In recent years, several popular social media platforms have launched freeform custom gender fields. This decision reconstitutes gender categories beyond an oppressive binary only permitting “males” and “females.” In this work, we uncover many different user-facing gender category design strategies within the social media ecosystem, ranging from custom gender options (on Facebook, Google+, and Pinterest) to the absence of gender fields entirely (on Twitter and LinkedIn). To explore how gender is baked into platform design, this article investigates the 10 most popular English-speaking social media platforms by performing recorded walkthroughs from two different subject positions: (1) a new user registering an account, and (2) a new advertiser creating an ad. We explore several different spaces in social media software where designers commonly program gender—sign-up pages, profile pages, and advertising portals—to consider (1) how gender is made durable through social media design, and (2) the shifting composition of the category of gender within the social media ecosystem more broadly. Through this investigation, we question how these categorizations attribute meaning to gender as they materialize in different software spaces, along with the recursive implications for society. Ultimately, our analysis reveals how social media platforms act as intermediaries within the larger ecosystem of advertising and web analytics companies. We argue that this intermediary role entrusts social media platforms with a considerable degree of control over the generation of broader categorization systems, which can be wielded to shape the perceived needs and desires of both users and advertising clients.

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Social Media and Society
Communication & Media Studies

Bivens, R, & Haimson, O.L. (Oliver L.). (2016). Baking Gender Into Social Media Design: How Platforms Shape Categories for Users and Advertisers. Social Media and Society, 2(4). doi:10.1177/2056305116672486