Author Archives: exhipigeonist

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!


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.

Reinstating the third gender/sex option on Facebook

I received two copies of the Unlike Us reader in the post yesterday and I’ve started reading some of the other contributions. I highly recommend checking it out. (Reminder: it’s free to download!) But somehow, even seeing my name in print didn’t prepare me for the possibility that someone else might actually read let alone enjoy my essay. (Did I think it’d just sit there, unread, and that’d be cool? Maybe.)

Anyway, I woke up to Tweets from Marc Stumpel this morning, linking to some creative responses to Facebook’s limited gender/sex representation that I hadn’t come across before. Of particular interest is a ‘Facebook Gender Neutrality‘ script, written by Alec Wright, that apparently enables Facebook users to revert back to the ‘other/undisclosed’ gender/sex option that was made unavailable since around 2008.

I had previously seen scripts that change the display of user information in some way (use gender neutral phrasing on Facebook, for example, or even reverse gender/sex terms in all websites), but these only worked locally on the browsers where the script was installed. In this case, However, Alec states, “this is what everyone will see, and not just you”.

I decided I had to try it out. Immediately.

Using a new Firefox browser profile (so I could confirm it works without any scripts installed) I went to Alec’s ‘Facebook Gender Neutrality‘ page and installed Greasemonkey (a popular add-on many may have installed already) and after restarting the browser installed the .js script linked to from Alec’s page. As I understand it, all the script does is add an ’Other/Undisclosed’ radio button to the mobile page where you change your gender/sex status, and this actually alters your account. Incredibly simple, but absolutely brilliant!

Mobile Facebook screen with Alec Wright's 'Facebook Gender Neutrality' script installed

Some quick background info and clarification: Facebook does have an ‘Undisclosed’ option for gender/sex; they just don’t make it selectable. This is from back when it wasn’t mandatory to declare whether you are either male or female. Not all users chose either ‘Male’ or ‘Female’ when they were asked to so you may occasionally see gender neutral terms ‘they’ or ‘their’ on Facebook – though this is becoming rare. So, Facebook’s gender/sex field is not stored as a binary value (either 0 or 1, corresponding to ‘Male’ or ‘Female’); rather, there are three possibilities:

  • 0 is ‘Undisclosed’1
  • 1 is ‘Female’2
  • 2 is ‘Male’

Put simply, Alec’s script makes it possible to select 0 again. And this is why the selection becomes visible to everyone.

After running the script on one of my testing accounts (Anne Drogyne) in a new Firefox profile, I created a new testing account (Funkmaster Jay) using my main Firefox profile and made them become friends. (It’s like playing The Sims!) Below is a screenshot taken from a Firefox profile that has not installed any of Alec’s scripts.

Screenshot of a Facebook timeline that uses gender neutral terminology

As you can see, the gender neutral term ‘their’ is used in the timeline. I haven’t looked much further but I have no reason to suspect this does not work universally for that account.

Finally, I should note that I don’t believe this fix is perfect. But it would be much, much harder to make more meaningful changes on Facebook such as making gender/sex a text field, removing gender/sex status altogether, or even altering system phrases to remove the ‘need’ for gendered terminology at all. However, all of that is close to impossible for non-Facebook developers. Reinstating the ‘Undisclosed’ option to users, especially as these choices become visible to all users, is perhaps the best we can do. Using only a few lines of JavaScript, I think Alec has done some amazing work.

So, to summarise, if you don’t like Facebook’s way of representing you in relation to a gender/sex binary, DO THIS! If you’re actually okay with being either male or female on Facebook but still think this is an option that should be available, TELL EVERYONE YOU KNOW ABOUT THIS!

Lastly, if you appreciate this script and what is means socially, email Alec and say so – it’s always nice to get feedback =) Alec’s email address is described cryptically at the bottom of this page, but it’s also written at the top of the .js script file if you open it in a text editor.

I’m composing an email right now.

1. I say that Facebook treats ‘not male or female’ as ‘undisclosed’ rather than ‘other’ because, well, the system design does not allow for ‘other’ as an option – options are interpreted as either ‘Male’, ‘Female’, or ‘I haven’t told you yet’. In short, Facebook as a system subscribes to and reinforces the binary theory of gender/sex. Of course, this doesn’t mean users can’t choose this third option as a way to present as ‘other’ – gender/sex performance can be interpreted in many ways the system didn’t intend, depending on the community/culture. I think Alec’s ‘Other/Undisclosed’ wording is correct here, but I just wanted to be clear about my own, more restricted terminology when referring to Facebook itself.

2. Interesting to note, this is one of the very few times I’ve encountered a system where a gender/sex field doesn’t list ‘Male’ before ‘Female’ (even though it’s alphabetically backwards) in coded representation.

I’m published! – Unlike Us Reader out now

I got notification this morning that the new Unlike Us reader is now available. My essay, ‘None of Your Business? Analyzing the Legitimacy and Effects of Gendering Social Spaces Through System Design’ appears on pages 200-219.

You can read the release announcement at the site here. The short trailer for the reader is also available on vimeo.

