facebook’s gender anxiety

at some point in the last few months, and among the repeated facebook privacy complaints and modifications, the popular social network added another feature—a gender-specific avatar for people without pictures. older versions of facebook only featured an abstracted humanoid, whose short hair suggested but did not necessarily assert maleness. i think it may have been bald, in fact—i have forgotten, ‘it.’

but slowly i started to notice when facebook suggested ‘female’ friends for me, that there was now a specifically female avatar. with sort of prim shoulder-length hair, the new female avatar came with a mate, a male avatar with some swoopy hair suggesting a side part. this means, of course, that you automatically declare your gender to the world, even when staying anonymous. or perhaps there is a privacy feature to keep that secret. but anyway, i really don’t care if strangers know my gender, do i? so what?

i have to say, there is nothing so tiring as web articles complaining about facebook—we’ve all read them, and moved on. you either use the thing or you don’t. i use it—it is handy to keep in touch with friends and family all over the world.  it’s a more polite way of sharing links, and i like to post interesting articles for my former students to see. but the little avatar kept nagging me a bit.

we know facebook’s origins in the university social scene, with undergrads looking at each other with friendly and romantic intentions in mind. smarter people have written on how such origins stay with the site, working with the logic of a shy undergrad that pokes, and defines his (mark zuckenberg’s) friends through their ‘likes’ (i have forgotten where i read this—apologies!). the gender-specificity of the avatar seems to be a late addition to this same logic, but its typification seems to point to a particularly conservative and traditional vision of the world that usual critiques of the network seem to miss. conservative critiques emphasize the dangers of socializing with virtual strangers or predators, or the time it takes away from homework/work. liberal critique is more concerned with the engine’s control over personal information and the lack of agency we have within it as users. net-savvy users usually dismiss it altogether, favoring less regimented sites.

facebook’s curious need to reinforce traditional gender types points out a latent conservativeness in the site, less willing to engage in more flexible concepts of gender. furthermore, the little avatar puts gender front and center: it is the first thing to be told about your ‘facebook persona.’ in the end, this is what bothers me the most. why should i be defined by my gender? my gender does not determine (to be specific) my ability to be an architect, to be good at drawing, to love geometry, and to like languages. gender is a fantastic part of who we are, but it should not determine or define us. facebook seems to disagree.

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