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bitch
F E M I N I S T R E S P O N S E T O P O P C U LT U R E
Bitch Media is a non-profit, independent media organization.
WHAT SEARCH ENGINES SAY ABOUT WOMEN
On occasion, I ask my university students to
follow me through a day in the life of an AfricanAmerican aunt, mother, mentor, or friend who is
trying to help young women learn to use
the Internet. In this exercise, I ask what kind
of things they think young black girls might
be interested in learning about: music, hair,
friendship, fashion, popular culture?
by Safiya Umoja Noble | art by Julianna Johnson
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SPRING.12
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ISSUE NO.54
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I ask them if they could imagine how my nieces’ multicultural group of
Last semester, SugaryBlackPussy.com was the top hit. No matter which year
friends who are curious to learn about black culture and contributions
(beyond watching rap music videos or Tyler Perry movies) might go to
or class the students are in, they always look at me in disbelief when their
search yields this result. They wonder if they did something wrong. They
Google to find information about black accomplishments, identities, and
intellectual traditions. I ask them to think about the book report they might
double-check. They try using quotation marks around the search terms.
They make sure the computer isn’t logged in to Gmail, as if past searches
write, or the speech they might give about famous black girls involved in
human and civil rights movements in the United States and across the
for pornography might be affecting the results. They don’t understand.
world. I remind my students that to be black is to encompass more than an
n
African-American identity, but to embrace an affinity with black people in
n
the diaspora, that it is our identification with others of African descent in
consider myself far from prudish. I don’t care if someone types “porn”
into a search engine and porn is what they get. I do care about
Africa, the Caribbean, Latin America, Europe, and all parts of the globe.
I remind them of the reclamation of the word “black” that my parents’ and
their grandparents’ generations fought for, as in “Black Is Beautiful.” I ask
porn turning up in the results when people are searching for support,
knowledge, or answers about identity. I care that someone might type in
“black girls,” “Latinas,” or other terms associated with women of color
them to imagine a 16-year-old, or even an 8-year-old, opening up Google
in her browser and searching for herself and her friends by typing in the
words “black girls.”
and instantly find porn all over their first-page results. I care that women
are automatically considered “girls,” and that actual girls find their identities so readily compromised by porn.
Someone inevitably volunteers to come forward and open a blank
Google search page—a portal to the seemingly bottomless array of
information online—intending to find accurate and timely information
At the moment, U.S. commercial search engines like Google, Yahoo!,
and Bing wield tremendous power in defining how information is
indexed and prioritized. Cuts to public education, public libraries, and
that can’t easily be found without a library card or a thoughtful and wellinformed teacher.
community resources only exacerbate our reliance on technology, rather
than information and education professionals, for learning. But what’s
missing in the search engine is awareness about stereotypes, inequity,
THESE SEARCH ENGINE
RESULTS, FOR WOMEN WHOSE
IDENTITIES ARE ALREADY
MALIGNED IN THE MEDIA,
ONLY FURTHER DEBASE AND
ERODE EFFORTS FOR SOCIAL,
POLITICAL, AND ECONOMIC
RECOGNITION AND JUSTICE.
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bitch
F E M I N I S T R E S P O N S E T O P O P C U LT U R E
and identity. These results are deeply problematic and are often presented
without any way for us to change them.
Last year when I conducted these exercises in class, the now-defunct
HotBlackPussy.com outranked SugaryBlackPussy.com, indicating that
the market for black women and girls’ identities online is also in f lux,
and changes as businesses and organizations can afford to position and
sustain themselves at the top of the search pile. These search engine
results, for women whose identities are already maligned in the media,
only further debase and erode efforts for social, political, and economic
recognition and justice.