There are multiple ways you can get a copy of the reader. If you go to this page you can read it online using issuu. (It should be noted, however, that if you try to download it on the issuu site it requires you to register, and registration requires you to choose your gender as being either ‘male’ or ‘female’, displaying a perfect example of what I argue is a terrible practice in my essay. Needless to say, I don’t recommend downloading it through issuu!) You can also read and download it through scribd without having to register, or download it directly from the site.

Of course, as the reader is shared using the CC BY-NC-SA 3.0 license, I can host it on my own server, too! (This is especially convenient because it appears the site is currently down.) However, if you only want to download my essay, I’ve also uploaded an edited (remixed!) version that cuts out most of the other pages. Links to both versions are below.

Unlike Us Reader: Social Media Monopolies and Their Alternatives (3.9MB .pdf)

Andrew McNicol – None of Your Business?: Analyzing the Legitimacy and Effects of Gendering Social Spaces Through System Design (622kB .pdf)

Special thanks to Miriam Rasch and Geert Lovink who have done an amazing job with this release. I’m looking forward to checking out some of the other contributions once I get some free time.

Please share with anyone you think may be interested. And please feel free to comment or email with any constructive feedback you may have – I haven’t read through this in months, but I think there are a few sections I would change slightly.

Preliminary thoughts: making recommendations regarding sex status for the 2016 census

The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) has been planning for our 2016 census for a while now. Recently they announced information sessions relating to changes that might appear in the 2016 census because they want submissions from organisations and individuals containing feedback and recommendations. Having a strong research interest in the representation of persons I wanted to write a submission of my own, specifically addressing some of the issues relating to the representation of sex. Even if it doesn’t lead to changes in the next census, any submission of mine will be accessible to them during any future conversations.

While I’m not too optimistic anything will change, as there are many interested parties relying on the field staying exactly the same for easy comparison with previous years’ results, there is a real possibility I can make some difference. It also feels a little overwhelming planning to write a formal report to government based on my PhD research, so I may be asking various people for advice before May next year, when submissions close.

The following is a brief outline of some of the concerns I want to include. I’d love any feedback you might have, and if you know of anyone with an interest in this topic (you probably do!) I’d appreciate you forwarding the link to them =)

Reviewing the sex standard

The ABS have begun to review its sex standard. My understanding is that this is a separate project to the 2016 census, but will inform its practices. They state

This standard provides a basis for the ABS to collect statistics relating to people but also provides a standard for other organisations to collect data about sex in surveys and administrative collections. (‘REVIEW OF THE SEX STANDARD / POTENTIAL NEW GENDER STANDARD‘, 14 September 2012)

I think this is an important move! Not only will it mean the category will be consistent across all ABS data (they do more than just the census), but its intention for use within other organisations, if widely adopted, will make data comparisons more accurate.

However, this makes it a lot more important for the ABS to get it right – a difficult project with so many stakeholders involved.

The current standard

Details can be read here. To summarise, the ABS acknowledge a trend in substituting ‘gender’ for ‘sex’, but discourage that practice because they believe they are different terms.

Sex refers to a person’s biological sex and associated physical characteristics. Gender refers to the way a person self identifies and presents them self to the community, such as their name, outward appearance, mannerisms, and dress. A person’s sex is not necessarily consistent with their gender. (‘REVIEW OF THE SEX STANDARD / POTENTIAL NEW GENDER STANDARD‘, 14 September 2012)

The ABS currently define sex the following ways:

5. Sex is defined as the biological distinction between male and female. Where there is an inconsistency between anatomical and chromosomal characteristics, sex is based on anatomical characteristics. (‘Underlying concepts‘, 28 March 2006)


8. Physical biology is the criterion used to classify persons into the categories ‘male’ and ‘female’. This criterion is physical rather than genetic to cover the exceptional cases such as sex change operations. In the vast majority of cases the physical and genetic categories are identical. (‘Classification and coding‘, 28 March 2006)

So, in short, sex is always defined as a biological attribute, except in those cases where it is defined as a physical one.

While I partly wrote the previous sentence as a joke, I do see the justification for this definition. The problem is, however, that this complex set of ‘exceptional cases such as sex change operations’ is not clearly defined. At what stage of sexual reassignment would a person qualify as one sex and not the other? Which of the many conditions that might blur someone’s sex status count them as female or male based on their physical attributes as opposed to biological ones? What conditions of self-identification, if any, qualify a person to legitimately categorise themselves as the sex they identify with under this system?

This presents a problem with this definition of sex being used as a standard. But not only is the demarcation unclear; any standard demarcation presents a problem for practical use as different studies of populations are usually after any one of a number of understandings of sex or gender. For example, the ABS state ‘gender is frequently used (for example in psychological or sociological discussions) to refer to cultural or social differences as opposed to biological ones’ (‘Underlying concepts‘, 28 March 2006). In such cases, it would be preferable for sex to be defined as relating to identity and lived experience rather than strict biological status. However, sociologically useful definitions such as this would be problematic for medical studies looking at, say, the prevalence of diseases or conditions compared to chromosomal sex.

I’m still thinking this all through, but my current understanding is that census and other ABS data tend to be used mostly for studies of populations and this leads me to believe a sociological definition would be the most appropriate option for them to adopt. This will certainly present a problem for any statistical data being used for studies that require a strict biological definition of sex, of course. Perhaps one solution would be to propose two separate definitions of sex, and for the ABS to adopt one of them for use across all their statistical projects as the default. (I return to this discussion below.)


