Checking The Box: Gender And Social Networking

Facebook has had a tremendous impact on the way that people use the internet but it has had its own fair share of growing pains. As privacy, data mining, and censorship issues come into debate many people have been eagerly awaiting another option.

Although it has been slow in its development, Diaspora has been lauded as a contender in the world of social networking for the changes it promises in the way that user information is stored and used. Out of all the possible critiques of this site as it crawls towards a launch it was interesting to see one blogger abandon the project because it uses an open text field for gender rather than a selection system with limited options. The author summarized his article saying:

“I understand that the point of this change was to “increase freedom”. This is precisely what incensed me, because it indicated muddle-headedness. In terms of political gender, this indeed appears to be a nice change. But all social sites give their users large numbers of open-valued strings, which are pretty much arbitrary and could be combined into one big “write anything here” space at the bottom. At the same time, a useful value– the linguistic gender, which some developer might like to use for any obscure reason (“Jane has trouble on her farm!”)– was removed, thereby limiting the freedom of users to specify meaningful information about themselves.”

Limiting gender to two potential options has always been problematic. Sex (your body’s hardware) is very different from gender (the software). There is a lot of grey space between male and female that simply does not represent the infinite diversity of the human experience. Websites that force their users to choose between “male” and “female” are exceptionally alienating to people. This alienation, however, is not limited to gender variant users nor is it about liberal arts college rhetoric. A finite list of gender options is limiting to all people, trans- and cisgender alike because of the way that websites use that information to “customize” the user experience.

Although information about gender can be absolutely vital in many contexts, a social networking website is hardly in the same arena as your doctor’s office where information about your body’s hardware is necessary. The information that a user supplies about their gender is used primarily to target advertising dollars. The box that you check in the registration process will determine the type of ads you see when you log on to the website. Not only is it alienating to be forced to choose between limited options, it can also be very alienating to experience a constant onslaught of advertisements urging you to drop 10 lbs with the latest diet craze simply because you self-identified as female. Many male-identified users feel frustrated with the assumption that they wish to join a dating site with “lots of hot girls ready to chat.” Creating a binary in user experience relies on stereotypes about what men and women want to see.

Furthermore, the experience that a user has with a website is also greatly altered when gender becomes a searchable field. While this can be an incredibly useful tool on a dating site, it can create a  hostile environment for users when they find themselves to be persistent targets for unwanted sexual attention. Individuals that present as female are already forced to field unwanted advances any time they leave the house. Thanks to most social networking websites, many women get to experience that at home as well. A privatized profile does offer a tremendous freedom for an overflowing inbox of invitations for sex but that isn’t the best option for a user that does want to make new friends on a social networking site based on shared interests.

What I find most interesting about the bloggers concerns about an open text field for gender is the fact that most people will self-identify as male or female on a social networking site. Programmers and developers will still be able to access that kind of data should they have an “obscure” need for it. Without any clear reason why a programmer would need to know a user’s gender, this argument relies on a mentality that the world will become unraveled if we can’t immediately put someone into a pink box or a blue one. Whether or not Diaspora actually overtakes Facebook as the premiere website for social networking, I for one laud its efforts for dissolving gender boundaries to make its software more friendly for all users. Ultimately, the programmer behind this change said it best:

“I made this change to Diaspora so that I won’t alienate anyone I love before they finish signing up. I made this change because gender is a beautiful and multifaceted thing that can’t be contained by a list. I know a lot of people aren’t there with me yet. So I also made this change to give them one momentary chance to consider other possibilities. I made it to start a conversation. I made it because I can. And, of course, I made it so you can be a smartass.”

[Image courtesy of Josh Coe]

About Miss Maggie Mayhem

Miss Maggie Mayhem has worn many sex positive hats over the years. She has six years of experience as an HIV Prevention Specialist proving testing, counseling, and results disclosure as well as street based outreach for at risk youth. She is also a volunteer at the San Francisco Sex Information Hotline offering education and information to callers from around the world. She is also an erotic performer in San Francisco and loves to meet new people and show them new things. Maggie has also just recently returned from Haiti where she was part of the earthquake recovery and is looking for her next chance to go back and pick up her beloved 16lb sledge hammer once again.

  • Kate

    Very thoughtful analysis Maggie. Thanks for highlighting this important issue!