While preparing to write this article, I did a search for “women’s
magazines,” having a hunch that feminist periodicals would not rise to
the top of the search pile. After looking through the websites provided by
Google, I gave up by page 11, never to find Bitch magazine. This search
raises questions about why “women’s magazines” are automatically linked
to unfeminist periodicals like Cosmopolitan and Women’s Day. (Not coincidentally, these titles are all owned by the Hearst Corporation,which has
Bitch Media is a non-profit, independent media organization.
the funds to purchase its way to the top of the
search pile, and which benefits from owning
multiple media properties that can be used for
cross-promotional hyperlinks that mutually
push each other higher in the rankings.)
These titles are the default for representations of women’s magazines, while alternative
women’s media—say, those with a feminist
perspective—can be found only via searching
by name or including purposeful search terms
SEARCH ENGINE RESULTS DON’T ONLY
MASK THE UNEQUAL ACCESS TO SOCIAL,
POLITICAL, AND ECONOMIC LIFE AS
BROKEN DOWN BY RACE, GENDER, AND
SEXUALITY—THEY ALSO MAINTAIN IT.
like “feminist.”
Try Google searches on every variation you
can think of for women’s and girls’ identities
order. Complex mathematical formulations
are developed into algorithms that are part of
variety of commercial advertising and political,
social, and economic factors are linked to the
and you will see many of the ways in which
commercial interests have subverted a diverse
(or realistic) range of representations. Try
the automation process. But these calculations
do not take social context into account.
If you were to try my classroom experiments
way search results are coded and displayed.
Recently, the Federal Trade Commission
started looking into Google’s near-monopoly
“women athletes” and do your best not to cringe
at the lists of “Top 25 Sexiest Female Athletes”
that surface. Based on these search results,
for yourself (which I imagine you may do in
the middle of reading this article), you may
get a variation on my students’ results. The
status and market dominance and the harm
this could cause consumers. Consumer
Watchdog.org’s report “Traffic Report: How
constructions of women’s identities and interests seem to be based on traditional, limited
sexist norms, just as they are in the traditional
truth is, search engine results are impacted by
myriad factors. Google applications like Gmail
and social media sites like Facebook track
Google Is Squeezing out Competitors and
Muscling into New Markets,” from June 2010,
details how Google effectively blocks sites that it
media. What does it mean that feminism—or,
barring a specific identification with that term,
progressivism—has been divorced from the
definitions or representations of “women” in a
commercial search engine? That antifeminist
or even pornographic representations of women
show up on the first page of results in search
engines by default?
your identity and previous searches to unearth
something slightly different. Search engines
increasingly remember where you’ve been and
what links you’ve clicked in order to provide
more customized content. Search results will
also vary depending on whether filters to screen
out porn are enabled on your browser. In some
cases, there may be more media and interest in
non-pornographic information about black girls
in your locale that push such sites higher up
to the first page, like a strong nonprofit, blog,
or media source that gets a lot of clicks in your
region (I teach in the Midwest, which may have
something to do with the results we get when
we do Google searches in class). Information
that rises to the top of the search pile is not the
same for every user in every location, and a
competes with and prioritizes its own properties to the top of the search pile (YouTube over
other video sites, Google Maps over MapQuest,
and Google Images over Photobucket and
Flickr). The report highlights how Universal
Search is not a neutral search process, but
rather a commercial one that moves sites that
buy paid advertising (as well as Google’s own
investments) to the top of the pile. But many
analysts watching the antitrust debates around
Google argue that in the free market economy,
market share dominance and control over
search results isn’t a crime. In a September 2011
Businessweek.com article, reporter Mathew
Ingram suggested that “it would be hard for
anyone to prove that the company’s free services
have injured consumers.”
oogle’s search process is based on
o
identifying and assigning value to
various types of information through
web indexing. Many search engines, not just
Google, use the artificial intelligence of computers to determine what kinds of information
should be retrieved and displayed, and in what
Your purchase of this digital edition makes it possible for us to thrive.
SPRING.12
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ISSUE NO.54
bitch | 39
THOUGH OUR
COLLECTIVE (AND AT
TIMES TORMENTED)
LOVE AFFAIR WITH
GOOGLE CONTINUES, IT SHOULD NOT
BE GIVEN A PASS
JUST BECAUSE IT
ISSUES APOLOGIES
UNDER THE GUISE
OF ITS MOTTO,
“DON’T BE EVIL.”
