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Gender & Flexibility

2010-11-30 04:49:19.583074+00 by Dan Lyke 6 comments

Avery Morrow: I’m Dropping Diaspora, This Site Is Now Closed is worth reading because, as Lyn tweeted:

Wow this is like a perfect case study of an amazingly ignorant software developer. Shames zir profession, really.

The particular complaint is that gender was made a text box in the Diaspora code. Sarah Mei describes why she made that change.

But the real issue, and one that I learned long ago when I wrote code to coerce users to enter phone numbers using the area code rules of the day, and then had to figure out how to ship a patch when the phone company relaxed the area code rules, is that if you can derive the information from your data, you shouldn't throw away information.

The users want to tell you about their language and use of it. If you need things like pronouns, do something like:

   if (gender == "male" || gender == "m") return "his";
   if (gender == "female" || gender == "f") return "her";
   return "zir";

And then as you learn more about how your users define themselves ("butch", "femme", what-have-you, maybe you give "zir" to the kinksters and "hir" to the pomo-feminists) the structure defined by your code can expand to encompass the structure used in the real world. If you want to offer autocomplete to suggest a standard, that's great, but you'll go much further if you can let the users define the ontology, rather than imposing one on them.

See also: Sarah Dopp: “Gender is a Text Field” (Diaspora, backstory, and context)

[ related topics: Sexual Culture Software Engineering Sociology Current Events ]

comments in ascending chronological order (reverse):

#Comment Re: made: 2010-11-30 05:47:16.585219+00 by: meuon [edit history]

I abuse text fields a lot. And often use tinyints as booleans for the same reason. I have learned that hard logic gets twisted in the real world into things like:

Billable: 0 = false/disabled 1 = true/normal 2 = other/special

Dealing with Gender, it's a simple lookup table that gives you a list of acceptable choices and their modifiers:

Gender, Language, Display, Modifier
m, en, Male, his
f,en, Female, her
o,en, Other, thems
b,en,Barsoom, its
fa,en,Fa'afafine, her

And there are cultures with accepted 3rd genders (Samoan Fa'afafine in list above) maybe even fourth. I wouldn't add genders to the system "willynilly" but a "suggest a gender value" process might produce some interesting demographics.

#Comment Re: made: 2010-11-30 11:17:50.290326+00 by: hananc

Somehow related: WordPress in Hebrew - Meet Ms. WordPress


#Comment Re: made: 2010-11-30 16:19:07.988711+00 by: other_todd [edit history]

I have a better idea: Why design a system that stores/uses any kind of structured data about gender at all? Why do we even ask for it? So the software can decide whether to put "Mr." or "Ms." in front of your name string? I get mildly annoyed when I see a non-optional "title" field on some web form, because it means I will get mail addressed to Mr. My Name, and if you call me Mr., it means you don't know me particularly well. Why can't the system just display my name without a title of any kind?

Pronouns? I can't think of any place where software would need to throw in a pronoun that wouldn't be better as a freeform, user-edited field. If, for example, it's used to try to piece together a bio ("[FIRSTNAME][LASTNAME] lives in [LOCATION] and [PRONOUN] occupation is [OCCUPATION]"), then you're already doing it wrong. Let me write my own damned bio and I can decide for myself what pronouns to use in it.

Avery Morrow writes "But don't destroy the usability of basic fields that are necessary for talking about the user," and he's absolutely right as far as that goes. But I do not concede that a gender field IS a basic field which is necessary for talking about the user. It is certainly not a basic field which is necessary for structured data about the user.

ETA: I realize Diaspora is supposed to be some Facebookish social-media tool, and that you'll say, "But gender is an important thing to know about other users!" Well, okay, I will put aside my radicalism on the topic for a moment and concede that it IS something other users will want to know about you, even though they shouldn't want to (really, it's sad how little we have progressed past "a/s/l" idiots in chat rooms). But that still doesn't need to be structured data at all. There's no reason you can't show other users the exact, freeform gender string the user chose to put in. (And there's no reason the user shouldn't be allowed to suppress display of their gender entirely.)

"But what if you want to sort on it?" Don't. (I may be absolutist about this because I work for a college and we have extremely stringent non-discrimination requirements in that direction. If there was ever the slightest hint that we were doing something gender-differentiated, even if it was just handing out one set of instructions to the restrooms for boys and another for girls, we'd be sued in about five and a half seconds.)

#Comment Re: made: 2010-11-30 16:32:08.121602+00 by: ebradway

There must be a little more to this... What the author is really saying is "I can't manage the impedance mismatch between English language gender and gender identity."

Wouldn't a killer feature for a social networking site to be able to "skin it" to match your gender identity? Maybe even expose different gender identities based on subsets of your social network?

As has been suggested, part of the "skin" would be a selection of pronouns. The purpose of the site isn't to impose gender rules of any one language but to allow the users to express themselves through things like gender and language.

#Comment Re: made: 2010-12-01 06:32:35.443769+00 by: meuon [edit history]

"skins" are a good way to think about such things. I like it. The real reason to have gender at all is that so much of "social networking" is really "date matching". It allows me to say: "I'm a guy looking for a female", which is why you keep this list to some manageable number. Which, while you are at it, there all kinds of places where similar logic applies: relationship status, sexual preferences, food... Add in multi-language capabilities and things get wonky quickly, almost nothing fits in tidy little boxes.

#Comment Re: made: 2010-12-06 13:26:26.156554+00 by: meuon


Sometimes, when I think my logic is too organic and convoluted, I see something like the above and smile.