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Google+ Won’t Let You Keep Your Gender Private, and Why That’s Interesting

Randall Munroe, that’s right, the XKCD guy, has an interesting essay up about gender identification and Google+, which starts with the discovery that your gender is the only thing in your Google+ profile that you cannot make private.

Google+, as a necessary feature of being an up-and-coming social network in the days of Facebook domination, is spinning itself as a network that values its users’ varied desire for privacy no matter how open or closed they want their information to be. It seems odd, then, that there would be even one aspect of a user’s profile that cannot be made private. We bothered the one person in our office who’s managed to get an invite and a profile up, because we couldn’t quite believe it.

But it is true. The way gender identification works on Google+ is you can choose one of three things from a drop down list: Male, Female, or Other; and then the normal button that you would click to edit which of your “circles” has access to this information, is unresponsive. You must identify as either Male, Female, or Other, and that information will be available without restriction. Munroe explains why two intersecting gender issues make this somewhat problematic, which starts with acknowledging ”that there are reasons a user might feel uncomfortable being told [they have] to broadcast [their] gender.”

The obvious solution is to have those who wish to keep their gender private simply choose other, but, as Munroe says:

The “other” option is nice, but I don’t really feel comfortable setting my gender as “other”. There are a huge number of people whose gender is actually best-described as “other”, and they come in astonishing variety, even if you set aside the issue of social gender and just ask about biology…

There are quite a few people who are accurately described by an “other” option, and when they’re sometimes struggling for recognition, co-opting their label for anyone who doesn’t want to broadcast their gender seems a little off-putting.

There are a lot of people out there who, after years of Facebook changing it’s privacy policies and deliberately obfuscating the ways in which its users might edit those settings, are really hoping Google+ will become a thing to remember, us included. The service is in its larval form at the moment, making this the perfect time for them to iron out the kinks in the sometimes treacherous waters of gender identity, so we’re optimistic that Google can pull this one out of the fire.

And… that’s all the energy I can devote to mixed metaphors today. There’s a lot more to Munroe’s post than quoted here, and it’s full of really interesting citations, so you should definitely go read it in its entirety.


  • Johnathan Farmer

    Invites are open right now. Send me an email and I’ll send some over. johnathan.s.farmer [at] gmail [dot] com

  • IMSH

    Hurry, someone send a invite to Pat from SNL.

  • Anonymous

    Am I missing something?  I signed up for a profile with no invitation or anything, I just went to Google+ and signed up.  Why is this such a big deal?  I feel like I’m taking crazy pills.

    I am going to petition Google and ask that instead of “Other,” they make the third gender “Awesome.”  Problem solved.

  • Anonymous

    This is terrible. As a female gamer I know from experience that revealing your gender is not always a good idea.  There should be an option to keep your gender private.  I believe it is everyone’s right to remain anonymous online if they choose.

  • Anonymous

    I really thought Mary Sue was better than to fall for Justice Warrior bullshit.

    So, google gives you an option to hide your gender, be it what it may, and yet that is not good enough. I guess they really should have a drop down menu 3456789 options so every special snowflake can correctly identify.

    Here’s a newsflash: ‘Other’ is not for identifying your gender it for hiding it. It is not a platform for your picket fencing, it is for net-safety reasons.

    No one is keeping you from writing a manifesto in your bio or using your icon to further identify.

  • Anonymous

    Maybe it’s just because I’m new to social networking and my Google+ circles currently consist of people I know IRL, but I don’t see the big deal. Maybe it’d be nice to have the option to make it private, but I have to click through three times to find the gender of any person in my circles — I have to make an active, concerted effort to figure out someone’s gender. Making it private won’t stop anyone who is in the mind to harass, and anyone who might be biased by a gendered name can easily be led astray by a gender neutral name. It’s not like your name has a little ♀ tagged after it every time you post.

  • Anonymous

    I fully agree that everyone is entitled to anonymity online. But social networks have nothing to do with anonymity. Not Facebook or Google+, anyway. Those are networks intimately linked to people’s IRL identities and founded on the principle of linking people’s lives IRL with their lives online. If Livejournal were to start requiring my real name, of course, I’d flip the hell out, but I have trouble blaming non-anonymous services for not being anonymous.

  • Kristin Frederickson

    Randall Munroe is a pretty awesome dude.

  • Kristin Frederickson

    It’s not really a huge deal, and Randall Munroe and The Mary Sue are hardly getting pitchforks and torches. Munroe simply pointed out why it’s a flawed system that could be tweaked and improved – that’s sort of the point of early adoption/beta periods.

  • Anonymous

    True, but while I use Facebook to stay in contact with a circle of friends I know in real life, I don’t want anything I put there visible to the public – while FB’s privacy may be shoddy and awkward, it can be set however you like.

  • Erin

    The only reason they require your gender is for advertising purposes.  So much of marketing is based on gender instead of interests that it seems to have become considered “essential” for advertisers to know that information about you.  If google+ says your gender has to be public, they can give that info to advertisers without people raising holy hell about it, since it’s not “private.”  As usual, this has little to do with consideration for the individual, and everything to do with making money.

  • Wyvern734

    God bless Randall Munroe for making a good and nuanced point.  I will probably be using a separate account for my Google+, one not associated with my email, and would like to take this opportunity to be perceived first as a human, not as a man or a woman, by people I meet online.  As he states, selecting “Other” is taking away from the point that there are people who really are “other.”  And there is also the point that some people would suffer loss of social status using the Other label from people who already know them.  Not all Friends are necessarily friends….

    I’m happy with Google for making this attempt to allow people to screen their gender, but enabling people to hide gender is a better idea all around.  I wonder what the argument was in favor of making people reveal what they’ve selected as gender?Well, heck.  God bless Randall Munroe anyway.  :)

  • Anonymous

    Did you even read Randall Monroe’s post on the subject?

  • April Daniels

    You’re a douchebag. I know this, because only a douchebag would think that taking some consideration for others would be “justice warrior bullshit.” Only a douchebag would think that anyone who had a different feeling about how they present their gender than they do is being a narcissistic snowflake.

    You’re a douchebag. 

  • Anonymous

    The ability to hide gender and anonymity in general  are probably the reasons why the internet feels so hostile.

    The first step to equality is affirmation of one’s identity.

    If one want’s to be accepted as who they are then hiding information about themselves is counterproductive.  If someone wants to be something ELSE then that’s another story.

  • Hillary Lauren

    “The first step to equality is affirmation of one’s identity.”

    I think the point here is that people may want to be identified first as human, without drawing attention to being male or female. Google+ does not give a person that choice, but forces them to make a distinction and list it publicly.

  • Von

    “I guess they really should have a drop down menu 3456789 options so every special snowflake can correctly identify.”

    Or one write-in box.  No drop-down menus at all.  Write what you like, reveal what you like.