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In 2000, as the dot-com bubble was experiencing its last burst, Black Enterprise assessed how African American-owned sites fared. Littered as the landscape was with dot-coms-turned-dot-bombs, the picture was hazy, at best. Fast-forward to 2009 and things look a bit different: Black-focused sites and blogs cover a huge swath of the Web 2.0 space and show no signs of decreasing. A recent Pew Internet and American Life Project report shows that African Americans and Hispanics far outnumber other groups engaging in online social networks (See “African Americans Love to Tweet,” Talking Points, August 2009).
Sites such as TheGrio.com, TheRoot.com, and Bossip.com, along with blogs such as Afro-Netizen and the social democracy site ColorOfChange (www.colorofchange.org), are leading the charge into a new digital era. So why the change? In a word: Obama. Well, not entirely, but his 2008 campaign’s use of social media technologies certainly highlighted the trend of African Americans taking to the Web en masse, causing mainstream to take notice.
“The Obama campaign and presidency really used the Internet to mobilize not just African Americans, but also Hispanics and the broader community,” says Donna Byrd, publisher at TheRoot.com, a Washington Post Co. site launched in January 2008 with Harvard University Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. “Everyone started going to the Internet to find more information on specific issues, and we just hadn’t seen that before.” Prior to joining The Root, Byrd worked as CEO of BlackAmericaWeb (www.blackamericaweb.com), helping Tom Joyner launch the site, and as a marketing and strategic consultant in Atlanta.
“There are many sites in the African American media space that are doing well. Ours is focused primarily on news and current events. We’ve received tremendous feedback from our readers that this is something they’ve been looking for, for some time,” Byrd adds.
But is the “Obama effect” really the cause? “We can’t really say that Obama has definitely converted black folks to the ways of the digerati,” says Chris Rabb, 39, the founder of Afro-Netizen (www.afro-netizen.com) and currently a visiting researcher at Princeton University. “There is a small but active group of black folks who are living digital in a fairly holistic way, but it’s not representative among the different demographics in our community.” And that, says Rabb, is a missed opportunity for the communities in which they engage.