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"Race, Poverty and the Internet: Using Hi-Tech to Build Community,"

by Michael Tanzer September/October 1997 issue of Poverty & Race

Today's Internet is a decentralized web of hardware and software that links some 40 million computer users around the world, with projection~ of 200 million by 2000. The major features of the Net are the ability to send electronic mail (e-mail) and to browse through "web sites," including thousands of highly specialized "news groups" which transmit information, entertainment and, increasingly, commercial transactions.

At the current stage of this new technology, the Net is just one more arena of life where the poor and minorities are disadvantaged. The principal barriers to using it are cost and lack of skills. To access the net today you need a computer and printer costing at least $1-2,000, and you must pay a monthly fee of about $20. Additionally, you need some minimal computer skills, because, like most computer software, that used for accessing the Net is extremely rigid. Each set of software uses its own computer language, and if you can't figure out the right button to hit at various decision-making points you can easily get lost.

As a result, not surprisingly, there is relatively less use of the Net by the poor and minorities than by other groups. While no definitive data on Net use by racial groups exist, best "guesstimates" are that perhaps 10% of African American and Hispanic households are on-line, compared with about 20% for the whole population. The one likely exception are Asian-Americans, since their rate of computer ownership is far higher than that of whites (in 1995, 40% versus 28%). Similarly, we can deduce that the poor are less active on the Net from a 1996 study of computer ownership which showed that African American and white families with annual incomes over $75,000 had virtually identical rates of computer ownership (75%), while for lower-income families ($15,000-$25,000), only 12% of African Americans and 24% of whites had computers.

On the hopeful side, however, are some factors that promise to make the Net more accessible to the poor and minorities. First, computer prices continue to decline, and complete packages that allow access to the Net for under $1,000 are a rapidly growing segment of the market. In addition, new computer software developed by Web-TV, now backed by Microsoft, essentially allows any TV set to be used for e-mail and browsing on the Net. The total capital cost of this package (including printer) is less than $400 and declining. Not only is Web-TV relatively inexpensive, but it is also much more user-friendly, as it mirrors present TV watching. The viewer can simply sit on his/her couch and select web sites by pointing a remote and clicking on an icon (instead of a TV channel number). Using different technology, major rivals to Microsoft are pushing a plan to simply add the Internet as a premium cable service.

Further, the poor and minorities are increasingly obtaining computer skills and access to computers and the Net through schools and employment, even at relatively low-level occupations, such as clerical workers who require on-the-job computer training. This positive trend is likely to continue, since the U.S. government sees its lead over other countries in computerization as an important edge in the global economy. Hence, the Clinton plan to link all schools to the Net by the year 2000.

The Current Net Fare for Poor and Minorities

The real question is not whether in the future the poor and minorities will use the Net, but what will they use it for? There are literally millions of web sites, vying for the user's attention. As the big players like Microsoft, the TV networks and cable companies, and the entertainment conglomerates jockey for position, the danger for the poor and minorities is that the Net will degenerate into the same wasteland as TV. Without active intervention, the Net will primarily become a vehicle for passively watching sports, movies and news and playing games.

At present, while no major web sites are aimed at the poor, hundreds are aimed at ethnic minorities. Among the more prominent is "Channel A" (www.channela.com), which Newsday described as "a web site that serves up a rich stew of Asian entertaimnent, news and culture." "H is-panic Online" (www.hisp.com) is the online version of the monthly magazine Hispanic and features a schedule of Latino events, web links and articles. For African-Americans, there are five major web sites: MSBET (www.msbet.com), financed by Microsoft; NetNoir (www.netnoir.com), backed by AOL; MelaNet (www.melanet.com); Virtual Melanin (www.vmelanin.com); and The Black World Today (www.tbwt.com). Except for TBWT, the other four major web sites are light on content and heavy on sports and entertainment.

The Economics of Web Sites

The emphasis on sports and entertainment is dictated by the basic economics of web sites. Maintaining an active and rich site, with daily news and features updates, can be expensive, costing many thousands of dollars per month. Of the two most logical revenue sources for covering these costs — subscription charges and advertising — the former has generally proven unworkable. This is partly because of the healthy Net tradition that information and access to specific web sites should be available at no charge. As a result, advertising revenues, particularly from major corporations, have become the major hope for most web sites. However, because the Net is a new and untested medium, big companies have been leery of pouring money into it.

