“Gender is a Text Field” (Diaspora, backstory, and context)
Heads up, this content is 14 years old. Please keep its age in mind while reading.

For the last few years, I’ve been neck-deep in conversations about non-normative gender. Those conversations just expanded today with the announcement that Diaspora‘s alpha launch collects gender as an open-ended text field (which was met with some backlash). For everyone just getting to this conversation, here is some context and backstory, based on what I’ve experienced so far. Note that this is limited to my own perspective and exposure, so please add links to other sources in the comments, in an effort to better flesh out the bigger picture.

The Preface, from Doppland

Two years ago, I wrote an open letter to Silicon Valley, requesting that everyone think about how they are approaching Gender in their data collection forms. If you’re the least bit totally baffled by why we’re even talking about gender at all right now, PLEASE start by reading that letter. It’s gentle, it’s in plain English, and it explains a lot.

(I should also add: I organize Genderfork.com, a community expression blog about gender variance, which gets over 20,000 readers and a helluvalot of contributors and commenters per month. This is a large group of people who don’t don’t fit well in traditional gender categories, and their numbers are only scratching the surface of a bigger demographic. They exist. They vary. I know many of them personally. And I identify with them in many ways.)

Last year I attended the She’s Geeky unconference in Mountain View, where I led a discussion called “My Gender Broke Your Dropdown Menu.” I started by reading that letter, and then tasked the group with trying to solve the design problem of “what would be better than a two-option dropdown menu?” It turned into a conversation about all of the user experience, data management, and business issues that get pulled onto the table when Gender is in question, as well as a brainstorming session on how we might solve them. No surprise: we didn’t come up with a clear answer. But we did learn a lot more about the problem. Really, it comes down to the question of “why do you need the data?” Is it about encouraging self-expression, helping people find dates, making marketing decisions, or reporting user statistics to investors? Your primary goal impacts your choices for implementation.

I followed up on that workshop by writing another post called “Designing a Better Drop-Down Menu for Gender,” which listed all the ideas I thought could reasonably improve the data collection process, from a user experience standpoint (again: just go read it — this will all make more sense if you do).  This set of ideas was a work in progress, and the last idea in the post — a method for open-ended tagging — sparked a few follow-ups.  A designer proposed some early, stylized mockups; Kirrily Robert at Freebase created an alpha version, and Phil Darnowsky further riffed on the idea.  We were all just messing around with ideas at this point.

Then it got real.

Enter: Diaspora

Diaspora is an open-source, community-funded social networking platform that aims to have better privacy than Facebook and lets you own your own content. It’s in the very early stages (they just let in the first round of alpha testers last week), and is facing a lot of criticism on the quality of its code. But it’s still a great idea.

Sarah Mei, a contributor to the Diaspora project, was in that She’s Geeky workshop about gender and drop-down menus. That discussion, coupled with her own personal and professional experiences, led her to change the data collection method to an open-ended text field. She writes about the process she went through to get to this decision over here: Disalienation: Why Gender is a Text Field on Diaspora.

This has received support.

It has also perturbed some people.

…which has sparked further support for the change.

anil dash

Since Diaspora’s code quality still has a long way to go before it’s accepted as stable, I’m sure there will many more iterations to this field. So let’s keep an eye on the conversation and advocate for the best possible scenario.

vCard (and Microformats, and OpenSocial)

Guess what? Diaspora’s not the only project dealing with the Gender Data issue this week. As we speak, the vCard specs team is pinning the next iteration of how our address book data will be organized. Their original plan was to have a field called SEX that allowed for the following attributes (based on the ISO):

  • 0 = not known
  • 1 = male
  • 2 = female
  • 9 = not applicable

Tantek Çelik proposed a two-field solution: SEX (male, female, other, or none/not applicable) and GENDER IDENTITY (an open-ended text field), based on data and solutions he’d explored earlier at Microformats.org. This seems like a reasonable solution to me. (Note: this suggestion is strictly about organizing data behind the scenes. “What will profile forms look like?” is a different conversation.)

I chimed in with an explanation of about why the ISO system is inadequate and offensive, and expressed support for Tantek’s plan.

