Note: links in the video transcript go directly to that commentary, and vice versa. Each excerpted video is indicated with a hyphen; speaker changes are indicated with line breaks and with parenthetical speaker indicators when necessary. When videos provided their own subtitles, these are indicated with “[onscreen subtitles]”. Even with variant spellings, punctuation, and unintuitive translations into English, these self-selected subtitles are preferred, since they navigate accent/language and that's often what's at issue with Siri. Transcriptions are notorious places for subtle linguistic oppression to take place (Lueck, 2017, "Discussion" section; McFarlane & Snell, 2017). Conducting the analysis by video is one way to preserve the complex and ambiguous aspects of the YouTube parodies.
In late 2011, Apple announced that a voice assistant called Siri would come with the iPhone 4S. Siri could do things like take dictation for text messages, set timers, and answer questions about the weather, stocks, and nearby restaurants.
-[Apple presenter] “What is the weather like today?”
[Siri] “Here’s the forecast for today.”
“It is that easy.”
[applause] (Apple Special Event 2011)
By the end of the month, there were already clips on YouTube where people tested Siri’s ability to interact with them, with mixed results.
-“The iPhone 4S is instead creating confusion … Is it a nice day?”
[Newscaster] “Let’s see what it says.”
[Siri] “I don’t know what you mean by, ‘Is it NSD to says.’” (iPhone has problems with Scottish accents)
-[Siri] “I don’t know what you mean by ‘walk.’ Which email address for, work or home?”
“Kamei, I don’t understand, ‘wall.’ Which email address for, work or home?”
“Work.” (Siri vs Japanese)
Some videos began to play with this idea by dramatizing how difficult it was for them to interact with Siri. For instance, in a funny mashup of the “Shit ____ People Say” meme, the video “Stuff Hyderabadi Moms Say to Siri” shows how age, gender, status, language, and technical familiarity intersect to make a frustrating experience for an imagined Indian mother and her daughter:
-[on-screen subtitles] “shri is not understanding anything. SHRI! Hello?”
[on-screen subtitles] “Look, now she understands. Call my friend Bilqees, Shri.”
“I can’t search near businesses, sorry about that.” (Stuff Hyderabadi Moms)
Other videos played with Siri in a different way. Instead of dramatizing challenges with the current Siri, they reimagined Siri to be more like them.
-“So I went in there and customized it a little bit, to make it more personal for me. So I present to you, Black Siri.” (Black Siri)
-“Well, I’ve got an app that will help you choose the right. Mormon Siri.” (Mormon Siri)
-“Apple CEO Tim Cook has come out, and to celebrate, we’ve made an exciting new update to every iPhone. Say hello to iGay.” (iGay iPhone)
These reimaginations go beyond accent or national origin to examine how Siri could inhabit other identities like race, religion, and sexual orientation.
Hi, I'm Will Penman. This project brings these videos together for the first time to see what we can learn from them.
Here in Part 1, we’ll explore how the parodies make a positive argument for developing identity-specific AI (like a black Siri, or a gay Siri). This contributes to scholarly work on how we speak our way into identities, and how we pick up on AI’s impact on us. The positive argument is that AI can participate in developing people’s identities that matter to them and create points of connection with others. For people in dominant social positions, Part 1 challenges us to be generous listeners, allowing the videos’ jokes to unsettle us and revise what we think is possible; for people who have historically been unheard, I hope this part of the project helps reconceptualize how AI development could proceed more inclusively.
After this positive argument (or before, if you want to watch it now), Part 2 is devoted to how the videos make a negative argument, that there are losses from today’s bland, universalizing AI. The parodies uncover that today’s AI development operates in an identity-blind way, and implicitly extends scholarship to critique that identity-blind ideology: namely, these parodies argue that today’s Siri reproduces a dominant mode of operation, part of which is to cover over the fact that it’s already a social agent – for better or for worse, it already participates in people’s identity construction. For people of minority identities, Part 2 is meant to amplify existing critiques of identity blindness and apply those more visibly into voice-driven AI; for people in dominant social positions, Part 2 is a chance to take our ongoing work of renouncing oppression and its fruits and extend that into artificial intelligence. In other words, we need to divest from racial, sexual, national, and religious privileges as they manifest in AI, too.
