We are going to make it through this year if it kills us
May the bridges I burn light the way

Around this time last year, I kicked off a new project called Genderplayful — an online marketplace for gender-variant folks to sell clothing to one another. It was bigger and harder than anything I’ve done before, and we’re still working on it. It will launch soon. Really.

Shortly after that kickoff, I gave up seven years’ worth of freelance clients and got a real job. At an office. Where people work 9-5 and wear pants. It felt like stepping into another world — one I had never aspired to be a part of. It was the right move and it was worth it, but it required a whole new skillset and mentality from me, and I had to pick them up the hard way.

So when I saw this print by Mike Monteiro at 20×200 last March, I bought it and put it right above my computer in my home. We are going to make it through this year if it kills us. Amen.

The other print of Mike’s that I strongly considered picking up read, May the bridges I burn light the way. I liked it partly for its hat tip to the family business, but mostly because I felt like my past and my freedom were going up in flames.

It sounds crazy (most things I believe do), but it’s not an unreasonable view. By saying Yes to huge things, you have to say No to nearly everything else. You kill new opportunities before they can appear because you no longer have space for them on your doorstep. Daydreaming about how you want to change the world stops being a good use of time, because now you have a focused direction. You answer the question of  “What do I want to be when I grow up?” for at least the next year, and it takes the fun out of the game. You lose that hungry, creative edge that helped you survive in constant uncertainty because that part of your brain isn’t challenged anymore. (That was valuable! You needed that!)

But the truth is, I had built that creative life so I could get to this point, and dive full-body into what matters to me. I’ve burned some bridges, but those fireworks were a celebration. Sometimes the only way to step onto a new path is to remove the other paths, and I’ll be damned if those flames aren’t lighting the way. I know where I’ve been and I know where I’m going, and it’s worth it. It’s hard as hell sometimes, but it’s absolutely worth it.

I made it through this year and it didn’t kill me. Thanks, Mike Monteiro.

And thanks, Emma. Thank you Will. Thank you Melissa. Thank you Bill. Thank you Sannse. Thank you Jen. Thanks to all of the genderqueers on Twitter and Tumblr. Thanks to all the staff at Genderfork, and to the new staff at Genderplayful. Thanks to my parents. Thanks to Alan. Thank you, Kyle.

And thanks to 2011 for finally fucking ending and being relatively well-behaved in the process. You did your job exactly right.

Here’s to 2012!

My longest romantic relationship is not the three-year partnership I just ended. (Though I prefer to say it’s been “rearranged”, because we’re grownups now, and it’s our turn to decide what that means.)

My longest romantic relationship is with the Internet.

(And I have written it so. many. love letters.)

Something about the way it swept me off my feet and carried me into adulthood, the way it told me I was beautiful and valuable when I’d always been a misfit, and the way it provided me with resources and answers whenever I felt sure that I was completely on my own… the Internet has always been more than just access to other people. It’s been my home, my nourishment, my partner… the thing that showed me understanding and gave me an identity when I was so far away from society’s standards that my own sanity was in question… the thing that gave me what I needed when what I needed didn’t seem to exist.

I realize I am now speaking for the next generation of Crazy Cat Ladies — we are the Crazy Internet People — who rely on non-human replacements for human relationships. I could justify it by saying that the Internet really is all about the People, but it’s not. They’re part of it, sure, but they were always there. The Internet added something to make them better.

The Internet is about the access.

It’s about being able to shout a question to the sky and actually get an answer. It’s about being able to shape our own secret stories so they can be heard and felt by that stranger on the other side of the world who desperately needs to know they’re not alone. It’s about being able to create complete crap and fling it out into a field knowing that no one will care, unless you happened to be wrong about it being crap. It’s about building a brilliant wall of mixed sensory input that feeds you exactly what you asked for, along with everything you didn’t know you needed but it thought you should have anyway.

It’s not perfect. Like any lover, it comes with more baggage than a cross-country flight on Christmas Eve. It has daddy issues, it has a temper, it has weird fetishes that you’re not interested in, and it wakes you up at 3am to say things like, “We need to talk.”

Maybe that’s what makes it okay for us to be messy humans right back at it.