Sex status is digitised using the following coding:

0 Not stated/Inadequately described
1 Male
2 Female

They add

If it is necessary to include the category ‘Intersex or Indeterminate’, it should be allocated the code ’3′. (‘Classification and coding‘, 28 March 2006).

However, clarifying how sex data is collected in the census, the ABS write

There is no non-response for the Sex (SEXP) data item because missing values are imputed. If a form was received but there was no response to the question, Sex was imputed using other information on the form, such as name, relationship or number of children. If this process was not successful then sex was allocated randomly. Clerical intervention during processing was also required where both Male and Female responses were marked. These various types of imputations occurred for 2.2% of all persons. (‘Sex (SEXP)‘, 24 October 2012)

This explains that census data does not use the zero code – it is strictly a binary field where deviation or non-completion of the field is responded to with an assumed or random assignment of code 1 or 2. (This is the first time I’ve been able to confirm Organisation Intersex International Australia’s claim about random assignment.) Other problems aside, this actually means that the census is not actually complying with its publicised standard for sex. Any non-response or non-standard response to this questions should, by their own rules, be counted as ’0 Not stated/Inadequately described’, not assigned to one of the other options as they see fit. What is the point of the standard if it is used inconsistently?

Imputed or random assignment?

One other issue I have with the practice described in the above quote is the use of the word ‘impute’ to describe sexual assignment. It is one thing for the record of a person who elsewhere describes their relationship to another person as a ‘father’ to be assigned ‘male’, but an entirely different situation for another person to be assigned ‘male’ because their name is, say, ‘John’. From the description I think it’s safe to assume both fall under ABS’s practice of ‘imputing’. My problem is that the word suggests more of a logical calculation (such as determining a person’s age based on their birth date) than a assumption based on social experiences.

This may seem like an insignificant distinction, but i feel it’s actually important to be clear about the potentially flawed assumptions at play here, and another word may be more appropriate.


Perhaps my biggest concern about sex status on the census, and all forms in general really, is the issue of clarity. It is rarely clear what is being asked so the respondent is left to make their own assumptions. I also feel the Australian census deals with this issue rather poorly. Various parts of the ABS documentation talk about the tendency for people to conflate the terms gender and sex and the confusion this leads to, and they conclude it is important to be clear about the standard in order to make it consistent across various surveys and collections. This is an admirable theoretical stance to take, but their execution of this does not appear consistent with their aim when the distinction is not even mentioned.

Screenshot of the 2011 census form asking 'Is the person male or female?'

The above image is all we are presented with. There is no occurrence of the word ‘sex’ anywhere on the form. (‘Female’ and ‘male’ are sex terms, not gendered terms, but I suspect the vast majority of people aren’t certain about this.) If you would like a clarification of the question (‘I’m female bodied but have presented as a male for the past fifteen years. What response are they looking for here?’) you would need to go to their website and hope you can make sense of the documentation – the same documentation that I’ve been looking closely through for the past few weeks and still feel a little confused about. The last time the question was helpfully labeled ‘Sex’ was back in 1991.

The ABS test the wording and presentation of new questions on real people before incorporating them into the census, so apparently nobody tested was confused enough by the question as presented to warrant a revision. However, I think this depends heavily on the people being tested.

If there was just one improvement I would like to see (partly because it’s so simple that it actually has a chance of being incorporated) would be for the census to replace the question ‘Is the person male or female?’ with something like ‘What is the biological sex of the person?’. This would of course open them up to complications where some citizens are supposed to declare their physical sex (see discussion above), but at least the question makes sense to the general population who are regularly exposed to inconsistent use of terms related to sex and gender. (Thanks a lot, Facebook et al.)

Including gender as an additional field

Part of the review of the sex standard looks at ‘whether there are grounds to develop a new gender standard to complement the revised sex standard’ (‘REVIEW OF THE SEX STANDARD / POTENTIAL NEW GENDER STANDARD‘, 14 September 2012). A strong, initial response of mine is to think, ‘Really? Sex status is confusing and complicated enough here as it is and you’re wondering whether it’s a good idea to also ask respondents for their gender?’ However, I think that view may be a bit too critical.

First of all, there could actually be great social value to collecting such information. I’d love to see a breakdown of what genders the population of Australia identify as – even while I have difficulty working out how I personally feel about my own gender identity and would take forever to formulate a response of my own. Such questions could assist in highlighting gender diversity and, in turn, help individuals feel more comfortable about an identity that may traditionally be seen as ‘abnormal’. This could be great for research in the social sciences, too!

Of course, it’s difficult to envision a system that would be practical. First of all, there may be an urge to limit responses to a predefined set which may only serve to further alienate anyone who does not neatly fit within the available options (see: othering) and could never hope to encompass the vast diversity of gender identity (see: Yay genderform!).

