There has been a ton of talk about Bubble 2.0, it started with Fred Wilson back in March of ’05, was picked up by Vulture Central in Oct of the same year and has since since spawned everything from an official blog to a Wikipedia entry. However, the only sure sign that Bubble 2.0 is in full effect is the recent launch of 5 major web sites focused on the Black audience. The last time this many copy-cat Black sites, with major backers, launched was at the tail end of the dotcom boom in late ’99 and 2000.
Back then a series of lackluster online efforts launched and failed in rapid succession. These sites were generally the brainchild of a disgruntled black executive in a traditional media firm who had snagged a white funding source. He (its always a he) would then hire a bunch of magazine writers, movie/music promotions people, traditional ad-sales folks and some witless MBA’s for legitimacy. What none of these sites had was a real problem to solve, a raison d’etre that was unique to their target audience, or a technological basis to solve that problem.
So how do todays crop of Black sites compare? Have they discovered some unique problem facing the Black community that can be solved using the Internet? Do they offer some new technology or an innovative use of an old technology to leap-frog current offerings and add real value to their users? Lets look at them one at a time and you can decide for yourself.
The Washington Post has been toying with the idea of launching a Black news site since Retha Hill was running Digital Ink. Somehow Skip Gates convinced them to revive his failed site, Africana.com which was pawned off to AOL Blackvoices back in ’05, under the name The Root. TheRoot.com features many of the same writers (Jimi Isreal, Veronica Chambers, Marc Hill etc…) waxing poetic over the same issues that made Africana.com such a snoozefest. While theRoot.com does have a certain cool Huffington Post vibe to it, with intelligent often witty writing, there is nothing innovative, new or unique about the offering. theRoot.com is exactly what you would expect if Jet magazine was magically transported into the the modern era and launched a site.
“OnOne is the premiere social network of Radio One, Inc. The connecting force between our established communities which include Giant Magazine , Radio One Network, as well as our newly launching The Urban Daily, and News One“
Ok, it’s 2008 and Radio One has finally gotten serious about the Internet. Of course it’s new found Internet lust comes at a time when its core radio businesses isnt doing well and its TV efforts are rudderless. Enter Smokey Fountain, selling a story of Black people desperate for news and entertainment content online and presto, NewsOne is born. The site is essentially an AP feed, poorly filtered for “Black relevant” content, with sprinklings of music reviews and entertainment news from Giant magazine.
But wait there’s more. To the collective gaffaw of most web watchers, Radio One purchased Blackplanet.com and its sister sites Migente and Asian Ave for $38 million. Black Planet peaked back in ’03 when it was immortalized by Kanye West in “Get em high” and is now one of the many also-ran social networking sites largely forgotten by the press and users able to get dates without computer mediation. While the acquisition may be profitable in the long term for Radio One (it was only $38 million) it shows just how backwards looking the management is. The hodgepodge of sites being built by a team of magazine and radio executives (why isnt Omar running this thing?) doesnt bode well for Mr. Liggins’ dream of a Googlesque empire to replace the dwindling revenues from his Radio business. On the plus side, if you have an ailing media property, like Giant Magazine or Black Planet, Alfred’s in an acquisitive mood and he’s got millions to spend.
“RushmoreDrive is where the Black community goes to find the best search results.”
Of all the recent launches IAC‘s inexplicably named, Rushmore Drive, is the one with the highest ambition and most interesting concept. Rushmore Drive is billed as a vertical search engine targeting Black users who have trouble figuring out Google.
Although the concept is at least interesting, a quick comparison of Rushmore Drive and Google shows very little utility. Searches on the “black focused” Rushmore Drive and Google return essentially the same information. Type “best employers” in Rushmore Drive and one might expect to get a list of employers that excel at African-american recruitment or perhaps the BE list of top employers for African-americans. Unfortunately, that doesnt happen. Of the top 5 search results for “best employers” on Rushmore Drive one is for the best employers for people over 50, another is for people in Canada, people in Asia and people in New Zealand. None of which is particularly relevant to African-americans looking for the best employers and definitely no better then the results on Google. IAC spent several months putting this offering together together and had a huge boondoggle last week in NYC to celebrate the launch, to bad they didnt spend more time on the ontology of their search engine.
Launched back in late 2007 as an unusable mess no one cared about, Global Grind has evolved into a slightly better mess that no one cares about. The site, which is backed by Accel Partners and Russell Simons, was originally supposed to be a universal startpage for Hip Hop fans. It has become a cross between Digg and PopUrls, where the best parts each site are left out and the whole thing is overlaid with a bad design and Hip Hop slang. Fashizle!
As a heavy user of PopUrls (and less frequently Reddit), I kinda get the idea behind the site but I hate the execution. For those interested in whats buzzing around the web, Popurls aggregates important information from a select group of sources, in one place. It reduces the signal-to-noise ratio to a useable level and thus performs a service. On the other hand, Global Grind, with a random selection of content sources from Yahoo News and MSNBC to TMZ and F-Listed, does not offer the same level of service or utility. The site attempts to throw everything but the kitchen sink on a series of poorly designed pages, which only confuses and frustrates a long time web users like me. Why have the venerable Larry Hester listed as content curator if he clearly isnt curating any content? Why call it a universal Hip Hop startpage if there is no Hip Hop on the homepage? Heck why bother with the site at all?
Way, way way back in 1995 Malcolm CasSelle and E. David Ellington convinced the good folks at AOL that there was a market for a Black focused content offering. With money from AOL’s greenhouse and ideas from New York Online, they launched NetNoir and the “Urban” internet gold rush was born. What followed was a series of poorly conceived and terribly executed copy-cat sites designed to solve a non-existent problem; the lack of content and communication outlets for African-americans online. Volume.com, Hookt.com, 360hiphop.com, UBO.com, Urbanentertainment.com and many other members of the Black dotcom deadpool should serve as reminders that unless you’re solving a problem for users then the utility and longevity of your site is limited. Lets see how long it takes this latest crop of sites to figure it out.