Tuesday, July 19, 2011

The Pronoun Problem

Last week I complained about Google+'s restricted options for gender: male, female, or other. Since then, they have added the option not to declare one's gender, citing "privacy" as the primary reason. This is an improvement, but still not good enough.

First of all, I am dubious that pronouns are really the reason social networks ask you to put your gender front and center. I suspect it's more about data collection and targeted advertising, which is why I focused on ads in my last post on the topic.

But if the whole issue does really boil down to pronoun choice, then why not simply ask users which set of pronouns they prefer? Heck, some people who identify as "female" simultaneously prefer "he" as a pronoun, so it's a simpler and more accurate approach. Many people will choose "he" or "she," I would choose "they," still others will choose pronouns like "zie." And one of the choices on this drop down menu should be "define your own." Some people would love that chance to provide correct pronouns, and yes, others are going to take the opportunity to be smartasses and comedians. And that's fine. Your profile should express who you are, and if who you are is a smartass, then fine.

I don't know enough about other languages to predict all the gendered language issues that can arise. But do you know who I bet does have a good idea? Non binary-identified people who speak those languages. And those individuals will also usually be the ones with the best solutions.

Gender is complicated. It necessitates a text field. Get with it, internet.


  1. At least people have moved away from Miss/Mrs. Why on earth should I have to tell people if I'm married? I'm not a big fan of the way Ms sounds which is TOTALLY the reason I got a PhD. Fuck galaxies[*] :|

    In Japanese, almost everyone is xxx-san. The only exception is children (or in some situations, people below you) who might be -kun (boy) or -chan (girl -- less formal usage). They still say 'she' and 'he' but much less than in English, preferring to use the person's name.

    [*] All morphologies.

  2. "At least people have moved away from Miss/Mrs"

    Word. Now if I could get complete strangers to stop calling me "sweetie" I would be a happy camper.

    "They still say 'she' and 'he' but much less than in English, preferring to use the person's name."

    This is a fantastic option, too. "Elizabeth commented on Elizabeth's post" might sound slightly cumbersome, but it's correct, non-gendered, and not dehumanizing (like "it" is.)