The LA Times Tries to Personalize Content But Just Alienates People of Color

By Julianne Hing Feb 03, 2010

I’m not sure how long this has been around, but we heard from our friends at MULE Design that the LA Times has introduced a new system intended to deliver content personalized to you, based on your interests and values. Go ahead, go to their site. Scroll down till you see the "Newsmatch" banner, the one promising a "personalized news feed." The link will direct you to take a picture-based quiz. You’ll be asked a series of questions about your desires, interests, values and goals by selecting images that speak to each of them. I usually am a sucker for multiple-choice personality quizzes. Something about mysterious algorithms and unrelated points of data that are collected to tell me more about myself! It’s so mysterious and exciting! Except when it isn’t. (Click to enlarge image) Because, as I should have known from the get-go, the whole thing is a gussied up marketing survey. And because, as a woman of color, I am not part of their marketing plan. The whole system is powered by Visual DNA, a company with "patented technology proven to increase Revenue Per User." Visual DNA‘s tagline is: "We transform unknown users into known people." Only problem is, they’re not interested in knowing anyone whose goals, values and interests fall anywhere outside of a very narrow range of people. The whole exercise is the most heterosexist, white, male, corporate America view of the world. See one of the quiz slides that asks: "What does success mean to you?" Twelve images, twelve different views of success, except that all of them feature white folks. I could almost forgive that photo of the white business man walking on the tarmac away from his private jet. I shrugged at the image of that white man sitting on the bow of his yacht, I even let out a little snort at the photo of that celebrity couple on the red carpet. I understand their place in American imagery, that’s fine. I get it; each image is a visual cue tapping into a set of cultural memes and values about material wealth and happiness we’re all supposed to aspire to. In America, the white male is the standard symbol for human being. We are supposed to see ourselves when we see white men because they represent humankind’s neutral ideal. There are no people of color anywhere in the popularly imagined land of success? Fine! What else is new around here. But I nearly fell out of my chair when I made it to that square image of that sunburned white man wrapping a bandage around a shirtless Black child. Excuse me? This is "success"? To who? To the socially conscious white folks with enough compassion and financial wherewithal to dedicate themselves to saving their less fortunate and oh-so-pitiful Black brethren? This might be what success looks like to them, but from where I’m sitting it’s just more of that old classic white savior crap. When I try to wrap my brain around the visceral anger that one image has elicited from me–as opposed to all those others where white folks’ reality is totally divorced from any meaningful interactions with people of color–it’s that this do gooder’s sense of personal fulfillment is tied to the fact that he’s gone out of his way to comfort and care for a poor Black child. It smacks of that patronizing, self-indulgent, George Clooney Haiti telethon, Baptist-ministry-Haitian-baby-stealing farce we’ve seen way too much of in recent weeks. Isn’t it galling enough when marketing companies ignore people of color? But the LA Times, with the help of Visual DNA, also managed to seriously offend. For those who aren’t sufficiently annoyed, here’s a bonus image from the survey.