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.