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Digital Gender: Facebook and Social Identity

Last month (February 2014), Facebook announced a major change to its digital architecture regarding a profound topic in identity studies: gender.  Individual users are now able to select their gender from a list of 58 customizable gender options, in addition to selecting their preferences for which gendered pronoun should be utilized by other users interacting with them (him, her, them).  The new “customizable” gender options replace the formerly dualistic option for gender selection (male or female) on Facebook, at least in terms of personal gender identity (more on this below).  For me, the new gender options brought back to the surface important issues regarding the role of digital architectures in identity presentation/performance/emergence in online digital spaces.

Specifically, I want to wrestle with a few particular questions in this post.  First, how the digital architecture of spaces like Facebook provide possibilities and limitations regarding how users articulate personal identity.  Secondly, the implications of digital architecture in providing space for identity exploration, malleability, and fluidity, as opposed to rigid, essentialized versions of an unchanging identity.  Third, the implications associated with the first two questions as it relates to understanding identity issues broadly, digital identity, and research on these topics.  Prior to exploring those questions, here is an examination of the actual changes made to Facebook’s gender options.

The New Facebook Gender Options

The change to the gender options of Facebook was met with fanfare across the social media and digital media landscape.  If you simply Google or Bing “Facebook New Gender Categories,” you will be met with dozens of news stories about the announcement and change.  You may be wondering what has really changed.  Here is a brief overview.

When individual users of Facebook create a profile, they have the option to populate that profile with information built into the digital architectural structure of the site.  When I refer to digital architecture, I refer to the options a social media platform, web platform, or other Web 2.0 technology provides to users in terms of layout, color schemes, and options for profile or site construction.  For better or worse, the digital architecture of a site sets limitations on what an individual user is capable of doing, selecting, or altering; this is particularly true in social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, Blogger, WordPress, etc. (boyd, 2014; Lanier, 2011; Turkle, 2011).  Most users are confined to the choices and parameters provided within the digital architecture.

On Facebook, users have the opportunity to construct elaborate profiles that contain a plethora of information.  Gender is one of these options.  Prior to last month, gender was a dichotomous choice on Facebook: Male or Female.  With the new “customizable” gender option, individual users can now select from up to 58 different genders online.

If you are unfamiliar with gender identity theory, these new options may be confusing to you. Broadly, the new choices allow you to identify as Male or Female (just as before) or select from a spectrum of gender identifiers that fall broadly into the following variations: Androgynous, Cisgender, Gender Variant, Transgender, Transsexual, and Two Spirit.  I am not listing all 58 possible choices here, but am providing an overview of the broad spectrum of options users now have from which to choose.  I encourage readers to review the full list of new gender options online, and to learn more about gender identity issues broadly by reading Chapter 18 of Evans, Forney, Guido, Patton, and Renn (2010) as a starting point and for additional references.

I reached out to my colleague and friend ZD Nicolazzo, a scholar and researcher who studies transgender and gender identity and life experience issues at Miami University of Ohio to get some thoughts about this change in the digital architecture on Facebook. Generally, the addition of the new gender identifiers on Facebook is viewed as a good thing, though Z was quick to point out that the new gender identifiers are neither a panacea or really “customizable” in any way since users are still forced to choose their gender identity from the officially sanctioned options on the list provided within Facebook (ZD Nicolazzo, personal communication, March 14, 2014).

Possibilities and Limitations of Digital Architectural Structure

This brings us to the first critical question: what are the possibilities and limitations about how individual users can articulate their social identity/identities online based on the digital architecture of a site?  This is particularly interesting when observing a social media platform such as Facebook.

In building a personal profile on Facebook, users have only a few choices to make in terms of self-identifying around social identities often studied in traditional college student development literature.  Gender is one of these options. The other is religious views.  There are other identifiers built into the digital architectural structure of Facebook that student development theorists often account for in more holistic theories and models.  For example, political affiliation, whether you are in a relationship, your work experience, which broadly might be accounted for in Chickering and Reisser’s theory of psychosocial development or Holland’s theory of vocational interest (Evans et al., 2010).  Finally, there is what I refer to as identity performative categories, to borrow Judith Butler’s terminology. This includes areas to build in your favorite movies, books, sports, quotations, television shows, etc.

