Rena Bivens has just published an article called The gender binary will not be deprogrammed: Ten years of coding gender on Facebook in New Media & Society. In this work, Bivens explores the first ten years of Facebook’s existence, closely examining how programming decisions related to gender have changed over time.
In February 2014, Facebook announced a significant change to the way that gender is coded: previously, users were only able to select ‘male’ or ‘female’ as their gender but with this change, users were suddenly permitted to choose ‘custom’ gender settings that offered 56 new options for gender identification. However, Bivens’ research demonstrates that this change only altered the surface of the software – the user interface. Meanwhile, hidden in a software level inaccessible to the average user (the database), the software had been programmed to reconfigure users who selected a ‘custom’ gender back into a binary gender (male/female), depending on which pronoun they selected. By doing so, Facebook has been programmed to misgender users under the surface.
Bivens’ analysis places this and many other changes related to gender in a much broader context. For instance, the first version of Facebook, created back in February of 2004, was designed with gender as a non-mandatory field. Once it became clear that gender is a valuable piece of data for the company, this programming decision became a major obstacle and subsequent programming decisions over the years were geared towards eliminating non-binary gender identities.
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