I can’t get Barbie off my mind. It’s not the unnatural quality of her endowments (Barbie was posthuman before posthuman was cool). It’s not the currency of her fashion sense (I hear she’s sporting a lot of J. Crew these days). No, my interest in the doll that other dolls dream about is purely platonic — semiotic, even. It turns out that the story of Barbie is also the story of the web.
It all begins back at the dawn of the millennium, when law professor and cultural theorist Yochai Benkler decided to use a newfangled search engine called Google to search for “Barbie.” In a March 2002 lecture, he reported what he found:
Here is what Google produces when we search for “Barbie”: We see barbie.com, with “Activities and Games for Girls Online!”, and we see barbiebazaar.com, with “Barbie, Barbie dolls, Barbie doll magazine, etc.,” but then very quickly we start seeing sites like adios- barbie.com, “A Body Image Site for Every Body.” We see more Barbie collectibles, but then we see “Armed and Dangerous, Extra Abrasive: Hacking Barbie with the Barbie Liberation Organization.” Further down we see “The Distorted Barbie,” and all sorts of other sites trying to play with Barbie.
This was a very different set of results from what Benkler found when he performed the same search using the most popular search engine of the day, Overture:
What happens when we run the same search on Overture, the search engine used by Go.com, which is the Internet portal produced by Disney? We get “Barbies, New and Preowned” at Internet-doll.com, BarbieTaker wholesale Barbie store, “Toys for All Ages” at Amazon.com, and so on. The Barbie Liberation Organization is nowhere to be found.
The difference in results, Benkler said, reflected a fundamental difference in the workings of the two search engines, Overture selling its rankings in the market and Google producing its rankings through, essentially, a popular vote:
Google ranks search results based on counting “votes,” as it were, that is, based on how many other websites point to a given site. The more people who think your site is sufficiently valuable to link to it, the higher you are ranked by Google’s algorithm. Again, accreditation occurs on a widely distributed model, in this case produced as a byproduct of people building their own websites and linking to others. Overture is a website that has exactly the opposite approach. It ranks sites based on how much the site pays the search engine.
In the Google method, and the results it produced, Benkler saw evidence of “the tremendous potential of the Internet to liberate individual creativity and enrich social discourse by thoroughly democratizing the way we produce information and culture.” This became the theme of Benkler’s 2006 magnum opus, The Wealth of Networks, which described how the rise of online social production “offers individuals a greater participatory role in making the culture they occupy, and makes this culture more transparent to its inhabitants.” Benkler returned to the Barbie example, providing a list of Google’s top ten results for a “Barbie” search:
1. Barbie.com (Mattel’s site)
2. Barbie Collector: Official Mattel Web site for hobbyists and collectors
3. AdiosBarbie.com: A Body Image for Every Body (site created by women critical of Barbie’s projected body image)
4. Barbie Bazaar Magazine (Barbie collectible news and Information)
5. If You Were a Barbie, Which Messed Up Version Would You Be?
6. Visible Barbie Project (macabre images of Barbie sliced as though in a science project)
7. Barbie: The Image of Us All (1995 undergraduate paper about Barbie’s cultural history)
8. Andigraph.free.fr (Barbie and Ken sex animation)
9. Suicide bomber Barbie (Barbie with explosives strapped to waist)
10. Barbies (Barbie dressed and painted as countercultural images)
He proceeded to flesh out the cultural implications of the Barbie search:
A nine-year-old girl searching Google for Barbie will quite quickly find links to AdiosBarbie.com, to the Barbie Liberation Organization (BLO), and to other, similarly critical sites interspersed among those dedicated to selling and playing with the doll. The contested nature of the doll becomes publicly and everywhere apparent, liberated from the confines of feminist-criticism symposia and undergraduate courses. This simple Web search represents both of the core contributions of the networked information economy. First, from the perspective of the searching girl, it represents a new transparency of cultural symbols. Second, from the perspective of the participants in AdiosBarbie or the BLO, the girl’s use of their site completes their own quest to participate in making the cultural meaning of Barbie. The networked information environment provides an outlet for contrary expression and a medium for shaking what we accept as cultural baseline assumptions.
