Search Project: Designed to Divide

Welcome to the Search Project homepage. I’ve got a story for you.

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My journey on the internet began when I was rather young, perhaps 4 or 5 years old. My unusually advanced reading level enabled me to be an active participant in a variety of online communities, message boards, and avatar-based MMORPGs, including Neopets, Runescape and MapleStory.

This slate also included imvu, Omegle and Twitter. My curiosity knew no bounds, and did not recognize age restrictions.

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I was attracted to the anonymity that these games and sites provided. I could be anyone. I could be no one. I could go from furnishing houses to dancing on glaciers to investing in a mock stock market in a few clicks.

Over the years, this Anthropomorphic Internet of bunnies and penguins started to look more like the world around me.

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It was a lot more difficult to be truly anonymous in this new world. Enter markers of race, and gender, and class. Every personalization said something about you, or who you wanted to be.

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I can vividly remember my initial experiences in an MMORPG called Disney’s Virtual Magic Kingdom (2005). America had not yet taught me to be ashamed of the color of my skin, or the length of my hair. So I selected the darkest skin tone and wiry black hair.

Fantasyland came crashing down around my head when a white female avatar’s speech bubbles asserted I was “dark and ugly” and “nobody would want me.” I took her recommendation to heart and tearfully signed out. I took what I found online to be a true reflection of myself, so her words held weight in my 9 year-old heart. It would be years (I’m talking 2017 Bitmoji years) until I used another dark-skinned avatar to represent myself online.

Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism provides foundational support for and thematic direction to this project with the statement: “On the Internet and in our everyday uses of technology, discrimination is also embedded… in artificial intelligence technologies that we are reliant on.” (Noble)

My experiences on the Internet were also largely informed by Search, and by the algorithms that powered my favorite platforms. I’d like to give credit to the scholarship and instruction of Safiya Noble for prompting the line of questioning that resulted in this project: How are Search engines structured to affect our identity-formation? Where is the danger in choosing an avatar that looks like you to take on the virtual world? And finally, how do these results compare to what we “really” look like? What is an authentic digital representation?

Search Project: Designed to Divide can be read through this line of inquiry and related scholarship. It draws from academic concepts of anti-hegemony, oppositional reading, reverting the Gaze, intersectionality, fetishization, blackface and orientalism.

It is not for the faint-hearted or absent-minded. Here it is.


Asian Female

Racial Microaggressions and the Asian American Experience

“Microaggressions have been described as subtle, stunning, often automatic exchanges which are “put downs” (Pierce, Carew, Pierce-Gonzalez, & Willis, 1978, p.66). People of color experience them as subtle insults directed toward them, often automatically and unconsciously” (Solorzano et al., 2000).

“A fourth theme found in both focus groups is exoticization of Asian American women who are relegated to an exotic category. One Chinese American women stated, “White men believe that Asian women are great girlfriends, wait hand and foot on men, and don’t back-talk or give them shit. Asian women have beautiful skin and are just sexy and have silky hair.”(Solorzano et al., 2000).

Latina/Indigenous Female

Brain, Brow, and Booty: Latina Iconicity in U.S. Popular Culture

“We also continue to live in an age when women function as a sign, a stand-in for objects and concepts ranging from nation to beauty to sexuality” (Rakow & Kranich, 1991).

“…the spitfire female Latina characterized by redcolored lips, bright seductive clothing, curvaceous hips and breasts, long brunette hair, and extravagant jewelry.” (Rakow & Kranich, 1991).

Latino Male

Latinos Beyond Reel

“We are seeing [information presented online] not just as the world is but as someone who gathered all of that information wants us to understand” (Juan Gonzalez, National Hispanic Media Coalition)

White Female

Teaching Critical Whiteness Theory: What College and University Teachers Need to Know by Dana Nichols

“Even when a white person is completely committed to antiracist efforts, no amount of individual work renders whites ineligible for privileges (p. 12). In other words, there is no escaping the discomfort of being white.”

“whiteness as a set of overlapping identities, structures, and power relations keeps the United States divided along the lines of race, class, and gender” (p. 295).

The Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf

Wolf explained that the problem with cosmetics exists only when a woman feels invisible without them; when she “is forced to adorn herself to buy a hearing” and must focus on grooming to keep her job or attract a lover to help care for her children. All this is what makes “beauty” hurt.

Black Male (2)

Ethnic Notions by Marlon Riggs

“Within these distorted molds of black behavior, black entertainers necessarily had to fit, to win acceptance from mainstream audiences. Over time black performers brought elements of humanity to the caricatures. Still, popular entertainment remained double-edged in its rewards, creating personal suffering and a stigma as the price of success. Perhaps no more poignant example exists than in the life of Bert Williams. Toward the end of his life, Bert Williams managed to remove the most offensively racist material from his routines. But long after his death, the blackface tradition continued.”

“It was a variation on the old theme: blacks could be childishly entertaining and at once vicious brutes. The difference was in the instruments of amusement and violence.”

What if the results we’ve come to accept could look back at us? Would they look like this?

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Attribution

Direction, Photography, Casting, Editing – Joy Ofodu
Asian Female – Yong Loh
Latina/Indigenous Female – Gabriela Ortega
Latino Male – Manuel Restrepo
White Female – Claire Porter
Black Male (2) – Demontray Thompson and Demontea Thompson

I do not own any digital images, art or drawings other than the photography present within the project.

Methods

From April – May 2018, I produced a digital photoseries entitled Search Project: Designed to Divide. The project includes 15 digital images shot on a Canon 70D body and Tamron 24-70mm f1.8 lens, or Canon 50mm f1.8 lens. The project was shot primarily in natural light with occasional artificial support (one portrait light), and has been edited both in Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop. Search results from Google have been added via Photoshop and Canva. There was no monetary budget or cost for this project ($0).

I cast USC students, alumni and friends (18+) to serve as models for this project in Los Angeles. Each model has self-identified their gender and race in a way that relates to theory presented in Safiya Noble’s COMM 458 (i.e. White women, Black men, Latina/o women and men, and Asian women). Thematic assignments for each model were drawn directly from Google predictive search methods (typing into Google.com) and were digitally imposed onto each image.

The academic text below each set of images has been included to explain the connection between course material and the images. The texts should always be a part of the conversation where these images appear, and the conversation will continue on Instagram.

Thank you for looking at Search Project; I welcome your thoughts in comments or by email at ofodu@usc.edu

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