A critique of Facebook’s gender diversity

Facebook announced today they will now “offer an extensive list of gender identities” for users to declare in their profiles, as well as allow users to choose between masculine, feminine and neutral pronouns for the site to use when referring to them.

Below is a summary of the changes as well as a brief critique that’s (spoiler alert!) not entirely positive.

How it works

(NB: For this to work you MUST set your language to ‘English US’. I have no idea why this is a limitation or if it will eventually be available for other language settings.)

New gender options

When you go to edit your ‘Basic Information’ you now have a ‘Custom’ option in the Gender drop down menu. If you choose this, typing in the text area brings up some of the options available to choose. One of the actually pretty cool parts of this is that you can choose multiple options!

multiplegenderoptions

You can then select a chosen set of pronouns and decide who can see your declared gender on the site.

List of options

I haven’t found an official list anywhere. Reports keep stating there are 50 but below is list of 56 I have seen myself today. It may be incomplete and may change without notice.

Agender Androgyne Androgynous
Bigender Cis Cis Female
Cis Male Cis Man Cis Woman
Cisgender Cisgender Female Cisgender Male
Cisgender Man Cisgender Woman Female to Male
FTM Gender Fluid Gender nonconforming
Gender Questioning Gender Variant Genderqueer
Intersex Male to Female MTF
Neither Neutrois Non-binary
Other Pangender Trans
Trans Female Trans Male Trans Man
Trans Person Trans Woman Trans*
Trans* Female Trans* Male Trans* Man
Trans* Person Trans* Woman Transfeminine
Transgender Transgender Female Transgender Male
Transgender Man Transgender Person Transgender Woman
Transmasculine Transsexual Transsexual Female
Transsexual Male Transsexual Man Transsexual Person
Transsexual Woman Two-spirit

One interesting observation is that, though you can choose multiple options, ‘Male’ and ‘Female’ are not on this custom list so it is impossible to be, say, simultaneously ‘Female’ and ‘Gender Questioning’.

Misleading privacy settings

The announcement post states

We also have added the ability for people to control the audience with whom they want to share their custom gender. We recognize that some people face challenges sharing their true gender identity with others, and this setting gives people the ability to express themselves in an authentic way.

Ideally, and in order to comply with this statement, Facebook should use gender neutral terminology to refer to other users when you don’t have access to their stated gender information. However, this has been messily implemented.

Early on Google+ had an issue where you could hide your gender status from your profile but it would still publicly use the corresponding gendered pronouns to refer to you. They changed this fairly quickly following a non-negligible user response. (I wrote about it here.)

Facebook appears to have implemented something similar to Google+’s initial problematic system of access. To explain, I chose Female pronouns and locked the privacy for this field to ‘Only Me’.

Privacy Limitations

The first issue is that Facebook has conflated chosen gendered pronouns with the default masculine/feminine silhouette user image so if, like I have done above, you hide your specified gender from others they can still see a (heavily stereotypical) visual representation of your choice, providing you haven’t uploaded another user image that they have access to.

To reiterate: Facebook still conflates gender with gendered pronouns through visual stereotype representation. (And ‘Neutral’ pronouns still default to the masculine silhouette.) But let’s move on.

Additionally, the system still uses these chosen gendered pronouns to refer to you publicly within the system. It appears such instances are far fewer than they once were (the system language appears to actively avoid pronouns where possible), but in cases where, say, I reply to a friend’s status and, despite not having access to my stated gender/sex, the title of the email notification they receive is something like “Anne Drogyne also commented on her status.”

Facebook actually mentions that your preferred pronoun is public (the fine print at the bottom of the above image) but is not clear as to what this means. The link doesn’t actually clarify anything.

To explain why this is an issue I’ll give a quick example.

Jack identifies as female but is not out to her family who believe she is male. Jack appreciates Facebook’s new flexibility and chooses custom gender and chooses a few options she is comfortable with but, fearing possible family drama, makes this selection only visible to friends. Jack chooses to be referred to using female pronouns and appreciates this new sense of freedom.