Kevin Marks pointed out that he and Cassie Doll had also worked out a reasonable data organizing solution, which was accepted in the early stages of OpenSocial and Portable Contacts:

The gender of this contact. Service Providers SHOULD return one of the following Canonical Values, if appropriate: male, female, or undisclosed, and MAY return a different value if it is not covered by one of these Canonical Values.

In other words: male, female, nuffin’, or fill-in-the-blank. Works for me.

Things are still being finalized, but it looks like vCard will settle on one of these solutions, or a close variant of it.

What Else?

That’s about the extent of my knowledge on the Gender Data Collection story as it’s playing out right now. Let’s pool any links that show where progress is happening, and bring solutions to this obscure but highly sensitive design dilemma to light. Comments offering more constructive views and info are encouraged here (and flaming won’t be tolerated).

Thanks so much,
~ Sarah

If you like this post and would like to receive updates from this blog, please subscribe to the feed. Subscribe via RSS

23 Responses to ““Gender is a Text Field” (Diaspora, backstory, and context)”

  1. Robby Grossman Says:

    Hey, it’s @freerobby (my tweet is sandwiched between @anildash’s and @amp2’s). I wanted to expand on my source of frustration:

    My issue with Sarah’s change is not that she allowed users to be more expressive about their genders; it’s that she did so without any apparent regard for the impact this has on a user’s experience.

    Most people would choose “male” or “female” in response to such a question. For that overwhelming majority, a dropdown menu provides a much better experience. Sarah had better options than a textbox for enabling more input possibilities: she could have gone with a Male/Female/Other option, whereby you only need to type in text if you select Other. Or she could have used radio buttons to achieve a similar ends.

    Any UX decision that negatively affects a huge majority of users merits great consideration. I think that, as many other blogs have pointed out, this change was a fitting metaphor for why Diaspora will fail to gain social traction – it’s authors don’t appear to grasp UX design.

    To be clear: I have no problem with what Sarah is intending to do. I just wish she were as cautious and deliberate about the user experience of the product she’s building as she is about the cause she is championing.

  2. T.Crane Says:

    While some people would choose ‘male’ or ‘female’, you are making some unproven assumptions.

    1. That users would actually prefer to identify in that way.

    2. That a drop down menu would be preferable.

    ‘Other’ as an option, is insulting for so many reasons, if you can’t see why that might be so, I don’t know how best to educate you.

    Let’s be real.. if developers failing to grasp UX design was a deal breaker for social network success, how do you explain Facebook’s success? Or let’s be real, MySpace?

    I’ve seen a lot of people talking about why this isn’t the best solution, but how about suggesting a better one? One that doesn’t marginalize people into a binary gender system they might not feel comfortable with. I see it as a developer challenge to be met, not one which should be a dealbreaker.

  3. nick Says:

    I signed up for diasp.org the other day. I enjoyed the field, and put something cheeky in there.

    Tell you what tho. For UX convenience, next time I gotta ask that question, it’ll be as follows:


  4. Robby Grossman Says:

    I specifically said I had no problem with nonbinary genders. I specifically said it wasn’t a dealbreaker. And I did suggest a better solution – a dropdown with an optional textbox if the default choices don’t suit you.

    I’m not going to get into a debate about UX best practices. If you believe a raw text box is as usable as a drop down, you’re free to believe that.

    RE “other”: I’m not saying that “other” is how they would display their status; I’m saying that they could choose “other” or “different option” or whatever you want to call it, and _then_ be prompted with a textbox to fill in their selection. That way the majority of users don’t have to type anything in.

    Facebook has a fantastic UX team. They keep users on their site for record times, and continue to do so even when users are upset over other issues like privacy. MySpace appeals mostly to high schoolers who seem to enjoy rebelling against visual standards.

  5. T.Crane Says:

    Your solution is to combine a text box and drop down menu option? That seems a bit more complicated than people just typing in a word or two, then moving onto the rest of their profile. Presumably they’ve already interacted with other text boxes, such as ‘name’.

    Seems like we’re all equal with typing in our identification, there’s no presumption of how we classify ourselves. There are many people who don’t identify as male or female, many of them you might never guess from their appearance. It provides users another way to customize their profiles and let their personality be shown.

    I get that you feel you don’t have an issue with non-binary genders, but the response to this news seems disproportionate to the small change in the user interface. Surely there are bigger fish to fry in Diaspora Development?