I knew this year would have me nose-to-the-grindstone building and rebuilding my foundations. It was time to stop thinking about what I wanted to do, and to just push myself to get it done. A new full-time contract. A new startup. The closure of six years worth of freelance clients. A relationship breaking down. Mix in two speaking engagements at universities on the East Coast and a meeting in Canada, and yeah, that’s a full plate.

No one would fault me for shutting up, disengaging from Facebook and Twitter except for basic updates, and not blogging for awhile.

But I do.

Not just because its professionally important for me to keep building a community, an audience, a constituency, a position in the greater conversation, and (ugh) a personal brand. Yeah, I’m a social media kid, and those things are all my life blood. And when I’m not blogging, I’m not keeping it up. (Actually, I decided that none of that mattered this year. I’ve already got all the fuel I need to build what’s next, and what’s next is for my people, so it’ll all work out in the end.)

I’m kicking myself for being quiet because I am less happy when I’m not interacting with the Internet. I could go on a long anthropomorphizing rant about how you’d be unhappy, too, if you weren’t talking to your lover of 14 years. Or I could just quote gapingvoid and make it simple:

“Sharing makes us happy. Not sharing makes us unhappy. Like I said, [it’s] a fundamental human drive.” –Hugh MacLeod

Or, to expand: The Internet is about access, and access matters because it allows us to bear witness.

That’s it. That’s what we’re showing up for.

Tonight I’m listening to Lady Gaga’s latest album, Born This Way, in which she sings her heart out, making direct eye contact with every young person who’s ever felt like they didn’t belong. And it doesn’t matter that I don’t like her style of dance mixes, or that I think her bridges are trite. She’s singing, and she’s connecting, and she’s telling people they’re not alone, and I love her madly for it. Tonight, she is my Internet. She’s standing up in that role that I treasure — the one that saved me, and the one I stand in whenever I can handle the weight of it because it matters so damn much. The one where we reach out to sad strangers and say, “It’s okay, I’ll hold your hand. Now walk.

I have no conclusion. I’m just hitting publish because that’s better than not. And because if we censor our impulses out of fear of what future opportunities might think, we’re as good as having forgotten our dreams.

(And also because I promised myself no sex until I started blogging again.)

So what do you say. Does this count as showing up for you, Internet?

Can I get a witness?

Sarah Dopp

Photo by Dreamfish

Hi Internet,

Wow. That was some year, huh? I’m still rubbing my eyes to wake up from it all.

Here’s a recap:

I organized some social media workshops, I started an industry blog about community management, and I launched a campaign to build a clothing marketplace (which hit it’s funding goal three weeks early, last Monday!).

I also spoke at Oberlin College, co-coordinated a camp weekend for transgender children, produced a public reading of content from Genderfork, started a personal newsletter, and was published in two books.

I kept hosting Queer Open Mic, I kept shaving my head, I kept on twittering, and I kept Genderfork running smoothly.

I built websites for some amazing clients like Gender Spectrum, Marc Davis, The Personal Data Ecosystem, and THE LINE Campaign. And I pushed my focus from “website development” to “online community development,” consulting on projects for Offbeat Bride, Cisco, and a few others.

It was an odd year. A creative year. A year that required a lot of long drives just to clear my head. It was filled with rebuilding, reorienting, and rethinking. It was jumpy and inconsistent. It ripped me open in all the right places, and it held my hand when that hurt like hell. I’m grateful for every moment of 2010, but let’s be honest: I’m glad it’s over.

It’s time to stop turning my brain upside down and shaking its pieces all over the place to figure out what matters. I know what matters. I know what’s next.

Now it’s time to build.

What about you?

I hope your Internal Annual Review today is just as clear, and that whatever’s next for you is stretching itself out in front of you with a welcoming smile. I hope you’ve seen it coming, and are ready to change gears and launch forward.

And speaking of which, while we’re here, do you mind if I make a few suggestions?

1) Send yourself a letter today using FutureMe.org. I do it every year at New Years (and a few other times during the year when I’m drunk or punchy, just for kicks).  The letter will arrive in your inbox at exactly the same time a year later. Use it to write out what you did last year and what you hope to achieve this year. And use it to remind yourself of what’s important to you.

