Tiffany B. Brown

On Google+ and Gender

Another social network launches and another kerfluffle about gender and privacy is born. This time it’s Google+, it’s must-be-public* gender drop down, and the choice to identify as “Male,” “Female,” or “Other.” Randall Munroe sums it up nicely.

For a discussion about why “Other” is problematic as a category, see Sarah Dopp’s piece from November, 2010 “Gender is a Text Field” (Diaspora, backstory, and context). She’s much smarter than I am about gender and identity, so I’ll point you there.

I, however, question the need to ask for a user’s gender at all. As Munroe said in his Google+ post:

They also (obviously) want to know more about you so they can serve ads; advertisers care about gender. But again, that’s no reason to make gender public.

Identity is a multi-faceted thing. One part of a person’s identity may well be subsumed or tempered by another aspect of it. Aside from perhaps personals ads, is there a reason to collect it at all?

By demographics, I am a married, college-educated, employed, black woman in my mid-30s. Those demographic datapoints suggest that I would care about working mother issues, Tyler Perry, and church. Ads served to me based on those assumptions, however, would miss their target. I am a child-free atheist and quite intent on remaining so. And no, I don’t like Tyler Perry.

About the only thing a gender field tells you is whether a person identifies as male, female, or neither. But if advertisers insist that they need to know gender so they can misfire ads, I propose using either or both of the following strategies:

Make gender a text field and use taxonomy or heuristics to guess gender

It’s a simple idea: put a text input field in the user interface. Users can enter what they wish. Then using a list of something gendered — male and female words (“dude” / “dudette”), names, perhaps closest connections — we can guess at the gender of the user in question.

Of course, this approach is problematic in that it is imprecise. Techie and tomboyish women may be misidentified as male. But I suspect such misidentification would actually make ads more relevant to those women.

Provide a preferred pronoun field

Even better: let the user set the pronoun he or she or ze or zir prefers. This settles questions such as those faced by xkcd where a bot or user interface needs to be grammatically correct. But it is not necessarily a definitive statment about gender.

And again: give users the option to make that data public, private, or leave it out altogether.

(Via The Mary Sue)

*Google has changed this (or will soon).

3 Responses to “On Google+ and Gender”

  1. Cecily Walker says:

    Superdyke, a community for LGBT women, has two separate sections: one for gender and one for sexuality. Under gender, they include female, male, genderqueer, trans, FTM, MTF, and other. I know some will wince at that level of granularity, and scoff at it as an example of PC gone wrong, but it provides enough space for the members of that site to come close to specifying the gender expression that they most closely identify with.

  2. Anonymous says:

    That’s not a bad compromise either, particularly for targeted communities like Superdyke.

    I still question its usefulness for general audience social sites like Google+ and Facebook. Knowing gender may help if you’re selling tampons or dick scrub.* But if you’re trying to personalize marketing — you’d be better off observing my feed.

    * See:–d–k-scrub

  3. MyFreeWeb says:

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