For the most part, perusing blogs and Facebook stalking the same person repeatedly doesn’t offer much in the way of gaining insight into how people who are radically different from you experience the Internet. Like most aspects of our lives, our web surfing habits suffer from naïve provincialism. Image Atlas, an online image search tool that categorizes results by country, offers at least one way to remedy this shortsightedness. Things Magazine first noticed this project, created by artist Taryn Simon and Demand Progress founder Aaron Swartz, which offers a unique sociological experiment observing internet browsing differences internationally. Image Atlas allows you to customize your search by selecting different countries from their list and sorting them either alphabetically or by GDP. We thought it might be interesting to put Image Atlas to the test by choosing a handful of countries and taking a look at the search results for the term “beauty.”
While the results may not be initially surprising, seeing them categorized by country does reveal some striking patterns, differences, and commonalities, the most obvious of which is the fact that the images consist overwhelmingly of women. Moreover, with few exceptions, they tend even in non-Western countries to be of fair-skinned, Western-looking women. What does this say about the globalization of beauty? For one thing, Image Atlas makes it apparent that even in countries with very different cultural backgrounds, search engines appear to be saturated with a heavily biased, Westernized ideal of attractiveness. While young Americans pseudo-tan themselves into orange-hued oblivion, skin whitening products (such as this disturbing example) reenforce the Western bias in places like India.
OK, so perhaps you’re already cynical enough to find all of this obvious. Other observations? There’s a staggering number of beauty products, makeup applicators, and spa treatments, all of which essentially suggest that beauty is something to be purchased and applied. Notice that a person living in Jamaica gets the same search results as a person living in the United States. Some of the anomalies are interesting as well: North Korea’s results are mostly nature scenes, Kenya’s results include a graphic of the world wearing a graduation cap, and Zimbabwe depicts more products than people.
Image Atlas may not be a very rigorous or consistent way of measuring cultural differences, but it does provide a nice cross-section of differences in internet browsing experiences. What are some other key search terms that you find particularly revealing?