My mother, like countless before her, told her children fables to explain the world around them. Her tales, too, had fairies and secret keys, quests and an all-powerful deity. But we were a casually secular family, removed from both organized religion and the tradition of Western fairy tales. Her stories were intensely personal and featured neither the Abrahamic god nor Little Red Riding Hood. They were about the god of our own family, the mysterious force behind our finances and her moods.
This god was the Google search engine algorithm.
“Google danced today,” my sister would whisper to me as soon as I returned from school. Still young enough to spend most of the day at home, she had already scouted out the situation and this was her warning. Mom is going to be in a very bad mood, you better be careful.
During more pleasant times, the assessment came straight from the source.
“I don’t know what happened, but Google is happy. I’m the first search result,” my mom might say. Meaning that today, somehow, we had unlocked the magic combination of words and found the secret password to an ever-changing riddle. The fairy was pleased. The god had rewarded us. If only we could have the right words every single time.
I grew up in Sunnyvale, Calif. An hour from San Francisco, 20 minutes south of Palo Alto, we were the headquarters of everything from Atari to Yahoo!, a place where middle-schoolers called the after-school tutoring program “AMD” without realizing the name came from the program sponsor, Advanced Micro Devices.
Every real-estate flier within a five-mile radius trumpeted the city as “the heart of Silicon Valley.” As someone unconnected to the tech industry, I didn’t know what that meant—other than it had something to do with expensive houses—until I left.
“We got here too late,” my mom said to me once. We’d moved to Silicon Valley when I was in second grade, and I called it home until I left for college. “Your dad has a friend who was here a long time ago.”
“So?” I asked.
“His friend got an offer to be one of the really early employees of Yahoo!”
I became possibly the world’s youngest internet consultant, expounding on SEO and providing (terrible) advice on site design.
On the other side of the country, where I live now, and the other side of the world, where I go to visit my Chinese relatives, “Silicon Valley” is more metonymy than reality. But my Sunnyvale wasn’t the land of $40 billion start-up valuations, 60-hour hack-a-thons, or even where the internet began. I had no interest in the industry that was the lifeblood of the region. Its supposed life and culture seemed foreign even when I lived there. My Sunnyvale was the football fields where I had Wednesday night color guard practice. The 99 Ranch Market where every Asian family I knew shopped on weekend mornings. The statue of a man eating a hamburger outside the city library.
Until age 21, I thought Sunnyvale’s most interesting claim to fame was its shared zipcode with the town in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. In second place was that the local Toys “R” Us, supposedly haunted, was featured on a show with the psychic Sylvia Browne.
When I left California, I was convinced that the place had influenced me very little. My only, and well-rehearsed, “Silicon Valley story” was that I attended the same high school as Steves Jobs and Wozniak. I was in the last class of students taught by Jobs’ English teacher, Kathy Sportello. Her sole comment, shared secondhand: “He was a bad student.”
“You should be proud that your high school has such important graduates,” my dad told me.
“Dad, our high school doesn’t even have a single Mac, because they supposedly hated it here and refused to donate. Their only legacy in my life is that I have to sit through graduation speeches that all pretend every class has ‘the next Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak.’”
But I was wrong. If I myself left any legacy in high school, it was from years spent working for our student newspaper, the Epitaph. I didn’t know it at the time, while wrestling with headline boxes in InDesign, but the Epitaph was one of the first high-school newspapers to adopt such desktop publishing systems. This was made possible by a gift from Steve Wozniak.
Four years after I wrote my last piece for the Epitaph, I started applying for “real” media jobs in a very different landscape. I lamented that I had no experience writing “content,” working with SEO, or any of the more easily monetized and in-demand skills.
That is, unless you count the period when I was a 12-year-old running an e-commerce business.
When my mom lost her job as a web developer, she started an online store selling safety products—stun guns, knives, alarms—and enlisted my help. I was 11 and thought this was weird. But only because, as a mostly assimilated immigrant child, everything my non-assimilated parents did was kind of weird to me. My parents moved to the States from central China in the early ’90s. They studied engineering in Ohio and worked in restaurants so that they could bring me here from China, and I could promptly decide I wanted nothing to do with anything they did.
It took years to realize that my parents deciding to try their hand at e-commerce was not a weird “Chinese” decision, but one of the instances where they were wholly influenced by their new home. The decision was the product of a place where the local companies were so ubiquitous that I never asked my friends what their parents did because the truth was self-evident: They were computer engineers. My middle-school best friend’s dad worked for Apple. It was on her family-discount iBook that I first learned to stream music. Another friend’s parent was at IBM. A family friend worked for Sun. My favorite goody from “Kids to Work Day” was a figurine of an Intel engineer who wore a bunny suit to manufacture chips.
