Tag Archives: identity

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.

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 networkcultures.org 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 networkcultures.org 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 networkcultures.org 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.

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.

Postgraduate symposium abstract

I’ve just submitted a finalised abstract for a paper I’ll be giving at the UNSW postgraduate symposium in September.  I thought I’d post it here =)

It was difficult choosing between this and my other, similar topic that focused more on temporality.  (I think this one was easier to find useful examples for.)  I figure these topics will both end up as chapters in my eventual thesis so I don’t feel too bad about it yet.

Time to have lunch, and begin making plans to refamiliarise myself with Deleuze!

====================

* Required fields: human rights issues in the digital influence of identity

As the number of people taking advantage of the convenience and social aspects of digital communications technology grows, the public discourse on privacy has become louder and more urgent. While privacy policies and regulatory organisations guide data holders toward responsible practices and aim to reassure users about their online safety, engagement with digital technologies may have unexpected, negative consequences for the nature of identity.

When signing up to digital services, we provide personal information for practical purposes and in order to personalise our experience. But what if you don’t identify with any of the options allowed in a required field? What if you feel certain mandatory details are irrelevant to the context? What if you wish to omit information due to concerns over personal safety? When digital services decide what identifiable information is relevant about us, and make the declaration of these a requirement of legitimate participation both within our existing social circles and the wider public sphere, our identities are altered and our potential for expression becomes diminished.

It has been said that access to the internet, as it facilitates our freedom of expression, has become a human rights issue. In this presentation I will argue that, when technology imposes features of identification some users are uncomfortable with, when it erases minority voices from the conversation and when such experience leads us to tread more carefully with our digital footprints, external rules that manage identities in our digital environment also introduce issues of human rights. This presentation will then outline some of the ways we, as a society, may begin to address this issue and reclaim some of this lost control over our personal identity.

Search terms and search times

I started doing some research on search engine results and online identities this morning for a presentation I’m preparing for later in the year.  Like anyone, I was interested to see what comes up when I type in my own name.

Searching ‘Andrew McNicol’ in Duck Duck Go gives many results, but as it’s a common enough name there’s nothing about me until entry 12, which points to a small article about dried papaya that I helped edit once for my local food co-op.  I have no idea why this is deemed of higher relevance than all the other instances of me, using my full name, on the Internet.  The next entry relevant to me is 26 which mentions my participation in my faculty’s three minute thesis competition earlier this year.

I use the Duck duck Go search engine because I appreciate its focus on user privacy.  An effect of this is that results aren’t reordered for an assumed relevance to me.  This helps me to see here what an average person would if they searched the same terms.

More related to me than my full name is the username ‘mcnicolandrew’ which I’ve used for various services.  The first five results in Duck Duck Go relate to me.

Just over two months ago, I wrote about this new blog and how I chose ‘exhipigeonist’ as my new username for various services.  At the time, searching the name in Google returned zero results!  Since then I’ve blogged here a little, and changed account names on Twitter and various software forums.  Right now, google.com returns 218 results for the query; Duck Duck Go returns 5.  I thought this would be an excellent opportunity to see what happens to a username after its recent introduction to the Internet.

Google, obviously, has more thorough and/or intrusive webcrawlers.  For everyday searches this makes little difference to me, but here it it valuable in giving me a picture of what my username has been doing, quietly in the background while I’m not looking.  Twitter is the first result in both search engines.  I’m not certain why, but it’s perhaps safe to say it’s because I had been fairly active there soon after changing my account name.  My blog comes up shortly after, followed by a few forum discussions on OpenOffice.org and Linux Mint.  My new website (not active yet, I’ll keep you updated) appears eventually.  Twitter accounts for even more results because posts are public and are easily cached by services wanting to record conversations (I’ve occasionally participated in the weekly #privchat discussion, which apparently qualifies me to be on ‘legal professionals’ lists) or map user connections.  Then I get a few more unexpected hits.

Perhaps the strangest is a post on us.hotmai.org that has copied the content of one of my entries and posted it.  I don’t know if I’m comfortable with that, even if they did credit me at the top.  I guess it’s alright, but notice would have been nice.  (Do I have trackbacks enabled?  I’ll have to check.)  There does not appear to be a way to easily contact the blog owner about it if I wanted to.

I also see many results from sites which appear to cache blogs which talk about Dell computers, linking to my post about my home computer setup.

