Wasow, Omar 1970–
Omar Wasow 1970–
Wasow has created a cyberspace community that transcends the usual boundaries separating urban dwellers. Subscribers to his innovative New York Online [NYO], launched in 1994, participate in forums to share opinions about city budget cuts and their favorite views of the city from its elevated trains; they also have access to local alternative publications on-line and cultural-event calendars. Still in his twenties and possessing the fervent global vision common to the well-educated and well-traveled, Wasow aimed to create a forum that echoed the most wonderful, most radical elements of his native New York’s unique urban culture. In doing so he has become one of the new breed of successful entrepreneurs in emerging technologies.
Wasow was born in December of 1970, in Nairobi, Kenya, where his parents were both teachers. The family later lived in Bangladesh, Australia, and Puerto Rico, among other exotic locales, but Wasow spent his formative adolescent years in New York City. There he attended the math-and-science-oriented Stuyvestant High School in Manhattan, and because of his mixed ancestry (one parent is African American, the other Jewish), he “grew up with the joy and anxiety of straddling two of NYC’s most vibrant, troubled worlds,” wrote Noah Green in the Village Voice.
Green continued: “A hacker of racial, not just digital, boundaries, he [Wasow] found solace in the neutral zone of the subways and the futurist promise of his old Commodore Vic-20,” an early personal computer popular during the early 1980s. One evening, the high-schooler went to a party in New York’s hip East Village neighborhood, where he met an odd bunch of artists and computer hackers brought together by their passion for computer technology; they traded stories and software disks. Those regular get-togethers would serve as the impetus for Wasow’s online service years later.
At California’s Stanford University, Wasow designed his own major in race and ethnic relations. After graduating in 1992, he traveled extensively and held a number of jobs: he served on the advance team of Freedom Summer ’92, a 22-city voter registration drive; later became assistant director of Strictly Business, a nonprofit job training program that gave former drug dealers training in above-board entrepreneurship; and worked as a computer consultant as well.
In September of 1993, taking his savings, borrowing more money, and charging the rest on credit cards, Wasow came up with the $50,000 he needed to launch Diaspora inc. Based in his Brooklyn brownstone, Diaspora was cofounded with Wasow’s former Stanford classmate Peta Hoyes, a Jamaican from Queens; Hoyes had started a women-only bulletin-board service (BBS), and it was this concept-of a computer forum to bring
Born December 22, 1970, in Nairobi, Kenya; son of an economics professor and a teacher.Education: Stanford University, B.A., 1992.
Freedom Summer ’92 (voter registration drive), member of advance team that targeted 22 cities; worked as a computer consultant; served as assistant director of Strictly Business, a job training program for former drug dealers; Diaspora inc. (an online venture firm), founder, 1993, and president, 1993; creator of New York Online, 1994.
Awards : Nominated for an Innovator of the Year award, Black Enterprise magazine.
Addresses: Office —New York Online, 549 Pacific St., Brooklyn, NY 11217-1902.
together like-minded, open-minded users--that served as the ideological basis for Diaspora’s first venture, New York Online.
Up and running by the early months of 1994, Wasow designed New York Online not simply as a moneymak-ing entity, but instead aimed to create a cyberspace version of “this incredible, heterogenous, international hodgepodge that is the New York I grew up in, “Wasow told People magazine. To J. Greg Phelan of the New York Times, Wasow explained: “We set out to create a service that emphasized smart, thoughtful, and intimate conversation among a diverse group of people.” He likened it to riding the city’s subway, with its motley cross-section of New Yorkers-an analogy that crops up often his conversations about the service. New York Online even welcomes users on its home page with an image of an old New York City subway token from the 1970s, as well as a blast of jazz.
Paeans to the service praise its distinctly New York vibe. Green named his Village Voice article about New York Online “The Sixth Borough,” thus elevating the service to the level of the other five geographic divisions of the city--the Bronx, Brooklyn, Manhattan, Queens and Stat-en Island. He noted that within many regional or city-based bulletin board service (BBS) cyberspace communities “most online ’culture’ still consists of the major obsessions of a BBS or newsgroup’s membership-what computer everyone there is using, what their favorite Unix text editor is, whether [Star Trek characters] Picard or Kirk is sexier. In the suburbia where most online subscribers dwell, these escapist pastimes are like a white flight from reality itself.”
Instead, New York Online “users chat about spirituality, New York City restaurants, and the downtown club scene,” wrote Phelan in the New York Times.”They can also listen to music samples, read the latest issue of Vibe magazine, and see music video clips.” Special forums feature prominent guests such as artist Andre Serrano and rapper Chuck D. The city’s Park Service posts its Central Park Summerstage calendar; specific chat groups give users a chance to learn about and vent their frustrations on a variety of city services and topics, such as public transit and police misconduct.
“There’s a real value to regional systems,” Wasow told Green in the Village Voice.”It’s fun to talk to somebody across the globe by Internet, but it’s a lot more fun to meet somebody online and then go have a beer with them.” Occasionally, New York Online members are invited to happy-hour get-togethers at local bars so that members can meet face to face. Both users and New York Online claim that this sense of local connectedness lessens “flaming” (when users disagree and conduct an online put-down war with one another) and the harassment of women by men who like to use such services for unwanted come-ons.
Such a community spirit is exactly what Wasow had in mind when he launched his company. Beginning in the summer of 1994, users began paying a nominal $5.95 per month fee for ten free hours. By the summer of 1996, New York Online had a reported 2,000 subscribers, and using profiles they filled out upon joining, the company estimated that about half the users were African American and 40 percent were women. “That’s practically unheard of on this side of the serial port,” wrote Green in the Village Voice. Musicians and artists were particularly fond of New York Online, and it was even rumored that The Artist Formerly known as Prince was a member. Interactive events in 1996 included a race relations on-line conference at Harvard University, sponsored by the New Yorker magazine.
As it grew in members, New York Online began attracting media attention and corporate offers. Wasow’s company-now split into three divisions comprising the online service, website development, and new media consultancy-has worked with Vibe magazine, the island of Martinique’s tourist board, and magazine publishing giant Conde Nast. Wasow was named in Newsweek magazine’s “50 for the Future” as one of the most influential pioneers in emerging technologies. A popular guest lecturer who has even spoken before the U.S. Congress, Wasow appears thrice weekly as a commentator on the interactive cable network MSNBC.
New York Online continues to germinate inside its own self-contained cyberspace world, attracting new users and connecting them in ways previously unknown. “Today, New York City’s mental map is smeared and tattered by crime; barriers of race, class, and language; and rules of social interaction that are redefined daily,” wrote Green in Village Voice.”In places like NYO, through simple gestures, a handful of social cartographers are trying to reimagine that map. If enough people get access, we just might be able to reimagine the compass, too.”
Chicago Tribune, May 28, 1995, sec. 7, p. 1
New York Times, September 18, 1994, sec. 3, p. 8.
People, August 17, 1994,p.39.
Village Voice, July 12, 1994.
Additional information for this profile was provided by Diaspora inc. publicity materials, 1996.
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