Almost two years ago, Facebook waved the rainbow flag and metaphorically opened its doors to all of the folks who identify outside of the gender binary. Before Facebook announced this change in February of 2014, users were only able to select ‘male’ or ‘female.’ Suddenly, with this software modification, users could choose a ‘custom’ gender that offered 56 new options (including agender, gender non-conforming, genderqueer, non-binary, and transgender). Leaving aside the troubling, but predictable, transphobic reactions, many were quick to praise the company. These reactions could be summarized as: ‘Wow, Facebook, you are really in tune with the LGBTQ community and on the cutting edge of the trans rights movement. Bravo!’ Indeed, it is easy to acknowledge the progressive trajectory that this shift signifies, but we must also look beyond the optics to assess the specific programming decisions that led to this moment.
To be fair, many were also quick to point to the limitations of the custom gender solution. For example, why wasn’t a freeform text field used? Google+ also shifted to a custom solution 10 months after Facebook, but they did make use of a freeform text field, allowing users to enter any label they prefer. By February of 2015, Facebook followed suit (at least for those who select US-English).
There was also another set of responses with further critiques: more granular options for gender identification could entail increased vulnerability for groups who are already marginalized. Perfecting your company’s capacity to turn gender into data equates to a higher capacity for documentation and surveillance for your users. Yet the beneficiaries of this data are not always visible. This is concerning, particularly when we recall that marginalization is closely associated with discriminatory treatment. Transgender women suffer from disproportionate levels of hate violence from police, service providers, and members of the public, but it is murder that is increasingly the fate of people who happen to be both trans and women of color.
Alongside these horrific realities, there is more to the story – hidden in a deeper layer of Facebook’s software. When Facebook’s software was programmed to accept 56 gender identities beyond the binary, it was also programmed to misgender users when it translated those identities into data to be stored in the database. In my recent article in New Media & Society, ‘The gender binary will not be deprogrammed: Ten years of coding gender on Facebook,’ I expose this finding in the midst of a much broader examination of a decade’s worth of programming decisions that have been geared towards creating a binary set of users. more...