To help navigate this scholarship in video form, I’ve added a running header (arrows).
Okay, so what videos am I even talking about? There’s 21 that are one-offs; there’s one set of 2 [Muslim], one set of 3 [Mexican], and a set of 10 [Funny when] – 36 videos total, spanning 2011, when Siri was announced, to 2017, when I began analysis.
Each of these parodies came from a set of YouTube searches based on what are called “protected classes.” In the US, that’s race, religion, national origin, age, sex, pregnancy, citizenship, familial status (meaning whether you have kids or not), disability, veteran, and genetic information – and I threw in sexual orientation. Protected classes are the things that it’s illegal to discriminate about. So I thought they would be a useful high-stakes focus to examine how voice-driven AI affects people, and connect that to historical patterns of inter-group interaction. In other words, the video “Black Siri” came from the search “black siri” which was one of the searches I did regarding race.
I didn’t include news reports – I only wanted videos that dramatized interacting with Siri in some way. I also limited the corpus to videos with at least 90,000 views. In the YouTube economy, that’s not much, but for a regular person, that’s a lot and it seemed to be a natural cut-off point. To create videos with this level of popularity, most of the YouTubers have learned to effectively gather large (probably young) audiences and persuade them to keep coming back for more:
-[mashup of people saying “subscribe”]
Some protected classes didn’t turn up anything – so if you want to make a parody about a pregnant Siri or a veteran Siri, it’s wide open. The ones that did fell into four categories: accent/national origin, race, religion, and sexual orientation. I’ll say more about methodology in Part 2 - that’s enough to get us going.
In all four of these categories, it matters to these YouTubers how Siri responds to them. Most of the parodies don’t bother critiquing Siri’s listening – they start by reimagining how Siri should interact with them, and thereby how Siri could support their identity.
Check out this clip from If Siri was Mexican (Part 2):
-"Take me to the nearest McDonald's."
[Mexican Siri] "But your abuela made dinner."
"Okay, but I want McDonald's."
"Getting directions to Abuela's house."
This Siri has the same voice as usual, and the same lack of a body. But we interpret her as Mexican (rather than whatever the regular Siri is) because she's able to "construct" or "perform" that identity. In this case, that means using some Spanish, and enforcing a value on respecting elders and family obligations:
-[Mexican Siri] "But your abuela made dinner."
The guy is ambivalent about Siri's efforts (more on that later). What's important is that this example does a good job showing just what might be involved for Siri to “be” any of the identities people imagine.
As we dive into this in more detail, what we’ll see is that people are imagining AI as having the capacity to participate with them in constructing their identity. Siri isn't just transactional; what Siri knows and recommends says something about who Siri is and who they are.
 One place that Siri's identity makes a difference, as in this example, is through consumer-based activity. These Siris don't defer to Yelp for recommending businesses. They encourage people to buy, go to, wear, work at, etc. places that develop and reinforce that identity in some way. Thus, to the extent that lesbians buy certain kinds of cars, a lesbian Siri might recommend those cars:
-“I've been thinking about buying a new car. What kind should I get?”
[Lesbian Siri] “All of the cool kids are driving cars like Subaru, Outbacks, and Jeep Wranglers.”
“Okay, cool” (IF SIRI WAS GAY)
To the extent that Mexicans consume certain music, Mexican Siri might recommend that music:
-“Siri, play a fast-paced song.”
[plays Mexican song] (If Siri was MEXICAN [Part 1])
To the extent that Mexicans wear certain clothes, Mexican Siri might recommend those clothes:
-“Hey Siri, it's sunny outside. Should I wear a hat?”
[Mexican Siri] “Seems like it, here are some suggestions” [sombrero images]
And so on. In an illuminating example, Jewish Siri knows that a standard request isn’t specific enough for that identity:
-“Where’s, uh, a good place to eat around here?” (The Jewish Siri)
Her follow-up re-ambiguates the person’s request:
-[Jewish Siri] “Will that be milchik or fleishik?”
This does more than circulate Kosher laws about not mixing meat and dairy, it helps him follow Kosher. If Siri was more like him, the video suggests, it would better allow him to embrace his identity in interaction with her.