The only way I could see it working in both a practical and socially responsible way is if gender was an optional, blank text field (see: ‘Disalienation: Why Gender is a Text Field on Diaspora‘, Sarah Mei, 26 November 2010). (Perhaps a brief note on the form about common responses might help transition the nation to this additional field, but it would need to be done delicately so as not to evoke a sense of othering in those who don’t identify with any of the examples.) Yes, the results would be a little chaotic, and some respondents would certainly write in ‘Jedi’, but I think for many studies of gender this chaos would actually be preferable and valuable.

It’s also important to note that including a gender field might actually serve as a solution to the problem of standards addressed earlier, where sociological and medical research both tend to require different interpretations of ‘sex status’. Sex status could be defined as biological and, while there would certainly still be problems with this limited notion, gender status could serve as a place to declare important information relating to your sex that has, until now, never been collected by the census (‘male identified intersex’*, ‘trans man’, etc.). The ABS, and other organisations who choose to adopt their standards, could choose which field (or both) to use when constructing surveys, depending on what sort of data they are looking to collect.

While interesting, this whole idea would likely not be adopted for the 2016 census without support from organisations who would use such data. I’ll need to talk to other researchers to try and, if they see it as a resource of potential value, rally some support and suggestions for my proposal. Of course, it’s also possible for me to recommend this as the standard for the ABS to adopt even if they don’t choose to use it within their census. My understanding is that the sex and gender standard is technically a separate project of theirs that simply informs the census. The formalisation of a standard with more flexibility of representation would be preferable even if its not present in the 2016 census.

Third sex category

Another option ABS has put on the table is to include a new ‘intersex or indeterminate’ category option for sex. Because of the problems of categorical sex assignment (it makes data inaccurate while simultaneously delegitimising experiences of, for example, intersex people by removing them from the official record of the country’s population) this may be something worth considering. However, including a ‘third sex’ option can introduce its own problems, as outlined by Gina Wilson from OII Australia.

I haven’t yet thought much about this ‘third sex’ problem, but I’ll certainly need to. If introduced, there needs to be a comfortable balance struck between being sensitive to all individuals completing such forms and collecting data that is most socially useful. I just don’t know where that balance might be yet.

Questioning the ‘essential’ nature of sex declaration

And it appears I’ve left one of the biggest questions for the end: why ask for a person’s sex status to begin with? To nicely frame one side of this discussion, I’d like to quote Gina Wilson who wrote

Indeed in an equal society there is no reason for sex designators to be included in the vast preponderance of documentation. The real necessity right now is only for census like information to be gathered so marginalized peoples can be identified and resources can be allocated.

If we were not the subject of discrimination and unfair treatment, only our lovers (and then not always) and our medical practitioner would have a legitimate reason to enquire about our sex parts.

The government and society needs to get their noses out of our underpants. (‘Gina Wilson writes on a third sex at Gay Star News‘, Gina Wilson, 13 July 2012)

Asserting an opposing view, the ABS states of its inclusion of the sex field that

Information gained from questions on sex is essential for the estimation of the resident population in each of the states, territories and local areas, which are required by legislation for electoral purposes and the distribution of government funds. (‘Topics – Recommended for Retention, 5 November 2012)

It’s difficult to assess ABS’s view that sex status is ‘essential’ from the documentation I have been looking at. There are vague references to ‘population estimates’, but I can’t see how sex status could inform such things unless by ‘population estimates’ you mean ‘population projections’ and you’re looking at populations of smaller towns and rural areas, which could actually produce information of public value. (Or if by ‘population estimates’ you simply mean ‘estimates of the current number of males and females’, which by definition it is integral to but we are now back where we began, wondering how such data could possibly be of use.) It also mentions it needs population data for reporting to COAG – but not what this is used for.

The best justification I have found is the statements that ‘[sex] is a core cross-tabulation for practically all social statistical topics such as employment, education, and health’ (‘REVIEW OF THE SEX STANDARD / POTENTIAL NEW GENDER STANDARD‘, 14 September 2012), and that ‘[i]nformation on sex is essential for most socio-demographic analysis of Census data’ (‘Topics – Recommended for Retention, 5 November 2012). So, in short, sociological analyses and imposed government requirements in turn require sex information to be collected on the census, but there is no mention of why these external organisations want it. I don’t doubt there are reasons, and perhaps many good ones, but they are entirely hidden from the discussion behind the declaration that it is ‘essential’.

One issue I have with mandatory declaration here is that I suspect that government organisations (such as COAG, who the ABS actually state as an example) and sociological researchers all too easily fall back on treating biological sex as important field for ‘cross-tabulation’ because of tradition rather than questioning whether it is actually relevant in many of the situations it is introduced, and what the social implications of treating sex status with such importance might be. But without transparency regarding requests for its inclusion and retention, I just can’t participate in that conversation. (I can talk with people within the ABS about this, though. I’m only explaining how the data is not easy for us to access.)

In short, I largely side myself with the sentiment behind Gina Wilson’s quote above. However, I should be clear that I don’t entirely dismiss the idea that sex status can be a useful field within the census. (For example, I strongly support the ability for same sex couples to be counted in the census. This is a socially important demographic to publicise.) The important thing, I feel, is to question our deeply held assumptions about the importance of sex status and determine how, exactly, and if at all, it is actually benefiting us when we include it.

It should be a considered inclusion, not a habitual one.

Where to from here?

