Tag Archives: facebook

Is limited representation bad for advertisers?

I’m writing a chapter about the representation of individual persons this month so I’ve been thinking more than usual about the justifications for limiting profile options.

One common reason for, say, giving users of your system a limited set of predefined options to choose from (drop-down menus, toggle switch, ticky boxes, etc) is that such strict categorisation allows for easy collection of specific data. You can more easily compare users. And often – for example, if you’re using a free corporate social media service – this categorisation ties right into the advertising side of the business; they offer targeted advertising services to other businesses wanting web traffic in order to remain financially viable.

I was looking at Facebook’s ad targeting page this week, which outlines the process of targeting specific demographics and later seeing detailed metrics that help you review your approach. (Check it out, it’s interesting!)

Another concept I’ve been looking at a lot this week is that of ‘Big Data’. I had some trouble defining it so I evaluated other attempts . . . which weren’t as helpful as I had hoped. It appears Big Data is one of those new buzz words that everyone is using and defining differently in relation to their own work or theoretical context.

However, the MIKE2.0 site offers an interesting understanding that emphasises the complexity of data, rather than its size, as being the definitive property of Big Data. This appeals to me and my approach because it highlights the confusion and potential for new understandings that this phenomenon introduces. To complement this, I also like Mac Slocum’s description of social data as “an oracle waiting for a question” in this context. There is just so much data out there and the new problems we face are less to do with accessing data than trying to ask the right questions to find out something new and exciting.

And this is where we return to Facebook. I’ve always thought the best argument for limited representation (gender/sex is always a good example, but other categories are just as relevant here) is that it helps with their advertisers. However, we have technology that can produce rich datasets and give us more details about individuals, so wouldn’t allowing a greater range of representation actually improve targeted advertising? Companies can include or exclude demographics and then better review the effectiveness of their advertising in much more detail.

One example that Facebook gives is a success story where a wedding photography business targeted women aged 24-30 who were recently engaged. Of course this works*, but it would be even more successful if they could look at and target finer demographics within this quite broad dataset. Imagine if Facebook simply allowed for an ‘other’ gender/sex option – even this simple change would help many advertisers not pay to target ‘those crazy, politically correct hippies who probably wouldn’t want my products anyway’, and give many more advertisers the ability to more easily target this specialised group.

Big Data is complicated, but it enables us to uncover interesting and important details. And where corporations such as Facebook may benefit from expanding its user options, government funded projects like the census who still enforce a male/female binary and ignore non-standard religions – thus making us all miss out on exploring and better understanding our diverse population now and in the future, which is an important aspect of its purpose – really have no excuse.

Admittedly, this is the very early stage of an idea so it’s not completely thought out, but it’s the first time I’ve been able to see Facebook’s binary gender/sex field as being detrimental to their business and thought this was important enough to share.

* As much as any online advertising works, at least. I’m always surprised to hear that people click on advertising links, because it’s counters my own practices so strongly. But I’m happy these people are out there, keeping the Internet alive!

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Gender and sex interchangeability on Facebook

I heard that Facebook’s ‘sex’ field once said ‘gender’, instead.  This somewhat disturbing interchangeability of two very different words, I feel, helpfully highlights the disconnect between Facebook and the complex individuals it attempts to categorise.  Understanding the difficulties involved in gathering historical information on closed software interfaces, I nevertheless looked for evidence to support the claim that the field name had changed from ‘gender’ to ‘sex’.

‘Sex’ influences gendered pronouns on Facebook.  This is clearly visible on profiles, and just about anywhere users are referred to in some way.  This imposed one-to-one relation is also apparent from the language used in ‘He/She/They: Grammar and Facebook‘, a June 2008 post from The Facebook Blog.  It is claimed that some languages have difficulty with non-gendered pronouns.  “For this reason”, they write,

we’ve decided to request that all Facebook users fill out this information on their profile. If you haven’t yet selected a sex, you will probably see a prompt to choose whether you want to be referred to as “him” or “her” in the coming weeks.

The post goes on to say,

We’ve received pushback in the past from groups that find the male/female distinction too limiting. We have a lot of respect for these communities, which is why it will still be possible to remove gender entirely from your account […].

(Of note is the fact that it is currently impossible to remove gender from your account, like it supposedly was in June 2008.  Hiding your sex status from everyone does not stop Facebook from referring to you using gendered terms (or using a gendered default picture, if you have no profile photos visible) that relate to your declared sex.)