  6. Robby Grossman Says:

    These conversations often look overblown because they get verbose very quickly. My initial response to the news was just a single tweet, which I only posted because I found the decision comically indicative of the state of Diaspora’s UX. There are certainly bigger fish to fry – I just came here to put my remarks in context so that people would understand I was referring to the UX issues, not the GLBT issues.

  7. nick Says:

    I propose we just change gender names to “Female” and “Half Female” since the biological chromosomes involved are XX for female and XY for male.

    Also, M and F are perfectly acceptable, easy to use alternatives for typing in ‘male’ and ‘female,’ for the lazy.

    And I’d have to say that Facebook’s users (and maybe farmville) keep their users on their site for record times, not their interface. The interface is okay.

  8. T.Crane Says:

    The funny part in this conversation, it’s not really about LGBT issues. It’s actually about user interface, and user choice. Plenty of people identify as ‘other’ on flickr, and don’t choose to have their genders shown on Facebook as part of their profile.

    This is more about online privacy, and about users having the freedom to self-identify in a more creative way. Providing a text box might not be the cleanest way to do so, but if you aren’t planning on selling advertising, why track people’s ‘gender’ identification at all?

    And Nick, hate to be this person, but there are plenty of alternative chromosome combinations. Let’s stay away from the ‘Gattaca’ days where we all log in a blood sample before going to work.

  9. jon Says:

    Great discussion. I had shared Sarah Mei’s post on Twitter, and one of my friends replied “Diaspora’s now a lot more interesting to me.” Agreed! And this is great history to go with it …

  10. David Gerard Says:

    Frankly, if making “gender” a textbox puts some people off Diaspora entirely … that’s a feature.

  11. Byron Olsen Says:

    More to the point… what’s it being used for? Perhaps Sarah needs to see Sarah’s observation:

    > Really, it comes down to the question of “why do you need the data?”

    In the context of this question, what would best serve the needs of the intended community? Is the “gender” box/dropdown there for the users’ benefits? Or is it for Disapora’s own purposes? Or Diaspora’s VC backers?

    To paraphrase, nobody buys a hammer because they want to drive a nail… they buy it because they want to hang a pretty picture… because they want to improve the quality of their life.

    What’s the real intent here?

  12. Meg Says:

    As someone who likes typing and tab, drop down menus aren’t any more convenient for me. I don’t want people finding me based on my gender unless I’m specifically registering for a sexuality-specific dating site (in all other contexts it can only lead to creepy men hitting on me.) I can’t think of a single instance where gender would be a relevant search criteria unless I wanted to hit on someone of a specific gender (which is what dating sites are for).

    In short, I fail to see how on a non-dating site a free text box makes any users’ experience worse, and it certainly makes plenty of users’ experiences better. approve++

  13. karmag Says:

    “I can’t think of a single instance where gender would be a relevant search criteria unless I wanted to hit on someone of a specific gender”

    Well, gender doesn’t have to be the *only* thing you’re searching on though. One example that comes to mind is finding someone who has a somewhat ambiguous name. If you aren’t able to tell the search function that “Andrea” is a guy, you’re going to end up with a lot of irrelevant matches that could have been excluded via that one bit of information.

    And what if you heard it wrong (because the party was kind of noisy) and it’s not an Italian named “Andrea”, but a German named “Andreas”? A good search function will have to take into account this sort of thing; that people don’t always know the exact spelling and sometimes make typos. But it can’t read minds, and will still most likely have us go through all the women (and yeah, Italians) before we finally hit on the right person.

    So I think there is definitely a usability case to be made for enumerating the options given for gender. But that is in my opinion emphatically not the *only*, or even necessarily the most important thing to consider though — I’m as pissed off by strict M/F dropdowns as anyone else — but it is perhaps a reason to at least look into compromise solutions, like vCard and OpenSocial apparently does.

  14. T Says:

    It would be nice to think this is step one down the road to getting this field (and age/D.O.B) kicked to the curb for the rest of time. ‘Targeted marketing’ ad-systems can’t serve me ads relevent to me with this info so why bother? As for it helping search for me, I don’t think I want those people to find me.

