An Editor's Reckoning: The reality of search engines and content
November 12, 2021
Why can’t I find what I’m looking for online?
By Samia Abbasi, Editor
I look back at my early web-surfing days with nostalgia. After school, I’d browse sites like Cartoon Doll Emporium, Shelfari, and MangaFox for hours on my family’s desktop computer. I imagined the internet to be a wondrous place, like the Home Tree in the Disney Fairies chapter book series I avidly read: a vast network of possibilities, communities, and knowledge.
Since then, the internet has become more streamlined, hierarchical, and robust. In the process of scaling unimaginable feats, it’s lost some of its magic and human quality. We’re starting to see the real effects and consequences of the internet and social media. The good, the bad, the neutral, — and the straight up sinister.
As a writer who grew up in Silicon Valley, I only recently started to think about my own reckoning with the internet. It’s been greatly informed by my editorial work at Kulfi, and reading fascinating digital culture texts like Jia Tolentino’s essay “The I in Internet” in her collection Trick Mirror. I can’t help but wonder:
Why do we do things the way that we do online? How do they impact people in tangible and intangible ways?
I’m weary of the impact that search engines have on content.
— And rightfully so.
This article emerged from an idea turning over and over in my mind. Whenever I’m looking for something specific on the internet, I can’t really find what I’m looking for. I don’t mean it in terms of fact checking, but in the sense of articles that speak to specific perspectives and experiences on topics I’m interested in. It’s possible that: a.) The content I’m looking for is out there but other loosely related websites have a stronger Search Engine Optimization (SEO) ranking. Or b.) The content I’m looking for hasn’t been written about with a lens that prioritizes different identities.
When you view a piece of content and wonder if it resonates with you, there’s more under the surface than just your preference. People in the media space have become attune to looking at data, understanding algorithms, and producing a certain kind of content from that. In turn, the way we view and react to content as consumers is shaped by those very things.
I began to think about all the amazing content out there online and the storytellers behind them.
And, of course, search engines and algorithms don’t give visibility to smaller platforms and creators.
I spoke to Simra Mariam (@simplysimra), a fellow writer and editor, to get her thoughts on this. On FaceTime one day, I rambled to her about all of this, followed by, “I hope this makes sense?!” As the founder and editor-in-chief of Reclamation Magazine, Simra shed some light on her experience and observations. On the topic of SEO, Simra references Algorithms of Oppression by Safiya Noble, a powerful text she read for a media and technology class in college. There’s a particular passage that shatters the seemingly neutral functionality of search engine rankings. Noble writes, "Search does not merely present pages but structures knowledge, and the results retrieved in a commercial search engine create their own particular material reality. The ranking is itself information that also reflects the political, social, and cultural values of the society that search engines operate within."
Simra connects this with her own research while working on Reclamation. She notes,
“Primary search engines prioritize whiteness over other identities, and this is evident in search results for skin care, hair growth, and the like.”
She goes on to explain, “To find stories by People of Color for People of Color, I had to resort to other methods, whether it was through connections made on Twitter or the discovery of independent magazines on Instagram.”
Getting back to the roots of what matters: Community.
In taking a step back to wonder, “Why do we do things the way that we do?” I find myself feeling a little intimidated. Digital marketing tools, search engines, and algorithms serve purposes that are important in so many industries — I get that. But as an editor, I aim to prioritize storytelling itself. I seek to understand how things make us feel as individuals and communities. With Kulfi Bites, we’re essentially running an experiment:
We’re creating the kind of content that we want to read and not necessarily what the algorithm wants us to create.
Simra has had her fair share of receiving emails that promote SEO and advertising tools for growth. Ultimately, she assesses what is best for Reclamation’s vision of uplifting marginalized communities: “I've always believed that each contributor's work should speak for itself. My vision, from the beginning, was to create an accessible platform that accentuated content, allowing the artist's piece to stand out against a clean, minimalistic theme. I wanted to maintain the sense of integrity that lay at the core of our mission at Reclamation: giving artists creative liberty and allowing marginalized voices to tell their stories without ever exploiting or capitalizing on their pain.”
In questioning these practices, we get back to the root of what matters: Being part of a community. Feeling a sense of belonging. Recognizing each other’s humanity.
We’re able to share candid reflections and observations from people who look like us; who feel respected, seen, and supported in the process.
Your perspective is powerful and important.
Emerging creatives feel a myriad of expectations and pressures that come from social media. As a writer, I find myself placing so much weight on concepts like "marketability" when working on a writing project. Especially with Instagram, I’m hearing more creatives voice their frustrations of constantly having to shift their content strategy to get engagement on social media.
Simra adds, “I always found it deeply frustrating that the hierarchal frameworks present in our society were being reflected online, where some have privileges merely due to status over others. This divides the creative world in a way I don't think most people realize: 'smaller' accounts are compelled to find alternative ways to boost their content, and the new algorithm only makes it more difficult for their work to be seen.”
I want to remind you that your perspective is powerful. You may have a crisp idea, but might not be able to find what you’re looking for when researching said idea. You might wonder, just as I do, "Will anyone care about this?" But, I assure you:
That idea, the one you can’t stop thinking about, is so important to explore, simply because it gives you energy and feeds your curiosity.
You’re dealing with an ever-changing set of circumstances on social media. We don’t really know what will happen next or what conversations we’ll be having about content in the coming years. Even so, don’t dim your impulse and instinct when it comes to creating the art you want to make.
Cover photo sourced from: Badal Patel (@bybadal) & Aditi Damlei (@damlebai)