This has been a particular problem for minority-oriented web sites, since, as a recent Cram ‘s New York Business survey noted: "Minorities are a tiny part of the on-line audience. Their numbers are growing, especially among middle-class segments and African-Americans, and will grow even more as the price of PCs comes down. But for now, advertisers are reluctant to sink ad dollars into any Internet venture that can't guarantee millions of eyeballs." Thus, most ethnic web sites seek to shape their content in a way acceptable to corporate America's traditional view of minorities — as mass consumers of sports and entertainment.


Utilizing the Net for Community Education and Empowerment

A very different vision of what the Net can do for minorities and the poor is possible. The great potential of the Net is in breaking through the mass media's virtual monopoly on information and in building communities of empowerment. Communities of like-minded viewers can educate and empower each other through sharing their knowledge and experiences.

The two principal Net vehicles for this are the "bulletin boards" and "chat rooms" which a web site can host. A bulletin board is simply a place on the web site where viewers can post messages on a particular topic. These messages can be of any length, can be kept on the site indefinitely and can be read at any time by anyone who visits the site. A chat room is a place on the web site in which those interested in a particular topic can post short messages and responses in "real time" — i.e., carry on a conversation among a small group.

Viewers can thus interact and develop links that lead not just to heightened consciousness, but to action. For example, from chat room discussions on the topic of minorities and police brutality, a group might share experiences of people in different localities. This could lead to producing educational materials, organizing conferences or contacting political leaders with a set of demands. Given sufficiently large numbers, this chat room might be subdivided into groups of people in specific localities, each of which could deal with local conditions, e.g., organizing demonstrations in response to particular incidents.

The Net's great potential for mobilizing action derives in part from the virtually costless way one can communicate instantly with millions of people around the world. The Zapatistas in Mexico were the first to demonstrate this power, as they put out bulletins on the Net that broke through the media monopolies and effectively brought national and international public opinion to their cause.

A more recent example was the San Jose Mercury News report on the CIA's involvement with the introduction of drugs into poor and minority communities. Because the material was placed on the newspaper's web site, at one point over a million people per day were viewing it! This exposure in turn led to mass pressure from the minority community and some of its leaders for investigations and Congressional hearings. While the linkage of the CIA with the drug introduction was hotly disputed, a great advantage of the web site was that the user had access to many of the underlying documents, including audio versions of some of the key testimony.

While no one can predict the various and creative ways the Net will be used for community action in the future, what seems clear is that it potentially is a great leveler for the poor and minorities. The capacity for millions of people, once hooked up to the Net, to be able to communicate and interact very cheaply reduces the resource advantages of the rich and powerful: access to mass media and money for dissemination of political materials, organizing meetings, lobbying political leaders, etc. As communications on the Net grow more sophisticated, including not only audio but video, the Net will become the main competitor to today's most formidable vehicle of political "education" and manipulation – TV. Thus, ease of entry into the Net can be a very positive force for the poor and minorities in developing their own channels of communication and organization.

As Net communities grow, they also develop power to help increase the economic lives of their members in very direct ways. For example, like any cooperative, a sizable Net community can bargain with commercial suppliers to provide its members with higher quality goods and services at lower prices – something badly needed by the poor and minorities.

In the long run the ultimate appeal of the Net will be particularly for building such affinity groups and communities. Experience to date on the Net shows that while good content will attract viewers initially, bulletin board and chat rooms are the vehicles that induce them to stay on the site longer and to return.

My own experience in using the Net reflects this journey from the primacy of news content to its interactive potential. As a white progressive activist with roots in the civil rights movement of the 1950s, and as co-founder of a progressive data disseminating company, I was initially attracted to The Black World Today (TBWT) for two reasons. First, it was conceived and launched by Don Rojas, a long-time progressive journalist (former editor of the Amsterdam News, New York's leading black newspaper) and activist, and by journalist/historian Herb Boyd, TBWT's National Editor. Second, their conception of it was as a global daily black newspaper serving a world-wide community, which by definition in the international economy is poor and minority.

TBWT has attracted an impressive gathering of writers and users in the minority community due to the depth and breadth of its content. I also came to see the enormous potential of this medium for education and consciousness-raising, as well as for providing an outlet for voices that too often are not heard. As a result, I became a principal of the group and write a regular column for its viewers.

As TBWT seeks to build on its strong content base and develop a vibrant community of viewers, PRRAC readers can help us to realize the positive potential of the Net. Log in and view us (www.tbwt.com). Also, we're always on the lookout for good content and for people with ideas for hosting pages on our web site. Contact us at: editors@tbwt.com or 46 Amsterdam Avenue, Teaneck, NJ 07666.
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