Certain internet giants loomed so large that my toddler sister named her favorite stuffed animals Google and Yahoo! For what it’s worth, she liked Google more than Yahoo! Perhaps she had picked that up, too, through osmosis.
My toddler sister named her favorite stuffed animals Google and Yahoo! For what it’s worth, she liked Google more than Yahoo!
When my mother decided that she would open an e-store, we spent hours discussing what she would sell. Retail? Target already existed. Books? Borders. But she couldn’t think of a good brick-and-mortar version of her store, and so safety products it was.
Then, not without complaint, I became possibly the world’s youngest internet consultant, expounding on SEO and providing (terrible) advice on site design long before I had to look up what UX meant.
“You want to seem ‘trustworthy’ and ‘dependable,’ not ‘young’ or ‘buzzy,’ so it can’t be too bright a shade,” I said. “So no turquoise or teal, something more like navy or royal blue.”
My mother would nod, certain that because I was young and American and spent all my time online anyway, I knew best. The site ended up in shades of royal blue and gray.
I had an opinion on everything, from the placement of the buttons (“people like them more if they’re on the side instead of the top”) to the font (“Arial is so much better than Times New Roman”) to the introductory text (“start with a statistic about violent crime to grab people’s attention”).
I ignored her. Go ahead, let everyone else know. I would be unique in that I did not.
My mother is very smart, but also, at times, mercurial and obsessive. To explain her job to us, she turned the story of her work into folklore: Google was the search fairy, and SEO the keys to pleasing the capricious gods. Just as the ancients grew up learning about how Demeter’s search for Persephone caused the seasons, my sister and I heard about how this anthropomorphized force—a force we must appease—highlighted deserving websites and punished over-proud ones. We didn’t make sacrifices to Zeus and Hera to ask for fortune. We thought about how to change the wording in site text so as to make Google favor us.
Scholarship on the origin of myths and folktales has many theories to explain how they develop: Myths are allegories that represent local phenomena. Myths explain rituals. The scholar Henri Frankfort claimed that there was a “mythopoeic” time in thought, during which we turned occurrences into myths to personify the things we did not understand.
As a preteen, I had yet to hear the words “proprietary algorithms” or “data science,” so I didn’t understand how search engines worked. My then-two-year-old sister didn’t. My mom probably didn’t either. If technology is indistinguishable from magic, then my mom, not a data scientist, was borrowing from the latter to explain the former.
In her stories, the Google fairy liked to “dance,” and this was an act of disastrous consequences. Poor SEO meant fewer product orders, and fewer orders meant my mother’s terrible mood, and her terrible mood meant that I would become even more sullen than usual.
Other times, the fairy would be “happy” and I would arrive home to see my mom and my sister celebrating (her in jest, my sister in earnest) with the plush green stuffed frog we had christened “Google.”
Today, what my mom called “dancing,” we call Google’s “minus 50 penalty” in which the algorithm knocks your site down on its search results. In theory, this makes your website harder to find. In practice, it will all but destroy your business. It usually only happens after a legal sanction and is a true disaster—though, in comparison, the day-to-day fluctuations that my mother saw and that affected us all so much were nothing more than the internet equivalent of water weight.
Today, what my mom called by enigmatic words, we have named with oft-derided tech jargon. I have learned an entirely new vocabulary that sits atop the old words and memories. For what she made into a game, people will pay six figures. The angst she felt when her site rankings fell, people still know.
After college, I moved to New York for a journalism internship. For years I’d rarely given a thought to my mom’s store, except to listen to her semi-annual reports about fewer orders coming in than ever before. As my internship neared its end, I turned my eyes to the job search. I still didn’t know how to code.
Crafting a résumé necessitates a certain amount of exaggeration. As every desperate applicant knows, that high-school summer bagging groceries taught you not only how to pack five boxes of cereal into one bulging plastic bag, but also patience, teamwork, and people skills.
When it came time to buckle down and think about my less-obvious skills, I found myself going back, again and again, to the year I was a small-business owner.
The dramatic, hyper-scrutinized importance of Silicon Valley has turned the streets of my childhood into the stuff of sneering myth.
Shortly after she launched (though back then we said she “started”) her website, my mother returned to China for an extended period because of her father’s failing health. Because I had the best English skills and the most free time, I took over the store completely. Middle-schooler by day, shrewd business-girl by night.
