Does that screen make you crazy? If so, there are a lot of people who agree with you. Since the summer of 2008, you have been required to indicate that you are either male or female. And while the good people at Facebook say you may keep it off your profile, the pronouns it uses to refer to you will be decided by which one you choose. Facebook say the requirement is entirely motivated by a desire for good grammar.
The real reason for it is probably for Facebook Ads — the company’s targetted advertising service. We cannot be allowed to forget, of course, that the users of Facebook are not Facebook’s customers. The advertisers are the customers. We are actually the product.
And the advertisers don’t want unspecified or complicated products. They want to target advertisements for pink snuggies to women and hunting knives to men. So, Facebook have largely ignored the pleas from the queer community to allow people to choose no gender, “transgender” or “other” or to simply define their own.
Enter Diaspora (what is Diaspora?). Diaspora is an open-source, privacy-conscious Facebook alternative. It’s still in alpha, so you can’t just sign up, but I have a few invites left if anyone wants to have a poke around. Just leave a comment.
The emphasis with Diaspora is on making sure that you are fully in control of your own information. You can fully delete your profile. When you accept someone as a contact, you immediately put them into “aspects” or groups. That makes it even easier to control who sees what.
You can even host your own “pod” on a server you control, which means that your information is never anyone else’s property.
The big news, for a lot of people, is that you can write in your own gender. There is no drop down, or check box. They haven’t even put in male or female as options. Everyone will write in what they want, if they want to write anything at all. So there will be males, females, women, men, boys, girls, bois, trans, queers, futches, butches, genderqueer dykes, pangender, androgyne, third gender, and anything else you can think of. You can write in unicorn if that makes you happy.
In fact, the developer who contributed this particular feature to the Diaspora project includes this little image of the various gender identities used by her friends:
She explains her decision:
Four years ago, at my first rails job, I worked at a company with a mostly-lesbian customer base. It turns out, in that context, knowing if someone is “male” or “female” gives you almost no useful information. The lesbian community has other widely-accepted categories of gender, but the company’s internal order tracking software — a well-known package from a national vendor — offered only male or female.
As a result, the company didn’t even bother to ask for gender when users created accounts.
That was my first real-life experience with the limitations of the gender binary. It was certainly interesting, but it was essentially academic. Not long after I left that job, though, one of my closest family members told me that he’s transgender. That made the whole subject way more immediate.
She also spoke to Sarah Dopp — who identifies as an “Androgynous Queer Girl” — who had written this in her blog:
Now imagine signing up for a cool website, and then being required to select an option from a drop-down menu that doesn’t include anything that represents you. If you don’t decide to close the browser window right then and there, you’ll probably pick the gender of the restroom you still use in public when you have no other choice (even though people might stop you to tell you you’re in the wrong one no matter what), and you’ll feel defeated. You’ll want to argue that whatever they think they’re learning from that drop-down menu, it’s not really true. You’ll want to tell them that they’re adding to your humiliation by making you do this. You’ll want to tell them that they’re missing a huge part of you by boiling this rich and beautiful characteristic down into a two-option drop-down menu.
Diaspora is still in very early days, but it’s good to see that the services of the future are considering the needs of users who don’t identify with the standard options on drop-down lists. Of course, taking on Facebook is a David and Goliath situation is there ever was one. It remains to be seen if users really value their privacy and right to self-identify as much as they do the convenience of a service they’ve used for years.