According a a Facebook user (quoted in Emily Rutherford’s June 2009 article ‘Choose One‘) “this is the only peep ever heard from Facebook regarding this issue”.  Two years later, there are still no other mentions of these options in The Facebook Blog.  Google encountered similar issues with non-gendered language translation in Google+, but managed to get around it because they felt user privacy was more important than the discomfort felt by those few who are uncomfortable reading ‘their’ or ‘they’.  (Also of note, Google are not guilty of instituting a culture of sex/gender interchangeability.)

Looking further I found a few interesting conversations and projects people worked on in response to concerns over this limitation.  Sadly, it appears any and all petitions calling for a revision are ignored.  However, I did come across one highly intriguing comment in the Expand Gender Options on Facebook Petition page that claimed setting your language from ‘English (US)’ to ‘English (UK)’ changes references of ‘sex’ to ‘gender’.  That couldn’t be right, I thought, and had to test it out immediately.  But lo and behold, changing the language on your profile options page or the welcome screen, for example, changes the field title.

I have absolutely no idea why this is the case.  Is the gender/sex difference actually considered to be a ‘language difference’ by the Facebook team?  Are different people in charge of the UK translation who happen to have different views on the appropriateness of this field — and hold the power to implement different terminology?

I’m still yet to find any evidence of when — or if — Facebook changed the terminology for all users, but this discovery reveals a situation whereby Facebook is using different terminology to relate to the same field, depending on what settings are used.  I played around with it and confirmed that this difference extends further than self-expression within your own profile — open up the profile page of a user that displays their sex or gender to you and switch your language settings between UK and US English and see what I mean.

This language setting, then, represents a sort of cultural lens through which we understand other users.  What it also represents, however, is a systematic disregard of users’ sex and gender performance.  If I wish to declare my sex in a particular way but others read it as my gender identity (or vice versa), I am being misrepresented.  Some may feel comfortable declaring male or female using one language rather than the other, but the recognition of misrepresentation may destroy any sense of freedom experienced through this act of expression.

In my previous post on sex legitimisation on Facebook I wrote

In the case of Facebook, many of us have lost the power of accurately expressing our identity because we have complied with a system whose context disagrees with our own understanding of sex categorisation.

Now I know there are two systems operating simultaneously I realise it’s actually worse than this.  No one can express their sex or gender identity accurately on Facebook unless they believe, just as Facebook has asserted, gender and sex are exactly the same thing.

Sex and gender legitimisation in context

This year I’ve been looking at, among other things, the representation of sex and gender in digital spaces.  My thesis argues that restricting user options in profile fields – not just sex and gender, but these are great examples – alters the way individuals self-identify, through social feedback loops.  Digital representation introduces major issues of marginalisation and safety (which I won’t go into here), but I’m also looking at the limitations of digital technologies in representing real, complex individuals.

Wanting to get into the habit of posting regularly, I thought I’d share something I noticed recently about misrepresentation by context.

When asked for my sex I respond that I am ‘male’.  This is what I self-identify as biologically.  (I don’t identify as male gendered, but I’m going to avoid that discussion to keep this example simple.)  I have ‘guy parts’ and I personally understand sex as correlating to this aspect of my self.  Categorisation is often difficult and inexact but, while a little uncomfortable with the gathering, use and publication of such information, I am fairly happy to categorise myself in this way.

However, I also believe that sex is not a simple binary.  Not everyone falls neatly into a category of sex that allows only one of two responses.  If I casually identify as male, I am doing so without explicitly acknowledging that this comes with the following concession: I don’t believe in the binary notion of sex.  I am male, but this isn’t to be equated with ‘the opposite of female’.

When creating a Facebook account, you are asked (required) to declare your sex as either male or female.  What is interesting here is that, though I personally identify as male, if I chose that option the system would actually be misrepresenting my sexual identity; it represents me as male, but it represents me as male in the context of the limited and often insulting binary idea of sex.

The meaning of words change depending on their context.  If I told someone from the UK that I dislike football, I would have to address the ambiguity of this statement by including, ‘but by that I don’t mean I dislike soccer’.  ‘Football’ can mean different things depending on the national or cultural context, and not simply the sport being referred to; it could relate to the experience of seeing a game in person, playing first-hand, or represent the wider culture of football fans.  In conversation I could provide further details and state exactly what it is I dislike about football, and any qualities I actually find redeemable.  Digital systems, especially those with binary options, rarely allow for such elaboration and precision of response.

Words play an integral part in self-expression.  When the meanings of words we value become heavily simplified and determined by their context within digital systems, when our range of response becomes limited, we lose an important tool for performing our identity.