However, several social identities are conspicuously missing as identifiers in Facebook’s digital architecture.  Race. Ethnicity. Ability. Socioeconomic Status. Sexual Orientation.  In the case of sexual orientation, the conversation becomes a bit more complicated, since Facebook does have a space for individuals to state who they are “Interested In” (Male or Female), which presumably means that if an individual user selects their gender, and then an “Interested In” identifier, they would reveal their sexual orientation.  However, this is much too simple an understanding of sexual orientation, which is why I am including sexual orientation on the list of personal identifiers not articulated in the digital architecture of Facebook.  Further, it should be noted that although Facebook changed the gender identifiers for individual users, the “Interested In” section of Facebook retains its dichotomous Male or Female choices.

In returning to ZD Nicolazzo’s earlier point about how Facebook’s new gender options are not really “customizable,” it is interesting that Facebook has purposely built a list for gender options.  In the religious views category, one is provided with a text box where they can self-identify their religious preferences. Although the site is built in such a way that as you type your religious preference you may be given suggestions as to how you want to label your religious views, it is not absolutely mandatory that you select from the pre-determined options provided by Facebook.

Therefore, it is curious that although Facebook has made a decision to expand the possibilities for self-identifying gender identity with up to 58 new gender options, there are still many potential options completely left out.  How a user chooses to identify gender on Facebook is dictated by the platform’s digital architecture. Users can either choose to fit into one of the 58 gender categories, or ignore the gender identifier altogether.  This issue is what Jaron Lanier (2011) refers to as the “missionary reductionism” of social media platforms, where “information underrepresents reality” (p. 69); in this case, the new gender options on Facebook are a step in the right direction (ZD Nicolazzo, personal communication, March 14, 2014), but they still greatly underrepresent the reality of how people may choose to self-identify in terms of gender since users are forced to select from a list, rather than being given the option of creating their own gender identifier.

Identity Fluidity or Identity Essentialism

In forcing individuals to select any personal identifier, particularly in terms of gender, race, socioeconomic status, ethnicity, ability, or sexual orientation, a particularly difficult issue arises: this is whether we as individuals and researchers see identity as fluid or essential.  There are many angles through which to view this particular issue.

Social media networks are supposedly designed to connect us with other individuals who we know or who share our personal interests, goals, and perhaps identity (Christakis & Fowler, 2009).  In providing a space for individuals to self-identify their gender, their religious views, their political views, and who they might be interested in romantically, emotionally, or sexually, Facebook has in some ways provided this architecture of connection.  In this case, self-identifying with a particular group may lead to community building, networking, and identity validation.  These are all very important outcomes of providing a space for people to identify certain social identities.

One important conversation that has occurred just in the last month since Facebook announced their new gender identity options is a growing public awareness of gender as fluid, occurring across a spectrum.  This is an important conversation to have in our culture (the new gender options are currently available to users in the United States) where we view gender and gender roles in very dichotomous ways.  Male and Female. Masculine and Feminine.  In adding the new gender categories, Facebook has opened an important cultural and educational discourse challenging this dominant narrative that gender is essentially an either/or construction.

Yet in other ways, the new gender options still essentialize gender identity since users are forced to select from a pre-determined list.  In making the choice to build the digital architectural structure in a way that forces individuals to select from a list, Facebook recognizes that gender is fluid, but also is basically saying “but not too fluid:” you still must fall into one of these 58 identifying categories.

This is one reason why it is interesting that other social identities are not options on Facebook.  In avoiding altogether race, ethnicity, class, ability, and sexual orientation, Facebook has basically decided that they are not interested in opening up the discussion regarding the many ways people might self-identify along these social identity spectrums.

The implications of ignoring race, ethnicity, class, ability, and sexual orientation by the designers at Facebook seem quite profound to me.  In not providing a space for people to select or self-identify in these ways, Facebook has in some ways denied community to individuals, as social networks are designed to connect us with others who are like us.  Facebook has also failed to open up a national or international conversation about the spectrum of ways people may self-identify in regard to these important social identities.

Yet, Facebook’s decision to not include race, ethnicity, class, ability, and sexual orientation (explicitly) also has in some ways made these identities more fluid and less essentialized.  People are not forced into selecting from a pre-determined list of personal identifiers.  User are not reduced in their complexity to force themselves into a box they may not agree with, or simply feel like they must deny a part of their identity within the space of Facebook (or any other platform for that matter).  Rather than choosing, users can find different creative ways to explore and express their social identities.

