Disalienation: Why Gender is a Text Field on Diaspora

A few months ago, I started contributing to the Diaspora project. I began by refactoring their test suite and setting up a continuous integration server. Then I installed Jasmine and started mucking around with the JavaScript. That was all pretty straightforward.

A few weeks ago I made a slightly more controversial change.

The “gender” field in a person’s profile was originally a dropdown menu, with three choices: blank, male, and female. My change made it an optional text field that was blank to start. A wide open frontier! Enter anything you want.

For a while, only a few people noticed.

Screenshot of a github commit comment

But now that Diaspora is in private alpha, more people have started noticing – on twitter, in the bug tracker, and in GetSatisfaction, among other places. Some folks have asked why it’s not a dropdown with two options like everywhere else. So here’s why.

…what else is there?

Four years ago, at my first rails job, I worked at a company with a mostly-lesbian customer base. It turns out, in that context, knowing if someone is “male” or “female” gives you almost no useful information. The lesbian community has other widely-accepted categories of gender, but the company’s internal order tracking software — a well-known package from a national vendor — offered only male or female.

As a result, the company didn’t even bother to ask for gender when users created accounts.

That was my first real-life experience with the limitations of the gender binary. It was certainly interesting, but it was essentially academic. Not long after I left that job, though, one of my closest family members told me that he’s transgender. That made the whole subject way more immediate.

Now it’s personal

So in the last few years I’ve tried really hard to understand what being transgender means. I’ve done a lot of reading and talking and thinking about how we construct a gender identity, and how we perceive others’ gender. I’m certainly no expert, having not lived it myself. But I have discovered that my own gender identity is a bit more fluid than I thought. And perhaps most importantly, I’ve gotten comfortable with the idea of gender as an n-dimensional space, with two big clusters and a hell of a lot of outliers.

Then I met Sarah Dopp at She’s Geeky, and we talked about dropdown menus, and it all fell into place.


I made this change to Diaspora so that I won’t alienate anyone I love before they finish signing up.

I made this change because gender is a beautiful and multifaceted thing that can’t be contained by a list.

I know a lot of people aren’t there with me yet. So I also made this change to give them one momentary chance to consider other possibilities.

I made it to start a conversation.

I made it because I can.

And, of course, I made it so you can be a smartass.

a selection of the gender self-descriptions of my contacts on diaspora

a selection of the gender self-descriptions of my contacts on diaspora

Go out and have fun with it.

Diaspora is an open-source social network that puts you in control of your information. As of today, November 27th, we’ve been live less than a week. Here’s a quick overview of the project, and if you want more news, our blog. Thanks for visiting!

349 comments to Disalienation: Why Gender is a Text Field on Diaspora

  • I am SO, so happy you took the lead on this. Fantastic explanation here. Thank you.

  • Also: one of my diaspora contacts lists their gender as “Immense”.

  • I was very iffy about Diaspora. Until now.

    This is the single biggest motivator for me to join.

    Thank you for your work on this.

  • Thank you! I love “Immense”! I may update the screenshot with a few new ones that have appeared in my contact list as well. :)

  • Wouldn’t it make sense to make it a text field with drop down choices so people can choose a standard or innovate? I would think that would be useful for a more likely find if someone was search for Sandy that is male.

  • probonogeek

    I would say this is a fine addition, but I would just make sure you are vigalent that the term “gender” not be chnaged to “sex”. Gender is a very fluid social construct, as you noted in great detail. Sex, however, is a biological concept, and while it is not limited to the usual binaries, it is limited to our genetics. Always been a petpeve of mine when folks conflate the two… sex != gender. Keep up the good work!

  • p

    well, it is a social networking site so i think gender would be best suited as part of a person’s profile, rather than their biological sex (which is also fluid and not neatly defined)

    besides, why would anyone need to know what is going on in my pants? if i say i’m a certain gender, then that’s how i choose to present and that’s where the discussion ends.
    no need to go checking ‘under the hood’

  • p

    oops, totally has a brain fart and confused your post with a different one
    my response is aimed to address the question of “why not put sex instead of gender”, which is exactly what you are concerned about :)

  • Sebastian

    From HackerNews:

    Sounds horrible to me. Gender is either male of female.
    There is no gender called “Ada Lovelace” and no gender called “yes” (haha, you are such a funny guy..).