I have a lot of thesis writing to do in the near future which is not entirely related to this ABS submission, so it won’t be an easy task. I also feel a little intimidated by the idea of trying to submit a document to a government organisation that, if done correctly, could actually introduce a positive change. I’m definitely going to need some help on this, and to talk to others about it in order to receive occasional reminders that I’m not wasting my time. Now that I’ve written out some of my early ideas, doing a call out for people to talk to about this, to get advice, and to just generally talk it up would probably be the next step.

First, I might talk to some social sciences and gender studies researchers on campus to throw a few ideas at them. It’d be great to find people who will state that research would benefit from future census data, if some of my proposed recommendations are taken on board.

Actually, I’m attending the awgsa conference that’s being held on my campus this week, so this would be a good opportunity to ask some people I already know to recommend others to talk to during the event.

I will also get in touch with someone from OII Australia. My proposal would have a direct impact on intersex individuals so it would be kinda inappropriate for me to submit something without asking them for advice. Also, they have people who have already done some work looking into the census and other systems of population categorisations so their experience would be invaluable to this project – and my thesis research overall.

I’m also considering planning a semi-formal presentation/discussion at UNSW one evening if I find enough people are interested in this project. It’s not difficult to book a room; it’s just difficult to find a time people are available!

Lastly, but certainly not least, I need to get in touch with someone from the ABS who knows something about the history of conversations about sex status. I get the impression they’re very happy to have people meet with them to get clarification on things in order to prepare a submission, but I feel I should get some advice from others first so I’m more prepared. (Nevertheless, I can not leave this too long.)

Submissions are due by May 31 2013. By around that time I need to have completed drafts of four of my thesis chapters (out of six!). It’s going to be rough, but I also feel it’s important to get this done. Even if my recommendations are not incorporated into the 2016 census, I need to vocalise them so they will be available for reference in future discussions around possible revisions.

. . .

If you’ve made it this far through my post you’re no doubt thinking, ‘Yeah, this is really important and I wonder how I can help!’ Please, please feel free to get in touch with me. I’m more than happy to make some time to discuss many of the issues and concepts I’m quickly glancing over here, and that’s when I’m not currently working on a project relating to them.

If you have any thoughts or would simply like to read over a draft once I have something written, let me know. If you’d like to actually help draft the submission, definitely let me know. And if you disagree with something I’ve said here or have concerns about my approach, it’s probably most important that you get in touch with me (I like to think I respond quite well to criticism).

You can email me at, or simply indicate that you’d like to have a discussion if you happen to see me around. And if you happen to know of anyone else who may be interested in this project, please forward them to this post.

In the mean time, I’ll likely post any updates here on my blog. Stay tuned, and thanks for reading =)

* A gender field may not appear to be the most appropriate place to declare intersex status, but it could be helpful here. And it sure beats writing it in as your religion.

Not everyone can sit on a chair

Facebook recently released a celebration/advertisement of their services to mark its reaching of one billion users*. It’s called The Things That Connect Us and I highly recommend watching it if you haven’t already been linked to it by your friends wanting to have a laugh. The text from the video is as follows

Chairs. Chairs are made so that people can sit down and take a break. Anyone can sit on a chair. And if the chair is large enough they can sit down together. And tell jokes. Or make up stories. Or just listen. Chairs are for people. And that is why chairs are like Facebook. Doorbells, airplanes, bridges. These are things people use to get together so they can open up and connect. About ideas. And music. And other things that people share. Dance floors. Basketball. A great nation. A great nation is something people build so that they can have a place where they belong. The universe. It is vast. And dark. And makes us wonder if we are alone. So maybe the reason we make all of these things is to remind ourselves that we are not.

Various spoofs have already appeared, as is the internet’s wont, as well as Facebook communities, tumblr accounts and articles discussing the confusing meaning behind the ad. While hilarious in some respects, I actually find the message a little disturbing.

First of all, for a company that talks about opening things up for us to make our own connections, and regularly championing the concept of openness, I believe it’s telling that they’ve removed the commenting and voting features on the YouTube video**.

The main concern is that it purports Facebook as being for everybody – ‘Anyone can sit on a chair’, using wide demographics as subjects, etc. – while behind the scenes doing absolutely nothing to address real concerns about its policies that marginalise. I offer a revision:

Chairs are for people. As long as they feel comfortable using a name Facebook determines is valid for all of their interactions with others. And that is why chairs are like Facebook. Oh, wait . . .

And there’s this one great moment in the video (0:18) where a young person is putting a doll on a small chair. Presumably, now that Facebook has seen this they will move in and remove the doll for violating the chair’s policy of not using pseudonyms.

Actually, I believe one metaphor introduced in the short video is fairly accurate, though not for the reason intended: ‘airplanes’. They’re an exclusionary technology. They help you better connect with others, but there’s a significant cost involved – privacy, security, safety – making it realistically unavailable to many. Panics about security fears lead to the removal of civil liberties and then the service becomes worse for everybody.

Facebook is getting bigger every day. According to their numbers, about one in every seven people use the service worldwide, and this fraction is considerably higher in some locations. But at least with air travel there is the sense that an elected government*** has some level of regulatory control. Facebook is a company who have complete authoritarian control over dictating the terms of discourse on a social platform that (apparently) one seventh of the global population use.

