Social media contains the capacity to validate culture by managing and shaping the construction and meaning of identities like gender. It impacts gender expression and affirmation, and at times creates a safer space for people to live as they are. As the world gradually goes beyond the binary, social media apps like Instagram, Facebook, Pinterest, and others have moved forward to make their spaces more inclusive.
A study by Rena Bivens and Oliver L. Haimson on how platforms shape categories for users and advertisers mentioned that programmers usually don’t follow a standard practice while making decisions about how and where to code gender. Each digital platform independently controls their categorisation systems. Ultimately, this affects how marketers, advertisers and content creators view insights and sell brands on and create content for social media.
Marketers and advertisers have been programmed through the years to follow a basic demographic pattern. They take into account all the data available about the consumer to acquire behavioral and attitudinal insights. These insights help hyper customise products, services, and experiences, and needless to say, social media does exactly this.
Displaying gender on social media
Popular social media apps have begun offering the option to display their pronouns. Instagram has four options: male, female, custom, or prefer not to say; and it allows people to change their display name twice every 14 days. They also rolled out a new feature which allows users to display their preferred pronouns in May 2021; but it hasn’t rolled out in all countries yet.
Professional sites like LinkedIn don’t ask users for their gender. Although they have the option of displaying pronouns: she/her, he/him, they/them, or custom write-in. Facebook allows choosing ‘male’ or ‘female’ while creating an account; but they can be subsequently changed with an availability of 56 gender identities. Facebook didn’t publicly announce the list they had curated for the same. Tumblr doesn’t have any gender field. Similarly, Twitter doesn’t have an option of choosing gender and it doesn’t display it either. Pinterest recently launched a new campaign in celebration of Pride Month, adding a new pronouns option on both personal and business accounts for gender expression.
Bifurcation on social media insights
Does this new move mean that gender and pronoun fields should be made mandatory? What does it entail for gender insights on social media sites? An high school student, Dhwani G. points out that displaying pronouns mandatorily outs several trans and non-binary people, who may feel unsafe. They also said, “The binary insights on Instagram are really buggy and are oftentimes inaccurate. I’d really want them to change it to either genders, or remove the feature entirely as it is not of much help.” Binary gender insights for social media might help content creators and brands target a set of cisgender audiences; but otherwise, they aren’t inclusive of all gender identities.
However, the option of choosing either female, male and non-binary if the platform doesn’t offer a custom fill-in, can feel more inclusive. Namrata Menon, an Enby video creator, points out that a custom fill-in space let’s everyone fill up what they want to. “Displaying pronouns”, they said, “shouldn’t be mandatory as it can force people to box themselves and doesn’t give them a chance to be fluid as they would like to.” Talking about insights, Namrata comments that categorising users into male or femal only is a representation of cisgender people. “Not to mention that big brands usually approach queer people with an aim to profit off them without giving compensation”, they added.
“Introducing fields of adding pronouns as Pinterest and Instagram have done doesn’t really help these brands to market themselves well”, Namrata said. Which is mainly because the step itself isn’t radical or compensatory. Afterall, gender identity and pronouns are personal and some prefer to keep the usage of their pronouns fluid. If pronouns become compulsory, it will be another categorisation and boxing of people to accept one identity to display to others. Furthermore, social media features allowing the display of pronouns becomes useless if they fail to acknowledge the presence of neopronouns. Including a space where people can write in their pronouns makes more sense if the social media brands are trying to be more accommodative.
A research paper on ScienceDirect talks about how not including gender and sexuality can be harmful to people. While it shouldn’t be made mandatory for all people to fill out the options, the social media spaces should provide inclusive options for people who are willing to display their identity. A Sage article talked about how identity-based data categories are propelled by revenue generation and hence targeting gender and reconstituting it into a three-option classification partitioning “custom” away from the normalized binary might be what advertisers seek. Furthermore, going beyond the binary might increase the surveillance of marginalised populations in unexpected ways. Recently, awareness started spreading about the account @thtsoundsgay on Instagram. Somehow, they were tracking queer and/or queer allies and sending them bot messages to become their brand ambassadors.
Impact on advertising
For marketing agencies, gender plays a very important role as most of their statistics and advertising strategies are made in a way that targets a specific audience. “While previously digital media was male dominated in terms of internet usage, at present this doesn’t hold true extensively which makes it weird to bifurcate people in only two cohorts”, says Pooja Barge, a digital marketing professional. This becomes more problematic when platforms use these binary demographics to address population who aren’t cisgender. It’s almost like a violation of identity because the brands and platforms are misrepresenting them.
Pooja further said that being more inclusive definitely changes the way companies advertise themselves because big corporations in India refrain from going outside traditional marketing strategies, even today. Revenue generation is the aim for every business so being creative and moving out of the traditional ways is definitely an opportunity for the brands to advertise themselves well. She quoted the example of Biba and how they had moved away from the traditional means of marketing and depicted the idea of same sex marriages, which caters to a larger audience.
This tells us that while social media apps should be gender inclusive, they also need to be mindful to not make the option mandatory if they don’t have multiple fields as people can be misgendered. Consequently, while apps like Instagram are being scrutinised for their lack of display options, they are being applauded as well for not making the option mandatory for people to protect their identity.