Thursday, Facebook announced the addition of a free-form field to the Gender options area in Facebook profiles. The new “custom” option space allows users to write in any description they want—whether “dog-loving master of bro-associated domains” or “cheese-eating king.”
Facebook explains the change in a post on the Facebook Diversity Page, noting that if you don’t identify with available gender identities offered, you can add your own. People “can add up to ten gender terms and also have the ability to control the audience with whom you would like to share you custom gender,” the company wrote.
The post suggests the custom field joins the drop-down list of 56 different gender options Facebook introduced last year. But when we checked it out, that drop-down no longer appears, indicating it replaced the hefty list. Perhaps it’s all for the best. Who would go with a canned description when you could be a “couch-surfing artist sloth”?
The move may finally please critics, particularly folks who have been clamoring for the right to describe themselves however they want.
Facebook made its first big change to the Gender section of users’ About page after Olu George posted a complaint in the company’s help center last year: “As someone who doesn’t identify with female or male pronouns, I feel like FB is excluding people. FB needs to create another option for people who identify as genderqueer/two spirit/transgender etc.” George suggested that FB change its gender options to Male, Female and Other: Genderqueer/Two Spirit/Trans.
Facebook responded with more than just an “other” option. The company crammed in dozens of possibilities, including genderqueer, intersex, pangender, trans, transsexual and two-spirit. Now, with the latest ability for write-in designations, gender identification on Facebook opens up more flexibility and maybe even a playful fluidity.
Mine now reads as “I am gender: ‘pink cat baby owl blue flowers dog bowl furball’ but prefer pronoun ‘She’.”
To change your gender description, log into your Facebook profile, hit the “update info” button, go to “contact and basic info” and scroll down to the gender section. Under “Male” and “Female,” there’s a new “Custom” option.
You can change your gender description or preferred pronoun whenever they want—Facebook does not lock people into what they’ve chosen on any given day.
As great a tool as it could be for self-expression, the custom gender field could also come with some down sides.
Facebook seemingly acknowledges the fluidity in the way some people identify their genders. Instead of forcing fixed labels, people can fill in whatever they want. (Though the company contradicts itself by only offering three pronouns: He, She, and They.) But the move could open up fluidity of another kind as well.
On the other hand, fill-in-the-blank genders could also turn into an Internet joke or, at its worst, even a tool for prejudice. Imagine coming across a profile and seeing someone identify as a homo-bashing super-hater. The Internet is rife with trolls, some of whom will use anything they can to spread their vitriol.
But a bigger question remains: Can we trust Facebook to handle those issues, some of which will almost certainly crop up. And if the complexities prove too challenging to deal with, will it back-pedal once again and remove the field?
Facebook has not shown the deftest of hands in dealing with complex matters. The company’s ill-advised “crackdown” on pseudonyms used by drag queens kicked up quite a fuss in the LGBTQ community, which was incensed by the so-called “real name” policy. Facebook reversed its decision, but it’s unclear if the network will know how to provide a safe place for people to express non-normative self-identifiers.
[Update: I contacted Facebook to seek clarity around the real names policy. A spokesperson responded: “The policy has not been changed, but for the last six months Facebook has been working to enhance the way the policy is enforced.” Facebook now provides a third option for people who want to verify the names they use on Facebook, which includes showing two forms of ID from Option 2 (non-government ID name verification) and a government ID that includes a date of birth or photo that matches information on the profile. With this option, Facebook will not add the name or other information from the government ID to the account.]
Lead photo by evan courtney; Facebook photo and screencaps by Alicia Eler for ReadWrite