Benkler here makes an important and valuable point about the nature of the web as it existed at the time. But was the web of a decade ago really representative of “the networked information economy”? Was Benkler really seeing the emergence of a new culture, or was he looking at the temporary bloom of a subculture on a new network and mistaking it for a new networked culture?
In 2008, two years after The Wealth of Networks came out, Tom Slee was mulling over Benkler’s contested Barbie, and he decided to see whether anything had changed since Benkler did his search. So Slee entered “Barbie” into the Google search box. The first page of results, he reported, looked radically different from what Benkler had found:
1. Barbie.com — Activities and Games for Girls Online! (together with eight other links to My Scene, Evertythingggirl, Polly Pocket, Kellyclub, and so on).
2. Barbie.co.uk — Activities and Games for Girls Online!
3. Barbie — Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
4. Barbie Collector - (The official Mattel site for Barbie Collector)
5. Barbie Girls
6. Mattel — Our Toys — Barbie
7. The Distorted Barbie
8. YouTube — barbie girl — aqua
9. Barbie — Barbie Dress up — Fashion for Barbie
10. Barbie.ca [Slee lives in Canada]
There are traces of the contested Barbie here — the “distorted Barbie” site, the YouTube parody video, and the Wikipedia page, which includes critical views of the doll — but, as Slee noted, “this search is basically owned by Mattel.” Google’s results were still generated by an online popular vote, but the popular consensus had shifted. A year and a half later, Slee again googled Barbie. Here’s how the first page of results stacked up:
1.Barbie.com – Activities and Games for Girls Online! (together with eight other links to My Scene, Evertythingggirl, Polly Pocket, Kellyclub, and so on).
2. Barbie.com – Fun and Games
3. Barbie – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
4. News results for barbie (with several other links)
5. Barbie Collector – (The official Mattel site for Barbie Collector)
6. Barbie.co.uk – Activities and Games for Girls Online!
8. Barbie Girls – and a sublink
9. Celebrate 50 Years of Barbie
10. Video results for barbie – with two links to Aqua’s Barbie Girl video
11. Searches related to barbie – all strictly orthodox except for one about Taiwanese actress and singer Barbie Xu
The contested Barbie, far from being “transparent,” has now been relegated to critiques of Barbie within the Wikipedia site. “Yes,” said Slee, “the little girl who searches for Barbie on Google will now encounter a commodity toy.”
Today, another three and a half years having gone by, I googled Barbie again. Here is what I saw:
If Mattel could simply purchase the first page of Google’s search results for Barbie, the page would look pretty much the same, right down to the photo of the doll’s famously ample chest. What’s happened, in other words, is that the Google search engine has come to replicate what the Overture search engine provided ten years ago. Online social production and traditional market production have ended up, in the case of this culturally contested product, producing the same thing!
Now, it’s true that the workings of Google’s search engine have changed over the last ten years. But Google still does a good job of reflecting back to us the popular consensus. It’s showing us how the web sees Barbie, which has become, if anything, even less contested than the way the general culture sees Barbie. What Benkler was seeing back in the early 2000s, we now know, was not the popular networked information economy. He was seeing an early version of the networked information economy that was skewed to the atypical sensibilities of the web’s pioneers. What we see today is a much truer version of a “democratized” information economy, which turns out to be bland, homogenized, and infused with a consumerist ethic. The contested Barbie has been pushed back into “feminist-criticism symposia and undergraduate courses” — back to the offline and online margins. Slee was not quite right when he said that the more recent Google searches for Barbie are “owned by Mattel.” They’re not. They’re owned by us. The distinction, though, is trivial.
Photo by lil’ wiz.