By Patrick Markey
One click of a mouse is all it takes today for even the casual computer user to read the local news in Beijing or buy a rare book in Boston. In five years, the internet and electronic commerce have exploded from a system for simple transactions to a billion-dollar marketplace where teenagers are making fortunes from their laptops.
With the phenomenal increase in internet traffic passing through millions of pages on the World Wide Web and America On Line’s recent multi-billion-dollar purchase of Time Warner, it seems everybody with a bright idea and spare capital is hoping the web is their ticket to a quick fortune.
Little surprise, then, that Irish-American entrepreneurs and Irish immigrants are jumping onboard, using cyberspace as a commercial springboard to sell goods from Clannad rings to holidays in Galway, hunt for jobs and chat online about everything from Dublin bars to decommissioning arms.
While websites offering Irish products, books and foods are flourishing, some Irish-American and Irish businessmen are angling to take their internet services to the next level, forging whole virtual communities where users can get their fill of Irish teas and jams, read up on Belfast news and even find a spouse.
Young, computer savvy and often backed by outside money, these new entrepreneurs speak in the language of HTMLs. Their currencies are pageviews and content shares. And their market is the 45 million Americans who claim Irish descent and Irish immigrants yearning for a taste of home.
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With newsletters, chatrooms, one-stop Celtic online shopping malls and links to news sites, these web portals aim to be doorways to all things Irish. Profits may be a few years away, but competition is heating up as the sites start to build loyal followings and attract more and more attention.
Nua, a leading Irish internet consultancy business, estimates that 275.5 million people are online worldwide with approximately 136.06 million in Canada and the United States and another 71.99 million in Europe.
More important for these new Irish American cyber-capitalists, the United States has become a hub of online trading and electronic commerce. At the start of March Nua estimated in six months the number of American households trading stocks and shares online grown 30 percent, from 2.7 million to 3.5 million.
"The internet is really the future for all of us. It will creep into every aspect of our lives. And the interest in Irish culture will expand with the internet. It’s so easy to get information about Ireland now," said Bill Hanafin, a Cork native who co-founded irishabroad.com, a San Francisco-based website that offers visitors everything from electronic chatrooms to events listings and online photo albums.
Started in 1998, the irishabroad.com site began as a source of information for the Bay area, but like other sites soon expanded with an overwhelming response from Irish communities as far apart as New York and Sydney, Hanafin said.
Last month irishabroad.com recorded five million page impressions or pageviews, one of the yardsticks website creators use, along with membership registers, to measure the visits to their site.
Aside from general Irish information, listings, airline ticket contests and specialized services such as genealogy searches, Irish internet operators see the virtual community aspect of the business as the most vital.
Registered members often get access to discussion forums, newsletters, chatrooms, pen-pal systems and a host of other interactive services, which blossom into a new online community. Irish internet operators say they are often surprised about how open these communities become, with members helping each other find work and connections with other members. But growing membership rolls also translate into advertising revenue and lucrative commercial sales.
"There are people from all over the world signing in. People are in there morning, noon and night," said Hanafin, whose membership is 35 percent of Irish descent and 55 percent Irish-born. Almost half of those members, however, are based in the United States.
Sitting in Midtown Manhattan offices of Virtual Communities Inc. with a gritty view of the Port Authority bus station, Brian Rohan sees nothing but opportunity in the growing numbers in his site’s online community.
Virtual Communities started out with just virtualjerusalem.com but quickly added sites related to the Holy Land, Italy and India. Virtualireland.com arrived shortly before St. Patrick’s Day last year.
With 85 percent of the site’s readers in North America, Rohan sees virtualireland.com less Dublin-centered than other sites, and more geared to the specific interests of Irish America. That means Northern Ireland is a hot issue in the site’s electronic chatrooms.
"We’re not afraid to go near it. With Ireland there is a narrow view of things at times, they’re afraid to go against controversial issues," Rohan said.
What virtualireland.com and others such as Irishabroad.com and local.ie.com try to foster is a sense of community, one that will bring visitors back and keep them there.
"It’s like a saloon where they go down and have a drink and talk. People are really into it, they know each other, pen pals and regulars. I didn’t understand it fully, but this is how people are hanging out now and communicating," said Rohan, who estimates the site’s pageviews at 1.3 million last month. About 40,000 members now receive the regular email newsletter from the site.
Earlier this year, virtualireland.com got a perfect media promotional scoop when two of their regular pen pal board users decided to get married in New York after communicating through the website.
"People have a thirst for this stuff. Basically, people are interested in their own lives, paying taxes, meeting people, asking where do I get a good Irish bar, where can I learn dancing, that’s what they want," Rohan said.
Carving out a niche
Other internet companies are hoping a more specialized approach might help them forge ahead in the Irish-American and Irish market.
Local.ie.com, an Ireland-based company hopes to tap into the local communities and give readers detailed information from the parish level in Ireland to the Irish immigrant communities abroad.
The site takes nuggets of information from villages and towns and allows local partners more leverage of placing all their information in one site, said Niall Swann, who represents the web company in the United States.
With 1,300 localities already online from Longford County to the suburbs of Dublin, local.ie is hoping to add other American and foreign locations to the current New York site, Swann said.
"The local content has a fanatical audience, but not a wide audience. But put them all together and the potential is huge," he said.
Artshapes.com, which also operates out of Manhattan, takes an even more specialized approach. In a more concentrated niche within a niche, Artshapes.com focuses on that portion of the community that loves arts, dance, music and crafts.
"For a community to really work, it has to have something that it will concentrate on and build greater loyalty than the broader portals bring in with their members," said Gerard Power, who runs artshapes.com.
But whatever their approach to the market potential of Irish America, all agree that the web business has yet to fully bloom. Putting out content and building a community are the first stages in this nascent business. Now for the website operators comes the challenge of making money from their ventures.
"People are willing to take a gamble," said virtualireland.com’s Rohan. "It’s people who figure this is going to work out eventually."
Most agree that the next stage is expansion, especially into electronic commerce, using the web for specialized commercial transactions. With growing membership rolls, the websites can offer a ready made target audience to advertisers and a specific clientele to vendors of specialized goods. Online shopping malls with Aran sweaters, cheap airline tickets and foodstuffs are the next step. Perhaps then profits will start to appear.
"The key to making money is in the traffic," said irishabroad.com’s Hanafin.
"The larger the community, the better the traffic and the greater the chance you have for making revenue."