Are we comfortable with this? I know I’m not.


* I don’t believe they’ve actually reached this number yet. See my recent discussion on Facebook numbers for some of the reasons why. Despite whatever the real number is, it’s still considerably large, and it’s not that useful to focus on the details. But because I’m talking about it now anyway, I might estimate that, conservatively, at least one in every nine people globally, rather than one in every seven, relate to a legitimate, personal Facebook account.

** I can’t be sure if it was like this originally, but both commenting and voting were disabled on October 9 when I first saw the video.

*** Obviously, this varies country to country.

ETA: Facebook say they have reached ’1 billion monthly active users on September 14 at 12.45 PM Pacific time’. Mentions of the ’1 billion’ number I saw elsewhere just said ‘users’, not ‘active users’. the latter suggests the number of legitimate users is closer to the stated 1 billion than I thought in my notes above.

Pre-writing history

There’s an old saying that history is written by the victors – or winners, or some other variant of this. This relates to Orwell’s ‘He who controls the present, controls the past. He who controls the past, controls the future’. Nietzsche also offers a nice alternative: ‘Memory says, “I did that.” Pride replies, “I could not have done that.” Eventually, memory yields’. After a very brief search I couldn’t find where this sentiment may have originated.

I find it interesting but I’d never really thought about it much until I heard a variation on this last year that went something like,

It’s not the winners that write history; it’s the authors.

(I can’t for the life of me remember where I heard this – possibly on a podcast – but hopefully it’s hidden somewhere in my complex note system. I’ll get back to you.)

I quite liked the idea behind this revision. There are individuals – authors and others – who hold the most power over collective memory so it’s a bit limited to suggest the entire group ‘the winners’ are the ones who ‘write history’. This got me thinking about these ideas in relation to my own work.

I had been looking at the representation of populations and reading about Organisation Intersex International Australia‘s campaign calling for a revision to the binary sex representation of individuals in the census. The problem is that as many as one one percent of individuals who may not easily fit within the binary understanding of sex are delegitimised by not being counted. (And are technically committing perjury if they follow the rules.) In addition to more immediate social effects, ABS’s decision means that intersex individuals, among others, are being written out of the official historical record of our country’s population.

Any categorical limitations introduced in order to simplify census fields can make large demographics suddenly invisible.

Do you know how many intersex individuals were in Australia according to the last census? None. Since it became national in 1911? None.

But this is only one source of historical documentation, you might say, you could probably find that kind of information elsewhere. You would be correct, but the same could be said about the other quotes above.

The point is that this is a more general phenomenon that can be seen in social media systems or any other digital spaces.  Developers predetermine the rules of identity performance and social engagement, implementing systems that can disproportionately block access from certain demographics and deactivate and remove accounts it doesn’t feel comply with its aims. Which individuals may have their content archived and the strict set of rules that govern the structure of data decide what is present in memory for later access.

With this in mind I offer the following as a further revision:

System designers and programmers write history – in advance.

This isn’t a problem in itself. And we’re kinda stuck with it actually. We just have to be vigilant, as a society, if we are to identify and prevent social problems that result from an over reliance on technologies that archive according to strict, limited categorisations.

Percentages of Facebook users in Australia

In the comments of my previous post I mentioned the benefits of working out the percentage of people who are on Facebook by location, as this would help support an argument about the ethics of excluding people from such spaces. (If more people are on there, the social cost of opting out becomes greater.) I felt inspired to do a quick calculation of the numbers. Prepare yourself for an onslaught of numbers and tables!

Calculating Australia’s current population

We last held a census on August 9 2011 and the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) website is a great resource for demographic information. This page helpfully displays census data for the Greater Sydney area, New South Wales and Australia overall, which I will be referring to here.

However, it has been a little over a year since the census and the population will have increased. To address this I will be increasing the values found on that page by 1.4%, the estimated rate of national population increase in 2011 from the previous year as stated on this page. This won’t make my results exact (states and cities increase at different rates, and the past year’s increase may be different to 2011′s), but I think this is close enough for my purposes.

Estimates of the current Australian population by location:

Location Population
Sydney 4,453,157
New South Wales 7,014,505
Australia 21,808,825

Factoring in age restrictions

Facebook doesn’t (officially) allow users under the age of 13. Many ignore this, and some are even assisted by their parents in  setting up an account. For this brief study I’m going to pretend this (possibly significant?) number of underage users does not exist.

The problem, then, is removing people under 13 from my population results table above so I can compare it with Facebook data. The census statistics page helpfully breaks down the population by age, but includes ranges ’10-14′ and ’15-19′ rather than having a convenient break between ages 12 and 13. To address this I have used the 2011 totals by location and removed the entire population of under 10s and 3/5 of the 10-14 demographic, and then increased these values by 1.4% as above to estimate the current population.