2) Don’t make New Year’s resolutions that set you up for failure. Every time you break a promise to yourself, you trust yourself less, and that poison seeps into all aspects of your life. Don’t take the bait. Set intentions instead. Make predictions. Generate ideas. If you must play into the resolutions game, then set gentle, realistic goals and make a plan for how to meet them. But really, I think you should just go outside, take a deep breath, be quiet for an hour, and reflect on how far you’ve come already. You’re kind of amazing. Remember?

3) Whatever you focus on this year, make it special. Keep it small enough to stay special, and let it grow when it’s ready. Don’t litter on the Internet by posting things you don’t actually care about. Build up your character and integrity by only doing things that actually matter to you. Practice discardia. Be selective. Don’t just throw spaghetti against the wall to see what sticks. Pick your spaghetti off the shelf carefully. Go for the one that smells the best. Love that water as it boils. Make your sauce from scratch. Taste test. Get it right.

May your year be full of what you need, and may it challenge you to reconsider what that is.

(And thank you for being here. You make me happy.)

Love you,
Sarah

Inspired by a recent email by Melissa Gira about doing something “for the story of it,” I present you with… my decision-making flowchart:


(Click for the bigger, more readable version)

It’s here — the holiday of all holidays — Geek New Year.  The intersection of the end of SXSW Interactive and St. Patrick’s Day, when everyone who made the annual pilgrimage to Austin, TX is wandering home, rubbing their eyes and thinking a thousand new thoughts about how the coming year will be. And drinking.

I skipped SXSW this year, and didn’t miss it much.  But apparently, 2009 Me took some steps to keep 2010 Me in the loop just so I wouldn’t feel left out.  I woke up this morning to an email I’d sent myself a year ago using FutureMe.org. The subject line read, “listenupmotherfucker.” (And I’m such a nice person to everyone else…)

If you’ve watched me twitter on New Years, you know I make a grandiose attempt to discourage everyone in the world from making resolutions.  Resolutions are often about picking something really hard that you feel guilty about, and throwing yourself at it drunkenly with all your might, only to fail in about a month. What does that really do, besides pull a few muscles and prove your incompetence?  We need better traditions.

Mine is writing a letter to myself a year in the future.  I include reminders, predictions, ideas, requests, and stories I want to carry forward.  It’s me having an ongoing, ritualized conversation between the past, the present, and the future, and I love it. I love watching my own story unfold in a correspondence with myself over time.

Except last year I fucked it up.

Last year I forgot to write myself a letter on New Years, and it bugged me for months.  So on March 17th, St. Patrick’s Day and the end of SXSWi, after two weeks of traveling, I decided that despite being too wrecked to move, I could see the whole timeline of my life Very Clearly and had a LOT to say about it.

Here’s the letter I received this morning (with a few light revisions to make it more bloggable):

From: Sarah Dopp
To: Sarah Dopp
Date: March 17, 2010
Subj: From me to me, listenupmotherfucker.

Dear FutureMe,

It’s the last night of SXSW and I’m a fucking zombie. I’ve been traveling for two weeks — first a week in Portland and now this. Roomed with Melissa, Boffery’s a madman of vision, and Genderfork is exploding with passion. I want my Dopp Juice voice back. Queer Open Mic is getting its sea legs again, and occasionally I think about book deals and self-publishing. I’m speaking soon on gender and sexuality ambiguities, and in general, my life’s pretty fucking cool.

So why am I so stoned on exhaustion that I can’t even pack my fucking suitcase?

Okay, listen up. I skipped the letter from New Years so this one’s a few months late. Here’s the deal. You’re reading this in 2010, right? Shut up and keep talking. That’s my brilliant plan. Just do that, and you’ll be fine.

No, seriously, though. Here’s what you need to know:

1) Stop calling yourself an entrepreneur. It’s bullshit.

2) Don’t go back to school, even if you know you can. It’s bullshit, and you have better ways to spend your time.

3) If you forget the different between following your heart and doing what seems right, go read XKCD’s Fuck That Shit again.

4) If you get stuck, go read the Cult of Done Manifesto again.

5) Genderfork Book. Build the community. Meetups, volunteers, whatever.

6) Go talk to [redacted] about representing a community that you don’t see yourself as a complete representative of.

7) You can do this. You have to. You don’t know how not to.

