Harriet Tubman: Why Google Doodles Matter (Updated)

In a rare move, the Google Doodle today features a black woman, Harriet Tubman, to mark the start of Black History Month.

Tubman Google Doodle



In case you’re not familiar with the illustrations featured on the Google search page, Google Doodles are intended to be “fun, surprising, and sometimes spontaneous changes that are made to the Google logo to celebrate holidays, anniversaries, and the lives of famous artists, pioneers, and scientists.” They’re also notoriously known for their sexism.  Shelby Knox has a Google Doodle Sexism Watch.  Amadi has also noted the way gender, race, and class are drawn into the Doodles, as in her critique of the father’s day images that “reinforce stereotypical western societal stereotypes and privileged class mores with repeated depictions of white, middle+ class men who are only engaged with their kids during playtime.”

This is only the second time, to my knowledge, that the Google Doodle has ever featured a black woman.   (Updated via RUBÉN G. RUMBAUT, Professor of Sociology, UC-Irvine who wrote to say: “There are a lot more if you just take the time to search for them in the Doodle.”  Professor Rumbaut mentions the previous illustrations honoring (South African singer) Miriam Makeba’s 81st birthday, (Cuban American singer) Celia Cruz’s 88th birthday, (African American singer) Ella Fitzgerald’s 96th birthday, and (African American Civil Rights Leader) Rosa Parks, on the 55th Anniversary of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. JD: Thanks for the correction, we aim for precision here. I think the larger point stands that these few women of color are still vastly underrepresented among those chosen for a Google Doodle. )

Earlier this year when they honored the great American author and anthropologist Zora Neal Hurston with an illustration.

Zora Neale Hurston


Where do the doodles come from? 

Google was founded by two guys from Stanford, Larry Page and Sergei Brin. According to the Stanford Magazine, the origin of the doodles happened like this:

The first Google doodle appeared in 1998, when Brin and Page decided to leave the company untended for a couple of days while they attended the Burning Man festival in the Nevada desert. Brin put a little stick figure emblematic of the event on the Google logo as a clue to where they were. Users loved it, and soon the company hired an outside graphic artist to come up with other simple cartoons to mark special events.

Dennis Hwang is the artist behind most of the illustrations, from the same story:

Hwang’s original job involved straightforward programming chores, but soon he was charged with posting those doodles and “cleaning them up,” in programming parlance, so they looked better. After his modification of a Fourth of July doodle caught the founders’ attention, word of Hwang’s art experience and his talent got around. Pretty soon, Hwang became the official doodler, completing about 50 doodles a year.

But, it’s not Hwang who decides on who will be honored.  He’s following the directives he’s given from others:

About once a quarter, a group of executives get together to map out a calendar of doodle-worthy dates. Page and Brin have the final say, and they sometimes approve spontaneous drawings, such as when a Mars Rover landed. Hwang creates the images, using an electronic tablet and stylus for his sketches. The doodles are fun, usually whimsical—and sometimes baffling. Know about Gaston Julia, for example? Visitors to Google on February 3, 2004, saw the Google logo with a hurricane-shaped “o” against a backdrop of equations to celebrate the French mathematician’s birthday.

The Doodles then, offer a kind of insight the values of the executives at Google, one of the key shapers of Internet culture.  Some enterprising young graduate student could do a mighty fine dissertation offering an analysis of all the Google Doodles ever published for what these tell us about Google, Internet culture, and American society.

Do Google Doodles matter? 

There’s an interesting phenomenon that happens with Google Doodles. When they appear, they drive the news cycle, and the news about that person.  Recently,  Ian Steadman writing at The Guardian, offered an analysis of the way the Google Doodle about Simone de Beauvoir. Steadman makes a strong case that these are “clickbait” that’s capable of altering the news cycle. In the trajectory of contemporary news cycles, it’s the Doodle, not de Beauvoir herself, that becomes the real news story,  These articles are all basically the same, Steadman writes, “Simone de Beauvoir’s in a Google Doodle, and here’s a few paragraphs outlining who she was and why she deserves it.”

Steadman says what’s important to pay attention to are the incentives that digital journalists are confronted with. What matters in online journalism is the speed of publication, not necessarily the quality, because that correlates to the greater number of shares or clicks which is how the economy of Internet advertising works.  He continues to explain the way this works:

The algorithms that Google’s News page uses also rely on the size and perceived readership of the sites it features, along with the number of articles it puts out a day, along with other factors, to decide which stories to promote and which to ignore. In the case of Google Doodles, we can see the emergence of a symbiotic relationship: Google’s choice of a person or topic gives newspapers an easy topic to cover with guaranteed interest from a key source of traffic, keeping them near the top of the News rankings for other topics; while Google gets traffic to its services from people made aware of its cute little commemorative cartoon or game.

In other words, drives business to its other products through the use of the Doodles. The power of Google Doodles is their ability to shape Internet conversations is what’s at stake here.  Again, Steadman nails this:

Google, then, creates the news (or at least some news), and has the ability to raise awareness about niche topics or person who are perhaps not particularly well catered for by the media most of the time.

Google has a real power to raise awareness about the many lesser known heroes of American culture, many of whom are black women, and other people of color. The Doodles of Tubman and Hurston may be just two isolated disruptions in the otherwise all male, mostly white pantheon of those deemed worthy of an illustration from the Internet giant Google. Or, it could be the start of a trend in the right direction. Only time, and the next Doodle, will tell.