In the two-plus decades since the World Wide Web was born, a number of African Americans have helped shape the online realm that now connects, informs and entertains much of the world. Among the black pioneers of Internet innovation are 17 individuals who distinguished themselves by breaking new ground in a rapidly evolving medium where a persistent gap in access has yet to close completely for African Americans. These 17 people, and many others not included on this list, deserve our recognition.
Before Facebook, before Twitter — heck, even before the Web became the force that it is — the bulletin board system, or BBS, was one of the first ways that people with common interests connected with one another, using their computers to exchange messages, download software or play games. One of the early adopters of this new tool was Holman, creator of Holman's World BBS in 1995. Now on the Web, holmans-world.com provides links to Web training, blog talk radio and his own ministry.
Cooper was a reporter at the Orlando Sentinel when he started Black Voices as a side project in 1995. The Sentinel's owner, the Tribune Co., took notice and invested in the site, which helped it expand into one of the largest forums for African Americans at the time. In 2004 the site was sold to AOL Time Warner and became AOL Black Voices. Now the site is part of the Huffington Post, which AOL bought in 2011.
Another pioneer in the days of pre-Facebook online communities, Ellington quit his day job as an entertainment lawyer and joined partner Malcolm CasSelle to launch NetNoir, the first online service devoted to Afrocentric content, on Juneteenth (June 19) in 1995. The venture launched on America Online, an earlier investor, and the Internet, where it would become one of the top niche sites for African Americans.
Appiah and Gates were co-editors of the CD-ROM Encarta Africana, the most comprehensive collection of the Diaspora, which Microsoft released in 1999. The idea was inspired by W.E.B. Du Bois, who dreamed of a "black Britannica." The CD-ROM format offered a multimedia experience that went beyond the confines of regular encyclopedias. They also developed Africana.com, which was sold to AOL Time Warner in 2000 and merged with Black Voices. In 2008 Gates founded The Root, where he serves as editor-in-chief.
In Sept. 1999, Wasow co-founded Black Planet, and by 2001 the site would have 2.5 million registered users, making it the No. 1 community site for African Americans. Members could discuss the topics of the day using message boards, chat rooms, instant messaging and email, all for free. Wasow, who taught Oprah Winfrey how to surf the Web on her talk show in 2000, explored his early interest in computers when he launched the website-design company New York Online in 1993. Among his clients: Consumer Reports, Vibe and the New Yorker. He is also on The Root's advisory board.
In 2000 a then-28-year-old Dash took his company, Digital Mafia Entertainment Interactive Holding, to Nasdaq, making it one of the first black-owned Internet companies to be publicly traded. The Bronx, N.Y., native, whose sister is actress Stacey Dash and cousin is former Roc-A-Fella exec Damon Dash, began the company in 1994 when he discovered that cable companies were underserving urban communities. He provided Web services, e-commerce and network design. Dash attracted high-profile advertisers from HBO to Visa.
Former Wall Street analyst Echeruo created HopStop, a website and phone app that helps you navigate major cities in the United States, Canada and Europe, whether you're walking, riding a bike or taking a subway or bus. Echeruo, a native of Nigeria, developed the site in 2005 after 10 years of navigating New York City. For his efforts, he was named Black Enterprise magazine's 2007 Small Business Innovator of the Year.
With so many people online, keeping cybercriminals at bay has never been more important. Window Snyder, a self-described "geek girl," has been on the front line of Internet security while working for Microsoft, @Stake and Mozilla. She also co-wrote the online security guide Threat Modeling, which has become an industry standard. Currently, Snyder is a senior security product manager for Apple.
In 2000 the few websites that catered to black women were offshoots of print publications. Stewart (left) and McKissack co-founded Nia Online, an all-digital site that featured news, entertainment and lifestyles geared toward African-American women. The business would grow into Nia Enterprises, a research and marketing services company specializing in women of color. Stewart is currently vice president of U.S. sales at Google, and McKissack remains Nia Enterprises' CEO.
In 1999 Rabb started a Listserv, an email list of family and friends that he used to share stories and ideas from around the Web. This Listserv would eventually evolve into an email newsletter and blog called Afro-Netizen, for "the intellectually curious and civic-minded Internet user." In 2004 Rabb would be among the first bloggers to receive press credentials to cover the Democratic National Convention in Boston. In 2010 he wrote the book Invisible Capital: How Unseen Forces Shapes Entrepreneurial Opportunity.
McCauley started the Blogging While Brown conference in 2008 so bloggers of color could network, get digital media training and address their own specific online challenges. Blogging While Brown was the first of its kind to address the specific needs of this audience. This year the annual conference heads to Philadelphia in June. McCauley also runs the Black Weblog Awards, which Maurice Cherry launched in 2005.
Jones and Rucker founded ColorOfChange.org after the government's tragic response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Jones, a former White House special adviser, and Rucker, a former Moveon.org director, created the site to cultivate online activism by harnessing the power of the Internet to coordinate, advocate and educate on a mass scale. One of the site's better-known campaigns was a call for companies to pull ads from Glenn Beck's show after he called President Obama a racist.
Frazier, chief creative officer of Moguldom Media and CEO of its flagship site Bossip, helms a conglomerate that generates millions of page views per month. She has helped make the celebrity-gossip site one of the premiere entertainment destinations for African Americans. Other sites in the Moguldom family include MadameNoir.com, HipHopwired.com and Moguldom Studios, which creates original video content.
Benton started Black Web Media — which publishes Black Web2.0, among other titles — in 2007. Black Web 2.0 is a top site for tech-industry news aimed at the black digerati. Benton, who is the youngest inductee into the Minority Media and Telecommunications Council Hall of Fame, founded the NewMe Accelerator, a tech-startup incubator with the goal of increasing diversity in tech entrepreneurship. Those accepted into the 12-week program gain access to mentors, resources and a support network to encourage new tech businesses.