Stay alive. I love you.

Sarah

p.s. I really like The Squeeze right now.

I must have been very tired, because I have absolutely no recollection of writing this.

I’m particularly fond of the line, “Shut up and keep talking. That’s my brilliant plan. Just do that, and you’ll be fine.”

And aside from that… yeah… this is how I talk to myself.

Go write your letter now.  It’s a new New Year.

A year ago, I wrote an open letter to Silicon Valley, asking people to stop and think about how they’re handling gender (and race, for that matter) in their community websites.  The short version is that if you’re requiring users to select their gender from a drop-down menu that has two options in it, you’re alienating some people. I didn’t offer alternative solutions at the time — it was just a request for everyone to think about it.

(Note: if you’re not clear on why gender is a complicated issue in data collection, please stop right now and go read that other post before continuing. This will make a lot more sense after you do so.)

After grappling with this problem on a few other projects, and talking about it in a session last week at She’s Geeky (I called it “My gender broke your drop-down menu…”), I’d like to now offer my suggested alternatives.

Alternatives to asking for a user’s gender in a required two-option drop-down menu…

Option 1: Make it Optional

Baby steps.  If the idea of getting fancy with your data collection method gives you nightmares, just remove the red asterisk.  Stop making it required! Most people will still answer the question, and those who don’t want to will select not to.  Put a plan in place for how to treat and account for those who don’t want to declare their genders, and you’re done.  It’s not the most celebratory or inclusive measure, but it is a very clean way to resolve a lot of problems.

Option 2: Don’t Ask At All

Instead of asking for gender, ask for what you actually want to know.

Is it what honorific should precede the person’s name?  Well, then gender’s not going to tell you if they’re a doctor or a reverend, is it? Give them a comprehensive list of options, and allow them to select none, if they wish. (And really, why do we use these again?  My preference is to drop them entirely.)

Is it what marketing you think they’ll respond best to?  Newsflash: not every woman likes baking, and not every man likes cars.  Ask them about their interests and market to them on that basis, instead.

Is gender not actually relevant at all, except that you think it makes for an interesting statistic? Meh. I’d like to convince you that you really shouldn’t touch it, but if I’m not going to win that argument, please see Option 1.

Option 3: Have a Third Option

Your drop-down menus can have more than two options.  Some people are trying three.

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this, and here’s my current position:

  • “Other” is a poor choice for a third option.  Why? Because gender-nonconforming people are othered enough as it is.
  • A more useful choice would be “Decline to State” (or something similar) — then it’s not about non-conformity, it’s about privacy.
  • But taking this a bit further, I’d like to submit “It’s Complicated” for consideration as the new third option.  Most gender-nonconforming types will smile at you for it.  It tells them you understand.

I’ve seen some people try to implement a “lots of options” dropdown menu, but I don’t really recommend this route, for two reasons:

  1. What if someone looks at the list and doesn’t identify with any of the words?  You just alienated them much further than your male/female dropdown menu was doing before.
  2. What if someone identifies as more than one thing on the list?  Take, for example, a transsexual woman who is proud to identify as a woman.  Are you really going to make her choose between “trans” and “woman”?  Come on now.  That’s insulting.

If you change it from a drop-down menu (“pick only one”) to a checkbox menu (“select all that apply”), you solve issue #2, but you still have issue #1 to grapple with.  And let me tell you: if you think you can come up with a finite list of all the possible gender identities in the world, you’re wrong.

Option 4: Redesign the System

So you’re convinced that “male/female” is a deeply flawed data breakdown for the purpose of your website, but you want people to assert their identities, and you want them to get personal about it.  Okay, then!  Time to scrap the dropdowns and do something new.  Here are some ideas…

A “gender spectrum” slider bar. Take a look at how Blackbox Republic is structuring their sexual identity data:

blackbox

I could see a similar thing done with “masculine” and “feminine” at each end, and letting people self-identify.

