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eHow: A Knowledge Factory of Stereotypes

19 November 2011 No Comment

The Rust Belt is poor. It’s not news. The Rust Belt is also heavily segregated. Both facts are related. Zones of extreme segregation and poverty serve to siphon potential of a city’s limited human capital, and they create negative externalities that sap a city’s limited resources.

Cleveland's Racial Divide

That’s one perspective. Here is another:

It’s the ghetto. That’s how it goes.

The latter is a belief. Beliefs are filled by preconceptions. Preconceptions exist historically, but they are also refreshed from generation to generation through subtle and not-so-subtle messages that infiltrate mass mind and mass culture. Said Robin Kelly, chair of the history department at NYU:

When I teach about racism the first thing I say to my students is that racism is not ignorance. Racism is knowledge. Racism in some ways is a very complicated system of knowledge, where science, religion, philosophy, are used to justify inequality and hierarchy. That is foundational. Racism is not simply a kind of visceral feeling you have when you see someone who is different from you.

Enter eHow. It is–as you will see–a surprisingly overt engine of stereotyped knowledge.

eHow—on its face—is a site with millions of hits where people learn things “from the experts”. Want to know how to carve a watermelon? Then watch this video. Need to jump your car or want to avoid a carjacking? Go here and here. In fact you can learning anything from eHow as it pumps out content like a heart pumps out pulse—with 4,000 articles and videos each day.

But eHow—and its info-feeder/parent organization Demand—is more than that. It is a money-making machine first and foremost. With knowledge determined not by the value of societal information but by what fits into an algorithm that pre-determines the most Google hits. According to a 2009 piece in Wired entitled “The Answer Factory: Demand Media and the Fast, Disposable, and Profitable as Hell Media Model”, author Daniel Roth writes:

Pieces are not dreamed up by trained editors nor commissioned based on submitted questions. Instead they are assigned by an algorithm, which mines nearly a terabyte of search data, Internet traffic patterns, and keyword rates to determine what users want to know and how much advertisers will pay to appear next to the answers.

The process is automatic, random, and endless…It is a database of human needs, and if you haven’t stumbled on a Demand video or article yet, you soon will. By next summer, according to founder and CEO Richard Rosenblatt, Demand will be publishing 1 million items a month, the equivalent of four English-language Wikipedias a year [italics mine]…To appreciate the impact Demand is poised to have on the Web, imagine a classroom where one kid raises his hand after every question and screams out the answer. He may not be smart or even right, but he makes it difficult to hear anybody else.

That’s where things get concerning, if only for the Orwellian-like influence Demand can have on what gets consumed and by whom. For instance, the origin of this piece was accidental and was initiated by a Google search I did recently on “football as a way out”. What hit was an eHow article entitled: “How to Escape from the Ghettos and Poverty”. What I found inside was some surprisingly pretty biased if not racist pieces. Pieces that are read and “liked” and consumed by millions, with the consequence a refreshing of the legacy of fissures that have always been real cracks in our mythical melting pot.

For example, Step 1 and Step 4 of how to get out of the ghetto reads:

1 First you must have hope. This is not a easy task especially when there is death, violence, and poverty all around you. But you must believe in yourself.

4 If you have a talent or gift, use it to your advantage. If you can sing really well or if you are a star football player, use these gifts as a stepping stone out of the ghetto and onto a bigger and better pedestal in life. Nurture your gifts and protect them as they have the potential to bring you joy, happiness, and all you may want out of life.

This article led me to another eHow article the website thought I might like called “How to Survive in a Ghetto”. Step 5, 6, and 7 offer this expert advice:

5 Get out of the ghetto as much as possible. Even if it means just taking a bus ride to a different part of the city. Make friends with people who don’t live in the ghetto and visit them at their house. The more you get out, it helps you to see how other people live and let you see that there are opportunities for a better life.

6 Join a church and get involved. A church can help to encourage you to do the right thing. They can also help you with food or bills if you fall on hard times.

7 Keep up hope. This is one of the hardest things to do when everything around you is against you, but it’s the most important. It takes a strong person to survive in the ghetto, so always believe that you can make it out and can one day thrive on the other side.

Everything around you is against you? Thrive on the other side?

Another recommended site appeared to be for those who don’t live in the ghetto but might want to accentuate their “street cred” a little bit. It is entitled “How to Be Ghetto”. It begins with a disclaimer that hints at appearing to be ghetto is one thing and being ghetto is another, and the “how to” is for the former only. Here is that disclaimer, followed by steps 6,7, and 8.

Being ghetto is quite different than being from the ghetto. Another name for this trend is “ghetto fabulous.” Credited to the recent infatuation with the hip hop culture, more and more of today’s youth are trying to be ghetto.

6 Get inked. Tattoos of “RIP” along with a name, even a portrait of someone lost to the streets.

7 Learn the language. It’s called ebonics. It’s necessary to know how to communicate.

8 Buy some ghetto sneakers. Think along the lines of Air Force Ones. Ghetto is not cheap. Make sure the brand name is visible

Lastly, there is an eHow written by Genevieve Babychz who has a Ph.D. in American history from Stony Brook University entitled, “How to Plan an Old School Ghetto Style Wedding“. Below is an introduction. It highlights “ghetto traits” such as poor thinking and cheapness.

Ghetto weddings are often last minute affairs, take place at everyday places and they generally do not have the added frills of an expensive wedding. The wedding party can wear traditional wedding attire, but that detail is not necessary. Use a fast food restaurant for your reception, and call and e-mail invites instead of mailing them. Do all of this planning a week or two before the wedding, and you will have yourself an inexpensive and quirky ghetto style wedding.

Genevieve also has instructions broken into subgroups for “Planning” and “Guests”. Step 3 and 4 for planning precede Step 3 and 4 for guests:

3 Call your preacher or the Justice of the Peace to schedule him to perform the marriage.

4 Obtain a marriage license from the local court house.

3 Call those guests who do not have e-mail, or do not answer it often, to give them your wedding details. To keep with the ghetto style, do this while eating dinner, doing the laundry or in the middle of some other activity. Calling your guests while your are doing other things, and letting them know that you are busy and cannot talk long, adds a sense of thrown together style and haphazardness to the affair.

4 Give your guests a stack of post-it notes, a pencil or some other item costing less than a dollar instead of thank-you gifts.

Look, eHow is not the Onion, they produce content that is packaged as knowledge, rather than content that is “in jest”.  That said, as a parent of a bi-racial child—and just as centrally: as a person who lives with and around blacks and is not naïve to the legacy of distrust that still lurks in the reality of our integregated neighborhood—this shit don’t help. It feeds the stereotype and festers resentment in the stereotyped. And such “little, tiny things” as eHow articles engenders societies that are delineated like oil is to water except here it is white to black.

After all, like Kelly said above: “racism is knowledge”. And god save us if eHow is going to keep writing the answers.

–Richey Piiparinen

Post-script: Some reflections on the article from writers and/or those associated/knowledgable about eHow and how their writing is done. It is from a site called Demand Studios Sucks. Hmmm….