Why is this interesting? - The Lost Community Edition

On tech, access, and memory

Today’s WITI is from Joanne McNeil (JM) who previously wrote The William Gibson Edition. Today (!!) she’s got a new book out called Lurking: How a Person Became a User and she was kind enough to give us one to give away. So … if you want to give it a read just respond to this email and let us know. We’ll choose one respondent at random and have it shipped out. Also, if you’re in NYC on Thursday, Joanne is doing a launch event at Books are Magic in Brooklyn. - Noah (NRB)

Joanne here. I thought I was done with the chapter I was writing on the internet in the 90s, when I came across a brief mention of the early online community and media site Cafe Los Negroes. Its founder, McLean Greaves, was a well-known figure in the New York tech community back then, but this was the first I’d heard of his work. Several Google searches led me to the extensive media coverage he received including profiles in publications like The New York Times, Wired, The Village Voice, and even a capsule review in Entertainment Weekly.

Greaves also founded a company called VMI (Virtual Melanin Incorporated) and built websites for clients including Spike Lee, HBO, and Puff Daddy's Bad Boy Entertainment; but it was Cafe Los Negroes, a digital hub for black and Latino New Yorkers, that was most relevant to my research. I found a link to it in a 1997 Wired article. The link is dead now, but still I accessed the pages through the Internet Archive Wayback Machine. In a few clicks, the cyber-presence of late-90s Bedford Stuyvesant came alive for me on the screen.

I also found a mirrored Geocities page that includes a chat room discussion that Greaves moderated with Living Colour’s Vernon Reid and the poet/playwright Ntozake Shange, among others:

mgreaves: Question for the panelists: will computers democratize society or create fragmented "networks" like the ones being waged by online racists? 

Angel: ugh

CarlaR: hmm

LisaJones: lotta shopping going on. big voids. blame who? tv?

Vern: Computers can also make us More isolated.

ntozake: we are not in the mesh of the 'fragment ' per se anyway

mgreaves: Ntozake: aren't we all black in this forum?

Why is this interesting?

Greaves may have been profiled widely in legacy media when Cafe Los Negroes was new, but his work has been largely written out of internet history. Those same profiles foreshadowed a major reason why his work isn’t properly remembered today—Greaves had a difficult time finding investors. He wasn't just a black tech entrepreneur, but a black entrepreneur building a platform for people of color. Greaves was correct that in time more and more communities of color would become internet users, and that his platform could scale. However, myriad factors, including the discriminatory practices of investors, prevented his projects from flourishing with their inclusion. The success of major companies like AOL and later Facebook, designed to absorb everyone online—and not specifically communities of color—has further contributed to this erasure. (It is worth checking out Charlton McIlwain’s book Black Software to understand how this pattern of racism has frustrated innovation.)

Cafe Los Negroes was in operation for only a short period of time, but its lost potential is instructive. The blogger Renina Jarmon put it best in a 2014 post about her experience discovering Greaves’ work (in the 2001 book Technicolor). Jarmon writes about how inspiring it was to see that “even prior to the rise of the Blogosphere, young urban Black and Brown people were trying to OWN their own platforms. Not only were they trying to own their own platforms but they had a sense of building community while they did so. They were trying to own their own platforms while living in the ‘hood.”

I would have loved to have interviewed McLean Greaves for my book, but sadly he passed away in 2016. His work with Cafe Los Negroes is worthy of its own book (and a biopic, for that matter). The Internet Archive makes it possible for any future historians or biographers to further explore this online community from the past that deserves wider recognition. (JM)

Interactive of the Day: 

Your World of Text, the “infinite grid of text editable by anyone” still up and running more than ten years after its creation. (JO)

Quick Links:

Thanks for reading,

Noah (NRB) & Colin (CJN) & Joanne (JM)

Why is this interesting? is a daily email from Noah Brier & Colin Nagy (and friends!) about interesting things. If you’ve enjoyed this edition, please consider forwarding it to a friend. If you’re reading it for the first time, consider subscribing (it’s free!).