Siri's reimagined identity also comes out by encouraging others not to be consumers in the “wrong” way: not to buy, go to, wear, work at, etc. certain places. So, Mexican Siri directs people away from places that aren’t “for” Mexicans:
-“I wanna go to Starbucks, I don't wanna go to Taco Bell.”
[Mexican GPS] “Oh my god, bro. Forget Starbucks, what are you, a thirteen year old white girl? Taco Bell is the move, okay?”
And Mormon Siri encourages people not to go golfing on Sundays:
-“Siri, what's the weather gonna be like at the golf course on Sunday?”
[Mormon Siri] “Cloudy, with a chance of going to Hell.” [he's stunned] (Mormon Siri)
(This is a good examples of how an identity-based Siri isn’t the same as simply personalizing Siri. A personalized Siri would say, well, if you usually golf then, then I’ll keep recommending it. But Mormon Siri’s knowledge of group standards helps reinforce this guy’s commitment to the group.)
Even within consumeristic uses, these reimagined Siris all disrupt the straightforward service relationship that Apple set up Siri to be:
“This dream that you’ll be able to talk to technology and it’ll do things for us.” (Apple Special Event 2011)
In contrast, these reimagined Siris get things done less efficiently (if they do them at all). In return, they step into a role of social agent, participating in users’ identity construction.
 An identity-ful Siri, then, involves self-conscious boundaries. This expands beyond consumption-based boundaries, into values, knowledge, and ways of interacting that form people’s identities.
Robin Williams’ French Siri doesn’t just have an accent:
-Call it “Sihri” (Robin Williams' Siri Impression)
she also pursues a culturally bounded value of not using technology to restrict your engagement with the natural world:
-“Look around you, why must you ask a phone? Live your life! Taking pictures with your phone... Look, look and then paint!”
A Siri that speaks Hawaiian Pidgin English values assessing people’s status (including their high school):
-[on-screen subtitles] [Hawaiian Pidgin Siri]"To complete set-up process, please say what high school you went grad from."
"Really? Okay, Kahuku."
"Kahuku? OMG fo realz?"
"Yeah, why? What school you went then?"
"Not Kahuku!! Hahahahaha" (HAWAIIAN PIDGIN SIRI)
Black Siri expresses sexual literacy and self-respect:
-“Siri, I love you.”
[Black Siri] “N----, please” (Black Siri)
Gay Siri values healthy, attractive living:
-“What's on TV tonight?”
[lesbian Siri]“Nu uh, this is four nights in a row, honey. Here's directions to that new club. For the love of Laverne, get out of those sweats” (iGay (iPhone Siri parody))
Siri’s knowledge is also bounded from within a certain identity. Under the stereotype that gay people don’t like sports, gay Siri doesn’t relay the score:
-“Who won the hockey game last night?”
[Siri] “I found three lesbians that are close to you who can tell you”,br> “How close?” (iGay Siri parody)
And other knowledge is appropriate only for certain times and places; Jewish Siri won’t tell the score either while praying:
-[in temple, whispering] “Avroham Fried, what’s the score?”
[Jewish Siri] “No! Not in the middle of daven-ing” (The Jewish Siri)
Finally, Siri adopts specific ways of interacting. Many of the different Siris are portrayed as rude, insistent, and insulting.
-“Siri, tell me a joke.”
[Black Siri] “There was once this fool named Lamar. The end.” [laughs hysterically] “Well, that, that wasn't very nice” (Black Siri)
-“Siri, from now on, call me Papí”
[Mexican Siri] “Okay, from now on, I will call you ‘Puto’ [bitch]” [friend laughs] (If Siri was MEXICAN [Part 1])
Black Siris refuse to answer stupid questions.
-“You know, Martín gets in the car, ‘Siri, what's the temperature outside?’
‘Why don't you stick your head out the window? [smooths his eyebrow]’” (Martin and Siri)
-“Siri, what's 30 times 904 divided by the square root of 9?”
“Is there something wrong with your calculator? Do I look like I like math?” (Black Siri)
Muslim Siri expresses her faith in Allah specifically:
-“Allah, in the name of the most affectionate, the merciful, say you, he is Allah, the one. Allah, the independent, carefree. He begot none nor was he begotten – and nor anyone is equal to him.” (Muslim Siri)
These Siris express their identities through interacting in specific ways, rather than trying to apply generally. What's important isn't just getting the "right" answer, but interacting in a culturally specific appropriate way.
