The Internet is officially abuzz about Facebook Inc.’s newly expanded gender categories. Here’s the story in brief: Facebook now allows users to select from over 50 gender identifications, such as genderqueer, cisgender, agender etc. (here is a glossary of the options). The move has drawn the expected responses from all of the usual suspects. The deep conservatives are annoyed, the liberals are elated, and the critical progressives appreciate the gesture, realize its significance, but remain dissatisfied with any form of identification confined to a box. I’m of the critical progressive camp, and happy to defer you readers to all of the smart things written by other people.
Meanwhile, I want to focus on another piece of the gender-identity expansion, a piece of great significance which has nonetheless snuck by in light of the jubilation, fighting, and intellectualism surrounding our new opportunity to bend the gender binary. Namely, I want to talk about privacy, and Facebook’s shifting discourse about identity and power.
A key defining characteristic of Facebook is the profile’s connection to a “real world” referent. Terms of Service are such that users are supposed to display their real names and maintain only a single profile. The architecture is such that other users are easy to find and connect with. The normative structure is such that requests for connection are generally abided. All of this sets the stage for quickly growing intertwining networks. Such intertwinement results in context collapse, or the blurring of network walls, as Facebook users engage with others from the multitude—sometimes contradictory—roles which make up the self.
Recognizing context collapse, and addressing the issue, Zuckerberg (in)famously said to David Kirkpatrick, author of The Facebook Effect, that:
The days of you having a different image for your work friends or co-workers and for the other people you know are probably coming to an end pretty quickly. Having two identities for yourself is an example of a lack of integrity
That is, Zuckerberg (and by extension, Facebook Inc.) ignored throngs of social psychological research about self and identity. But more than that, remained ignorant to the reality that some identities are more troublesome than others, and that those who hold troublesome identities may need to maintain network separations for reasons having little to do with integrity. Or, as Anil Dash aptly summarizes:
If you are twenty-six years old, you’ve been a golden child, you’ve been wealthy all your life, you’ve been privileged all your life, you’ve been successful your whole life, of course you don’t think anybody would ever have anything to hide
Along comes the new 50+ gender option. My favorite feature of this option is its privacy settings. Unlike a life event, changes in gender are not displayed via the News Feed. Moreover, and more importantly, users can select which members of their network are privy to their newly customized identification.
Implicitly, then, through an architectural alteration to the Facebook platform, Zuckerberg acknowledges that some identities are in fact marginalizing. That separation can be an issue of safety, rather than integrity. That collapsed contexts, though not without benefit, hold differential consequences for different kinds of people. It’s an acknowledgment that power matters, and that those without it have less freedom in both interaction and identification.
The expansion of gender categories is a step, if imperfect, in the right direction. It pushes and rearranges, but never radically breaks. The privacy sensitivity surrounding the new gender options, though, is a pretty big deal.
Follow Jenny on Twitter @Jenny_l_Davis