Note: one huge problem with the spectrum model is that it’s too flat.  I believe there are people who have “a lot of gender” (i.e. dripping both masculinity and femininity all over the place) and “not a lot of gender” (i.e. minimizing signals of any gender whatsoever), and on the spectrum, they might look the same.  But that brings up my next idea, which is…

A second dropdown that asks how important gender is to them. Take a look at how OkCupid handles religion.  You get one dropdown menu for how you identify, and a second dropdown menu for how important it is to you.  For some people, their gender is a strongly identifying factor in their lives.  For others, it’s nearly irrelevant.  What if we just started asking that question?

okcupid-dropdown

You could also…

Get fancy and use Kreative Korp’s SGOSelect menu (or some variation on it), which basically says: if you have a traditional identity, you can use the simple form.  And if you want to get more specific, you can switch over to the Advanced form:

sgoselect… but it still runs into the “finite number of options” problem, even in the Advanced view.

And that brings me to my last suggestion, which so far seems to be my holy grail. I worked this out with my co-founder team at Boffery while we were strategizing the user interface… with some outside input from Kirrily Robert of Freebase:

An open-ended tagging field that suggests words as you type. I want to be able to define my gender as “female, androgynous, genderqueer.”  And I believe that if we were all encouraged to, we would come up with a great rich vocabulary that uniquely characterizes ourselves in all the ways a two-option gender set is trying to do, but failing at.  If the tagging system were set up to automatically suggest words as you typed, you could either loop in to what others are saying and be associated with that group, or create your own words and add them to the lexicon. The result would be a rich mix of groupable/categorizable labels (marketers: this is far more meaningful than what you’re currently working with), along with the ability for us to self-identify however we want.

I don’t have a picture for you ‘cuz it hasn’t been built yet.  But if anyone understands what I’m talking about and wants to test it out, let me know.

I want in.

Love,
Sarah

ETA: immediately after I posted this, a designer took a stab at the open-ended tagging field idea and sent me early concept mockups.  Check ’em out!

Over dinner last Thursday night, maymay and I spent several hours discussing what makes a Good Web Development Team, based on our particular work styles.  Here’s what we came up with (refined from a crude notebook sketch):

collab-webdevteam

Particular things to note here…

  • All team members have direct access to one another, and are encouraged to work together in real-time.  Quality assurance, scope agreements, user experience development, and engineering development all depend on direct collaboration.
  • D@n has already pointed out that we left out Sys Admin.  That’s a good point, and it should probably be its own person, with direct lines to Front-End, Back-End, and Project Manager.
  • He also expressed concern about QA not being a specific person.  I stand by the current model for dev teams that don’t aspire to grow any bigger than the setup above — peer-checking is sufficient.  As maymay put it, “QA is a state of mind.”  It’s always happening, and it can be structured to happen systematically.
  • Job roles and personal skills don’t always perfectly align. In my case, I can play both Front-End Developer and Project Manager, each with a particular flavor.  And maymay can take on both Front-End and Back-End Developer roles if the expectations are right.  But for both of us, it seems the case that if we only have to take on one role per project, we’re able to do better work.

This is just an abstract exercise in theoretical structuring based on our experience — not meant as anything to be set in stone. Take it for what you will, and feel free to expand on it.

Enjoy!,
Sarah

I’ve been quietly rolling an interesting comparison around in my head for a few months now, and lately it’s been dribbling out onto my work and my conversations. I take this to mean it’s probably time to blog about it, and to ask you to help me dissect it. Wanna have a go at it? Here’s my theory:

Social media consultants are a lot like therapists. Or at least, they should be. Or they are if they’re doing their jobs well.

Or, put differently: when someone is looking for a social media consultant, what they really need is a social media therapist.

Here’s what I’m looking at so far…

1) Since having a social media presence is about reputation and relationships, it needs to be personal to the individual.  A consultant can’t just prescribe an approach and walk away.  The approach needs to be custom-tailored to fit the client’s personality and worldview, and the client needs to have a lot of say in the development of this fit.  Thus, one of the consultant’s biggest jobs is to ask the right questions, shut up and listen, and let the client find their own answers.

2) Having an effective social media presence is different from traditional marketing, and it’s also different from the ways we’ve been using the internet in the past.  So clients need to adjust to a new way of approaching things, and this adjustment takes time.  One of the most effective things a social media consultant can do is be available for regular, hour-long, therapy-like sessions in which the client talks about what they’re experiencing (feelings and all), and the consultant helps them separate out the useful thinking from the off-base stuff…. over and over again, until the client gets it.

