Home Racist Social Bookmarking Service Mister Wong Goes Up for Sale

Racist Social Bookmarking Service Mister Wong Goes Up for Sale

German social bookmarking service Mister Wong was, not so long ago, an ambitious, well-used, innovative project. It was also the subject of heated international controversy online. Today the service finds itself put up for sale by parent company Construktiv. In a post on the company’s German language blog, Mister Wong says its changing priorities require it to seek a new operator.

Mister Wong instituted a number of different features appreciated by users, like automatic Twitter sync to save shared links, a Delicious importer and an attractive mobile version of the site. The service also faced a substantial amount of criticism, though, for its name and branding. So much criticism that it provided an interesting opportunity to talk about contemporary racial stereotypes, the importance of intention and more.

Then-smaller social media website Mashable wrote about Mister Wong’s US launch in 2007, where author Kristen Nicole called the service’s name “questionable.”

People around the world objected loudly to the company’s name and to its logo, a picture of a stooped, balding old Asian man with slanted lines for eyes. Asian American engineer Ernie Hsiung penned the most widely-read critique on a site called 8Asians. “One of their web badges has the slogan ‘ping pong, king kong, Mister Wong.’ Which I, of course, interpret as ‘ching chong, Mister Wong’ and get INCREDIBLY FUCKING ANGRY,” Hsiung wrote. “It’s like Jeeves, the ask.com butler and Uncle Ben had a stereotypical illegitimate Asian son.”

Specifically, the image referenced the stereotypical image of people from Asia as cheerfully subservient, worn-out people who tend to menial tasks for others. That image denies a huge portion of the world its history of centuries of diverse great cultures, it dehumanizes the complex and painful history of millions of Asian migrants and reduces billions of people to a caricature. That stereotypical caricature then stands in between the eyes and minds of those who accept it and the billions of people in and from Asia, struggling to move freely around the world and live their lives.

Of all the images of people from Asia that a person could spend time with – this is the one that Mister Wong users bring to mind every time they find a link on the web they want to save?

Imagine being black and being surrounded by white people who picture a dancing minstrel show whenever they think about black people. (Or more often today, gangsters or rappers.) That would be a hard situation to be respected in.

Three weeks after Mister Wong’s US launch, Mashable founder Pete Cashmore posted an article titled Mister Wong: Not Racist. That article referenced Mister Wong’s German CEO Kai Tietjen’s public statement that the company never intended to offend anyone but also asserting that some of the criticism the company faced was “below the belt, unfounded, and inappropriate.” (I’m sure the critics didn’t intend that to be the case, so that means it’s ok, right?)

Cashmore wrote:

These kinds of clashes seem inevitable when companies launch globally: what’s culturally acceptable in one place is a hanging offense elsewhere. Often, as in this case, people are puzzled by the fact that they caused any offense at all. The ‘racist’ label, however, is one that all startups will want to stay a million miles away from, even if they don’t fully understand their infraction.

What exactly he means by that is a little unclear (coming from Scotland, he was probably drunk and playing bagpipes when he wrote it) but the headline of the post seemed clear – Mister Wong:Not Racist.

Rarely are people convinced to reconsider their perspectives on such matters, but the controversy concerning Mister Wong’s then-logo and still present name did provide an opportunity for extensive discussion. (The current logo doesn’t seem so great either, to be honest.) It will be interesting to see if anyone wants to buy a brand like that, though. The company’s brand was based on a thoughtless stereotype and you might say it got taken the cleaners.

Writing on Germany’s Netzwertig writer Martin Weigert argues that social bookmarking never became more than a niche practice and that big social networks like Facebook and Twitter are sufficient for what most people want to do with links of interest. To share them, not save them.

More important than the viability of social bookmarking is the ongoing conversation about race in the world of technology. The people building the social web talk about social engineering and user experience all the time. Discussing the cultural politics of the web seems like an important part of that discussion, in terms of pure utility. It’s also an important part of making the world a more just place.

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