Human beings and their relationships are complex and nuanced, so the software that attempts to describe them must accomodate a wide range of expression. Last night, Google rolled out an update to the Google Profiles product, which I've promoted for for almost 2 years. The revamp is surely part of a larger movement at Google to add more people-centric social features to search and beyond.
In the new Google Profiles, I like that you can enter more information about yourself: work history, "words that describe you," brag-worthy facts, gender, relationship status. What I don't like is that a few of these fields have a limited range of possible values, defined in a drop-down list. Before I realized this was worthy of a full blog post, I had a bit of a rant about it last night, which went like this.
The screenshot above is Google Profiles' Relationship field drop-down of possible responses. For me, relationship status is a minefield of potential misunderstanding, because if I select "married," people often assume I'm heterosexually married. If I could answer this question in an open text field, I'd fill in "gay-married." That's how I want to characterize and specify my relationship status, not the overly cutesy and vague "it's complicated," or the doesn't-give-us-enough-credit-for-all-the-crap-we-went-through-to-get-legally-married "In a relationship."
"Why not just choose married?" a few people have asked. That's the response I ultimately (and begrudgingly) chose. Yes: married is married is married. But I like to be specific, because the majority of marriages are heterosexual, so when people know I'm female and find out I'm married, they assume I have a husband. My "married" identity can eclipse my "gay" identity. The fact that I'm legally gay-married in California, one of only 19,000 couples in the U.S., is something I'm proud of, and a way I like to identify myself and my relationship. Isn't Google Profiles' whole purpose to provide a way for me to publicly identify myself?
Same goes for gender, where the drop-down choices are Male, Female, and Other. ("Other" at least indicates that Google is aware gender is not a binary thing.) This should also be an open text field. Gender is not sex. I might list myself as a "tomboy," and I'm not that weird. Regarding the gender field, my friend Mitch Wagner, who is a "regular guy" by conventional definition, asks:
Does "gender" include a spot for: "Cisgendered male but nonetheless often feels alienated and constrained by traditional societal frat-boy/sitcom-dad notions of gender. AND mostly I connect better with women than with men."?
Some might argue that if Mitch entered that phrase into a gender text field it would make search results worse. In fact, it would make them better. That response says a hell of a lot more about Mitch than simply "Male" (and it also confirms to me why I like the guy so much).
Google Profiles (and Facebook) could learn from Diaspora's decision to make gender a text field.
Justifications for drop-down identities
Lots of techie types are quick to justify drop-down identities. Here are some comments I got last night on making gender and relationship status a text field:
@ginatrapani structured data is easier to advertise against.
@ginatrapani Constrained options makes search ability easier, most likely, plus avoids people, likely kids, putting in stupid things there.
@ginatrapani less garbage data they'd have to sort through for targeted advertising?
As a programmer, I deeply understand the desire for and satisfaction of neatly structured data, and drop-downs make it easier on programmers to get that data. But you should design your product for humans, not databases. Making a great product is more important than making life easy on programmers or advertisers.
If there's any company who has the technology to map "garbage data" entered into an open text field to something advertisers can target, it's Google. There's plenty of precedence for this, too. At MetaFilter gender is a text field and its creators are able to determine male or female sex over 75% of the time using a crazy thing called technology. If a tiny indie startup can do that, Google could do the same. They just have to care enough about the users who don't want to choose the most common drop-down options to do it.
Why Google should care
Facebook is king of the social networking hill because Zuckerberg is a great editor with a sharp eye for product. When he was building Facebook, he looked at the leading social networks at the time—Friendster and MySpace—and purposefully exploited their weaknesses. Friendster was constantly down; MySpace was ugly. So Zuck made Facebook's design white and clean, launched it only at Harvard first, and scaled to other universities slowly to keep the site fast, stable, and reliable at all times.
Similarly, to beat Facebook at social you have to look at its faults, and capitalize on them. Facebook's Achilles heel is the how it imposes a certain worldview on its users. On Facebook, you can only "like" something. You can't love it, or hate it, or say it made you laugh, or made you sad or angry, or unequivocally recommend it to your friends, or recommend it with some caveats. You can only "friend" someone, you can't make someone's acquaintance, or say they're an old high school classmate, or the annoying guy who sat behind you in one lecture in college, or an ex-lover.
In her excellent review of the movie about Facebook, The Social Network, Zadie Smith makes the point:
Shouldn’t we struggle against Facebook? Everything in it is reduced to the size of its founder. Blue, because it turns out Zuckerberg is red-green color-blind. “Blue is the richest color for me—I can see all of blue.” Poking, because that’s what shy boys do to girls they are scared to talk to. Preoccupied with personal trivia, because Mark Zuckerberg thinks the exchange of personal trivia is what “friendship” is. A Mark Zuckerberg Production indeed! We were going to live online. It was going to be extraordinary. Yet what kind of living is this? Step back from your Facebook Wall for a moment: Doesn’t it, suddenly, look a little ridiculous? Your life in this format?
It should look less ridiculous.
The best way to innovate in social is make a product that helps people express themselves and identify themselves more freely and fully, to capture nuances in identity and relationships that other networks don't. The first step is admitting that making good social software is hard. In a recent interview, Gmail creator Paul Bucheit, who's now at Facebook, discussed Google's flippant attitude toward social:
Facebook is growing very fast, and obviously, Google would like to compete in the social-networking space. They have finally realized its importance, and they are finding themselves, maybe for the first time, with the realization that there is someone who is way, way ahead of them. There was a moment with Microsoft that they assumed, "Well, yeah, search isn't that important. And if it does become important, we'll just hire some people and we'll take over." They kind of thought it was something they could win really easily, and they underestimated the difficulty of it. I kind of feel like Google may have reached that same moment with social networking, where they realized, A, it's important, and B, it's really hard to win.
People are complex beings. Designing good software that describes them and their relationships is a hard problem to solve. When I saw that Google copied Facebook's and Friendster's "It's complicated" in the list of relationship drop-down options, my heart sank. Google should try to solve the hard problems of social, not just copy what the other products have.
None of the above: Let me explain
Back to drop-down identities, and one possible solution.
Usability is the most valid argument against replacing the gender and relationship status drop-downs with text fields. Male/Female or Single/In a Relationship/Engaged/Married/Divorced/Widowed may describe the majority of users' gender or relationship. Why make the majority stop and type into an open text field just so the minority of weird people like me can identify how they want?
Fair point. But we can have both, if we put a little thought into it. I like TheJeremyP's suggestion, which is a drop-down list that offers the most common choices as well as a "None of the above; Let me explain..." choice. When you click on "None of the above; Let me explain," you get a freeform text field to describe yourself in your own words, not the product's creators' words. This approach encourages use of stock responses for people who are comfortable with them, but gives those who are not the choice to define their own.
Social software should let you explain. But as the drop-down option says, it's complicated.