Each afternoon, I would log into the backend of her Yahoo! store to deal with the new orders of the day. Between updating my Xanga and waiting for the “ping” of a new AIM message, I’d navigate sites from various distributors and shipping companies, cross-referencing information and filling out forms so that someone in Madison would get her three cans of bear spray on time.
I processed credit-card payment and address information, occasionally sending vaguely accusing emails to customers whose billing and shipping addresses didn’t match. Before the panic over data theft, before President Obama mentioned cyber-security in a State of the Union speech, a suburban kid with an internet connection had the power to bankrupt people across the country. And I did this all for the flat rate of $5. (This was before the days of exorbitant tech salaries.)
It was the most boring after-school activity I could imagine, too banal to bother mentioning. While my friends were performing in The Nutcracker or going to state finals in soccer, I was answering emails from disgruntled customers.
Even after my mom came back, my duties weren’t over. She thought a series of “explainers” would bring customers to her site, and so I hunted around for topics on which to write said “content.” The idea is that my FAQ on “what is pepper spray” would show up when people googled that same phrase, and while they were at it, said person might buy some pepper spray as well.
“What is pepper spray?” I begrudingly wrote.
“How do personal alarms work?” I googled, unaware that a decade later I’d be putting together a similar piece, this time about the far-more-interesting issue of the obesity crisis, for a job application.
“Can I travel with a stun gun?” I questioned, and then looked up the legal restrictions in various states and the laws on “stun gun airplane luggage illegal?” and “stun gun checked bags ok?”
In addition to those early explainers, I would periodically rewrite the product descriptions for “Runt Rechargeable Stun Gun with Flashlight” and “Book Safe with Key Lock” so that new and more relevant keywords would show up and Google might look upon my work and smile. Without the fancy analytics-trackers and A/B testing of today, this was SEO at its most basic.
But those weren’t terms I knew at the time.
We all have blind spots when it comes to “home.”
I avoided AP Computer Science and was too young to know anything about bros, “women in tech,” and misogyny. When I read about that today, I don’t experience the knee-jerk intuition that it’s nothing but media bias because I have little means of comparison. By both choice and chance, I never knew what it was like before.
My Sunnyvale was De Anza Creek, which ran behind my best friend’s house. We’d crawl behind her fence and down a very steep hill while clutching rope, and spend hours wading up and down and climbing near the water reservoir. It was a water tower shaped like a fruit cocktail can, a nod to the region’s agricultural importance, and everything having “cherry” in the name (neighborhoods, schools) because everything used to be covered with orchard.
The dramatic, hyper-scrutinized importance of Silicon Valley has turned the streets of my childhood into the stuff of sneering myth—and yet the buzzwords people adopted to describe this place gave me the vocabulary to reframe my childhood. The rise of think-pieces about “learning to code” and clickbait destroyed my arrogant belief that, simply because my interests and the larger industry weren’t a perfect fit, I carry nothing of the place where I grew up.
Now I go back once a year, at most. Each time, I realize that I did not grow up in a vacuum. Each time, the abstract ideas suddenly become concrete. The critical stories become those I grew up with. The “person priced out of San Francisco” sat behind me in Spanish class sophomore year and lent me her notes on the imperfect case.
My parents don’t say much about the tech influx. Last time I saw my mom, in December, she said she was thinking of closing her site. She’d been saying this for years.
But last month, she quietly closed it after 13 years. When I emailed to ask why she wrote simply, “No order. Everyone get tired of it.”
The site had remained a time capsule of e-commerce circa 2002. Its design never deviated from the four-column website format, or the royal blue and gray color scheme. It never became “mobile-responsive.” Its payment methods never expanded to include bitcoin, Apple Pay, or Venmo. There was never an app.
For April Fools’ Day this year, Amazon made its home page mirror the 1999 version, for laughs. To the end, my mom’s site still looked exactly like that. I’m surprised it lasted as long as it did. Starting about five years ago, I myself would not have purchased from the site; it looked old-fashioned enough to seem like a scam.
Today, nothing about our old business could live up to the sleek sites that even the most rudimentary start-ups can put up. As the rest of the world moved into HTML5, expanded payment methods, branded buttons—as the bar for entry grew higher and higher—we could never compete. But for the entire 2000s, a mother-daughter immigrant team could participate in the e-commerce industry, running a bare-bones site designed by an 11-year-old out of their home. It was a technological version of the American Dream.
That e-commerce era is over, but the culture of Silicon Valley remains, perhaps stronger than ever. To this day my mother has only read one English book since she finished her graduate studies in the mid-’90s. That book was Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs.