Ethnic social networking sites

On: November 4, 2007
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About Qilan Zhao
I'm currently enrolled in the research master's program Media Studies. Prior to this program, I graduated with a MA in Film and Television Studies in 2005. My field of interest includes gender relations, youth culture, transnational media, and Japanese animation.

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It is no longer a matter of signing up for a social networking account, but rather choosing one from the existing social networking sites. Major social networking sites such as Facebook or Myspace have secured their position in the market. But according to the online competitive intelligence service, Hitwise, two ethnic social networking sites, Blackplanet.com (ranked 4) and Migente.com (ranked 19) made up the list of top 20 Social Networking sites from January to February 2007. Ethnicity forms a solid basis on which niche online communities may thrive. For this matter I want to look at three ethnic social networks, Blackplanet.com, Migente.com and Asianave.com with the following questions in mind:

– How do ethnic social networking sites contribute to an imagined community?
– What is the value-added of these ethnic social networking sites?

The emergence of niche social networking sites may arise from our need to build a community with people we do not personally know, but who we feel affiliated with, or as Benedict Anderson articulates:

it (the nation) is imagined because the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion… In fact, all communities larger than primordial villages of face-to-face contact (and perhaps even these) are imagined (Anderson 1991).

Ethnic social networking sites

asianaveblackplanetmigente

Blackplanet.com, Migente.com and AsianAve.com are owned by Community Connect Inc. (CCI), one of the leading niche social networking companies. CCI also owns a niche social networking sites for gays and lesbians, named Glee.com.The sites are standardized in structure, interface, functionality, and text. The main page of each CCI site provides a short introduction and description of the community. For instance, Asianave.com is:

AsianAve.com is your place to meet and connect with Asians around the country. Chat or post photos and videos to share your experience. Look for other Asian Americans who are sharing theirs—even if you’re searching for news about what’s hot in Asian music, fashion, sports and events or looking for the buzz in business, politics and trends, we are the home for what is relevant to you and your community. This is the largest online community for Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese, Indians, and others—the entire Asian and Asian American family—to network, share a social lifestyle, find romance, entertainment, and even jobs.

CCI primarily emphasizes two domains which are significant to the member when engaging in the social networking site: personal relationships (love life) and business networks. This is affirmed when looking at the main functionalities of the site which are dating, professionals, and jobs. It is not entirely surprising that CCI focuses so much on profession and jobs; CCI has partnered with Monster.com since 2004. Under the motto “ethnic community” CCI sites have found a way to connect advertisers to their members. Dating services and job listings have become the main revenue sources of these sites. So the value-added of these sites, or rather a strategy is to group people together to attract major advertisers, which is indeed a very clever and twofold way to service both members and advertisers simultaneously.

CCI sites are imagined communities based on the notion of ethnic identity as a shared experience. My own assumption is that these communities promote an identity based on sameness and the feeling of belonging. So if you’re Asian(or African-American, or Hispanic), you will eventually connect to other millions of Asians, because having the same ethnicity means having something in common with people you do not actually know personally. CCI sites promote this idea of shared ethnic identity, and encourage members to engage in the community to extend their social and business networks. But do you actually need to go to ethnic social networking sites for these ends? Just like any other social networking sites, CCI sites provide the same functionalities, such as video upload, groups, music etc and when compared to general social networking sites, I wonder if CCI sites provide a surplus to building online ethnic communities. (I will return to this point later on.)

Let’s now have a look at how Facebook deals with ethnic groups. Type in for instance Asian as a query and you will find countless of “Asian” groups (so many that I have lost count of). On the global level, the largest groups have more than 10.000 members. Take for instance, the group “First Biggest Asian Group Ever” (total of 14.446 members) provides an extensive and detailed account of the group, members and goals:

If you are born in any Asian countries, or in the US with parents or grandparents of Asian descent? Or maybe you simply have a deep appreciation for Asian culture, language or history? Then you’re welcome to the First Biggest Asian Group on Facebook!

A summary of the First Biggest Asian Group’s goals:

– To unite all Asians/non-Asians alike who share a common interest and appreciation in Asian cultures
– To promote greater interest in and understanding of Asian culture, history, language, politics, economics and religion;
– To strive to eliminate the racism, hatred, prejudice, fetishism, stereotyping and cultural misunderstanding
– To maintain our status as the largest Asian group on Facebook, to serve as a hub for other Asian- and Asian American-related Facebook groups.
– But most importantly, our biggest goal is to create a friendly and relaxing environment where Asian Americans from all across the country can come together to discuss our shared experiences, difficulties, and successes.
We are here to promote Asian pride!

Another Facebook group, Asian or I wish to I were discusses the stereotypical assumptions about Asians:

This group is for people who are Asian (or close enough) and proud of their heritage and ethnicity. We eat rice (though don’t HAVE to like it), some of us play DDR, most of us play piano AND/or some other musical instrument, and a lot of us work bloody hard (or are forced to by our parents).

Acing the SAT with a 1600 or 2400 was absolute child’s play, mainly because we were forced to study for them since we were a child of 5.

In terms of membership and ethnic group formation, general social networking sites have also successfully captured the attention of CCI’s target group. Moreover, general social networking sites are advantaged, since the number of membership is much higher than niche social networking sites. (Asianavenue’s hottest groups comprise of 400-900 members versus 17.000 members in a Facebook group). Facebook groups open up spaces to discuss one’s ethnicity, culture, and experience, while the main focus remains on ethnicity.

The surplus of CCI is the combination of the cultural and social, with business. If you feel like talking to people of the same ethnicity, Facebook’s ethnic groups will do. But if you want to connect with them for business or relationship purposes, CCI sites are specialized in helping members through this process. But what seems to be a surplus can play out to their disadvantage. It is very clever to build a platform where members can sign up for different purposes. But would you have someone in your network for business purposes under the nickname HotLatino178? Or would you share your vacation pictures with a potential business partner? Lastly, the focus of CCI sites as I have encountered has shifted from community building to networking. It is a perfect place to narrow down your target group, but I think they lack more creative ways to engage members in building an ethnic community as they have promoted. After all, each site looks and feels the same, so ethnic community is only reflected in the name (of the site) and less in the experience.

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