However, Jack’s mother soon sees a notification using female pronouns and, thinking it’s just a joke, mentions it to Jack who, horrified about the accidental reveal, changes her pronouns back to male in an attempt to avoid being ‘outed’.

Okay, so this example relies on the fact that these privacy settings are perhaps a little misleading. And I argue that Google+ has implemented this better by referring to everything using gender neutral pronouns if you don’t have access to that information. But if Jack was aware of this limitation the situation is not that much better; it now presents a space of gender/sex performativity where pronoun use must be universal for all viewing your interactions. Jack cannot choose to be referred to using female pronouns among friends without everyone being privvy to that choice. Jack may use male or neutral pronouns, though the latter option may prompt probing questions that are better avoided.

So Facebook remains yet another uncomfortable social space with jarring language. I don’t believe this choice is diversity friendly at all, and it clashes with Facebook Diversity’s assertion above that “We recognize that some people face challenges sharing their true gender identity with others, this setting gives people the ability to express themselves in an authentic way”. You have more options, yes, but you’re either out to everyone or forced to perform your identity inauthentically.

Is this progress?

Yes? But also very much no?

Concerns raised in the previous section aside, on the one hand this is clearly a positive change when compared to the previous (though it should be pointed out still current for all other languages) system that enforced a binary gender/sex status that corresponded with a similar binary pronoun system. Users now have more control over what their profile says and how the system refers to them. Facebook has finally made a move to recognise diversity within their system. This is great!

Having said that, it’s still a system with limited options. For anyone who doesn’t feel one or more of the 58+ (56 plus Female and Male) options accurately represents who they are, they have now become further marginalised by this common software developer desire to sort populations into neat categories for data analysis.

Gender options are not finite. Even the concept of gender itself varies between persons.

Why can’t this be a non-mandatory field? Why is it even asked for in the first place? Facebook justify this in various ways, to various levels of legitimacy, but other social network platforms get by without it (Twitter, tumblr) or allow much more freedom of expression through the use of a text field (diaspora*). And Facebook has gradually been removing or rewording system notifications that previously used pronouns (at least in the English language version of the site) so its mandatory status is becoming less and less justified.

I strongly believe everyone should be free to perform any and all aspects of their identity on social media in any way they wish. If these changes by Facebook work for you I think that’s great. The problem is that gender/sex identity is both a very important and very contentious aspect of identity and here we see Facebook allowing more flexibility (good) while stubbornly retaining control over the ‘approved’ method of gender performance within their system and continuing to reinforce various notions of gender/sex normativity (bad). Any gender performance conducted using these new features (or the old ones which the rest of the world is still stuck with) happens in relation to the strict, albeit now much looser, concept of gender and sex as defined by Facebook.

(I’ve written about this many times previously. More details in the tags. But one big glaring example is that ‘Female’ and ‘Male’ are not actually ‘genders’.)

I think it’s great that many have found these changes to be positive ones. I just have concerns that now many gender diverse users are now slightly better catered for, some of the broader issues around Silicon Valley’s tendency to limit expression through categorisation will now be more difficult to raise.

Gender expression is important, and the level to which it is important varies between persons. Many will embrace these new options and find them useful in performing their identity. But, if the idea of Facebook defining the rules and limitations of gender makes you uncomfortable, I still strongly recommend considering opting out of this field altogether and choosing your own method and level of identity performance through all other instances of interaction with Facebook and other social network platforms.

Opting out

Though Facebook don’t directly let you, it is still possible to set your gender/sex field to ‘unspecified’. (See my previous post for details and instructions.) This forces the system to use gender neutral pronouns when referring to you and removes mention of your gender/sex from your profile. (This is why the first image in this post leads with the ‘Select Gender’ option – I previously had nothing selected.)

It also appears you may be able to set your language to US English, set your gender to ‘Custom’ and pronouns to ‘Neutral’, and then set your language back to something else and have your gender set itself to ‘Unspecified’, but I haven’t tested this thoroughly.

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