Representation: Remnants of the “Trans Debate” in Yahoo’s Searches
Potential trigger warning for discussions of transphobia.
In Algorithms of Oppression by Safiya Noble, she introduces a term known as “technological redlining.” This describes how the algorithms online “reinforce oppressive social relationships and enact new modes of racial profiling.” (1) She brings up the important fact that technology, while generally viewed as a neutral being, in fact lacks neutrality in almost every possible way. She particularly focuses on the search engine Google, and how in September 2011 search results for the term “black girls” were extremely derogatory and pornographic. But this redlining does not stop at the racial minorities she discusses, and nor has it been fixed a decade later: it extends to all minorities. It can practically extend to any search term.
Any user can greatly gain a general representation of any term simply looking at what your search engine of choice (Google, Bing, or in this case, Yahoo) turns up on the first page, or even the autocomplete suggestions. What most fail to recognize, though, is that search suggestions and results are not a mirror of users’ beliefs but rather algorithms that many trust to be unbiased blindly. The assumption is the top result must be there because it’s credible and factual. The reality is that these algorithms—and hence results—as shown by Noble in her research are incredibly biased towards those who are most powerful, most often cisgender heterosexual white men. Not only are racial minorities being redlined, but gender minorities as well. We can see this actively happening today still, particularly on Yahoo.
Transgender people have been viewed as “a debate” for decades. The existence of transgender people is often debated to then dehumanize their identities, to devalue their existence. This has become even more of a dehumanizing tactic as the use of neopronouns by transgender people surge. Neopronouns are a generally simple concept: any “new” pronoun that is not the traditional he, she, or they. Common uses are xe, ze, or ey. Other examples include noun based neopronouns, such as my moon pronouns that I use. People can use them for all types of reasons, most often (that I personally have seen among my neopronoun-using friends) is that because we understand our gender differently in a way that makes traditional pronouns unfitting. For example, my gender expression is greatly tied to my love and interpretation of the moon in many cultural aspects, hence my use of the moon neopronoun. However, because of their newness and majority of non-users’ misunderstandings, they have become a major part of what is deemed the “trans debate.” People, both in and out of the LGBT+ community, view them as unprofessional, often using the argument that “they make the other transgender people look bad.” You can see an example in this Reddit post on r/CasualConversations where a trans man says he feels uncomfortable using solar neopronouns for his friend, and the replies agreeing “The idea of how neopronouns could be used as another way to mock queer people also just makes me extremely uncomfortable.” This creates the idea of neopronoun users being “other trans people;” that trans people who use traditional pronouns are “the good ones” and neopronoun users are “the bad ones” or “fake ones” who make the community look bad to cis-het people.
With this context around neopronouns’ existence, Yahoo’s search suggestions for neopronouns are quite jarring and negative compared to their competitors. A quick search of “are neopronouns” will land you the question “Are neopronouns transphobic?”
Many of the other search terms are neutral, such as “what are neopronouns used for,” however, the first and most noticeable that users will see is the question of are they transphobic, planting the idea that perhaps, they are. This immediately gives the idea of neopronouns a negative representation. Similarly, if a user searches “why are neopronouns” the only suggestion shown is “why are neopronouns problematic?” producing a similar effect to the first result discussed.
More notable results are “are neopronouns real,” which greatly enforces the debate on transgender people’s existence. By suggesting this search, Yahoo is suggesting they are not real and invalidate the identities of those who use them. However, if searching just the term “neopronouns,” majority of results are neutral.
Perhaps the first couple of search results about them being transphobic or real could be forgiven, they are the only ones that are outright negative and perpetuate these ideas. However, if you search the same terms on Google, Bing, or DuckDuckGo you won’t find these specific suggestions anywhere.
These three search engines, unlike Yahoo, have similar results first, making Yahoo the odd one out here with this transphobic suggestion. While they do have their own negative suggestions, it’s important to acknowledge the first suggestion of “are neopronouns valid,” does not evoke the same reactionary emotions that “are neopronouns transphobic?” does. Google’s results are even more of a neutral result than Bing and DuckDuckGo, as they have more faced backlash for their suggestions. Perhaps these three engines (particularly Bing and DuckDuckGo) use similar algorithms, but it is unknown to me at the time of writing. Yahoo is clearly (and notably more than its competitors) pushing the idea that the use of neopronouns is bad via their autocomplete suggestions.
What is also interesting is that compared to Google, Bing, and DuckDuckGo, Yahoo provides less suggestions. It’s easy to notice the difference: compare the only, and negative, suggestion for “why are neopronouns” to the many (and similar again—this time almost identical) that the others provide. Perhaps this lack of positive results (and results altogether) could be excused, but the reality is that none of its competitors have any results as negative and reactionary for these terms, so why does Yahoo?
Yahoo’s different, and more negative results further perpetuate and enforce the idea that neopronouns are a bad thing, oppressing the users of them to a similar degree to the oppression of racial minorities Noble discusses in her book mentioned earlier, albeit in a less extreme and noticeable way. Despite it being less noticeable, those who use only Yahoo rather than other search engines will certainly be more susceptible to these negative ideas whether it be subconsciously or consciously, more so than users who are using other search engines providing fewer negative results.
“Ey/Em/Eir/Eir/Emself.” Pronouny. Accessed October 23, 2022. https://pronouny.xyz/pronouns/5d6f6fa4ecd5f4001536d668.
“Moon/Moon/Moons/Moons/Moonself.” Pronouny. Accessed October 23, 2022. https://pronouny.xyz/pronouns/5dbe952b9b6829001565caa4.
Noble, Safiya Umoja. Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism. New York: New York University Press, 2018.
spaghetti-noddles. “R/Casualconversation – I Kind of Dislike Some Neopronouns-?” reddit, January 5, 2022. https://www.reddit.com/r/CasualConversation/comments/rwfdr7/i_kind_of_dislike_some_neopronouns/.
VideoBurrito. “R/Casualconversation – Comment on ‘I Kind of Dislike Some Neopronouns-?”.” reddit, January 5, 2022. https://www.reddit.com/r/CasualConversation/comments/rwfdr7/comment/hrc6v5d/?utm_source=share&utm_medium=web2x&context=3.
“Xe/Xym/Xyr/Xyrs/Xymself.” Pronouny. Accessed October 23, 2022. https://pronouny.xyz/pronouns/5dcb6ac85fa76900157685a3.
“Ze/Zim/Zir/Zirs/Zimself.” Pronouny. Accessed October 23, 2022. https://pronouny.xyz/pronouns/5dc62d1a3219e600154775bc.