Interview No. 1 by Sharon McMillan Publisher of Inspire Jamaica.
Ever had the urge to find someone who could indulge your need to talk about cherished locations in Jamaica, or your deep down desire to re-locate to Jamaica? How about setting up a business in Jamaica, retirement in Jamaica, cooking Jamaican, or the time honoured “Jamaican” tradition of political philosophizing – ever have a need to share your thoughts on these kinds of issues but just weren’t able to find the person or opportunity to have the discussion when you wanted to?
Well thanks to entrepreneur Xavier Murphy, thousands of others like you, from countries and cultures from around the world, have found such an oasis. It is called Jamaicans.com and Inspire Jamaica found this website to be just the right kind of “inspiration” for the focus of our publication. In addition to featuring an interview with Xavier, we will also be featuring in this issue some of the wonderful ways members of his website have been able to bolster their businesses in Jamaica as a result of this website.
Ladies and gentlemen, Mr. Xavier Murphy, founder of Jamaicans.com
IS: Xavier, thank you for agreeing to be featured in Inspire Jamaica. Tell us, what inspired you to start this website?
XM: When I started working for a “dotcom” company in 1995 there were only 3-4 Jamaicans website that I remember seeing. I was surprised at how little was out there on Jamaica so I started the website. The original title of the site was “De Website on Jamaica”.
IS:What needs, longings and interests are being fulfilled by those who frequent your website?
XM:The Jamaicans.com site actually serves quite a few needs. There is information their for people who want to learn about Jamaica and the Jamaican culture. There is information on the site for travelers to Jamaica. There is information there for Jamaicans who want to keep in touch with their culture. There is also a vibrant community of over 10,000 people on our bulletin boards where a wide range of topics are discussed and breaking news out of Jamaica is reported.
IS:Why do you think you attract the positive and supportive kind of subscribers that participate on your bulletin boards?
XM:Our bulletin board is like a small community. It provides a place where members of the site can connect and commune with others. The stories there are just amazing. The most recent one was a member there who was going through surgery for cancer. Members on the board got word of this and from all over the world they sent flowers and best wishes to her hospital room. There are numerous other stories I can relay about the board including a couple that lost contact with each other and met again on the board. They eventually got married.
IS:You’ve been in business seven years. What challenges have you overcome to succeed in your dotcom business this long?
XM:In the seven years the site has been online the two biggest challenges we have had to over come is growth and financing. The site visitors have grown at such a rapid pace it has been difficult to finance the infrastructure needed to support the site. In the first five years the site was online the advertising revenue and my out of pocket financing was enough to support the site. Once the bottom of the “dotcom” frenzy fell out in 2000 the advertising money dried up but the site continued to grow. The last two years have been very difficult but we have survived with the support of the members on the site. Most recently the members on the forums had a few fundraisers and sent the funds collected to the company that supports our infrastructure. The continued growth of the site is continuing to be a challenge and we continue to find ways to accommodate this.
IS:What is your future vision for jamaicans.com?
XM:We hope to continue to be a key resource for Jamaicans and lovers of Jamaica all over the world. Our initiatives for the coming year will focus more on supporting Jamaicans worldwide and providing more articles on issues that affect Jamaicans in Jamaica and worldwide. We will also be working more closely with non-profit organization helping Jamaica.
IS:Inspire Jamaica is focused on highlighting unique and “off the beaten” patch vacation spots and communities in Jamaica. In our inaugural issue we featured “community tourism” pioneer Diana McIntyre Pike and the work she is doing to promote Mandeville and the south coast as a vacation destination. Please tell us how your site supports the tourism industry in Jamaica.
XM:We have a tourism channel that is probably one of the most extensive guides to Jamaica. With over 100 trip reports from visitors to Jamaica we provide real and practical information. The second way we assist the industry is through our three forums where visitors to the site can discuss travel issues to Jamaica. Each forum is focused on different areas of the island and provides potential visitors to the island with an opportunity to learn about Jamaica from others who have visited. We also have monthly features on different attractions and “off the beaten path” destinations in Jamaica. Our goal is to showcase the real Jamaica from the eyes of those who have been there.