    Now i’d like to search for all male people from germany with interests in IT. Oh what? Some of them wrote “male” some wrote “man” and what not? Wait, that doesn’t work anymore?

    I very much hope the freetext form is banned again.. If people want to express that they are funny or “special” they can do that in another textfield, like self description, but not in the gender textfield, that’s just stupid and NOT well thought of. It’s a data nightmare and not convenient. But people have to be ultracool and put stupid and childish things in the gender field, because that’s so funny to them.. geez.

  • JakobD

    @Sebastian: Yeah, so you can’t search for people with a specific sex. I don’t think this is anything bad.

  • Kevin

    I’m stuck in the middle.

    First of all I agree with Sarah Mei that this is a really good move for supporting those who don’t consider themselves male or female, just because they aren’t. I think it’s a good idea not to alienate them. Kudos for that!

    On the other hand I also strongly agree with Sebastian, above. If people are using the field, I want them to be serious. Not just randomly funny. And I also think it would be of great use being able to translate the words Male/Female, not to mention making use of the variable when searching for someone.

    Which brings me to Enric. I think we have the most solid solution there. You could pick Male/Female from a dropdown. This will be translated between different languages. It can also be used to make searching more specific. However, if you don’t feel like one of those two genders, you can use the field behind it to write down your own gender. Perhaps clicking the ‘Other’ field in the dropdown and having a field pop-up behind it. In that case you could still use ‘Other’ as a searching variable.

    In the above case you can type down your true gender while people with a normal gender are enticed to use the dropdown from a translation and searching point of view. I believe it would be best to still keep the more practical approach without the alienating part and I strongly hope you can do something with that. ๐Ÿ˜‰

  • […] post explains why they left gender open as a text field. See also my recent post about ambiguity. This is gonna be a theme if I ever write about […]

  • Doug

    As completely in agreement with maymay’s comment about motivations, would love to sign up now!

  • […] Disalienation: Why Gender is a Text Field on Diaspora (tags: socialnetworking technology gender) […]

  • shelleybear

    Gender is NOT a binary.
    Gender IS an ocean.

  • Nacho

    I would even go so far as saying that it’s a completely unnecessary field. The only reason traditional sites do this is to more easily segment their user base for advertising and statistics purposes. If that’s not in the goals of the project, then I would completely remove the field. If somebody wants to put that information, having a description field where they can dump all info they want is enough.

  • Jo

    Fantastic fantastic fantastic. Having seen so much fail on this in other social networking areas, this makes me really happy. There are remarkably few reasons to search for a gender binary field except for advertising purposes, surely?

  • @Enric: But what if the Sandy you’re looking for isn’t male? What if you just perceive that he is, but his own self-identification is different?

    You’re asking for a “what do *I* think you are” field, which a lot of people just can’t fill out. After all, the right answer depends on who’s doing the looking.

  • I heart this so much. I heart this so much I am sending it as a tip to gawker. I want to see this on Valleywag.

    This one small textfield makes Facebook look infinitely stodgy.

  • This is great, props for doing this.

  • treaclemine

    gender != sex

    genotypical sex != phenotypical sex != gender identification etc. etc.

    Some of the values which sex can take include gene-XX pheno-female, gene-XY pheno-male, gene-XX pheno-male, geno-XXX pheno-female etc.

    Some of the values which gender can take include trans, agender, genderqueer, masculine, feminine etc.

  • treaclemine

    ETA: Very cool to use text fields for both gender and sex!

  • Lukas

    How about picking the n (maybe 5-20) most commonly used genders on the site and putting them in a dropdown, and then have a “other” option with a text field if your gender doesn’t fit any of them? The text field could also have auto-completion with popular genders used by other members. That way, the community would probably arrive at some kind of standard gender system, and if you knew a person, you’d perhaps have a pretty good chance of being able to search for them, but if somebody doesn’t feel that any of the common genders fit them, they could still create their own.