Some digital systems address the issue of misrepresentation, in regard to gender and sex.  For example, Diaspora* has an optional text field for gender, allowing users to write whatever they want, only if they want.  (I think this is a pretty good response, but I don’t think it is the optimal solution.  I’ll talk more about issues in designing gendered spaces another time.)  The point is that digital systems demonstrate a strong tendency toward allowing users to, often publicly, identify themselves only within a strict vocabulary defined by the system itself.

In the case of Facebook, many of us have lost the power of accurately expressing our identity because we have complied with a system whose context disagrees with our own understanding of sex categorisation.

Reviwgle+

I begged for an invite and have thus sacrificed part of my dignity to become one of the (temporarily) exclusive group of people with Google+ accounts!

I had read a bit about the service already so much of it wasn’t new to me. I was more interested in the privacy side of things so once I had access I dove straight into reading the privacy policy and playing around with user settings. What follows are a few initial reactions.

Circles

People have written a lot about how this feature is either confusing or a breakthrough in social networking. I actually think it’s neither. I’ve been using a similar feature in livejournal for years (functionality to define and choose groups who can read individual posts has been around for almost a decade now – or more than that, as I’m not sure when livejournal first implemented it) and perhaps because of this experience I view such features to be a minimum standard of user empowerment and privacy. If I can’t define my audience on a post-by-post basis, I may fall into the habit of either censoring myself or not being as careful with my message content as I should.

In short, Circles are great and everyone should get in the habit of using them. I feel it’s important for this kind of thing to become a standard feature of social networking sites.

The ‘Gender’ field

Gender identity in a social media context is a strong interest of mine. I’ve written on this previously, but to put it simply, I don’t feel comfortable with the focus technological systems tend to put on gender (or sex) and hate it even more when they are restrictive and prescriptive.

Google+ earns a few points with me because, unlike Facebook, users have the option of choosing ‘Other’ rather than being limited to ‘Male’ or ‘Female’. However, Google+ loses a lot of points because users only have the option of choosing ‘Other’ if they don’t wish to pick ‘Male’ or ‘Female’.

Both services make this choice a mandatory one. All users must define themselves in relation to an out-of-date – and in many cases offensive – gender binary. Yes, I am aware that gender is viewed as a highly important field for marketing purposes, and that companies such as Google and Facebook find this information valuable, but for many users on social networking sites gender is either irrelevant or, at least, of no more importance than other, optional fields.

Of course, it can also be argued that gender status is important from a technical perspective, making it possible to use gendered pronouns throughout the system. However, Google+ appears to handle the ‘Other’ option’s syntax quite well. If this is a major reason, it should be clear to users so they can make an informed choice about their user experience. If they prefer gendered pronouns to be associated with their alerts, their profiles can be altered.

It’s about this point in conversations surrounding gender status in social media that I usually link to two great discussions from last year, on this topic in relation to Diaspora.

Sarah Dopp “‘Gender is a Text Field’ (Diaspora, backstory, and context)

Sarah Mei “Disalienation: Why Gender is a Text Field on Diaspora

Gender and privacy

Perhaps helped by my interest in both gender and privacy, I immediately recognised an issue with the Google+ profiles that conflicted with the Google+ Privacy Policy (28 June 2011 version) which states,

In order to use Google+, you need to have a public Google Profile visible to the world, which at a minimum includes the name you chose for the profile.

As I was playing around with the privacy settings in my profile, I noticed that I could not change the visibility of my Gender status. This meant that my Google Profile, at minimum, includes my stated gender as well as the name I chose for my profile. Not only does this conflict with the statement that “You can control the privacy of the content that appears in your profile tabs”; it also directly conflicts with Google+’s Privacy Policy.

One great feature of Google+ is that it has a ‘Send feedback’ button in the bottom right-hand corner of the interface. I was sure to send off some feedback about this conflict – but not before I had a chance to post about it on Google+ and Twitter. To my surprise, on Friday Morning (~8am, +10 GMT), less than 48 hours since I sent my feedback, I noticed that it was now possible to hide Gender from public profiles! I received no reply (hey, they’re probably quite busy this week!) so I can’t be certain this is a result of my work, but I like to think it could have been.

(EDIT: Apparently this change may more likely be a result of a previous campaign, helped by a widely discussed post from Randall Monroe.  Though there is no mention of the Privacy Policy conflict.)

Another issue here is that, because Gender is mandatory – there is no ‘opt-out’ – and, by default, profiles are optimised for search engine results, all users give permission for their stated Gender to be associated with their chosen profile name – at least at the initial stage – and for this to be accessed and archived by searched engines. I can’t test for certain without creating a new account, but I suspect Gender is likely set to public by default. If so, despite them making its visibility alterable, I still feel this is a potential privacy issue.