To visit or join this vibrant online community and resource for vacationing, re-locating and indulging in Jamaican culture and cuisine, log onto your computer and type jamaicans.com – but forewarned that this site is addictive!
Interview No. 2 by A “Smiley” Smith
Smiley: When the site was initially created, how was it advertised? How is it being advertised now?
Xavier:The site went live December 1995. The main means of getting the word out on the site was through Internet Search engines like Yahoo, AltaVista, Lycos and HotBot. Currently the site is still promoted mainly through search engines but there is some “virtual marketing” helping to promote the site. There is the “jamaicans.com” email address, “Send this page to a friend”, “Send this post to a friend” and in general users who visit the sites forums tell their friends to visit it.
Smiley: How does the status of a person change from being a newbie to those higher up in the hierarchy? Does it depend on the duration of membership or number of posts or any other criteria?
Xavier:Hierarchy on the forum is based on posts.
Smiley:When you initially created the site, what was the audience you intended to target?
Xavier:The main audience was people who wanted to learn about Jamaica from a true cultural sense. When the site first started there where not many other Jamaican sites. In fact I only remember 4 others being online. There were not many Jamaicans who knew about the Internet then. When I spoke to my Jamaican friends about the Internet in 1995 they would give me a blank look.
Smiley:Are any online events organized on the site? I know there are bashments planned in real life among people who’ve met at jamaicans.com, but are there any events for which people log in to the site at the same time and celebrate?
Xavier:Actually many of the “official” bashments are planned on line. Approx. 90% of the bashments this past summer were all planned online with about 10% of the work being done offline. Committees were formed online and they planned in the “Behind the Scenes” forum. There are events we have on the site, which requires users to log in for a specific time frame. We recently had a political discussion on the Jamaica Elections (10/16/02) which required users to log in for a few hours and talk to political “mover and shakers” in Jamaica. We also have had authors of Jamaican books come in and do discussions on our forums and earlier in the year, the leader of the new Political Party UPP had a discussion in our “Politrix” forum.
Smiley:Is there any specific reason that you’ve not included a Chat feature in the site?
Xavier:We had a chat feature on the site from mid 1996 – late 2001. It was the most under utilized area of our site. The sites audience was more interested in forum based discussion versus online chats. Many users have said that the forums allow users to spend time to think and also respond at their own pace.
Smiley:Does the site facilitate member created subgroups? i.e. — can groups be formed within the members — perhaps groups of people with similar interests?
Xavier:Our online forums were created to try and provide an area for people with similar interests. We do not provide any tools for users to create “subgroups” within these interest areas. We add and change forums based on the feed back we get from our community members.
Smiley:Does the site celebrate personal events of members? If not everyday events like birthdays, something special of a long-standing member?
Xavier:The site does not celebrate the special member events but the site community does. By this I meant that the other members might know when a member has a birthday and start a thread to wish them well.
Smiley:Though there are general “Forum Rules”, is there a ‘Code of Conduct’ with a constitution and amendments?
Xavier:Yes there is. The many volunteers who assist with the management of the site debate and review all these changes.
Smiley:Are there any special features of the site that would be known only when you’ve been around for sometime, i.e.: something that a casual visitor might overlook?
Xavier: I think the most overlooked section of the site is the archive of articles we have on Jamaican Culture.
Smiley:Can you recount one of your best experiences on the site?
Xavier:There are so many I don’t know where to start. One of my best experiences on the site happened most recently when a member communicated to me that a few months ago they were really sick and in the hospital. Other members of the site forums sent flowers and best wishes to them in the hospital. The member explained that the members were an inspiration and a support during a hard time.
The other good experience was how the members of the forum came together to help the site when we were in financial need due to our hosting costs. This and other similar experiences have enforced for me that this labor of love is not in vein. As a Christian sister of mine put it “This is your Ministry to God”.
INTERVIEW 3 WITH CHANNELJAMAICA.COM (04/2005)
Q1. For as long as most Jamaicans have been logging on to the Internet, Jamaicans.Com has existed. When specifically did the site go online for the first time, what motivated you to start it and what were some of the web development tools of the day that you used to create it?