  • I second Kevins thoughts and would like to enhance them. What shall the purpose of the field be? Is it supposed to be a form of self-expression, telling others something about you? Or shall it be used as a form of categorization for searching? These two purposes do not overlap very much. By making the field free-form text, it changes from the second to the first purpose and is now a form of self-expression. But it’s usefulness for searches has degraded.

    Sarah, you already have the right picture of an n-dimensional continuum with dot clusters around the traditional “male” and “female” spots. Follow that and add another innovation: two gender fields!

    One field with the meaning “how others see my gender” with the traditional “male” and “female” and blank (meaning “unstated” or “unceratin”) drop-down, useful for searching. And another field with the meaning “how I would describe my gender to others in one or a few words” that is a free-form text field.

    How about that?

  • rachel

    1. I don’t really understand the motivation to search for men with IT interests instead of people with IT interests. Why are we trying to save the drop down box at all?
    2. I listed my gender as ‘Ada Lovelace’, and I stand by it. First, It’s girly; her name includes both ‘love’ and ‘lace’. Second, it’s the ultimate in historically-grounded nerd-feminism, which I might list as my gender when I get bored with this one.
    3. @alexis I had the same response. Facebook seems so narrow-minded now. They could at least give me ‘woman’ instead of ‘female’.

  • Nat

    Thank you so much for doing this, as a third gender person of androgynous appearance who is genuinely read as different sexes/binary genders by different social circles, I have long yearned for an “It’s complicated” gender field and have opted out of any social network that’s forced me to choose one.

  • Please, please, keep it! At least make it optional for diaspora hubs to have a blank text field. I loved it when I saw it. Until now its the killer feature about diaspora for me. And for all the queer, activist, feminist people who joined diaspora around me. If you can welcome them in your network and your community, Diaspora will thrive both as a social network and as software.

    Screw statistics, anyway. So you have to find new ways in making sense of the data. Big deal.

  • Name Required

    Although the flexibility of this field may add value for some people, it also removes value for other people in terms of searching. A solution to that may well be to offer two boxes, one for “sex” and one for “gender identity”, but this is a debate which should not be held by interfering with the reference implementation of a distributed social network technology.

    By changing from a dropdown to a freeform text field, Diaspora has broken compatibility with existing sites and standards including everything from ISO 5218 to OpenSocial (opensocial.Enum.Gender). This sort of “innovation” is best done at the edges, and if it reaches a critical mass it should be standardised and only then adopted by the reference implementation.

  • I like this too.

    @Name Required, I’m not up to speed on the standards you refer to, but unless the “Gender” field is required by those standards, I don’t think this breaks anything — diaspora can simply omit this field.

    I saw some commentary on GetSatisfaction about not being able to localize this entry now that it’s free-form. It occurs to me that you could still localize the most common values.

    I must admit that I’m also unclear on the value of this field, except in the context of a dating site. To the extent that sites use it to target ads, I wish they’d call it “show me ads for.” A friend commented recently that the ads she sees on Facebook got a lot better after she told Facebook she was male (and some age I’ve forgotten).

  • Christian

    Well, I like that step, it makes people think.
    But just for searchability, why don’t you offer a list of top 10 gender values? Users then will be able to decide democratically if it’s “man” or “male” (e. g.).
    What do you think?

  • Christian

    Whoops, sorry, just ignore my post, I sign Lukas’ post instead ๐Ÿ˜‰

  • One question though: If Diaspora does something like facebook with notifications like “___ commented on [pronoun] picture”, how is Diaspora going to deal with this. Gender neutral pronouns for everyone?

  • Callisto Shampoo

    How brilliant is this??

  • Kevin J. Woolley

    Seems to me that the only reason *not* to like this is if you’re trying to pull up lists of people based on gender. If that’s the best use someone can make of a social network, then you deserve to lose.

  • Kevin J. Woolley

    s/you deserve/they deserve/

    I shouldn’t comment when I’m tired. :)

  • Azz

    One can use gender neutral pronouns, or many times one can attempt to re-arrange the sentence so a pronoun isn’t necessary.

    One could also allow the user to pick, though for this one might want to use drop-down boxes rather than a text entry field to balance the need of other users to be able to read notifications with the need of the user to have a pronoun that works.

    I find that while I often identify as a woman, I’m more than occasionally most comfortable being addressed and referred to in the plural.

