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BlackPlanet.com: America’s Largest Online Black Community

NCM, NCM Profile, Danielle Worthy Posted: Apr 10, 2005

Boasting more than 14 million members, Blackplanet.com is one of the most vibrant and prolific online communities today.
Omar Wasow
Omar Wasow, the website’s founder and executive director, says this sense of community was the reason he created the website in the fall of 1999 in New York City.

“I had always been struck by the absence of a grapevine (into) the black community online,” explains Wasow, who has been working with computers for more than 20 years.

In 1993 Wasow created New York Online (NYO), an online bulletin board known for its down-to-earth spirit, sophistication and multicultural flavor, a virtual embodiment of the very people it was trying to reach – New Yorkers. In addition to its postings on the latest news, politics and culture, NYO aimed to bring locals into a dialogue about what was happening in their neighborhoods.

It was during this period that Wasow took note of the growing media attention to the “digital divide,” the notion that minorities, specifically blacks, were being left behind during the technology boom of the early 1990s.

Wasow felt that the mainstream discussions muddled the issue and failed to acknowledge that there was a black presence online struggling to make their voices heard.

He went to work on creating what he envisioned as a melting pot, a blending of idea-sharing, services and news for a national black community.

Blackplanet.com quickly became a primary news source and discussion forum for the latest news and issues facing black Americans.

“We’re like the watering hole for African Americans,” said Wasow. “We’re where African Americans come to talk about the news.”

Blackplanet.com posts stories focused on local and national news, politics, health, entertainment, fashion and sports from a variety of sources that range from wire services to independent niche sites like ColorLines and the Ave.

The staff also produces original content on a wide range of issues. One story from November of 2004 focused on Assata Shakur, an activist and former Black Panther who broke out of jail and fled to Cuba in the mid 1980s after being arrested on what many believed to be trumped up charges. The story struck a chord with readers, and received close to 60,000 page views. That same month, a story entitled “Digital Blackout” was published, an exposé of the stereotypical images of African Americans in video games, that drew more than 53,500 page views.

But the website is more than a source of news. It provides a dating service, a job search engine, event listings and a multitude of chat rooms that have helped to establish it as an interactive online community.

“(We) improve the lives of our members by expanding their network of friends, providing a platform for self-expression and connecting them to new opportunities like better jobs,” says Wasow.

While most sites relegate viewers to being observers, Blackplanet.com offers the chance for readers to have a more active role. Rather than limiting content to what the site’s creators deem newsworthy, the website provides a forum where visitors can write about the issues that are significant to them, and find out what other people around the country are saying.

In the site’s forum section, individuals can read and post comments on a variety of topics, including campus life, family and home, heritage and identity, religion and spirituality and small business. If members don’t see the topic they are looking for, they can create their own forum on the website.

Over the course of six years, the online community has become a reflection of the thoughts and interests of black communities around the country.

When famed singer Alliyah’s life was tragically cut short after a plane crash in the summer of 2001, more than 25,000 people came to Blackplanet.com to grieve her death and celebrate her life and music. When a man from Oklahoma City was found guilty of assault in the fall of 2004 after it was discovered he had been sleeping with women in spite of knowing he was HIV positive, 28,000 people came to read about it.

Blackplanet.com remains the most visited black site on the web, with a substantial edge over its competitors by offering a one-stop-shop approach to providing information and services. Its success has surprised many, including Wasow himself, who never imagined they would attract three million viewers a day.

But Wasow and his colleagues believe that what they are seeing is just the tip of the iceberg. Their goal is to continue adding services and innovations to ensure that Blackplanet.com draws an ever-expanding community that reflects the uniqueness and diversity of black Americans.

“I think everyone needs to have a base camp in cyberspace where they know they can relax among friends,” says Wasow. “I also believe that African Americans, like any community that has been ignored by mainstream offerings, have distinct interests and history that are often better served by a site specifically catering to their interests.”

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