It’s a dream deeply rooted in the desire to silence the haters. But apparently, there’s a downside — racist autocorrect.
So last night as I was tooling through the web, scanning my social media feeds and enjoying the afterglow of the Seahawks NFC championship victory, it seemed like all people wanted to talk about was that Richard Sherman postgame interview.
Which is understandable, because Sherman went off:
Yeah, yeah. Over the top, for sure. But it was the heat of the moment, and Crabtree had disrespected him not only moments before, but according to Sherman, several months before. And I agree with the sentiment that you can’t expect athletes to compete at such a high level in such a vicious game and then blame them for going a little crazy.
But then, I saw a snapshot, courtesy of this Deadspin story, of the ridiculous, terrible, racist things that people were saying about Richard Sherman on Twitter. I wasn’t surprised. Racist netizens have gone off over far smaller targets before.
But it was predictably irritating.
And it got me thinking… what if there was a way to shield myself from this? I don’t mean from any dissent or taunting fans from opposing fan bases, I mean like the real horrible, over-the-top racist stuff. The stuff you’re surprised anyone would say even anonymously, much less on a public Twitter or Facebook account.
Because one thing I’ve learned from two terms of Obama’s presidency is that when racists feel threatened, they get louder and nastier. Free speech is important and all that, but still… I was wondering if there’s a way to prevent this stuff from being spread around and polluting the public space. Like some kind of racist internet quarantine, maybe.
So I did what anyone does when they have a question – I went to Google.
And after 45 minutes of Googling various keywords, I got nowhere – until I remembered – hey! I know someone at Google.
So I called my friend* in Mountain View, who will remain nameless for the time being, just to bounce the idea around. Maybe she would tell me they already had something like this in the works.
So what was the first thing she did when I called? She answered, and then immediately hung up on me.
I forgot she was a Niners fan.
But we hadn’t talked in years, so she graciously took my call the second time.
I explained my thought process about all the racist comments about Richard Sherman, and I asked her if there was any way to separate all that stuff out.
This is an approximate reenactment of our conversation.
* * *
“So, I was thinking… why can’t we just give racists their own internet space, so that we don’t have to worry about their views infecting the mainstream, and then they can say whatever racist stuff they want without consequence?”
“Isn’t that what happens already?”
“No, no… every time somebody says something really racist, there’s always a huge backlash, where people have to take the time and EXPLAIN how and why it was racist, and then there’s a backlash to the backlash where people say, ‘Yeah, well if you say it’s racist then YOU’RE the one being racist,’ and the argument just becomes a gigantic time suck, even for people like me who don’t mind engaging people on racial topics. After awhile, it gets to the point where I’d like to just not have to deal with it.”
“Well sure, Jelani, that’s why there are content filters. Tags and hashtags and stuff like that, so you can curate your internet experience the way you want.”
“No, I don’t mean just for me, I mean… is there a way to separate all that stuff from everyone else? Like, to put all the racist content in a sort of gated community earmarked for racist activity?”
“A gated community… for racists?”
“Again… don’t those already exist?”
“No, I mean on the internet. Can’t we create, like, some kind of alternate internet channel and funnel all the racist speech through it, so that people who want to read and engage in it have to opt-in, rather than having to do the work of opting out every time Richard Sherman opens his mouth? I mean, it’s not even Super Bowl week yet, and it’s already a zoo out there.”
“So… you would basically want to create, like, a whole other internet, just for crazy racist speech?”
(She exhales, audibly… then is silent for a moment.)
“Maybe… but I’m not sure you would like the unintended consequences.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, let’s ignore for a moment the huge logistical hurdles that would require, and focus on the end results. So let’s say Google creates a separate version of the internet that is racist-friendly, so you have racist internet and non-racist internet.”
“Like smoking and nonsmoking hotel rooms.”
“Sure, something like that. Well, there are lots of crazy racists out there, right?”
“Well, yeah, that’s the point.”
“And there are always ways of remaining anonymous on the internet, right?”
“Yeah, which is part of the reason why people end up saying such ridiculous racist crap.”
“So what happens if the racist internet growth begins to outpace the non-racist internet growth? Because that’s probably what would happen.”
“Oh, I hadn’t considered that.”
“Don’t forget, a lot of the technological breakthroughs in internet communication, things like image and video compression, were accelerated by the explosion of internet porn in the 80s and 90s. Taboos are usually precursors to innovation.”
“Oh, no question. Eventually you’d end up with a situation where the non-racist internet becomes stale and boring because all the real action, the stuff that really gets people talking and tweeting and blogging and whatnot, happens on the racist web. And here’s the kicker … people who aren’t even racist would participate just to avoid feeling left out.”
“So then instead of what we have now, where people who say racist things have to try to disguise them by using normal, coded language…”
“You’d have the exact opposite. People who aren’t racist, having to code their language in racist terminology, just so their content can find an audience.”
“But people can’t just flip a switch like that, can they? Can you go from zero-to-Klan in just a few characters like that?”
“No, but that would open the door for racist interpreters. And the ones who can’t afford actual people would probably have to rely on some sort of racist autocorrect.”
“Yeah. Imagine this, you’re trying to update your Facebook status, so you write the following: ‘I’m so tired of living in this bad neighborhood! My car was broken into AGAIN!’ But that’s not what people see when they see your status, because after you press POST, your phone edits that to read, ‘OMG, f***ing black people, amirite?!!?’”
“I am literally horrified right now.”
“You’re freaked out? That’s nothing. We’re still wondering if the Niners will extend Crabtree’s contract.”
* * *
What have I learned from all of this?
Google can solve a lot of the world’s problems, but not all of them. Most racist comments on the internet are best left ignored. As Sherman himself said on Twitter, a lion doesn’t concern himself with the opinions of sheep.
Also, Michael Crabtree should stop talking trash before big games.
*P.S. — I don’t really know anyone at Google. But if I did, this is probably what the conversation would sound like.