Gender in Diaspora

There’s some discussion on Sarah Mei’s blog about the fact that the “gender” field in the Diaspora code base is a text field, and not a dropdown. I paid attention during my cultural studies classes and I personally have no problem with the implications of having more than two choices for gender. However, there is a tension here, as there often is, between having the data be exhaustive and having the data be easy to enter.

I guess I’d take it as a given that the vast majority of Diaspora users will want to identify their gender as male or female, and for this people this change is a small step backward in terms of usability. Having a text field when you could have a dropdown or radio button of just two choices is noticeably less usable. And if you want your gender to be searchable (probably if you’re single), then you don’t get any guidance regarding whether you should enter your gender as “male” or “MALE” or “m” or “guy”. So it seems like some presets in the UX are probably in order, regardless of what the data is stored as.

There are probably implications for pronouns: LambdaMOO offers a great precedent for how to handle them. Here’s a list of their standard presets (they support ten genders out of the box) and then if you want to go off on your own and define a non-standard gender, you have the option of defining your own custom pronouns to match.

Of course, depending on how pervasive the usage of pronouns are in the site, this points to a future where Diaspora becomes a profoundly non-gender-binary sort of place. As somebody who once spent a lot of time on LambdaMOO, I can tell you that the non-standard pronouns there made the gender diversity extremely noticeable. You could make the analogy that Diaspora will do to gender binarism what MySpace did to graphic design. Whether you consider that a plus or a minus will depend on your priorities, of course.

As a side note: I’m reminded of how most sites will separate name fields into fields like first_name and last_name, but the more correct way to do it is to call them given_name and family_name, since that’s more applicable across cultures where they might say the family name first. In fact, bigger companies are more likely to make that change: In the tradeoff between usability and thoroughness a larger company is far more likely to choose thoroughness. So, maybe you could tell people gender is a text field because that will make the Diaspora software more “enterprise”?

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Tagged: gender, race, web

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