3) Developing a social media presence has to be done gradually.  A client has to pay attention to what’s working and what’s not, listen to feedback from the community, and constantly refine their approach with little changes.  If a consultant plans on being around for regular sessions, the client has a regular schedule for examining the feedback they’re receiving and incrementally improving their approach.

4) The social media consulting model is in contrast to the web development consulting model, where you just build something and walk away until it needs to be updated.  It’s also in contrast to the idea that social media consultants exist to give expert advice — if clients think of them that way, they’ll only go to them with the big questions, and try to answer the little questions on their own.  But social media success is in the details, and it’s the little questions that will make or break an online presence. 

Working conclusion: Get over yourselves, consultants. You’re therapists. Deal with it. And do it right.

I’ll be speaking at Mountain Social, a gathering in the mountains of Georgia next fall where we’ll be discussing better uses of internet technologies (you should come!), and I’ve already proposed this as a topic I want to dig into further while I’m there. So I figure that gives me 5 months to figure out just how deep this rabbit hole goes.

What does it bring up for you?

micropaymentheart.pngI want to believe in micropayments.

It’s like Santa Claus, the tooth fairy, the economic stimulus package, predefined timelines for large projects, nonfat lattes, and God. I want to believe in micropayments because it gives me hope

I’m talking about hope that we’re on the right track. Hope that we have a viable, sustainable alternate plan for the business models we’re turning upside down with our new technology. Hope that we can decentralize power without losing it altogether. Hope that we can survive without the monopolies. Hope that artists will be able make a living just by inspiring people. Hope that the average Internet user will soon derive as much satisfaction from giving financial props to someone they find valuable as they’d get from buying them a beer.

I naively believed we were close to this reality because someone — iTunes — is actually finally doing it well. I believed the biggest barrier was form of payment: if you have to enter your credit card number or go to a separate payment website or do anything that takes more than a click or a few keystrokes, the method won’t catch on.  iTunes broke that barrier for iPhone users when they required us to sign up for an iTunes account (and enter our credit card number in advance) just to download those nifty free apps. We didn’t like entering our credit card number, but it was Apple, so we knew everything was gonna be okay. Now that we’ve done it, whenever we get a song stuck in our heads at 3 AM and decide we need to listen to it right then, all we have to do is enter a password and it’s ours for 99 cents. A password. Just a password!  Anywhere we are.  It’s brilliant.

It was so easy to take it a step further: if Apple can do it, other industries can’t be too far behind.  Heck, we could even let Apple become the new PayPal and run all of our micropayments throught them, since they already have our trust.  Why not?  Let independent artists have their own merchant accounts.  Expand the system to cover writers, filmmakers, painters, and photographers.  Let high school kids make 50 cents each time one of the cool screen savers they create is downloaded.  Let me pay for shareware incrementally based on the number of times I use it.  Let me donate to a nonprofit in small chunks whenever they inspire or move me.  Empower the bloggers to fund each other.  Make it easy for us to put our money where our hearts are.  

I was this close to swallowing the whole story of technological utopia when Clay Shirky — in his infinite clarity — shot it down this morning.

“The essential thing to understand about small payments is that users don’t like being nickel-and-dimed. We have the phrase ‘nickel-and-dimed’ because this dislike is both general and strong.”

So… people don’t like micropayments.  Oh. Right.  (And… now that I think about it, yeah okay, I kinda hate them, too.)

And…

“The lesson of iTunes et al (indeed, the only real lesson of small payment systems generally) is that if you want something that doesn’t survive contact with the market, you can’t let it have contact with the market.  …small payments survive in the absence of a market for other legal options.”

So… iTunes is an aberration that only works because the music industry is kinda screwed up at the moment.

He ends with:

“We should be talking about new models for employing reporters rather than resuscitating old models for employing publishers; the longer we waste fantasizing about magic solutions for the latter problem, the less time we have to figure out real solutions to the former one.”

But Clay!  I wasn’t talking about employing publishers! I want the micropayments to go directly to the reporters!

But okay… fine… you win.  It won’t work for that, either.

So what’s our Plan B?