But Ingram is arguably defining “injury” a
little too narrowly. Try searching for “Latinas,”
or “Asian women,” and the results focus on
porn, dating, and fetishization. “Black women”
will give you sites on “angry black women,” and
articles on “why black women are less attractive.” The largest commercial search engines fail
to provide relevant and culturally situated knowledge on how women of color have traditionally
been discriminated against, denied rights, or been
violated in society and the media even though
we have organized and resisted this on many
levels. Search engine results don’t only mask the
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unequal access to social, political, and economic
a good enough answer for the ADL, which
life in the United States as broken down by race,
was “extremely pleased that Google has heard
gender, and sexuality—they also maintain it.
You might think that Google would want to
our concerns and those of its users about the
offensive nature of some search results and
do something about problematic search results,
the unusually high ranking of peddlers of
especially those that appear racist or sexist.
Veronica Arreola wondered as much on the Ms.
bigotry and anti-Semitism.” A search for the
word “Jew” today will surface a beige box from
blog in 2010, when Google Instant, a search-
Google linking to its lengthy disclaimer about
enhancement tool, initially did not include
the words “Latinas,” “lesbian,” and “bisexual,”
your results—which remain a mix of both antiSemitic and informative sites.
because of their X-rated front-page results:
These kinds of disclaimers about search
“You’re Google. I think you could figure out
how to put porn and violence-related results,
results are not enough, and though our collective (and at times tormented) love affair
say, on the second page?” But they don’t—
with Google continues, it should not be given
except where it’s illegal (Google will not surface certain neo-Nazi websites in France and
a pass just because it issues apologies under
the guise of its motto, “Don’t be evil.” Just
Germany, where Holocaust denial is against
because search engines are shrouded in high-
the law). Siva Vaidhyanathan’s 2011 book, The
Googlization of Everything: (And Why We Should
Worry) reminds us why this is an important
tech processes that may be difficult for the
average Internet user to grasp doesn’t mean
that the search methods of all the market
matter to trace. He chronicles recent attempts by
the Jewish community and the Anti-Defamation
League to challenge Google’s priority ranking
leaders shouldn’t be examined. In addition,
it is important that those who feel harmed by
what goes to the top of a page-ranking system
of anti-Semitic, Holocaust-denial websites. So
troublesome were these search results that in
2011 Google issued a statement about its search
process, encouraging people to use “Jews” and
“Jewish people” in their searches, rather than the
pejorative term “Jew”—which they claim they
can do nothing about white supremacist groups
co-opting. The need for accurate information
about Jewish culture and the Holocaust should
be enough evidence to start a national discussion
about consumer harm, to which we can add a
whole host of cultural and gender-based identities
that are misrepresented in search engine results.
Google’s assertion that its search results,
though problematic, were computer-generated
(and thus not the company’s fault) was apparently
be heard in these processes. The question that
the Federal Trade Commission might ask is
whether search engines like Google should be
probed about the values they assign to keyword
combinations like “black girls,” “Latinas,” and
other racial, gendered, and sexual-identity
combinations, and whether saying they are
not responsible for what happens through
disclaimers should suffice.
The rapid shift over the past decade from
public-interest journalism to the corporate
takeover of U.S. news media—which has made
highlighting any kind of alternative news
increasingly difficult—has occurred simultaneously with the erosion of professional
standards applied to information provision on
F E M I N I S T R E S P O N S E T O P O P C U LT U R E
Bitch Media is a non-profit, independent media organization.
the web. As the search arena is consolidated to a handful of corporations,
question the ways in which “information” about women is offered up to
it’s even more crucial to pay close attention to the types of biases that are
shaping the information prioritized in search engines. The higher a web
the highest bidder, advertiser, or company that can buy search terms and
portray them any way they want?
page is ranked, the more it’s trusted. And unlike the vetting of journalists and librarians, who have been entrusted to fact-check and curate
When I conducted my classroom exercise this semester, Black Girls
Rock!, a nonprofit dedicated to empowering young women of color, was
information for the public, the legitimacy of websites is taken for granted.
