Minorities find a home on the Internet

Back in those heady early days of the web, before big media houses deigned to spend money online, the uncool kids, the freaks and geeks, were the netizens of this somewhat anarchic medium. With chatrooms dedicated to obscure role-playing games and forum flame wars over who shot first, they reigned supreme, finding like-minded allies in the ether.

But 15 years on, the rest of your matric class is on the net, even the ten-thumbed Neanderthal who couldn’t spell email. The time of the geek it seems is past, and the Internet is for everyone. Having access is a constitutional right in Finland, and my gardener can access it on his cellphone.

Local minorities are finding their voice

With the Internet becoming the “medium of choice” its democratic nature is evolving, and now, instead of just the local neighbourhood goth tech-head finding his soulmate, many minorities are too.

On the Internet local minorities are finding their faces, their languages, their cultural injokes – and importantly, they’re also finding their voice.

Jewishweb.co.za, Coloured.co.za and Indfinity.com are just some of the local minority-flavour sites that have sprung up over the years, but minority use of the net has a far greater take-up in the US, where the growing Hispanic and Asian American populations are changing how advertisers see minorities.

A marketing and advertising opportunity

In the US, studies on ethnic minority use of the Internet to find media representation is showing that Hispanics and Asian-Americans, whose cultures are not reflected in mainstream media, are fast becoming marketing targets of choice. But smart marketers are talking to these consumers on their own terms, rather than as sidelined, and sidekick, minorities.

On the net, these groups aren’t minorities. On the sites they frequent, their cultures and lifestyles are dominant, and often these sites connect Diaspora communities from around the world. Sepiamutiny is one such site, where mostly second-generation Indian Americans discuss their diverse cultural experiences, but also where Indian Diaspora members from across the world visit.

Charles Ash, a managing partner at SciFI Communications Systems is the founder of one of the local web’s early minority population sites, Bruin-ou.com. He says: “Around 9% of the South African population is Coloured, while 9.3% is White – but mainstream media representation for Coloureds is non-existent.”

Ash started Bruin-ou.com in December 2000, and despite garnering around 35 000 subscribers, couldn’t get advertisers on board, constantly confronting stereotypes “about Coloureds and what they should be”. Despite the site being ignored by mainstream agencies and planners, it however, he says, created quite a stir among the users, allowing them a media space, for the first time, to “explore Coloured identity”. He adds that the absence of any mainstream media representation for South African Coloureds possibility contributes to the populations apparent “dysfunction”, however, through Bruin-ou.com, he reached a significant number of affluent members of the population.

Shattering stereotypes

Lauded as a tool for social mobilisation, the web now offers affluent minorities space to air their views on their own terms, in their own voices. And in doing so is shattering stereotypes – the lascivious Latina is replaced with the intellectual Hispanic American; the demure Indian woman with an outspoken feminist, who has a penchant for channeling Steve Biko.

And even as minorities find ways to live their cultures online, they use it to discuss these cultures; to critique them and to pass their knowledge along to Diaspora members hundreds of miles away. Take the Pink Chaddi Campaign, started to raise awareness of, and protest, “Eve teasing”, the public sexual harassment of women in India.

The site gained international press, and received messages of support from people of Indian origin, especially women, around the world.

Minorities also use the Internet to find true love; Bharat Matrimony.com is one of the world’s most successful online “dating” sites, where Diaspora Indians and Indian nationals find husbands and wives practising the same culture. It is unashamed in its promotion of sharing a culture as a factor in a happy and successful marriage, something many of its users firmly believe.

Social networking brings a whole new angle to this cultural dominance online though; while most of the sites referenced above still require a few techies and editors, sites like Facebook offer users the tools to build “mini-sites” on whatever cultural grouping they choose, reflecting their view of the world. Local affluent minorities are becoming web- savvy and are taking niche publishing to its ultimate evolution; groups like this Coloured Comedy event have almost exclusively Coloured fans.

In 2001, Dr T. Matthew Ciolek, of the Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies, at the Australian National University in Canberra, in his paper Internet and Minorities, wrote: “Those groups who are (or recently were) systematically marginalised and disadvantaged in relations with the rest of their society can find in the Internet a valuable ally. However, the effective use of the Net to ameliorate the situation, or simply to communicate the truth about their lives, is far from being a routine matter.”

Nine years later, it seems finding mainstream media representation beyond the stereotype, and a voice, may be more routine now for affluent minorities than ever before.



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