in partnership with Invisible Giants
At the beginning of 2024, on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum in Davos, of all places, Memria launched the prototype for a new initiative, Biografika.io, a powerful platform aimed at celebrating unsung heroes and “sheroes” by making it exceptionally easy to collect and share biographies. While Biografika focuses on personal biographies, it is a social enterprise in close partnership with Invisible Giants, based in Senegal, founded by Coumba Toure. Biografika is a new initiative co-founded by Louis Bickford (Memria) and Christina Inge (Thoughtlight).
Biografika and Invisible Giants are working to democratize access and broaden accessibility to the stories of millions of unsung heroes and sheroes to strengthen more complete and accurate narratives of the human experience. Using powerful AI-assisted tools and significant expertise in Search Engine Optimization (SEO), we are working with partners all over the world to help make marginalized voices heard, seen, discovered, and shared. We will be a global force against what Safiya Omoja Noble calls “technological redlining” (Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism”, NYU Press, 2018).
Davos and the annual Forum represent, in some ways, the polar opposite of this initiative which has been greatly influenced by thinkers such as Noble and by works such as Catherine D’Ignacio and Lauren Klein's Data Feminism (MIT Press, 2023). In short, this partnership is intended to address the inequitable power structures in the collection and discoverability of stories and biographies, ultimately challenging the structural and culturally hegemonic power that are on display in such stark relief in Davos.
Many of the voices and stories we aim to celebrate are already available in the thousands of archives and on the websites of nonprofit organizations and libraries around the world. But, in spite of their best efforts, these organizations often are frustrated by the low levels of discoverability of their materials. As the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation writes, “Even when libraries, archives, and presses are successful in preserving source material and producing new information, progress is only as impactful as the information is accessible”.
Our partnership will address the problem of the discoverability of invisible giants on the internet, playing a complementary role in an emerging ecosystem of organizations and projects that highlight the stories and experiences of people who are often not considered sufficiently “notable” for inclusion in Wikipedia or other major sources of content on the internet. We also join so many others in being worried about the problem of disinformation on the internet, and see an antidote in making discoverable authentic and verifiable stories, many of which are housed in existing archives and collections. And we recognize numerous problems associated with political and social polarization, often exacerbated by the “othering” of different social groups, and seek to share stories across divides as a way to build empathy and understanding.
The emerging movement to confront these interwoven problems includes, for example, the Overlooked initiative by The New York Times which acknowledges the lives of remarkable individuals who were left out of the newspaper's obituary section, primarily because of their gender, race, or social status, and Whose Knowledge, a “global campaign to center the knowledge of marginalized communities (the majority of the world) on the internet”. Similarly, the Wikimedia Foundation, which oversees Wikipedia, has provided grants and formed partnerships with organizations to encourage diversity among editors and to improve content on underrepresented topics, such as WikiProject Women in Red: A project aimed at increasing the number of biographies about women on Wikipedia; and Art+Feminism, which is building a "community of activists that is committed to closing information gaps related to gender, feminism, and the arts, beginning with Wikipedia". From a different angle, we join entities like The Female Quotient’s Algorithm for Equality and Latimer.ai, a large language model trained with diverse histories and inclusive voice, in developing technological and content-based strategies to confront the problem of underrepresentation of unsung heroes and Sheroes.
Following D’Ignacio and Klein in Data Feminism, we agree that existing systems of power create "a profound asymmetry between who is collecting, storing, and analyzing data, and whose data is collected, analyzed, and stored (p. 45), and that addressing this basic source of inequity requires an understanding of, following Patricia Hill Collins, what they call the “matrix of domination”. One element of co-liberation in data science is to "collect: compiling counterdata--in the face of missing data or institutional neglect" (additional elements are Analyze; Imagine; and Teach).
As a genre in book writing and publishing, biography serves as a crucial bridge between literature and history, offering unique insights into the lives of individuals and their contributions to society.
Biographies enrich the discipline of history by providing a human face to historical events and movements, making history more relatable and engaging. One of the significant contributions of biography to history is its ability to offer a more nuanced perspective on the past. By focusing on the lives of individuals, biographers can uncover hidden stories and perspectives that might have been overlooked in broader historical narratives.
Moreover, biographies also play a crucial role in challenging traditional historical narratives and assumptions. By delving into the lives of individuals who defied societal norms or fought against injustice, biographers contribute to a more comprehensive and inclusive understanding of history. For example, our partner Invisible Giants focuses on documenting the stories of amazing but sometimes under-recognized individuals, further emphasizing the importance of celebrating the contributions of new role models, heroes/Sheroes, and teachers for us all as we navigate life. Indeed, as we collectively try to address the enormous problems of our planet and humanity, we need these stories and voices to shine through.
In short, biography is a vital genre that enriches our understanding of history by humanizing the past, challenging established narratives, introducing new ideas and innovative ways of things and problem-solving, and highlighting the often overlooked heroes and sheroes who have shaped (and should further help to shape) our world. It reminds us that history is not just a collection of events but a tapestry of individual lives, each with its unique significance in shaping the course of human history.
Discoverability on the internet determines whose voices are heard, whose experiences are shared, and whose perspectives are acknowledged. It also influences the roles models being found by young people, and the interlocutors who narrate the way we see the world.
As we discuss in a separate Blog Post on this topic, the gaps in findability of content on the internet is hardly by chance or, even less so, purely because of an objective assessment of “notability”. The work of Francesca Tripodi is also instructive, such as "Ms. Categorized: Gender, notability, and inequality on Wikipedia", which reminds us that even biographies of women who meet Wikipedia’s criteria for inclusion "are more frequently considered non-notable and nominated for deletion compared to men’s biographies".
The global majority -- including historically marginalized communities (or "minoritized" communities, as D’Ignacio and Klein put it, in Data Feminism), racial and ethnic minorities, indigenous communities, LGBTQ+ individuals, people with disabilities, people from poor communities or from the Global South, and other underrepresented groups -- face significant hurdles in achieving discoverability on the internet. These groups often "invisible" because they have limited access to resources, making it difficult for them to create and maintain authoritative websites. As a result, their online presence remains limited, perhaps many pages below the fold on a Google search, for example, further marginalizing their experiences and perspectives.
Discoverability on the internet, in short, is a complex interplay of algorithms, user behavior, and historical biases. At its root, however, it is more accurate to say that discoverability replicates and reinforces systems of hegemonic and structural power. Dominant search engines like Google favor established and authoritative sites, creating a cycle that reinforces the prominence of already influential voices. This has profound implications for historically marginalized individuals and communities, who find themselves at a disadvantage in the digital realm. To address this issue, we are part of a movement towards a more equitable online ecosystem that values and amplifies diverse voices, experiences, and perspectives.
In her remarkable book, Unmasking AI: My Mission to Protect What is Human in a World of Machines (Penguin, 2023), Joy Buolamwini grapples with different forms of bias built into various machine learning processes. At one point she asks whether the problem is “algorithmic bias or dataset bias”, concluding that the problem “is both” and that “existing popular datasets had biases that needed to be explicitly named”.
The partnership between Biografika and Invisible Giants focuses on the "dataset" (or "content") side of this equation. By making new and existing content more available and optimizing discoverability, we plan to influence what is found on the internet, pointing search engines and GPTs towards the stories and voices of new role models and inspiring individuals who can help teach us, through their lived experience.