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

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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.

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Susana Polo
Susana Polo thought she'd get her Creative Writing degree from Oberlin, work a crap job, and fake it until she made it into comics. Instead she stumbled into a great job: founding and running this very website (she's Editor at Large now, very fancy). She's spoken at events like Geek Girl Con, New York Comic Con, and Comic Book City Con, wants to get a Batwoman tattoo and write a graphic novel, and one of her canine teeth is in backwards.