A1. The site went live in 1995 when the World Wide Web started to take off. In 1994 I had been working for a company that did Electronic marketing and had “placements” on CompuServe, Prodigy and AOL. These were the original “electronic” communities where everything was one place. Back then the Internet was basically divided into 3 parts: Email, the graphical portion (now known as the World Wide Web) and Newsgroups. I remember searching many of the search directories (including yahoo which started in 1995) for Jamaican web sites on the “World Wide Web” on the using the CompuServe Mosaic Browser. I found 3 sites: An Arlene Laing site on Jamaica, JaAlumni Yard Page and the unofficial web site for my high school Jamaica College. I was proud to find these sites online. I used to have my own magazine/newsletter years ago and had some content. I figured, why not start a website with some of the stuff I already had, as I was always very passionate about my homeland. It was called “The Unofficial website on Jamaica”. There were barely any tools back then. I started out using Notepad to create HTML and then later moved to a tool called HTML Assist. This tool was very similar to Notepad, however you had some tags that were on the main menu. I used Corel Draw in combination with Photoshop to create Web graphics. These software programs did not have all the tools they do now, so gif animation and transparencies I had to use Alchemy Mindworks’ GIF Construction Set. Back then, creating a page and a graphic was a major task!
Q2. You are the owner of Jamaicans.Com but could you describe in a bit more detail your role in the Site’s day to day operations? Additionally, are there any paid contributors and/or is there some ‘giant’ machinery working quietly in the background supporting you?
A2. I am not sure if there is anyway to describe the typical day to day operations. I get over 100 emails a day. Some are support type questions were a user may have forgotten their user name or password. Some ask questions on where to stay in Jamaica, where to buy items, where they can locate a long lost friend. I also get a lot of questions asking for the translation of something that is in “patois”. I spend time developing content for the site which is a constant. I sometimes do interviews for articles on the site. I also spend time monitoring the site server. There is a combination of contributors, a ‘giant machinery’ and a work flow system. I am not a programmer … I can only pretend to “talk the language”… DWL … there are some custom written programs on Jamaicans.com that were written by developers who were compensated. From time to time contributors are compensated in various ways. The supporting team on this site is tremendous and hail from all parts of the world … from Jamaica to Australia and a lot in between. They are the heart of the site and definitely make its existence possible.
Q3. From both an economic and an intangible perspective, is Jamaicans.Com profitable for you?
A3. I really don’t look at Jamaicans.com in terms of economic profitability because it is a labor of love. I never kept a balance sheet all the years I paid for everything to keep this site going … trust me when I say prices have come down tremendously. I never logged the hours I put into the site and compared it to what my hourly rate would be. There were a few months when the Site’s visitors actually held “Bashments” to support the site. I just don’t think of the site in those terms, because whether the site makes a profit to pay for itself or if it was losing money, it would still be online in some form. In terms of the “intangibles”, the site is profitable. When you get emails from people who found a long lost friend. When you have people who are sick in the hospital and end up getting flowers. When you provide information for children who may be doing school projects. These are some of the intangible ways in which the site has definitely been profitable.
Q4. Without risking too much in terms of security, please tell us a bit about Jamaicans.Com’s technical specs – typical bandwidth consumed per day (or other period), overall site size (in terms of number of pages and MBs), technologies used (databases and programming), average number of visitors per day, average number of emails or queries received per day and any other useful information. Additionally, what are some of the more popular sections or features on the Site?
A4. Not counting the forums, there are over 1500 pages on Jamaicans.com. We add 22 new articles each month. The site gets about 2.5 million page views (as of last month), and each month there is an increase. The site is on its own server. The main software/programs used are based on PHP/CGI and a MYSQL database. The most popular section of the site is the forums, with the Recipes, Culture, Travel and Primetime Jamaica sections being the next most popular in that order. One of the features that has been a really big hit is the true story “Memoirs of the Illegal Alien”. If that is not published for a particular month, I get emails about it.
Q5. Your homepage content, including features and articles, changes promptly at the first of every month; could you describe the typical preparation and work that goes into this ‘monthly refresh’.
