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:

gender:
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

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It’s been a rollercoaster around here and I’ve kept my game face on, but there are things that need saying.  Things about what matters, and why, and how keeping a Pollyanna attitude is no more naïve and no less radical than a scowl.

I don’t presume to take goodness at face value, and no, I don’t believe that all we need is love, or that tragedy and injustice aren’t happening every minute in every town the world. I get that. I do. But I also believe in the power of slicing through that grim nightmare with a sharp and unflinching force of forgiveness, kindness, and grace.

I believe in putting all that noise on MUTE and working tirelessly to build haven after haven from the rain.

I believe in disrupting expectations by giving someone a second chance.

I believe in putting white-knuckle fists to the steering wheel and getting the hell out of dodge — even just for a night — when anything is stuck, or broken, or stagnant. And I believe in ending up the next morning with your feet hanging off a cliff, staring at the ocean, the grand canyon, a cityscape, a mountain range, a cornfield, a playground, or even an empty Walmart parking lot if you have to — just as long as the sun is rising and you’re paying attention and you feel free. I believe in bringing that feeling home with you and pouring it into your work, your home, your loves, and your willingness to fight for another person’s moment of relief.

And it shouldn’t surprise anyone that I still believe in the Internet. Like I did in 1999, when my secret and hand-coded log/journal/diary thing that didn’t have a genre name yet was an oasis for people digging through Alta Vista and HotBot late at night for someone who was being honest and telling a story. It didn’t matter what story was being told as long as it sounded like secrets being whispered in the dark. Because that was the sound of not being alone.

I still believe in the Internet like I did before everything was archived and cross-referenced in the Wayback Machine and Google’s public caches.  Like I did when still I believed in anonymity.

And some days it’s harder to stay focused on what matters, but I do still believe in the Internet like I did before SEO was a competitive sport. Before businesses started dropping vowels in order to score a good domain name. Before plastic and aluminum grade disposable ads, widgets, and apps littered every square inch of the Internet’s surface like empty Coke bottles after a high school football game.

I believe that sincerity and excitement are critical ingredients for anything to matter, and that that is why the Internet is winning. I believe that everyone who tries to fake those ingredients will either fail or have a house dropped on their heads during a tornado as punishment for their lies and their laziness. But I also believe it’s now commonplace for people to see Internet marketing as a set of cold strategic formulas void of genuine connection, and that this is morally wrong.

It’s not the large companies and marketing agencies that bother me (this has been part of their game forever). It’s the individuals — the folks who are just trying to carve a reasonable space for themselves in the Digital Land of Opportunity — who’ve been taught that analyzing social media profiles and then contacting large groups of strangers with canned and solely self-promotional messages counts as “making connections.”  That it’s not spam. That this is how they’re supposed to do it. That this is what it means to contribute to a community. That’s the part that breaks my heart.

And yet.

And yet, on the same Internet, regular people collaborate with strangers to build free software that makes our lives better. Building a decent website without technical skills is possible.  Designers hand out attractive site designs for free, just to make the Internet a more beautiful place. Photographers give strangers permission to use their photos. Musicians offer their tunes up freely for remixing into podcasts and other creative projects. Artists can raise funds for new projects by getting friends excited about them. Anyone can start a community discussion space. Committed members are happy to volunteer.

While I sometimes miss the days when the Internet didn’t feel like a sensory and information overload bomb, I don’t think I’d go back to them. Our tools, creativity, and commitment to each other have come so far. We’re real people now; not anonymous screen-names looking for fantasy cybersex on AOL chatrooms. Our online and offline lives are so tightly woven together that we get to grapple with one another on questions like “How and when should I keep my social circles compartmentalized?”. My mom is on Facebook, and my she has the power to hide my feed because I talk too much. AND we’ve all stopped using <blink> tags. That’s progress.

Last week, the feature for Queer Open Mic (an event I co-organize) opened with a poem that stunned and rocked me back into place. It started with…

She said to me that most trailblazers
may never see the trail.
May never see the path they cut into the earth,
or the feet that come behind them.

Most days, she said, the act of walking
without a set route probably won’t feel like revolution.
There are too many goddamned branches in your face,
Too much to hack through, dulling the machete
and making your muscles scream for the kind of comfort
your mind can’t hope to welcome.

And it ended with…

She told me it was all impossible, and still
she said, “Go.”
She said, “Leave, and scare the shit out of yourself.
You’ll be glad you did.”

— excerpt from She said, “Go” by Tatyana Brown

We’re pushing paths into this Internet together. I believe the tools and opportunities we want to see are worth fighting for — that these branches are absolutely worth hacking through — but only with our feet firmly planted in the what we care about and love.