[DigCult] The Gender Trouble Field of Diaspora

by Thom Kiraly

Diaspora, the open source social network currently under development (alpha), sparked a minor controversy online last fall by making its gender field a text field instead of a multiple choice drop-down menu. The ones protesting this initiative said that sorting through, filtering and using the data (as in feeding it back to users through language, his/her, mr/ms/mrs etc.) would be a nightmare while defenders of it claimed that clean data was not the primary issue and that individuals’ right to define their genders themselves was more important.

Reading Gender Trouble in Web 2.0: Gender Relations in Social Network Sites, Wikis and Weblogs by Tanja Carstensen I can’t help but see the parallels. In that essay Carstensen brings up the design issues presenting themselves in the creation of social networking sites. Does one go for the solution allowing people to define themselves or one where the platform presents the options? In the case of Diaspora the marketability is not as big an issue as it would have been if, for example, Facebook implemented it. Facebook relies on advertisers and hard statistics gathered from users and sold to other companies. They need the gender binary, Diaspora, as far as I understand it, doesn’t. In the end, this is not a technical issue or an issue unique to social networking sites – it’s an issue for language in general. If you have a language that only allows/has word for two genders this is an issue you’ll have to deal with, whatever platform you may be creating.