A5. The monthly refresh is labor intensive. As I mentioned there is a big machine in the back ground which is a Content Management System (CMS). A subset of that is a work flow system where there are writers, editors and then me the publisher. Typically the end of the month activities are similar to what happens at a newspaper or magazine, where decisions are made about what is going for the next edition, what is to be featured, files with “weird characters”, the layout of pictures etc. Here are the basics – an article is submitted by a writer. It is then reviewed by an editor who will make any necessary corrections. Next comes the part where the publisher (me) will put the final touches (photos, format changes etc) and schedule it for the end of the month refresh. At 11.59 pm on the last day of the month, I ‘flick the switch’ to activate all the new articles and then checks links.
Q6. Jamaicans.Com is undoubtedly one of the more popular Jamaican websites on the Web today. From the past to the present, what specifically have you done to gain and maintain the site’s level of popularity? Are there any website traffic and marketing ‘secrets’ that you wish to share with other Jamaican and Caribbean site owners?
A6. There is no magic formula. It is hard work, but there are some simple things you can do. Always remember that content is King and listen to your audience. When the site was started in 1995, there were barely any Jamaicans online (When I mentioned the word Internet to my friends/family they looked at me as though I was weird). Back then, the visitors to Jamaicans.com were mainly children doing research, and educators. They asked questions that forced me to get relevant content. I do a user survey on the site every 2 years, generally before I do any new design or get ready to add a feature. You cannot put a price on the information you gather from users of the site.
Q7. For individuals with thoughts of starting a portal much like Jamaicans.Com, what words of advice would you offer?
A7. If you are into it for the money, don’t bother. It is a labor of love and it is hard work. My advice is to always listen to your audience, and be sure that your site is meeting a need.
Q8. Over the years, have you branched off or created any subsidiaries or direct offshoots (websites or even offline businesses) of Jamaicans.Com?
A8. Not really. We have the online store Jamaicanstore.com and the web development company Simbis.com but that is it. I have tried to concentrate on Jamaicans.com only.
Q9. What sort of short term (6 months), medium term (1-2 years) and long term (5 years) plans do you have for Jamaicans.Com. Approximately five years ago this time, do you remember what your plans were then?
A9. In the short and long term there are some much needed upgrades to the site that I have been writing specifications documents for. The goal as always is to make it easier for users to get the information they need. This includes some further localization that needs to take place. We started this process in 1997/1998 with the “best of Jamaica World Wide” and “Jamaicans Overseas” on the site but now Users are requesting more information about their local community.
Q10. Since it was launched, what has been your biggest disappointment (or disappointments) to date regarding Jamaicans.Com?
A10. I haven’t really had any big disappointments. I would take the same route again. The one thing I was disappointed in was the “attitude” of some of the big Jamaican media companies that came online and tried to “exert” some “muscle” on us with threats etc. That is another story. But overall I have not had any major disappointments. I do have a personal disappoint which is that one of the persons who was instrumental in building our site passed away 2 years ago. Her name is Marcia “Ackee girl” Davidson and she played a keep role in helping this site to be where it is today.
Q11. Similarly, can you detail some of your more significant and memorable achievements, including any ‘firsts’?
A11. There have been quite a few of those, including being mentioned on CNN Headline news. In that specific case, I did not see/hear it but received calls about it. I would say one of the biggest moments was being able to hand a check for $1000 US to the Jamaica Heart Foundation of Jamaica on behalf of Marcia Davidson. The money came from donations from users of our site. Last year’s Hurricane Ivan was also a memorable moment. Many of the news sites in Jamaica went offline and Jamaicans.com became a new source for people and news agencies all over the world looking for information. The BBC contacted us to talk to people live in Jamaica. The JIS and other organizations in Jamaica sent me hourly updates to be posted on the website. Also of great significance to me is the development of short hand talk and slang by Jamaicans.com users (Marcia did some as well) that are now being used on many Jamaican websites and in email. For example – DWL (Dead Wid Laff), BOAL (Buss Out A Laff).
I now see many of my friends use it and smile to myself because it has come full circle.
There are also the emails I get from people who say the community forum on the site has helped them through many troubles. One lady for example had cancer and some of the cancer survivors on our forum helped her out. There was another lady who was sick and got flowers in the hospital from many of the members of our online forum.
Q12. Can you provide details about some of the more humorous or interesting emails/queries that you have received through the Site over the years?
