Race And The Web: Going After Niche Markets Or Practicing Digital Segregation?

This is a guest post by Angela Benton, Founder & Publisher of Black Web 2.0, a site that covers the internet industry from an African-American perspective. It was co-written by Black Web 2.0 General Manager Markus Robinson.

The release of Blackbird, an African American focused web browser sparked quite a bit of controversy this past week. The TechCrunch post about it elicited reactions from both sides of the aisle (it has 275 comments and counting). Some argued for the value of niche audiences while others debated that the idea of a Black browser is in and of itself separatism, racist even. But catering to niche audiences online is nothing new. In fact, browsers that focus on a specific market segment isn’t all that new either. For example there’s Gloss, a women focused fashion and beauty browser created using Flock, the social media browser. But what makes the launch of Blackbird both a controversial and sensitive topic, is that it is focused towards an ethnic segment versus a special interest group. Race is still an extremely touchy subject in America, and the Internet and web are not immune to this sensitivity regardless of how open it is. But aren’t most businesses, especially web businesses, started in this “Web 2.0” era defined by catering to a particular niche?

Really, if race-based niche sites are racist, then this inflated “Web 2.0 bubble” has played a major role in the segregation of the web overall. Many of the sites we all follow right here on TechCrunch, like Digg, Techmeme, and Mixx, were built and launched to service a niche, therefore fragmenting the web making it so we all think it’s “more personal” and “more authentic.” Remember when Global Grind was once the more authentic counterpart to Pageflakes for the hip-hop culture? Or how about the collaborative advice site for parenting Minti that was described by Mike Arrington as a “walled garden” even though he “…like(s) to see niche content sites spring up that use Web 2.0 ideas – these services will help the masses start to use and understand things like tagging, ajax, etc.”

While niche sites like the newly launched CodeBlack.com which is described as the “Black Amazon.com” will always have the debate of whether it is really needed; CodeBlack’s CEO Quincy Newell thinks otherwise:

“In general there should be something for everyone, we are living in a society where it’s okay to have something for everyone. Everyone is welcomed. The intent is to serve the need and/or perspective, not to exclude. We aren’t entering the market to be the ‘Black Amazon’ we entered to give back in the form of opportunities created for our community.”

Newell believes his service provides opportunity by giving film makers and authors without major distribution deals the ability to distribute their content to an audience who may be interested in it. A portion of the proceeds from purchases from the site also go to the United Negro College Fund Scholarship.

In the case of CodeBlack, it is less of an Amazon and more of a Netflix (or even Hulu) which, from a business perspective, is a good niche to be in. Last time I checked “Watch Instantly” in Netflix there were (count’em) 34 African-American Comedy movies available to watch instantly. A quick search on Hulu for the comedian Sommore brought back about 12 TV Clips, but how many Movie Clips? Zero. So perhaps the real argument is being positioned as the Black “Insert Mainstream website.” I am no different. My own site is often referred to as the Black “TechCrunch” by others and even by my team and I. No jab here, TC, but we aren’t.  We are actually quite different. However it is a quick and easy way to help someone associate a concept they may not fully understand off the top with something that is much more familiar to them.

The point: how can we ALL move past the thought of a niche application or site being separatist? Today most of us can see past race, and I say most because racism does still exist. Brown vs The Board of Education integrated schools so we could all learn equally, together. We are a better society today because of this. What Brown vs the Board of Education did for society and integrating school systems, services like Facebook Connect, Google Friend Connect, and Open Social will do for this very fragmented web we weave now. There is no doubt that services such as these will integrate the web regardless of race, niche, special interest, or application preference.

Facebook doesn’t discriminate against non-college students. Yahoo’s Shine isn’t sexist. Christian Café doesn’t discriminate against Muslims. Gay.com doesn’t discriminate against heterosexuals and Black websites and applications aren’t racist. It’s less about race and more about people wanting to share with people more like them whether that means common interests, nationality, ethnicity, sexuality or skin color, etc. And by the way: everyone is doing it. Its the new Black.