When it comes to commercial search engines, it is no longer enough to
ranked high on the first-page results, showing that there are, indeed,
alternatives to the usual search results. This coincided with a national
simply share news and education on the web—we must ask ourselves
how the things we want to share are found, and how the things we find
have surfaced.
campaign the organization was doing for an upcoming tv special,
meaning a lot of people visited their site, helping move them up to the
front page. But not all organizations have the ability to promote their
These shifts are similar to the ways that certain kinds of information
are prioritized to the top of the search pile: information, products, and
ideas promoted by businesses and sold to industries that can afford to
url via other media. One of the myths of our digital democracy is that
what rises to the top of the pile is what is most popular. By this logic,
sexism and pornography are the most popular values on the Internet
purchase keywords at a premium, or urls and advertising space online
that drive their results and links to the top of the near-infinite pile of
information available on the web. All of these dynamics are important for
when it comes to women. There is more to result ranking than simply
“voting” with our clicks.
Search engines have the potential to display information and coun-
communities and organizations that want to make reliable information,
education, culture, and resources available to each other—and not on
page 23 of a Google search.
ternarratives that don’t prioritize the most explicit, racist, or sexist
formulations around identity. We could experience freedom from such
contrived and stereotypical representations by not supporting compa-
he Pew Internet & American Life consumer-behavior tracking
surveys are conducted on a regular basis to understand the ways
that Americans use the Internet and technology. An August 9,
2011, report found that 92 percent of adults who use the Internet—about
half of all Americans—use search engines to find information online,
and 59 percent do so on a typical day. These results indicate searching is
the most popular online activity among U.S. adults. An earlier Pew report
from 2005, “Search Engine Users,” specifically studied trust and credibility, finding that for the most part, people are satisfied with the
results they find in search engines, with 64 percent of respondents
believing search engines are a fair and unbiased source of information.
But in the case of a search on the words “black girls,” the results that
come up are certainly not fair or unbiased representations of actual black
girls. In a centuries-old struggle for self-determination and a decadeslong effort to have control over our media misrepresentations—from
mammies to sapphires, prostitutes to vixens—black women and girls
have long been subject to exploitation in the media. Since we are so reliant on search engines for providing trusted information, shouldn’t we
Your purchase of this digital edition makes it possible for us to thrive.
nies that foster a lack of social, political, and economic context in search
engine results, especially as search engines are being given so much
power in schools, libraries, and in the public domain. We could read
more for knowledge and understanding and search less for decontextualized snippets of information. We could support more funding for public
resources like schools and libraries, rather than outsourcing knowledge to
big corporations. We need more sophisticated and thoughtful rankings of
results that account for historical discrimination and misrepresentation.
Otherwise, it appears that identity-based search results could be nothing
more than old bigotry packaged in new media.
Safiya Umoja Noble is a recovering urban advertising executive
and current Information in Society Fellow at the University of Illinois at
Urbana-Champaign.
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English  102:  Writing,  Research,  &  Responsibility  in  Social  Media  Culture  
Fall  2017  
 
Assignment  12:  Annotated  Bibliography  Entry  2  
 
Begin  by  reading  our  next  text,  “Missed  Connections.”  After  you  have  completed  this  
reading,  go  ahead  and  look  up  this  author.  What  are  her  credentials?  What  qualifies  her  to  
talk  about  this  topic?  
 
One  thing  you  may  notice  as  you  look  up  the  author  and  consider  the  type  of  text  we  are  
reading,  is  that  whereas  “The  Gift  of  Surveillance”  was  a  peer-­‐‑reviewed  publication  and  in  
an  academic  journal,  “Missed  Connections”  was  published  in  a  popular  source.  One  thing  to  
consider  is  why  would  an  author  with  such  extensive  experience  and …
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