Lastly, there appears to be a very specific WordPress category entitled ‘Community Paranoia Surveillance Socialengagement Unsw Computers’ which highlights a recent entry of mine as a ‘featured blog’.  I have no idea how these categories are decided on and this appears more than a little odd.

Most of these hits and the order they appear are unsurprising.  It’s a recently created pseudonym and it fairly accurately describes my Internet activity and relevance using this name over the past two months.  What will be more interesting to watch is how these results change over time, and how easily older activity gets lost in the results pages to prioritise current activity.  How relevant does Google consider temporality to be when calculating search term result order?  This is what is going to be integral to my research.

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!

Bullying in the networked public

I was bullied two days ago. I was at a bus stop with a few other strangers when a ‘P plater’ with two friends stopped a car on the side of the road opposite us and began heckling. I was listening to a podcast and trying to ignore them so I didn’t hear exactly what they said to me, their final victim, before driving off, but I believe the taunts may have raised witty questions about the status of my sex.

I wanted to tell myself that this didn’t get to me, but it did. It wasn’t that I felt insulted – if anything, that I heard the same taunts from twelve-year-olds when I was growing up is an insult to their wit – it was because people felt this sort of behaviour was something they could get away with. Words can hurt, badly, and this just isn’t acceptable. But what could I do about it? Paying attention to bullies only makes it more enjoyable for them, and responding can escalate the situation.

As a common target for bullying, I was no stranger to the ‘light bulb moment’ experienced soon after a confrontation when you realise the wittiest response you could – but rarely ‘should’ – have made. This time it was different, though; rather than the typical, verbal, “No, sir, I think you’ll find it is you who is silly looking”, a better idea better came to me, something frightening in its simplicity to change the uneven power structure I found myself in:

Pull out a camera. Say nothing. Begin filming.

This digital disarmament would work because, even if they drive off laughing at their victims, there is a looming question about what did and what will happen. Would I give the film to the police? But they can’t do anything – can they? Would I give it to local high schools and attempt to contact their parents? What if I managed to find them and attempted blackmail? Would I post it on YouTube, using their license plate for the video title, and attempt to find more identifying information about them to better illustrate the monument to public shaming, forcing them to own their actions for the rest of their lives?

Or, perhaps, I wasn’t even filming at all. This ambiguity is, I would argue, far more concerning than a single act of cowardly verbal abuse toward a stranger – in many cases, at least. Where the abusers had control over a brief situation, I may now have control over personally identifiable and incriminating information about them – information that is infinitely reproducible and not ‘lossy’. The power dynamic is immediately reconfigured. The uneven power has been dissipated from my transgressors and I immediately have the upper-hand.

With the average citizen’s gradually increased potential to be an instant surveillance recording device, such a response becomes more and more likely. In fact, ‘license plate titled YouTube videos’ and similar responses could easily become a ‘thing’ that – once public knowledge – parents, employers, schools and other authoritative institutions may routinely search for.

The part of me who remembers growing up as a daily target of bullying can certainly see the benefits of such technology trends. Once people realise their actions may be monitored, the tendency to taunt others could be reduced, and this is certainly a positive result.

However, such a lesson may be learned at the expense of (for lack of a better term) ‘reverse-bullying’, which could produce longer lasting effects. Not only has the bully’s power been reduced, the victim is now able to respond with a retaliation action that has potential negative consequences larger than the original act of bullying. And this new power, in the hands of one who has been forced into a defensive position, may be difficult to restrain.

Education becomes an important issue here. In addition to the many complex concepts about information flows and identity ‘the youth of today’ need to learn in order to protect themselves in our digital society, we need to make explicit the consequences of recording devices. On the one hand, we should not post things about others. On the other, we shouldn’t bully because others can post things about us if we do, or our actions can be easily traced (cyber-bullying and IP addresses) and we can be punished. But disarming both actions through education could make everyone paranoid about surveillance.

Education is not my area of expertise so I may leave the questions on teaching children about surveillance and the effects this has on social freedom for another time. The issues around reverse-bullying strongly resonate with me, however, as a person who strongly believes in the power of reform over that of punishment. The temporal nature of digital media increases the power of punishment exponentially in this scenario, and the act of passive retaliation – say, having a camera visible to make a statement of ambiguity but not recording at all – is only successful if there is a sense that punishment effects are a real possibility, which would not be the case if everyone was passive. So, in short, people are going to get hurt.

But people have been getting hurt for many, many years as the victims of bullying. Even if the odd tragedy is inevitable, I do feel the popularisation of digital recording devices could improve the situation overall. I just wonder if I’m being overly optimistic.