(It should probably be noted that Facebook is worse in dealing with new user data. Names, gender, birthday and email addresses are public by default, and thus allowable to be used by third-party entities. All the information you provide Facebook during registration is ‘post-opt-out’, a term I plan to write about soon.)

I feel systems such as this should be privacy by default. I feel all publication of personal details should be opt-in. I don’t know if this would be considered a good business model, though, so I’m not holding my breath for corporate players to adopt better practices in this regard. Privacy is still not a large enough issue for that to happen.

Google+ good – Privacy Policy

Google certainly wins points when it comes to simply explaining what it does with user data, and in making it simple to understand how to customise privacy settings. (Though I’m an experienced ‘power user’, so not everyone would feel this is as clear as I do.) However, as Google+ is in very early days, it’s unfair to compare this to Facebook and the regular changes made to its privacy settings. Still, the Google+ package doesn’t have to deal with third-party applications and advertisers (at least ones not already part of Google) so it has a much easier job in this regard.

For now, at least. There is already speculation that Google+ may incorporate other features such as third-party games and applications.

Google – the bad and the ugly

I trust Google to use my data in a way I have consented to. I trust them not to change privacy settings in a way that leaves my personal information temporarily vulnerable. But at the same time, I’m very conscious that the system is there to collect information about me that will be used for marketing purposes. Though I recognise that I’ve registered for a ‘free’ service from a company that needs to make money, reminders about the business relationship we have make me feel uncomfortable.

I was surprised to see recently that pseudonyms are not allowed on Google+ profiles. Facebook does something similar and Mark Zuckerberg has publicly stated it is because accountability guides people to act nicer on the Internet. When people hide behind an anonymous identity they are more likely to act like arseholes to each other. While this may be a correct (though simplistic) observation, there is a strong privacy case for using pseudonyms.

Again, livejournal is a great example here. The system allows users to create an identity that links back to their meatspace identity as much or as little as they like – technical experience permitting. Users may also create multiple identities to better hide interests and, say, membership to support communities from other online friends. When a user loses interest in the content discussed in particular communities, they may leave at any time without their actions being easily attributable back to them in meatspace. My five years as a Sailor Moon fan*, taking part in public discussion with a secret identity can be safely ignored, believed never to come back and haunt me when I run for president.

Google and Facebook, on the other hand, rely on ‘real’ names. This has obvious marketing potential. But it also has not-quite-as-obvious ramifications for identity. Jacob Appelbaum has stated, “Everything you do on the Internet paints a picture that tells a story about you tomorrow.” This is a great quote I keep coming back to because it helps highlight the relation between contemporary action and future ramifications. While it can be argued that all online actions can be tracked back to their source, Facebook and Google make this simple. If I used Facebook rather than livejournal when I expressed my love for the world of Sailor Moon, I’d have that associated with my real name forever. Now imagine how much more concerning this situation is when we start discussing mental health support groups or discussions about illegal actions.

Eric Schmidt once suggested teenagers change their names when they turn eighteen to distance themselves from their youthful hijinks. Realistically, though, a name change is not enough to bury your online activities from anyone if you used your real name to begin with.

But perhaps my biggest issue with Google+ is that it’s ‘like Facebook, but better!’ It’s a step forward in terms of user privacy, but it’s not actually a big step. We’re still being asked to allow a walled garden to mediate our social interaction so they can make money from our personal details through advertising. On the one hand, Google could have done much better and released something revolutionary. On the other hand, this could never have happened if it needed to consider the profitability of such a system. It doesn’t make good business sense to allow Google+ users to easily communicate with other social media platforms.

And this is where we stand. No closer to seeing the mass adoption of a federated social media system that grants users complete control over who holds their data, “just as you now choose your e-mail provider, and yet still connect with friends who use other services.” (Ariel Bleicher, “The Making of Diaspora”)

Also, Google+ does not (yet?) use nested comments. So that’s an automatic minus fifty points from Googfyndor!

Summary

Google+ is better than Facebook for various reasons, mostly to do with user privacy. Facebook is still better in practice because Google+ doesn’t have the large user adoption – yet.

But I still don’t like the shared, basic premise of either system. I’ll definitely play around with Google+ for a while longer, and keep submitting feedback every five minutes when I have an idea for improvement (sorry, extremely busy Google developers – it’s just that you’ve got a button right there and it tempts me so!), but I’m going to continue using email to have conversations and organise social engagements because it’s easier, safer, and (among the people I associate with) email raises fewer problems of accessibility.

Until I can use a service to communicate with everyone without requiring them to join a new, commercial service that may not be around forever, it is a broken social networking system.

* I’m only kidding**.

** . . . Or am I? Perhaps that is the point!