuers” to create unique content for the country’s largest online service.

Following its success on AOL, NetNoir in February launched an information-rich Web site with a similar mix of features. Although NetNoir’s content is clearly Afrocentric, the editorial philosophy and business model is one of inclusion.

“The point of view of most black media is that ‘this is by black people for black people,’ ” says MIT and Stanford computer science alum Malcolm CasSelle, NetNoir’s 26-year-old co-founder and chief technology officer. “The position we take is, ‘This is by black people, but it’s for everyone.’ ”

NetNoir aims to spread the beauty of Afrocentric culture to the masses while making a little money too. The company hopes to profit not only by generating traffic on AOL, but also by selling attractive content to other parties for use on corporate Web sites or future interactive television channels.

Another of the company’s goals is even loftier: NetNoir hopes to be “the software that drives the purchase of the hardware,” in order to draw more people of color to cyberspace.

A 1995 study, “Falling Through the Net: A Survey of the ‘Have Nots’ in Rural and Urban America,” released by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, reported that 11.8% of urban black households have computers, compared with 30.3% of white households.

Still, other researchers say income level and education are far better predictors of involvement with computers than is race. And African Americans in the Internet trenches say any racial gaps are quickly narrowing.

Indeed, the soc.culture.african.american newsgroup receives more than 9,000 postings each day, according to Stafford Battle and Rey Harris, co-authors of “The African American Resource Guide to the Internet,” giving the newsgroup a popularity that “far exceeds any other newsgroup, including the nefarious adult-oriented sites, on the Net.”

And a new service called the RBG Online Computer Network--the initials stand for red, black and green, the traditional African American colors--aims to become the onramp of choice for African Americans looking to participate in online discourse. RBG, launched by three college friends, offers Internet access, hosts Web pages and features Afrocentric discussion groups, informational databases and conferences with the likes of Rodney King’s lawyer, Milton Grimes, and Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles).

RBG Online currently has only 1,000 or so active accounts. But with the launch of a Web page June 3 and the distribution of 100,000 access software disks at historically black colleges and other universities this fall, company co-founder Lawrence C. Ross Jr. hopes RBG Online will bring African Americans to the “forefront of the Information Age.”

“When radio was born, stereotypical ‘Amos and Andy’ was the top hit,” Ross, 30, writes in e-mail. “When television was born, the mammy show ‘Beulah’ was our representation. If we don’t control our images and information in this new communications era, what will be our next representation?”

Concerns remain as to whether the African American community, a disproportionate chunk of which remains impoverished, will really be able to take part fully in the digital revolution. But CasSelle, for one, is quick to interject that “if more than 99% of the planet isn’t online to begin with, how can you start talking about who’s disenfranchised?”

“And the African American community clearly adapts technology at alarming rates,” he adds.

Battle and Harris agree, telling of black inner-city schools in Washington that have computer labs and offer classes about the Internet taught by local media figures.

With more schools teaching Internet skills, and Afrocentric online services and content providers staking claims all over the Net, the number of blacks logging on will almost certainly increase.

The model of RBG Online and NetNoir is simple: Build it and they will come, whether the user is taking in content or creating his or her own. And while one year in the online industry may make CasSelle and Ellington elder statesmen, they and other African Americans on the Net know that the soul of cyberspace is just beginning to take shape.

Tonight though, as the beat continues to pulse inside the NetNoir anniversary party, CasSelle and Ellington accept their friends’ salutations with pride.

“NetNoir is an opportunity for us to celebrate our culture,” Ellington says, “and, as the assistant secretary of commerce, Larry Irving, said when we launched, it’s also a chance to ‘do well by doing good.’ ”

David Pescovitz (pesco@well.com) is the technoculture editor for Spiv (www.spiv.com), a youth culture Web site from Turner Entertainment.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Where to Point Your Browser

Afro America@:

https://www.afroam.org/

Cafe Los Negroes:

https://www.losnegroes.com/

The Drum

https://drum.ncat.edu

MelaNet:

https://www.melanet.com

NetNoir:

https://www.netnoir.com

RBG Online:

https://www.rbg.com

Universal Black Pages:

https://www.gatech.edu/bgsa/blackpages.html


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