Backing black

Observations on e-communities

A new and controversial "Afrocentric" web portal, which tailors results specifically for African Americans, is dividing opinion. Named after the street of its offices in Charlotte, North Carolina, RushmoreDrive.com uses special search technology to give preference to websites that have black media content or are popular with black communities. The search engine "learns" from user habits and adapts, in time, to its audience.

The site has been up and running for a few months, with provocative and illuminating results. A query for "university" ranks Harvard first, the Wikipedia entry on "University" sixth, and websites about historically black colleges and universities in between. A search for "travel" gives half of the top ten results to Afrocentric tours or to black-owned travel businesses.

But a query about "Olympics", for example, points to the home page of the Olympic Movement and to African-American protests at the 1968 Games - but has nothing on Beijing 2008. Occasionally the results are startling: a query on "career advice" offers, in third place, a link to "Do 'Black' Names Matter? - African American Job & Career Advice from Monster.com".

Sometimes the search engine successfully avoids race-related issues one might expect it to pick up on. "Deaths in custody", for example, yields reports about Aborigines in Australia, but little about deaths of black prisoners in the United States.

Some users have reacted to the site with suspicion: "It's like the BuckshotLane search engine. You know, the one for whites only," writes one blogger. "Just kidding, but imagine the uproar if it did exist."

Others are enthusiastic. "I have never before typed in films, books, or anything and got black results on the front page unless I typed 'African American' before it," is another response.

Social commentators will watch with interest. Professor Robert Putnam, author of Bowling Alone, has argued that a society must be wary of letting its "bonding social capital" - that is, the ties that bind a social group together - become stronger than its "bridging social capital" - the social links between different groups.

"It's a majoritarian argument that sees diversity as a threat," says Omar Wasow, co-founder of BlackPlanet.com. "You rarely hear these views from people who are at the margins of a society or a culture. When you are alienated by a culture, it's important to have somewhere you can feel at home."

Low start-up costs mean that the RushmoreDrive.com's responsive search technology can easily be customised for other communities. Barry Diller, chairman and CEO of its parent company IAC, has indicated that specialist search engines targeted at other interest groups are on the way. Next up is Green.com, designed for children and young people.

"Does it create a new sort of echo chamber?" asks Jeff Jarvis on BuzzMachine.com. "I would never want to use a search engine aimed at middle-aged, suburban white guys like me; I want the world."