 Reimagining Siri's identity also means taking on a collective history. None of the parodies address history directly, but - at least as I'm seeing it - one video does reimagine overturning American racial power dynamics. In "Black Siri aka Siriqua," written by what seems to be a black woman and a white guy, Siri is in charge and she's going to make white users know it. This starts simply, by Siri asserting that she will determine when a request is an interruption:
-"Siriqua, what will the weather be like today? Siriqua?"
[Siriqua] "[music in background] I heard you! Hold on. Now what you want?" (Black Siri aka Siriqua)
Similarly, white users don't have the power to command her:
-"Well, tell me what the weather will be like today."
[Siriqua] "Don't tell me what to do."
And Siriqua's high status even means that she'll reject petty questions:
-"I'm sorry, can you please tell me the weather?"
[Siriqua] "How the hell I'm supposed to know? Look out your damn window."
The video continues in this vein, and culminates at the end in a scene at the hair salon. Siriqua has directed the white woman to undergo a painful beauty regimen, and when she interrupts, this time she is bodily punished:
-[Siriqua] "So this hoe is sleeping with a married man."
[hair stylist] "Mm."
"Yes she is."
"And I hear them talking all--"
[white woman] "Siriqua, send a text to my--"
[Siriqua] "Hello! I'm talking here! Can you hit her with the hairbrush please?"
[The stylist hits her.]
For a lot of white people, this video is a nightmare. And obviously the Siriqua parody has the most radical politics of the corpus. The Siriqua video humorously shows a kind of interactional reparations, in which black people's history of being turned away, talked down to, and rejected, under threat of physical pain, is overturned and played back to white people. Retribution isn't the only way that an identity-based Siri could be swept into collective history, but it does show how our fears, hopes, and possibilities for race can play out in the realm of voice-driven AI.
 Finally, even though almost all of these parodies are named for one identity category, many of them play out associations or possibilities to have a more complex, intersectional Siri. Both Mexican Siris, for instance, are also piously Christian:
-“Jesus Christ, the fuck?”
[Mexican GPS] “Whoa, whoa, whoa, hey, don't say that, bro”
“What are you, fucking crazy? That's my God you're talking about, are you crazy?”
“Okay, okay, oh my God, sorry.”
“He died for our sins, bro”
“Sorry” (Mexican GPS)
-“Siri, who is the most beautiful celebrity?”
[Mexican Siri] “Our Lady of Guadalupe” (If Siri was MEXICAN [PART 3])
Religious identity can also intersect with gender. Siri is deferential when criticized,
-[on-screen subtitles] “You are so stubborn”
[Siri] “If you say so” (TESTING THE FAITH)
but in a video that jokingly tries to “convert” Siri to be Muslim in a roomful of Muslim guys, she is still not submissive enough:
-[on-screen subtitles] [Background person] “She immediately assumes a pose."
[Leader] “Oh, let's see how she will answer this. Do not assume a pose”
[Siri] “This might exceed my current abilities”
“She is really so tough”
In these intersections, we see how Christian identity and gender performance are inflected by other identities, and how, with enough time, being Mexican or Muslim involves taking on other identities as well, in one form or another. Identity-based versions of Siri, then, should keep this in mind.
Overall, then, in a wide range of videos made independently over a range of years, YouTubers of minority identities have persistently reimagined Siri to be more like them. Some of their specific reimaginations are pretty stereotypical or downright cringe-worthy. But as parodies rather than “serious” proposals, they defer the challenge of “getting it right,” and they allow us, if we listen generously, to focus on the big idea: that we could create Siri who could adopt specific ways of being rather than trying to apply as generally as possible. If we designed Siri like that, we could make identity-specific recommendations for what to buy and not to buy; it could show identity-specific values, knowledge, and ways of interacting; it could address an identity's history; and it could be intersectionally created, not just one-dimensional. In all of these ideas, identities are active projects. So when we ask what identities we make available to people to interact with, we also ask what we ourselves might be like. Taking on this challenge is not straightforward; there are a lot of decisions that would still need to be made. But this is an emerging important issue for people to consider, especially those of us who study communication and its effects. Check out part 2! Part 2 moves from this positive argument that we could create identity-based AI, to a negative argument that we're suffering consequences from not doing so already.