‘Online party’ at Vostu.com helps Latinos stay connected

Madeleine Marr

MIAMI (MCT) — Oye, social butterflies, there’s a new site in cybertown. Y se habla espanol.

Vostu.com — the brainchild of Harvard students Josh Kushner, Dan Kafie and Mario Schlosser — targets Latin surfers who love sharing their lives via sites like Facebook but prefer to operate in their own language.

That’s where Vostu steps in. Nearly 1,000 people — mostly students from Honduras, Argentina and Peru — have joined since the site was launched in February. About 200 of its members are Central and South American expats living in New York and Miami, where ties to the region are strong.

So what’s with the name?

“When you study Spanish the first thing you learn is tenses,” says Kafie, 24, who is originally from Honduras. “The point is the double meaning of vos vs. tu (familiar words for you). Join, and things won’t stay formal for long.”

Vostu does seem like a friendly place. Click around and you’ll pick up a MySpace-y, free-for-all vibe: pictures of buddies at a bar, message boards (“Hola Argentina!”) and chismes (gossip). The site’s colors — blue and yellow — have no significance to any one country; the language is neutral.

“We use words that are very focused and won’t offend anyone,” says Kafie. “We made sure that how you say X in Mexico is the same way they say X in Honduras.”

Jessica Facusse, a sophomore at Northeastern University from Tegucigalpa, is hooked. “It’s like an online party,” she says. “And a lot cheaper than a phone call home.”

Facusse, 19, likes many of the hook-up features, including the free, flirty besos, which members “spend” like currency: A peck on the cheek costs one, a French kiss four.

The founders hope ad revenue will flow in once word spreads.

“Social sites are the hottest trend,” adds Giovanny Gutierrez, director of interactive media at Ionic Studios, a Web design company in Miami. “The thing is to have a unique target.”

Vostu will have stiff competition. Facebook, also developed for gregarious campus rats at Harvard, now has more than 17 million members worldwide and is expected to generate revenue of more than $100 million this year. The downside: It’s English-only and has no immediate plans to add additional languages.

“The Internet is the Wild West,” says Alan Richards, chairman of FIU’s School of Journalism and Mass Communications. “I’ll use a variation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s quote, ‘It’s like swimming under water and holding your breath.'”

Getting on Vostu is easy: Would-be users send a valid e-mail address via vostu.com and are then invited to join.

“It’s not to be exclusive but just to avoid fake profiles, spam and random people messing with the site,” says Kushner, 21, who grew up in New Jersey and is enrolled in Spanish 101. “If people e-mail us because they want to be on the site, then we will most likely grant them membership. We are just really trying to create a small community.”

So how else does Vostu stand out from the rest?

“Latin Americans are a different breed and want different things,” says Schlosser, 28, from Germany but spent summers in Brazil. “They understand the concept of family and community.”

Blogging is another hot feature, especially with futbol fans. For example, a University of Buenos Aires student will write about a Boca Juniors game he saw.

Then an often-heated dialogue begins (enter at your own risk).

Juggling a Web site and Harvard classes must be exhausting. Is it all keyboard, no play?

“We have to budget our time very seriously,” says Kushner. “We’re not a wild, partying bunch. Vostu is pretty much all our lives.”

Madeleine Marr

McClatchy Newspapers