Turfing the Web

Pub date May 16, 2006
SectionArts & CultureSectionTrash


ONLINE Recording and computer engineer Damon Todd is perhaps best known as the producer of "Sick Wid It," a song from B-Legit’s Block Movement (Sick Wid It, 2005). Since January, however, with the launch of the social networking site Townturf.com, the young entrepreneur has been hard at work becoming Oakland’s own Tom Anderson. Todd wears many hats in the fledging company, as the site’s cofounder, CFO, chief programmer, administrator, and all-around tech guy, supported by a single silent partner and a staff of four high school interns. Yet membership in the site has already grown to 1,300 on the strength of a two-pronged marketing campaign: a few locally programmed ads on cable stations like BET, E!, and Spike! and a vigorous effort by the interns to get their friends signed up for the free service, which offers the array of features (homepage, e-mail, music and photo uploads, blog) familiar to users of MySpace and other such sites.

"I thought the Bay Area needed its own social network for individuals who fall within the urban demographic," Todd says. "Its social network needs to be a reflection of the actual community for which it exists. The plan is to help people spread awareness about what they’ve got going on here in the Bay Area. With the hyphy movement, there’s a lot of people taking an interest in what’s going on. They can come to Townturf and see what’s happening."

This cultivation of a virtual community rooted in a specific locality may seem at variance with the original "worldwide" associations of the Web. But the Web is worldwide only if you can get on it, and the needs of inner-city users with less-than-optimal access and equipment are seldom considered by site developers. Evoking Oakland hip-hop’s familiar green-street-sign aesthetic in its name and look — the "Town" being synonymous with Oakland — Townturf eschews the latest round of dial-up-crashing flash animation ads in favor of a lo-fi, user-friendly format.

Moreover, in contrast to the April 3 Newsweek cover story on "Web 2.0," which gushed that MySpace and other user contentdriven sites represent "the great migration of everyday experience to the Internet," Townturf acknowledges the primacy of real-life motivations for online activity. Sometimes virtual friends aren’t enough: A collection of acquaintances from all over the world, no matter how many interests you share, doesn’t compare to the best bud who is still willing to go to the show with you because you’re best buds.

Similarly, for musicians using such sites to promote their work, there’s no substitute for a local fan base that’ll turn out to see them perform. In its emphasis on the local — and with plans to include event promotion, ticket sales, and a newsletter — Townturf seeks to combine the real-world practicality of Craigslist with the networking ease of MySpace. SFBG