How do we affirm an audience that has been erased?

As a small business owner, there are all sorts of demographic targeting tools to track the insights of who is engaging with my content. But in all of the examples of audience segmentation I’ve encountered — whether on Instagram, Facebook, or Google Analytics — their built-in systems assume I want to target my marketing to one of two large and profitable groups: “male” or “female.”

What does that say about business owners who want to defy gender norms, while being affirming to an audience that we know is much more diverse than an oppressive pie chart with two pieces? Where are the tools and insights for humans whose gender is fluid or not fully defined by the gender binary? Why aren’t we able to track those demographics as part of our business account insights? And how are social media platforms shaping the perceived needs and desires of users and businesses by erasing gender identities?

Within the social media ecosystem, some platforms (Instagram, Facebook, and Google+) offer freeform custom gender fields, however those forms are not categorized within the insights. Other platforms, like LinkedIn and Twitter, have an absence of gender fields entirely. Both of the latter platforms process user data and actions to algorithmically infer a binary gender category, in order to offer gendered targeting to advertising and marketing clients.

So, despite not having an option to list your gender on LinkedIn, the site generates a gender for each user (which may be incorrect), and shares it with advertising clients, who use it to send stereotypically gender-targeted ads to users. This system-assigned gender is not visible to users, apart from assumptions from ads, which may misgender users and subconsciously shape their own sense of identity. As a crisis counselor for The Trevor Project, gender dysphoria commonly comes up in conversations with LGBTQ+ youth, and can only be further distressed by these systems.

Programming and design practices insert bias and assumptions into technology and design. That power of category management can have social consequences. Social media has become integral to our communication, especially while we process COVID-19 together as a community.

So why, on the same platforms that encourage us to celebrate pride month or change our avatars to rainbow flags, are we met with erasure? By emphasizing neutrality, platforms can more easily generate, capture, and control user data, resulting in more financial gain. In short, sorting and classifying users as male or female bolsters monetization strategies.

gender, binary, analytics, inclusiveOffering analytics beyond the binary

Whether or not we realize it, these categorizations attribute meaning to gender as they materialize in different spaces. Managing these systems can shape our perceived needs and desires. It’s also hard to ignore the potentially damaging societal implications when the storage of identity-based data may inadvertently identify marginalized users who already face disproportionate levels of discrimination. This move beyond the binary could increase surveillance of marginalized folks in unexpected ways. If each user had access to all data about themselves (specifically when it’s inferred or assigned), that could alleviate potential damage.

By offering the functionality of freeform gender fields, platforms like Instagram have the potential to correct these transphobic, binary-centric aspects of their programming. Gender categories imposed by algorithms have flexibility and fluidity, especially compared to their state or governmental counterparts. When marginalized and intersectional identities aren’t clickable (as is the case in the 2020 Census), it is exclusionary and harmful, when it could and should be an affirming experience to those who wish to divulge their gender. Selecting between standard gender classifications while registering for a platform can be constraining and oftentimes triggering for users with complex gender identities.

When software modifications are reconfigured to add gender options beyond the binary, but only within some parts of the platform (like public facing profiles), the gender binary is maintained. Not only that, but it’s further entrenched within less visible spaces (such as audience insights for businesses), where “custom” non-binary genders are reverted back into a binary system.

What would it look like if platforms and programmers challenged these systems to make them more inclusive, instead of nudging us toward conformity? There is no standard industry practice when making decisions about how to code gender, which demonstrates that programmers have the ability to disrupt these categorized systems. At the end of the day, when designers and programmers are up against capitalist pressures, their code places value on monetary gain and the needs of advertisers over the livelihood of its users.

I invite other equality-minded small business owners to explore what it might look like if we pushed back on the powerful structures that shape our social media existence. Not just for front-facing, performative allyship like pride-themed avatars, but for more extensive, gender identity-based categorization processes that exist on the backend. The advertising industry profits from the binary and will continue to do so. How would it feel to see social media programmers wield their power from within to be more inclusive by revolutionizing binary data?

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