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Weekly Column

If You Build It, They Will Come: What BlackPlanet Teaches Us About the True Nature of the Internet

Status: [CLOSED]
By Robert X. Cringely

Communication technologies almost never end up being used for what we expect. Alexander Bell thought the telephone would be used to send music to audiences at long distance. The inventor of television saw it as a videophone. Certainly Gutenberg never envisioned Larry Flynt. And the Internet was supposed to be used by geeks to run remote jobs on mainframe computers. DARPA was tired of buying mainframes for research universities and wanted to find a way to make them share. But of course, we know what the Internet (the Arpanet in those days) actually came to be used for: e-mail.Electronic mail was the Arpanet's killer application — the application that, by its very existence, alone justified using the new medium. People soon came to see their Arpanet accounts as e-mail accounts. And it is still that way today for many people. E-mail is still the killer app, even for my Mom, though she has lately added a second application — networked bridge games.

The reason I mention this continued importance of e-mail is that many of us get so excited about new technologies and services that we don't see them in the proper context. Look at America OnLine, for example. What do AOL members actually DO when they are online? I am told by folks inside the company that the dominant services are chat , e-mail, and instant messaging. Here we think that everyone is clamoring for a DSL connection to run exotic services when what people are really doing are these bandwidth-efficient one-to-one or one-to-several applications.

Think of Mark Cuban at Yahoo's, throwing gigabits-per-second at the idea that what we want to do online is watch movies when the truth is that we mainly want to flirt. Or if not flirt, then we want to find out how to fix the radiator leak in that '36 Dodge. The bread and butter of the Internet are these little community-building applications. So THAT's why AOL was willing to pay almost $200 million for ICQ — a product that had millions of customers but absolutely no sales.

At this point in its development, the successful parts of the Internet — that is the profitable parts — are based on building communities of interest. While we can't make money yet by streaming movies online, it is relatively easy to make money from chatting. Or selling is even better. Just look at the chat components of and eBay. They get us talking and buying and selling and the rest is history. It all comes down to getting people to come to a site, stay at that site and be exposed to banner ads and do it all for as little cost as possible to the service provider. Chat and instant messaging are so beautiful in this respect because they require extremely low network overhead and no content creation cost whatsoever. THE USERS, THEMSELVES, CREATE THE CONTENT THAT KEEPS THEM AT THE SITE. Beautiful.

A couple weeks ago I discussed this phenomenon with Omar Wasow, a 28 year-old pioneer in the world of online communities and chatting. Omar, who has sharp looks, dreadlocks, and appears to make women swoon by his very presence, started online at age 12 and building online communities by age 20. He founded New York Online, does television reports for MSNBC and WNBC, and is the guy who explains the Internet to Oprah and her viewers. Omar's current big project is, a chat site for African-Americans.

What got my attention was when Omar claimed that BlackPlanet, which started only last September, had 77 million page views in a recent month, or perhaps that was in a single week. Seventy-seven MILLION? I had to check this out. Omar attributes the success of BlackPlanet not especially to serving an ethnic group that is crazy about chatting, but to the site's elegant user interface. It's nice, sure, but 77 MILLION page views? So I delved into the statistics of BlackPlanet with the help of PCDataOnline, which I consider to be one of the better Web measuring outfits. I'll fess-up right now that I've known the PC Data CEO for many, many, many years and could be a bit biased.

I'm not sure where Omar came up with 77 million page views, but BlackPlanet is pretty darned impressive. PC Data says the real number of page views is even higher, averaging more than 60 million per week. The site is used for over four million hours per month by about half a million users, who spend an average of two hours per week on the site looking at an average of more than 100 Web pages.

That's a heck of a lot of "stickiness," as they say in the web monitoring business. The only other place that beats BlackPlanet in stickiness is Cybertown, a 3-D role-playing community occupied by only a few hundred users who never seem to leave at all. If BlackPlanet is interesting to its users, Cybertown must be addictive.

According to PC Data, BlackPlanet beats the heck out of, its biggest competitor for African-American users, but I couldn't find any data at all for, a sister site to BlackPlanet that's aimed at Asians. This is confusing, since AsianAvenue claims even more members than BlackPlanet. Maybe this is a limitation of PC Data, not AsianAvenue. I don't know.

But I DO know how these businesses work, drawing together communities that provide their own content and entertainment while the banner ads play and the money flows in. When I used it, the site was pretty slow, but then it also had more than 12,000 other people using it while I was. Beyond chat, the core content seems to be member Web pages that are produced with simple but clever tools that result in pages filled with silly animations and bad music but what the heck. Omar says this is the future of the Internet, and he may well be correct.

At the heart of this concept is, of course, just another portal, but a portal with a difference. Yahoo, the original portal, is itself a fabulous success and uses many of these same techniques. But Yahoo doesn't even come close to the stickiness of BlackPlanet. That's because Yahoo tries to be everybody's portal. If Abraham Lincoln was in the Internet business, he'd say "You can serve all of the people some of the time or some of the people all of the time." That's what BlackPlanet does so well — takes a 40 million person subset of the U.S. population and tries to give that group exactly what they want. WB does the same thing in broadcast TV, and like BlackPlanet, makes a good living by doing so.

Omar, who is a very likable guy despite the swooning women, says this specialization is the past, present, and future of the Net, and he's probably correct.

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