Tag Archives: language

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.

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.