Facebook’s Gender Project: The Customizable “Other” | Emily Miller

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Folks in the United States who are drafting up their Facebook personas now have three categories from which to choose if they opt to identify a gender: “Female,” “Male,” or “Custom.” Within “Custom,” folks can insert up to ten choices from over 56 options to choose from. Perhaps our friends at Facebook could not bring themselves to embrace the irony of the “Other” category. It really is too bad that Simone de Beauvoir is not around to capitalize on the incredible potential of a 56-volume follow-up to The Second Sex.

When I first heard the news that Facebook was going to offer so many new gender options, I felt relieved. Surely this is a sign of the times: The world’s largest social networking site is complicating the unsatisfying binary of Male/Female and vindicating some 700,000 trans people living in the United States. I thought about the potential education that casting off the shroud of silence surrounding these issues could precipitate. Then I looked a little closer.

If you choose “Female” or “Male,” you will never have to bother yourself with the other 56 options buried beneath your fingertips. You can allow the “Custom” option to fade off the bottom of the list like the obligatory gay pride article in June that spends one uninvited, unwelcome day in the house before resigning to its fate in the recycling bin. If you do choose “Custom,” you will be presented with a deceptively blank box in which to insert your preferred gender. You can type anything you want — provided that you type one of the 56 options. The sweet taste of recognition is growing bitterer by the second.

I was really excited to think that there would be a drop-down list of 58 choices and that “Male” would find itself nestled between “Intersex” and “Male to Female.” I wanted folks to have to turn and face the fact that gender is so much more complicated than Male/Female. I wanted this to be a profound educational moment. I wanted to hold my cursor over each option for a quick definition of the term. I wanted this change to incite folks who have never found themselves in an “Intro to Gender Studies” course to further educate themselves. Knowing full well that it can be off-putting to feel unwelcome as a newcomer to this sort of education, I wanted the whole production to be thoughtful and delicate.

I wanted so much more.

The educational piece is entirely missing — as is any sort of enumeration of all of the available options that Facebook provides. As it is currently laid out, Facebook seem to be saying, “You begin typing the gender with which you identify, and we will tell you if you made the cut.”

At the risk of provoking those who are already up in arms over the lengthy list, I have to ask: What about the people who do not fit into one of the new categories? Facebook’s gender catchall may serve to further erase those who do not find a fit among its choices. Perhaps it will serve to drive a schism through the queer community, separating those content to hop into one of the 56 new buckets from those who reject gender markers altogether. Maybe the lack of buckets was not the problem. Maybe the buckets themselves were the problem.

Then there is the dark underbelly of this campaign for inclusion: The buckets are not the problem for someone who is interested in targeted marketing campaigns. Some days, I feel like Facebook has me pegged. An advertisement for EMILY’s List followed by another for the Pittsburgh Steelers? That movie Her is starting to make some sense… Facebook wants to know more about us; in fact, it wants to know as much about us as we are willing to tell it. (I am more than halfway tempted to change my Facebook gender to “Cisgender Male,” “Cisgender Female,” and “Transgender” just to throw the whole mechanism into a tailspin.)

And how about the existential crisis that ensues when those who were formerly content to float outside of the Male/Female binary without appending any specific label to themselves are faced with a lengthy list of concrete choices? What am I? Where am I? Which of these is “me”?

That said, I am not someone who likes to pick a fight, and as a general practice, I try to remain optimistic and assume good intentions. For those who search and find themselves named among the Custom choices, these changes have the potential to be a very big deal. These new options have lifesaving potential. Think of a questioning young person who had no idea that there were so many possible options, who finds possibility and hope in the community of unidentified others who have similarly sought refuge beyond the binary.

For those who have felt isolated and invisible, this is big — especially considering that the average user spends 17 minutes per day on the site. (Many, as you may well know, spend much more.) We have such a unique opportunity to define ourselves as we exist in social networking spheres. To an extent, we are able to control what we provide for others to see. For better or worse, each day, in passing strangers as we walk down the street, we note first the race and gender of those we pass. In some cases, our brains find this task relatively simple, and it takes care of the coding before we ever have to think about it. (We make a whole host of assumptions and reach many problematic conclusions based on the data we intake, but that is a whole other topic for another day.) In other cases, our unthinking system is foiled and we must leave the coding unresolved. Until we are all wearing Google Glass and our preferred gender markers (or lack thereof) float above our heads like those little diamonds above The Sims (yes, that is how I imagine that Google Glass works), the next largest platform for sharing our preferred gender with the world may well be Facebook.

Sure, there is room for improvement, and I hope that many folks will add their voices to the conversations around these topics. In undertaking these sorts of projects, we will never get it exactly right, nor will we ever please everyone. Maybe that was never the point anyway. Maybe the best we can do is to start these conversations and, while critiquing and analyzing the changes, acknowledge that this is a really big, important shift.

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