Implications for Identity

Ultimately, the decisions of digital architectural designers regarding how to include or exclude social identity markers in social media platforms have various repercussions for users and researchers.

Although users may have some sense of how they want to self-identify in terms of social identities, our identity is often greatly influenced by knowledge and environment (Bronfenbrenner, 2005; Evans et al., 2010; Jones & Abes, 2013).  Our culture has become accustomed to viewing personal social identity in very rigid, essentialized ways.  In building a digital architecture that exposes people to a more diverse understanding of issues such as gender, a platform such as Facebook not only opens up important cultural and educational conversations, but also may expose individual users to thinking of identity in a broader, more fluid way. This may be important, especially for individuals (youth and college students in particular) who have not been exposed to such varied ways of thinking about identity previously.

At the same time, the exclusion of certain social identity markers may lead individuals to take away the wrong lesson.  For example, not including race as a choice in the structure of Facebook may make some individuals feel as though the platform does not value their sense of racial identity.  More broadly, ignoring these social identity markers prevents a larger national cultural and educational conversation about the nuances of social identity – a conversation that is still greatly needed in the twenty-first century.

Finally, all of these conversations impact researchers and how we conceptualize studying identity in a digital age and/or digital identity.  ZD Nicolazzo made the valid point that in providing a list of options for gender, Facebook has really created a quantifiable variable, and there are questions about who has access to that information and what such information would be used for (Nicolazzo, personal communication, March 14, 2014).  In our positivist, empiricist, and reductionist world of research, limited options for identifiers do provide the variables that lead to quick easy studies, even if they reduce the complexity of the human experience and identity.

Researchers have already grappled with these questions about identity in digital spaces, and there are profound ethical issues involved.  For example, by not including race as an identifier, some research has relied on stereotyping or assumptions about how people might identify based on photos, quotes, movies, books, or other categories provided in the architecture in answering their research questions (for example, Grasmuck, Martin, & Zhao, 2009).  In other studies, such as Martinez-Aleman and Wartman (2009), researchers ask specifically about how social identity is presented on sites such as Facebook, and even go so far as to account for intersecting identities.  However, even in studies such as these that take ethical questions into consideration, there is a desire to generalize beyond the limited number of research participants.  These are important questions to grapple with as we think about conducting research on digital identity and identity in the digital age.

Conclusion

Facebook’s decision to add new gender identity categories has opened up a broad conversation that is greatly needed. Nationally and Internationally, gender is now being recognized not as a rigid, dichotomous, essentialized aspect of personal identity, but as a fluid, malleable, and shifting construct.  This is an important and long-overdue conversation.

Researchers such as myself have to continue to grapple with the possibilities and limitations of how the digital architectures of social media platforms mediate and structure users’ experiences, explanation/performance/articulation of personal social identity, and ultimately their identity emergence.  These issues must be explored and thought about critically prior to conducting research on digital identity because, as demonstrated in this post, the architecture of social media platforms includes and excludes certain identity markers.  Accounting for these inclusions and exclusions in our studies is a necessary ethical obligation.

References

boyd, d. (2014). It’s complicated: The social lives of networked teens. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Bronfenbrenner, U. (2005). Making human beings human: Bioecological perspectives on human development. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Christakis, N. A. & Fowler, J. H. (2009). Connected: The surprising power of our social networks and how they shape our lives. New York, NY: Little, Brown and Company.

Evans, N. J., Forney, D. S., Guido, F. M., Patton, L. D., & Renn, K. A. (2010). Student development in college: Theory, research, and practice (2nd ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Grasmuck, S., Martin, J., & Zhao, S. (2009). Ethno-racial identity displays on Facebook. Journal of Computer Mediated Communication15, 158-188.

Jones, S. R. & Abes, E. S. (2013). Identity development of college students: Advancing frameworks for multiple dimensions of identity. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Lanier, J. (2011). You are not a gadget: A manifesto.

Martinez-Aleman, A. M. & Wartman, K. L. (2009). Online social networking on campus: Understanding what matters in student culture. New York, NY: Routledge.

Turkle, S. (2011). Alone together: Why we expect more from technology and less from each other. New York, NY: Basic Books.


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