Out of this world

BlackPlanet.com is one of the fastest-growing new community portals

As talk of the digital divide continues to grab the spotlight, there is a viable and hungry market for African American Internet services that is often overlooked. Industry projections trumpet the arrival of 12 million African Americans online by year-end. The rate at which we are now going online-more than double that of the general population-has fueled the growth of Internet sites that cater to black audiences.

One of the fastest growing new sites is BlackPlanet.com, a unit of New York-based Community Connect, which launched AsianAvenue.com. Launched this past September, BlackPlanet.com had attracted over 200,000 registered users by the end of January and is expected to reach 1 million by year’s end. According to Media Industry News, BlackPlanet.com registered 2 million page views in its first month. By November, the number had jumped to 28 million page views, and now the ticker is running at about 70 million per month.

This fast growth can be attributed to the fact that BlackPlanet is a community Web destination that places a strong emphasis on user-to-user interaction. Members enjoy free personal pages, e-mail, games, forums, chats, news, instant messaging and Internet telephony in addition to gifts, special promotions and online events. Members must complete a short registration form; all information is secure and kept for demographic purposes only.

“I’ve been interested in black online communities since the early ’90s,” explains BlackPlanet’s executive director, Omar Wasow, 29, founder of New York Online, a highly popular local online community. “[I] noticed, though, that there wasn’t any central watering hole for us. There was a lot of talk about a new black renaissance, but none of those people [online] were in the same room at the same time.”

Wasow contends that the main difference between BlackPlanet and its competitors is that the site is member-driven. “A lot of our traffic is members sending notes or giving each other information,” says Wasow. “We make it easy for people to find others who share their same interests and aspirations. We give our members building blocks so that they can build their homestead.” Wasow was recognized by Newsweek magazine as one of the 50 most influential people to watch in cyberspace. “We don’t want to push information on to our members; [instead,] we want to focus on audience participation.”

Thought of as a computer geek by those who know him, Wasow was programming by the age of 11 and online by 12. The Stanford University graduate has honed his high-tech skills for nearly two decades, launching corporate sites for clients such as Vibe, Consumer Reports, The New Yorker, United Artists and Samsung. He regularly demonstrates his acumen as an Internet analyst for cable television’s MSNBC and for WNBC-TV, NBC-TV’s New York affiliate.

Wasow says his long-term goal is to incorporate innovative and interactive links to help enhance BlackPlanet members’ lives. Says Wasow, “We’d like to include professional development tools like an online class to help people find jobs. We tell [members] that if you recruit someone to this site, we will make a donation

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