  • Brilliant. The further into the future we look, the more this-and-that everything becomes. Binaries are fine for computation. But selves are not computable.

  • Gramina

    I have no current idea what Diaspora is, and have only heard of it because someone linked me to this post.

    I’m going to go find out now, and if I can come up with any way at all I can use, support, or even just recommend it, I’ll be doing that.

    Thank you.

    (Oh – and assuming that there’s no need for standard “reportable data” type data, I strongly support having only a text field, not a drop-down and text. I like making people who’ve never thought about it put at least a moment’s thought into it, and I very much like not having a “normal” (listed) and “not normal” (“other:____”) set of genders.

  • @Gramina, I wrote up what is Diaspora last weekend. I should have included it in the post originally — thanks for the reminder. I’ve added it at the end.

  • Jack M

    I love it… while you’re at it, can you make the “Race” a one option dropdown menu with just “Human Being” on it?

    – Jack

  • @Jack M – LOVE that idea. I’ll see what I can do. :)

  • Nice change.

    Plus, to those people that think this is somehow a “data usability nightmare”, have not heard of machine learning, clustering and other standard data analysis techniques? I bet you’re the same people that enforce phone numbers with a specific number of digits or require mailing addresses to have post/zip codes (some countries don’t have them, like Hong Kong!)

  • For Friendika we used a drop-down but with a much larger selection of options (7 gender options and close to 30 relationship options). The problem with using a text field as has been noted elsewhere is the difficulty in searching free form text. And when you have choices outside of the traditional male/female, you can’t automatically organise groups of people or search based on the contents of this field e.g. “send this post only to my male friends who are over 30”. So what you gain in creative expression you lose in terms of semantic meaning which you may not use today, but might find useful in the future.

  • Aylwen

    AWESOME. That is all ๐Ÿ˜€ I can’t tell you how many times I’ve complained about sites asking for a binary gender when they have no really good reason to do so. My partner will thank you as it’s at least one less site she has to listen to me complain about ๐Ÿ˜€

    The “OMG I can’t classifiez peoplez” remark seems pretty weak to me. Why do you need to do that, anyway? Do all of you really have so many friends with androgynous names that you can’t sift through a few extra entries on a search?

    I’m sorry, but it’s just not as simple as a binary situation, in gender *or* sex. Anyone who thinks that it is, is in a privilege category.

    The rest of the world seems to classify us whether we like it or not, so it might be useful to have something like a “show me ads for” type field. That’s actually pretty cool sounding. Male, Female, Both/Not Saying.

  • Andrea

    Finally someone with the right mind at the right place! This makes any other social network feel dumbed down by the gender binary. Send greetings to your transgendered relative and keep up the good work! I posted this article on facebook, too.

    Oh and eventhough I am transgendered, the first thing that came to my mind and which I wrote down was “female”. I didn’t realize the freedom of choice first. ๐Ÿ˜‰

  • Meg

    This is beautiful, and does something that simply omitting the field can never do: it explicitly includes people of diverse genders. Thanks for doing this!

  • Christina

    Gender pronouns: I liked Elizabeth Bear’s (and others might use it, hers is just the first instance I’ve encountered)solution to gender-non-specific pronouns. I believe she referred to those who bore no binary either/or orientation as ‘ser’ and left it at that. So in the context of social networking syntax, a notification could read: “Gerry posted a photo to ser gallery”

    I don’t know if you could program to recognize male/female designations in the gender field if it’s not a drop-down…

  • […] Disalienation: Why Gender is a Text Field on Diaspora: Sarah Mei writes The โ€œgenderโ€ field in a personโ€™s profile was originally a dropdown menu, with three choices: blank, male, and female. My change made it an optional text field that was blank to start. A wide open frontier! Enter anything you want. […]

  • soycamo

    Thank you. I suspect the problem lies not in plaintext parsing, but in the humans who are not able to comprehend things in non-binary situations. Computers have been using fuzzy logic for quite some time and humans have this same ability, but for some reason some of them need a plugin ๐Ÿ˜‰

    @Christina there are a variety of pronouns that have been used in trans communities. Hir and zie are the two I’ve heard the most. They is also gaining currency as a non-gendered pronoun.