  15. Jim Says:

    This entire matter can be solved with three radio-button styled entry fields:

    ( ) Male
    ( ) Female
    ( ) [ ]

    Then, if the third ambiguous gender is selected you could ask:

    What pronoun set should be used:
    [subject/object/possessive adjective/possessive pronoun/reflexive]
    ( ) he/him/his/himself
    ( ) she/her/hers/herself
    ( ) it/it/its/its/itself
    ( ) [ ]/[ ]/[ ]/[ ]/[ ]

    where the last field lets the user enter what they want for each pronoun type.

    Problem solved, move on to the next issue.

  16. Mazzie Says:

    I thought of you (@genderfork) as I made a post about the very same today. Not nearly as detailed, elegant, or timely, but I am delighted just the same to have found you here as a result.

    I love, admire, and appreciate what you do.

    Thank you.

    (also, as a bit of an aside, I “get” that people like the binary drop down so they know whether to call me Ms. or Mr. or him or her, but can’t we be smarter and more elegant than that? is the world going to come crashing down because you don’t know if I have a penis or a vagina? I recently had to select M or F to submit a comment to my Congressional representative and I was outraged.)

  17. Nathan Says:

    @Jim – Two problems. The first is, that still leaves nonbinary people as the Other, and we really do get that enough as it is. Is it really so difficult to type fe/male into a text box, and must we protect the delicate fingers of the binary-identified that thoroughly?

    Also, requiring the text input to some extent requires thought – how do you want to identify today/on this website/to this demographic? I don’t see why it should be easier to identify as part of the gender binary, and I do think that the more people are prompted to think about gender, the better. Even that little bit of uncertainty – “Why is this a text box? Isn’t gender either male or female?” will slowly make a difference.

    Second, ‘it’ is about the worst pronoun you can use for a living human being. Just don’t, ever. Don’t even suggest it. The most common neutral pronoun set which I have encountered is zie/zir or hir/zirs or hirs/zir- or hirsef, but there are a lot of others, and it’s not a very good idea to assume.

    Obviously, the second is a problem with your wording rather than the system itself, but the first is a much larger, systemic issue covering all m/f/other lists and I can’t think of any other systems which encourage discussion the way the text field does.

  18. Jim Says:

    @Nathan – I really don’t see my suggestion as binary. The third option allows someone to self-describe their gender identity. This in fact does create a macro-level population of individuals who have gender-identity ambiguities which are further defined by the text fields which let you enter exactly your own definitions of your gender and how you should be referred to. I even added the extra list of pronouns so you can enter your own pronouns so that you are referred to properly. ‘It’ may be offensive to you, but not to others. In your case, you’d enter ‘fe/male’ (or whatever you choose) and zie/hir/hirs/etc into the pronouns that fit your preferred use pattern.

    In a social-network setting I think it’s reasonable to ask people for their gender identity. While the vast majority of people identify as male/female, this third option let’s people self-identify their gender-ambiguity if the user feels this infomation best describes themself.

  19. Mee Says:

    @Nathan: totally agree.

    @Jim: it still makes “other” different. In a text field one can still identify if one wants to.

    I must say, when I signed up on Diaspora and saw that gender is a text field I honestly thought: wow, they really make a difference!
    And I am quite a binary-gender person, I don’t feel as “other”. But I don’t feel like telling everybody.

  20. Reviwgle+ « exhipigeonist blog Says:

    […] Sarah Dopp “‘Gender is a Text Field’ (Diaspora, backstory, and context)” […]

  21. Liminal states :: Google+ and diversity: A Work in Progress (part 1) Says:

    […] in Diaspora, where gender is a text field, Google+ gender identities are limited to male, female, and […]

  22. Anon Says:

    As someone who has religious objections to certain gender-related societal trends, yet I’ll be the first to admit that a one-textfield open-ended solution makes the most sense. Let people define themselves! Despite my religious opinions, I think it’s the right user experience, and most people who identify as male/female will continue to do so. It might take more backend work for those sites that “need” that data (I can think of some necessary cases — genealogy comes to mind), but I think user experience AND making everyone happy with a single field is probably the winner here.

    Mind you, this isn’t “open minded me.” Rather, it’s just common sense.

  23. Liminal states :: What can Diaspora* learn from Google+? Says:

    […] Gender is a text field, but corporations run by cis guys still don’t see it that way […]