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Last week, Facebook users across the world were at long last liberated from the shackles of gender conformity. Rather than offering the “conventional” male or female options, the social network will now provide users with over fifty different gender types, from androgynous to trans-woman. As a result, Facebook users will no longer be forced to express their identities through a simple drop-down list. Instead, they can now express their identities through a slightly longer drop-down list.
Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s a great step forward for the LGBT movement. The only thing I’m a little confused about is why Facebook gives a toss? Isn’t the whole objective behind Facebook to reduce human identity to a series of tick boxes? Or did I miss the point?
Facebook thrives on quantitative data. It takes your life and converts it into a series of simplistic tick boxes and algorithm-friendly forms. The only problem with this process is that it fails to account for the possibility that genuine people are genuinely complicated. Facebook doesn’t want to know the real you; the real you is messy and difficult to quantify. No advertiser is going to want to buy a big messy real-life person!
Increasingly social media services (particularly ‘profile sites’ such as Facebook) are presenting a reductionist view of personal identity. They bolster their revenues by promoting the idea that all people consist of a series of quantitative facts to be stored and downloaded into a .csv file. As a result, sites like Facebook often assume that the world isn’t complicated, or that if it is, it should be filed away under an ‘It’s complicated’ drop-down selection.
The saddest thing is that the internet never used to be like this. It used to be about creativity, exploration, and freedom. Where now we have a billion formulaic Facebook profiles, we used to have a plethora of DIY websites, messy blogs, and some of the ugliest GeoCities pages you could possibly imagine. Even Myspace, with its shortcodes and psychedelic repeat-all backgrounds, offered a greater degree of individual expression than the majority of modern social networking sites.
And fair enough, I’ll admit that the internet of Myspace and GeoCities was not the prettiest of places, but what it lacked in aesthetics it made up for in honesty. People’s profiles actually told you something about who they were, even if that something was just the fact that they lacked basic colour co-ordination.
Even when people weren’t honest and chose to hide behind fake personas, at least they knew what they were doing. The worst part about sites like Facebook is that we don’t even realise we’re presenting an invention. We carelessly swap genuine individuality for aesthetic conformity.
Still, not to worry. Give it a year or two and I’m sure Facebook will add a ‘genuine individuality’ option to one of their drop-down menus. Then we can all sleep easy in our beds… our cold, identical beds.