Gender's Role in Facebook and Google+

I'm going to tell you absolutely nothing about myself that should matter to you. I am a male human. I was born with XY chromosomes, and my body parts hew to the genetic norms of a human male. I am heterosexual. My ex-wife was a female human, and I will seek out new partners who are also female humans ('how romantic,' I know). I prefer female humans to male humans when it comes to love and its various accoutrements. I am mostly masculine, though I do have some decidedly feminine qualities about me. In the traditional ideas of masculinity, I fit into some norms, though I also like some traditionally feminine colors and design aesthetics, I participate in many activities that are considered more feminine than masculine, and I reject certain masculine traits as unappealing.

Like I said, this tells you nothing about me. Based on these characteristics, you would not be able to pick me out of a crowd. My friends and co-workers have learned nothing about be me in the above paragraph that would help or hurt our relationships. On a social networking site, you might have been able to guess at some of the above based on my picture, my profile, etc, but this information would not bring us closer together as friends.

Google launched Google+ this week. As Silicon Alley Insider points out, Google+ has made one interesting change that Facebook has yet to espouse. In the section for gender, Google+ lets you choose between Male, Female, and Other.

Wow. What a forward-thinking social network. Because if there is one thing I know about people who do not self-identify as either Male or Female, it is that they want to be called "Other." In fact, most people I know who do not fit into social norms prefer "Other" as an identifying term. Not White or Black? Then Other. Not Christian or Jewish? Other. Republican or Democrat? Vote Other. Other is such a wonderful, friendly term. Nobody has every been offended by being characterized as "Other." It's inclusive. It's accurate.

It's complete nonsense.

First, let me define some terms, so you know where I'm coming from. Sex is biological and chromosomal. It's the body parts we have, the hormones we produce. Sexuality defines the sex of the partner we prefer. If I'm heterosexual, I prefer people of a different sex. If I'm homosexual, I prefer my same sex. Gender is about roles. It's about defining our personalities, and the way we want to fit into society. It's about embracing or rejecting stereotypes and behavior patterns.

A person can take on any combination of these traits. For the most part, you are born into your sex. Of course, there is some wiggle room (no pun intended), but until someone intervenes, we are born male or female humans.

Sexuality is a different matter. I'm not going to get into the argument over whether sexuality is a choice or not. Frankly, I don't care. It doesn't bother me either way if someone chooses their sexuality or if it is biologically assigned. As long as people are happy and not hurting themselves or others, they can do as they please.

Gender is more of a choice. There is a question of nature versus nurture, but through some conscious effort, you can change your gender. I can choose to be a masculine male. It may feel more comfortable for me to be feminine. Or, I may straddle the fence, as it were. I may vote down one side of the ticket, as a masculine male heterosexual, or I may mix things up a bit.

Complicated? More than you were expecting from a SlashGear column? That's my point exactly. Why are Facebook and Google getting involved in gender? Why are they asking people to identify their own gender for the purpose of social networking? Sure, people may have a right to identify themselves, but by placing the question up front at sign up, the social networks risk alienating or confusing their members.

I don't have to tell you if I'm masculine or feminine, taking male or female roles. You can find out when you get to know me. You can look at my photos and the way I dress. You can make your own assumptions from the things I say and do. You can discover my personality, because that is where gender lies. Why start with the stereotyping assumption, instead of starting with the person? Does it really matter? Do Facebook and Google think this is an important, primary way we should be identifying ourselves?

It's silly, and it's dangerous. It promotes stereotyping. Facebook does not ask me to identify my race or ethnicity. So why do I have to click on the drop down menu that follows "I am" and choose "male" or "female?" I understand filling in the blank for "I am interested in." Facebook lets you click both "Men" and "Women." I suppose it would be cool if that was a blank space that you could fill in as you please, but I find the binary choice there less objectionable. Not because I'm sensitive to gender issues, but because meeting people, perhaps dating people, is one of the uses of Facebook. After all, Facebook was modeled after the college "Meetbook" (pun definitely intended). It is for meeting people. It is for finding people you want to friend, discovering people you want to know. If we are forced to shoehorn ourselves into a few shorthand stereotypes, Facebook fails at its job.

There are plenty of ways in which Facebook opens us up to preconceived judgments, but none in such a diametric way as with gender. You can give your age on Facebook, but many people do not. There is a space for religious views, but it's an empty box. If you want to describe yourself as worshipping the Flying Spaghetti Monster, go right ahead (though that joke is rather played at this point.) Political views, "About Me," hobbies and interests, these are all open-ended questions on Facebook. But with gender, where the grey area between the two stereotypical roles is of the utmost importance, and requires the most sensitivity and privacy, there is only a drop-down menu.

I think the drop down menu is on the wrong side of the equation. Instead of saying "I am" and then presenting two choices in a drop down menu, the drop down should be on the "I am" part. "I was," "I feel like," or "I occasionally pretend to be" would be much more interesting choices. Or, better yet, simply leave it blank. Let people identify themselves as they see fit. Facebook and Google+, all social networks, present an interesting opportunity to change the way we identify ourselves. It's a fresh start, a new way of relating to each other. Let's not limit ourselves to a couple of choices in a list.