Dear Silicon Valley,

First of all, I don’t know if I’ve told you this lately, but I love you.  We do great things here, and this life is pretty damned fun.  You’ve taken very good care of me, introduced me to brilliant people, given me the tools to stay connected with a world of friends, and even started paying my rent.  I’m forever grateful that we found each other.

And I have a favor to ask.

I’m noticing that the stuff we make here — these websites and tools and communities — can influence the rest of the world pretty significantly.  It used to be that only the geeks were using the Internet, but now it’s becoming “pretty much everybody.”  And here’s the powerful thing: when a website is considered “good,” whatever that website displays as content, images, default settings, or options is considered “normal” by its users. You have the power to influence “normal.” I could give you examples, but I know you already know what I’m talking about.

The favor I want to ask is this: please think about how you’re handling race and gender on your websites.  Just look at it.  You don’t have to change anything.  Just make a mental note in your head about what your saying to your users about the importance of race and gender, and the categories that exist for them.

I’ll give you a hint: If you’re still asking about race in a required drop-down menu, you’re way behind.  Because doing it that way says to a user:

  • You have a race.
  • It’s really important to me.
  • It’s one (and only one) of these listed here.

Seriously, I really don’t think you’re doing this, because it would be horribly weird.  My friend with the half-Jamaican-half-Chinese father and Irish immigrant mother would either laugh hysterically at you or be extraordinarily offended.  “You want me to tell you what? WHY??”

The way we build a profile page matters.  You get that it matters.

So… this next part’s gonna sound a little weird, but hear me out for a minute.  I think gender is taking the same path as race.  It’s still visually defining, but people are starting to acknowledge that there are grey areas. And those grey areas are growing.

There’s a longstanding argument that “male” and “female” are a biologically-defined and relevant way to split our population in half. But if you’ve ever met a feminine man or a masculine woman, you know that these categories are way too rough to mean anything more than a stereotype sometimes.

It goes deeper than that.  For example, within lesbian communities, “butch” and “femme” have been considered separate genders for awhile now.  Yes, they’re both female (well, sometimes), but they have different roles both in the community and in relationships (except when they don’t, which is true for any gender).  There’s also a growing presence of people who are living today as a different gender than the one they were assigned at birth. Sometimes you notice them and sometimes you don’t.  (Hint: You won’t know how many you aren’t noticing — that’s the point.)  There are people born intersex — with the biological features of more than one gender (and there are more of these than you might expect).  And you may have noticed this in cities and among young people — there’s also a growing presence of folks whose genders you just can’t identify.  Some of them, if you ask them respectfully, will tell you they feel like both genders.  Or neither gender.  Or a gender that needs a new name.  They might answer to both “he” and “she,” or they might prefer something different.  They’re in-between, and that’s where they belong.

Just for a minute, try to imagine yourself in the shoes of someone who has spent a lifetime feeling just as uncomfortable in the men’s locker room as in the women’s locker room — for whatever reason.  Imagine having to dress in clothing that just feels wrong to you, everyday, because you know it means you’ll be treated better than you would if you wore what you like.  Imagine walking through the world knowing that everyone’s first assumptions about how you see yourself, who you love, and what feels right for you are completely wrong.

Now imagine signing up for a cool website, and then being required to select an option from a drop-down menu that doesn’t include anything that represents you.  If you don’t decide to close the browser window right then and there, you’ll probably pick the gender of the restroom you still use in public when you have no other choice (even though people might stop you to tell you you’re in the wrong one no matter what), and you’ll feel defeated. You’ll want to argue that whatever they think they’re learning from that drop-down menu, it’s not really true. You’ll want to tell them that they’re adding to your humiliation by making you do this. You’ll want to tell them that they’re missing a huge part of you by boiling this rich and beautiful characteristic down into a two-option drop-down menu.

Okay, you can come back now.  That’s all I needed from you — just to think about it. The truth is, there are no perfect solutions to this problem right now.  Gender is still relevant (except when it’s not) and drop-downs are still the cleanest way to gather data (except when they’re not).  To quote Facebook (a site that’s only sort of doing it wrong), “It’s complicated.”

So just keep an eye out.  Be aware of what you’re calling normal.  Make a mental note of who it might be excluding.  Make conscious choices about how you handle things.  And please remind the web developer in the next cubicle to do the same.

Thanks and love,
Sarah Dopp