Tech, Now + Beyond

So, is the internet actually racist – or is that just your imagination?

There's a reason why it is called the World Wide Web, not the World White Web.

Let’s start with a demonstration: try opening another browser tab right now and google-image the words, “man,” “woman,” or “woman on a bike”, “man in office”  for added context.

Notice how stupefyingly white the results are? 

More interestingly, if you type “black woman on a bike”  you will get strictly African women, but if you type “white woman on a bike”, the search engine will produce a mixture of white bikes with white women on them, black and white photos of women and bikes, or white women with white clothing articles. African, Asian and  Middle Eastern people come up sporadically towards the end of your scroll page. However, in the pursuit of more diverse findings, you’ll have to type in the exact words referring to the ethnicity you are looking for because it seems that the internet’s default for “man” or “woman” is still white.

It doesn’t take a lot of effort to prove that the internet’s bias towards white people reflects the collective perception of a “typical” man or woman. Unfortunately, the idea persists that white people are race-neutral and that an anonymous person is automatically considered white until clearly stated otherwise. It further stipulates that white people never have their whiteness attributed to them but any other person of color will be primarily described by their race; their most salient feature. 

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Then why is this situation transferred to the internet: a free and global portal? You might think that the reason is that the internet is primarily a creation of the White Man, and therefore reserves Him the right to create it in His image. Well, yes and no.

This apparent neutralization of whiteness on the internet has to do with SEO (Search Engine Optimization) and marketing. A few stock photo websites tend to produce more diverse findings. For instance, Flickr will provide more diverse findings for “woman” when compared to Google. Shutterstock also will render assorted photos of “woman”  as well as Istockphoto, and Free images. Search engines, on the other hand, don’t function in the same way, because they don’t scan pictures on websites. They search by language input and analyze the textual context of an image, thereby determining whether or not this image fits in with your search results. In other words, to sort out images and categorize them from the internet, Google picks up its clues from the text of the webpage surrounding the image, the content of the alt HTML parameter associated with the image, and, most importantly, the caption of the image.

That said, the responsibility of providing visual material for the internet lies in the hands of photographers and advertising/media outlets. As such, it’s easy to point fingers at them for not producing enough “diverse” material. However, their insensitivity to race doesn’t necessarily mean that they have something against people of color. Naturally, they function on the principle of supply and demand; the highest demand on the internet is made by people residing in countries in which Internet penetration and usage are the highest.

According to the World Bank in a 2014 report, internet penetration across the world is highest in the US, UK, and Australia, whose populations are mostly Caucasian. That means that the aforementioned parties are creating visual and textual content that cater to that specific demographic, most of which is white.

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The solution for a more diversified internet, both visually and textually, is that diverse people start contributing more content that unifies the human experience and spreads it among races in a colorless form. For example, if an article keeps repeating the word Asian accompanied by a picture of an Asian person, the problem will not be tackled. That’s because people will see the picture only when typing in the word “Asian” in an image search engine. But, if the image is used in a neutral online article about New Zealand, that would increase the circulation of the image. As such the image won’t be bound to the singular label of “Asian.”

So, if this means anything, it’s that the internet still has a long way to go in terms of diversification. It’s not enough that the media keeps forcing people of color into every work of art or story (because it’s usually done for the sole purpose of proving a point: that white people are “inclusive”). A picture speaks a thousand words, and on Google, we have thousands of pictures confirming the same thing: that whiteness is the norm.

If the diversification of images and content on the internet is done in a way that doesn’t prioritize someone over the other, I have no doubt that this will help minimize the white-washing of the internet. The internet is the virtual image of our world, and all of our values are reflected in it. The internet in all its diversity of topics and stories and information doesn’t feel white, so it most definitely shouldn’t look white.

Because there’s a reason why it is called the World Wide Web, not the World White Web.