Revised estimates of current populations to include only those over 13:

Location Population (13+)
Sydney 3,762,165
New South Wales 5,930,528
Australia 18,440,93

Getting data from Facebook

One thing I love about Facebook is that its advertising page allows you to find interesting demographic data about its users. You need to be logged in first (I used my testing account), but all you need to do is go to the ‘Advertise on Facebook’ page, put in a URL (anything – it doesn’t matter), and then play around with the ‘Choose your audience’ section that appears. For example, if you wanted to work out how many Australian accounts have no declared ‘gender’ (yet another example of interchangeability of terms), you select ‘Australia’ as the location and ‘All’ under ‘Gender’ and it displays the audience size to the right (11,624,680 – this and following values retrieved 24 September 2012). Subtract from this the number of ‘Men’ (5,336,740) and ‘Women’ (6,091,320) users and you find that 196,620 (1.69%) Australian accounts have not succumbed to Facebook’s insistence, since 2008, that they choose a sex/gender. (It’s impossible for new accounts to opt out now, of course.)

However, there are issues with trusting this data. First of all, it isn’t clear how accurate the values displayed are, and – discounting a highly unlikely set of chance results – all values are rounded to 10. But more than that the results rely entirely on the accuracy of user entered data.

The 11.6 million ‘Australia’ Facebook accounts counted here include, among those from legitimate users,

  • Accounts of deceased persons
  • Abandoned accounts
  • Accounts from those who have moved away and not updated the location on their profile
  • Additional accounts from those who have multiple accounts
  • Accounts from those who are under 13 (which presents a problem for my calculation)
  • Fake accounts (like mine)
  • Accounts made by others for non-humans such as groups, brands, non-human animals, children (who are human but not operating their own account), etc.
  • Closed accounts that are still archived (I have no way of determining whether these are part of the number)
  • Anything else … ?

I’ll call those ‘non-legitimate accounts’ for the purposes of this discussion.

In addition to this, the total number does not include Australian users who

  • Do not declare their location (for example, I calculated that 5.11% ‘Australia’ Facebook users have not declared a state – it’s unclear how many users choose not to declare a country*)
  • Declare another (fictional or real) location

To an extent, items on these two lists cancel each other out, but it’s difficult to argue whether, say, the active number of Australians on Facebook is higher or lower than the 11.6M stated by the advertising page. (Any thoughts?)

For my purposes here I’m simply going to use the data given to me by Facebook, though I freely admit the issues raised here make any conclusions or results problematic.

Population of Australians on Facebook

By refining my Facebook advertising results by choosing the city ‘Sydney’, the state ‘NSW’, and the country ‘Australia’, and comparing them with the results of my earlier tables, I get the following results:

Location Estimated population (13+) Declared Facebook population Percentage on Facebook
Sydney 3,762,165 2,669,540 60%
New South Wales 5,930,528 3.792.440 54.1%
Australia 18,440,933 11,624,680 53.3%

It makes sense that Sydney has a higher percentage of Facebook users than the rest of the state and country, but I’m actually surprised it’s quite that high as I assumed fewer users would go the extra trouble of declaring a city, let alone their state, on their profile. I also don’t know what the earlier Facebook profile interface was like, but I assume it wouldn’t have categorised locations as well as it currently does so many older accounts may say ‘Sydney’ (text field), or one of many locations that are encapsulated within it, rather than ‘Sydney’ as a tagged, searchable category option. Therefore I suspect many may be missing from this 60% total, though that number may be countered by the number of non-legitimate accounts.


In short, what we’ve seen here is how one may use available data from Facebook and the ABS to determine a non-reliable percentage of Facebook users by location.

This and similar studies could be used in arguments regarding the coerciveness of Facebook and how, because of the high prevalence of use within a population, Facebook and similar systems, despite their status as private enterprises who ‘should be able to do whatever they want because it’s their system’, may actually have a responsibility in making their systems accessible to all by removing barriers such as ‘real identity’ requirements. Because such a high percentage of our social engagement now occurs online, and much of it on Facebook, those who are barred from entry lose the ability to meaningfully engage with their communities, both geographic and virtual, to a fair extent. When systems impose marginalisation and society silences diverse voices because they adopt such systems for everyday interaction, ideas stagnate and we lose as a civilisation.

… And other things I won’t go into now.

Of course, if anyone is actually tempted to use my results or method in making these or other arguments, be prepared for others to dispute the numbers. There’s a wide range of uncertainty within the Facebook data that I’ve only just begun to address.

But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. As someone who advocates for profile systems making all fields optional, it makes me happy to recognise the major limitations of this data =)


* If I could be bothered, I could work out the populations of every country, add them together and subtract that from the number of total Facebook users, and then attribute a percentage of this number (relating to the ratio of declared Australian users) to the Australian population … but that could take a while.

Real name coercion: a survey that helps ‘make Facebook better’

I just read the recent news that Facebook, apparently through various iterations over the past few months, has been asking users to confirm whether or not their friends are using real names.

This news appears to have gotten big following a Tweet on September 20 that helpfully included a screenshot. An article on (TPM) outlines the story well, along with some of the concerns, and includes a few official responses from Facebook. I share the concern that it’s unclear as to what Facebook is using these survey results for, but I think there’s more to this move than direct policing by the service themselves.

First of all I wanted to address a claim that appeared in the TPM article and happens to have been adopted by others breaking the story. It ends with a paragraph stating

In general, Web users may prefer anonymity for reasons of personal safety. But Facebook is not alone in enforcing a real names policy: Google Plus provoked a backlash for employing a similar policy shortly after in launched in late June 2011, a response dubbed “Nym Wars” as in “pseudonym,” for the desire of some users to use pseudonyms. Google Plus has since backed away from this policy as well.

