29 May 2007

The algorithm is sexist

Check out the results I got when I typed in Twisty's question, define "woman". Thinking about the recent furor stir in the blogosphere when a Digg user pointed out that when you do a Google search for "she invented", the auto-correct asks, "Did you mean, 'he invented'?". Google has since altered the results of that particular search.*

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A quick, very basic primer on how Google's algorithm works and how it sorts its search results. It sorts by relevance, taking into account the content on a particular page (i.e., how many times your search keywords were used) as well as things like how many other pages have linked to a page (if a page is worth linking to, goes the thinking, it must have valuable content - these links to a page are known as "incoming links") and how many times the site gets linked to and from what sources - if the New York Times links to your article on horse farming with a related article, that will count for more - because the Times is a trusted source that gets linked to many times itself - than if a site with few readers/incoming links and an unrelated article (such as my site) links. Basically, it's keyword content + popularity (just like high school!) that makes a page relevant, and likely. Additionally, Google has now added further sorting to its search so that, depending on your query, you get what Google suggests are more relevant answers - such as the handy-dandy "Web definitions" results at the top of my screenshot.

I know, that was boring when what you wanted was for me to rip Google a new one, but patience, my pretties. I'll get back to the algorithm presently - it matters. Basically, it's relying on a mathematical formula and user data to decide what is the best (most relevant) answer.

Let's see, the top result is from something called wordnet.princeton.edu/ I haven't actually checked the veracity of the domain but princeton.edu suggests to me that this is probably really a Princeton project. Emphasis below is all mine.

Web definitions for woman
an adult female person (as opposed to a man); "the woman kept house while the man hunted"
wordnet.princeton.edu/perl/webwn - Definition in context

Of course. Because women ARE defined as opposed to men, not as beings in their own right. Because women keep house while men hunt. Fabulous, gender stereotyping and reductionism in the very first, most trusted answer!

But wait - maybe it was a blip. Let's look at some of the other results, shall we?

Okay, the next two results are from About.com articles, and the second article actually talks some about the realities of gender and social constructs thereof, one article focusing on abortion and the other on gay marriage. I might not agree with every premise put forth in either of those articles, but I'll give 'em a pass.

Next up: wikipedia. Mmm, okay, it's a vapid and useless article (women are females!) but not particularly offensive.

For the fifth search result, though, we have another weiner:

Careers And Marriage - Forbes.com
Just, whatever you do, don't marry a woman with a career. .... But rather than rush to blame the woman, let's not overlook the other key variable: What is ...

And the link is to a terrifyingly sexist article based on the premise of Jimmy Soul's song: happiness comes from marrying women who will be grateful to the man (nope, we're not getting into any transgender discussions here) for marrying her and will therefore cater to his every whim. Because ... that's what will make "you" happy (a man, remember, is the default "you" ... established not only in the song, in the article itself "whatever you do, don't marry a woman with a career...", and don't forget about the princeton definition). Because women exist to make men happy, right? Otherwise why would anyone bother with them? Please excuse me while I get back in touch with my first husband, who would have agreed wholeheartedly with the author of the article.

There's a weak refutation of the original article (which is also about 30 percent shorter) which says, based on the author's anecdotal experience (it doesn't even go to the trouble of citing any outside sources), that two-career marriages can work. The solution to the housework when both the man and the woman work outside the home? Hire someone! It won't make a dent in your two-income household! That's right, women can pay someone (probably another woman) to take on the traditional female roles. Awesome. I'm extra glad that the refutation challenged none of the explicit or implicit gender role assumptions, but answered any complaints with "practical" solutions like the housekeeping one above, thus giving credibility to the original vomitous premise but not refuting the logical fallacies.

Two of the top 5 results are about marriage. That's 40 percent. The very first result gives as an example of common usage that the woman "keeps the home". One of the articles is about childbearing.

This is so fucking DISAPPOINTING. Christ on a crutch, it's 2007 and women are still being defined in terms of marriage and housekeeping and having children.

Tell me, am I wrong for feeling outraged?

And before anyone tells me that the algorithm is just a mathematical equation and doesn't really care and isn't being sexist on purpose, let me point out that the algorithm is written by people - who, intentionally or not, have an agenda. The other part of the equation is that the algorithm's results are coming up based on what's most popular - that fantastic definitions from the kind fellows at princeton, the kidders at Forbes. Which I suppose, depressingly, means that the world is more full of recidivist dickheads than I'd previously realised. I think I need a drink. Preferably cyanide. Since I'm a career woman and don't have kids and all, and share the housework with my partner (he's my fiance, though, does that make me worthwhile?) ... I should probably just end it now and clean up the gene pool for everyone.

Final note: HAHAHAHAHA MOTHERFUCKERS, I am writing this blog outing Google on Google's free blogware! I am so subversive! (Okay not really since they're getting my user data in return and I doubt they give a shit about this blog, but hey.)

*I'm not picking on Google in particular here; what I've got to say applies to all the search engines.


Anonymous said...

Web definitions for man
an adult person who is male (as opposed to a woman); "there were two women and six men on the bus"

wordnet.princeton.edu/perl/webwn - Definition in context

Cara deBeer said...

Yah, I caught that opposite definition this morning, doing a search for "what is a man?". I still object to the princeton definition (though I'll leave my original post as is) if only for the stereotyping in the contextual example for woman (which is not used in the definition for man.)

Sarah said...

Typing "define man" into google.co.uk gives the Princeton article first - and an article on Metropolitan Area Networks second. :D

"Define woman" brings up not-particularly-related stuff; "What is woman" is more relevant, and nothing particularly offensive comes up - it's mainly women's studies and women's health.

Kaethe said...

Choose your definition and let the Google bomb begin.

Jesse Wiedinmyer said...

I assume you've seen

Lacan Vs. Google