A12. DWL. Wow, I have so many I am drawing a blank. One that comes to mind is “Where can I find a school to learn how to dance like the lady in the movie “Dancehall Queen”. I have been asked about the “sexual habits” of Jamaican males and females. There is the constant question of where to buy “weed”. I get lots of love poetry that I am asked to translate so that the requestor can read/send to a Jamaican significant other. Some of the more interesting letters are women who live abroad who ask you to help find out if their significant other in Jamaica is “cheating”, or if they have other women on our forums. The site has been accused of putting Jamaica’s “dutty laundry” out for the world to see.
Q13. For whatever reason, have you ever had thoughts of calling it ‘quits’ and taking Jamaicans.Com offline?
A13. Wow, you have some really good questions. I will say Yes and No. I have seriously thought off taking some sections of the site offline.
Now let me explain. Running a large bulletin board is not easy. Not only are you dealing with server resource and bandwidth issues, but also you have the people factor. People can drive you crazy at times, especially when you are dealing with so many personalities. The also drive the moderators and administrators on the site crazy. In some cases the moderators can drive you crazy if they are not “fair” in the way the handle situations. The spats, the fights, the complaints, the sniping, breaking of the rules are just a few of the issues you have to deal with on a forum One “bad” apple can really spoil a whole community and change the tone of posts. On a few occasions a while back I had thought of closing just the forums. The forums also take most of the bandwidth on the site and needs a lot of processing power. That is the ‘Yes’.
Now there are over 1500 pages of content on the site which I would never take offline … that is the ‘No’.
Q14. How has the Internet landscape for Jamaican websites changed since you first started? What are some of your more striking memories of things then, and what in particular stands out now?
A14. There is more variety now, and the sites today have access to tools that were just not available back then. Many of the new Jamaican sites take advantage of all these tools as they have sound, animation, games etc. I remember the work I had to do to put some “patois” audio files on the site. The files were large and each file had to have a duplicate text file that you had to reference in the link. Today it is a simple 5 minute task. I remember being able to name all the Jamaican sites online for at least 3 years and communicating via email with many of these webmasters. Today there are just so many sites I can’t keep up anymore.
Q15. What are your thoughts on some of the more current Internet and technology-related issues affecting Jamaica including – (a) Internet use and popularity in Jamaica said to be on the rise; (b) Two licenses being awarded recently for the construction and operation of fibre optic cable networks that will link Jamaica to North America and the rest of the World; (c) The proliferation of cellular and wireless devices at all class levels across the Jamaican society; (d) The simmering ‘battle’ between Jamaican mobile/wireless service providers; (e) The new ‘Internet generation’ of young people who are growing up with the World seemingly at their fingertips because of the Internet and; (f) Any other related issues that you would like to comment on.
A15. I think the increase in Internet use in Jamaica, the fibre optic network and the proliferation of cellular and wireless devices in Jamaica is good. In the area of cellular and wireless devices, I think we can make some good strides to reduce the “digial divide” gap. I think of Japan and the percentage of users who own a computer compared to those who own a cellular phone and I see the same thing in Jamaica. Cellular phones are prevalent across the society in Jamaica, as not everyone can afford a computer. These devices can provide the masses with Internet access. Greater access to information will only help to educate and uplift. The ‘battle’ between Jamaican mobile/wireless service providers is also good as the consumers win when there is competition. I think Jamaica is on the forefront in the Caribbean, and I hope we take advantage of it.
Q16. On a personal note, what is your direct connection to Jamaica? Were you born there; attended school and/or university there; currently live there (if no, how do you keep abreast and in touch with developments there)?
A16. I was born in Jamaica. I grew up in Edgewater which is located in Portmore. I attended Jamaica College and moved to Miami, Florida 20 years ago. I keep up with the news mainly through the weekly news summary we have been publishing since 1996. I get daily news from friends and also some of the government agencies.
Q17. Jamaicans.Com aside, what specific websites (Jamaican and other) do you visit fairly regularly?
A17. I subscribe to a few newsletters so I do less surfing. I visit Yahoo.com, Search Engine watch, Cnet, Channel Jamaica, Top5 Jamaica, Web Monkey, Sourceforge.net. In addition I see quite a few Jamaican/Caribbean sites as we get weekly requests for sites to be added to the Jamaicans.Com links directory.