The final sentence suggests Google no longer enforces a real names policy. Interestingly, the first embedded link doesn’t suggest this at all. The second link discusses the eventual move by Google to finally allow pseudonyms in addition to real names within its service. Allowing the inclusion of pseudonyms does not mean it is no longer enforcing a real names policy. (I wrote about this back in January.) I think it’s dangerous to paint Google as leading the way in social media privacy; that’s not what they have achieved here.

The second issue that isn’t really being raised is that of how this may affect engagement with these systems. TPM quotes a Facebook representative as stating “This isn’t so we can go and get that person in trouble […] None of our surveys are used for any enforcement action.” The story as discussed by this and other posts appears to centre around whether or not Facebook is sincere when making such statements, but I feel this is largely irrelevant. The simple suggestion of potential enforcement can change user practices much more than any actual enforcement system – which Google and Facebook both know is extremely difficult and all too easily results in a PR nightmare.

Say you use a pseudonym on Facebook and you get one of these notices asking you to confirm whether one of your friends are using a ‘real name’ (whatever that is). Regardless of what you do next, you’re going to be a little less comfortable risking pseudonymous engagement yourself now you are aware of the possibility friends of yours could just as easily receive a similar message about your account. And if you’re not yet on Facebook and regularly read these sorts of alarmist articles, you’re going to feel even less confident signing up with a ‘fake name’.

Facebook enforces their ‘real names policy’ in a rather intelligent way. They don’t do heavy-handed bans like Google did last year; rather, they regularly publicise their stance on real names (in their official documentation, by allowing interviews with Zuckerberg, etc) to suggest an environment where there is a risk of account deactivation. All they need to do is occasionally ban accounts when they receive a complaint from an enemy (an individual, a company, a government) of that account (this is believed to be what happened to blogger Michael Anti last year), and let the low-level news coverage do the work for them.

No one wants their account to be deactivated. Even if Facebook keeps to their word and does not act on data gathered by these name surveys, which I suspect might be the case, actions and stories like these serve to scare users into compliance.

Light hacks

I barely touched my desk lamp lampshade this evening and it broke, apparently quite brittle from many years of loyal service. Without the lampshade the light was too bright so I began devising plans to construct a replacement in the vague future.

Desk lamp using old jar as a lampshadeIn the meantime, Cassie fixed it =)

Creative Commons License

Images appearing in this post are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Version control: In which Facebook makes improvements and my work suffers

In a paper I presented last year I discussed how hiding your sex/gender from your public Facebook profile didn’t actually remove the gendered language the system uses to refer to you. So, when leaving the box unselected, like so

'Hiding' sex status on Facebook

your public profile would still use sentences such as, “If you know Anne, add her as a friend or send her a message” (emphasis mine).

Facebook's gendered language

I see this as a concern for various reasons I’ve discussed elsewhere and I won’t go into them now. (Google+ also had a similar practice during its testing phase, which it changed fairly quickly after receiving a lot of user feedback. Frances Haugen from Google talks about the situation here, for anyone wanting a refresher.)

I mention this again this week because I’m in the process of finalising a paper which reviews gender and sex usage in social media systems and discusses potential social effects leading from these system design choices. It was going well and I had a great structure that appeared to work, but yesterday I went to check out Facebook’s system to confirm my statements and noticed that they appear to have addressed the above issue. Now, when looking at a person’s public profile, regardless of whether they’ve chosen to hide their declared gender/sex status, you see shorter sentences that avoid pronoun usage altogether.

Facebook system avoiding gendered pronouns

I think this is a great move! Eventually I’ll make time to look into other instances of this and evaluate how easily other systems can introduce similar changes (it’s difficult because I’m not that familiar with other languages/cultures). But for now I have to finish writing my paper. And this improvement throws a spanner into the works. (Or, rather, removes one that I was hoping to talk about a bit.)

I can work around it. I just need to do some work on changing the way I’ve structured everything. But it does raise one major difficulty I’ve been having throughout my research; that of being unable to easily record how the systems I discuss change over time when they are ‘closed’ systems.

Last year when Google Profiles allowed users to hide their gender status I kicked myself because I didn’t think to take a screenshot (a documented first-hand account that may constitute a better academic reference than a random person’s blog post) before it was changed – honestly, I didn’t think they’d fix it! I could keep taking regular screenshots of various interfaces, but that’s time consuming when I don’t actually know what I may want to focus on later. It’s what changes that becomes interesting, and I don’t have forewarning. In this case with Facebook removing gendered pronouns I actually have screenshots; what I don’t have is an idea about when, exactly, within the twelve months between my two screenshots these changes were actually made.

Couple this with the fact that some users see different iterations of a system interface, depending on their location or the server they’re using, documenting something accurately for later use can be quite difficult.

And this is one important (though small) reason I love open source software: I can find out which version is running on a particular server and then look through the code personally to document it accurately. This allows one to take a historical look at these services.

With all their talk about ‘transparency’, I wish Facebook and Google+ would take this direction. Just for me.

It would make my work a little easier.