It was April 2011, and my book had just been published. Chinese Girl in the Ghetto is a memoir of my family’s journey from post-Mao China to inner-city America. The story cele-brates freedom and individual responsibility, but it also describes the drug- and crime-plagued Oakland, California, of the 1980s that became our home, and it reports the discrimination that we, like many immigrants, encountered from other minorities.
I was prepared to get some hate mail. What I did not expect were the advertising links that Amazon.com displayed alongside my book. They read:
Girls in China—100s of Girls in China
Meet Chinese Girl—Feel lonely? Seek a Loyal Chinese Girl to Warm Up Your Soul.
Looking for a Filipina?
Free Stock Photos—Create a Free Account and Download Asian Teen Images for Free
When I first saw these, I winced.Then I realized that the words “Chinese Girl” must have caused Amazon’s ad technology to identify my book as a product that might appeal to people who also had a crass interest in Asian women.
I called Amazon. There, I was quickly disabused of any idea that my complaint could be easily resolved. I spoke to a series of customer representatives, each of whom noted my request and passed it on to the next level. The several women I spoke with were as appalled as I was about the situation. The men, on the other hand, weren’t particularly scandalized. “I’m not sure if these links in fact violate our advertising guidelines,” one said to me.
Finally, a senior technical program manager from the subsidiary responsible for ad links got back to me. He was very nice and professional, apologized profusely for my troubles, and explained that Amazon rarely encounters problems like mine. He also promised to stop displaying ads altogether on my page—in about a month. I’d have to wait that long, he said, because of company procedures, available resources, and concerns about relationships with longtime advertisers. All of it sounded genuine.
Still, I thought—a month? For four more weeks, by no fault of my own, my book would be publicly associated with online trafficking in vulgar fantasies. Isn’t Amazon a Fortune 500 company on the cutting edge of e-commerce? Shouldn’t it be able to flip a switch and stop my book from being used to flog Asian teens?
So I asked that the ads be removed immediately. When after about a week nothing had happened, I wrote angry emails to my contact at Amazon and suggested that I might be able to help the company attract some negative publicity. He was sympathetic, and the company stopped displaying the offensive ads.
I harbor no hard feelings toward Amazon. In fact, most days, I am a loyal and satisfied customer. What troubled me was that the technology could be so obtuse. No thinking salesperson would ever have associated my book with the ads that ran on its Amazon page.
“People can think, and computers can count,” Eric Schmidt, the executive chairman of Google, once said. And Eric Schmidt would know. Google has actually subjected me to closer encounters with porn-seekers than Amazon ever did. And unlike Amazon, Google has not stopped.
In fact, thanks to Google’s search algorithm, people looking for Chinese, black, or Chinese-black pornography regularly end up on my personal website.
It all began in October 2009 when someone posted on YouTube a video that showed a Chinese woman beating up a black woman who had tried to bully her on a San Francisco bus. By early 2010, the video had been viewed nearly a million times.
Many viewers, however, were left wondering what had prompted the fight. The Chinese woman spoke no English but kept repeating two phrases to the black woman: “F— you” and “You are stupid.” Meanwhile, she was saying a great deal more in Chinese to her fellow Chinese passengers. So I translated all that and posted the first comprehensive transcript on my website. For about a week, the pageviews shot through the roof.
Then the porn-seekers started arriving. Mostly, they find me by entering into their search engine “black,” “Chinese,” “woman,” and the requisite four-letter word. Google spits out results that include a link to my post and, from there, my website. The process is driven by algorithm, not intelligence. The result for me can best be stated as Eeeeeeeeeeeeew.
So I’ve been thinking: I want a smarter, more discerning Internet and better ad display technology. My book and my policy writing both laud the virtues of the free market, and I expect the market to deliver for me. I don’t ask that the Internet be purged of porn. I just want the porn-seekers to stay far, far away from my book and website. Until that happy day, I try to take comfort in the fact that those who do crash my website must be sorely disappointed.
Ying Ma’s website is yingma.org.