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:
Shouldnâ€™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. â€œBlue is the richest color for meâ€”I can see all of blue.â€ Poking, because thatâ€™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 â€œfriendshipâ€ 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: Doesnâ€™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.
I’m against open text boxes in software design because it makes translations impossible. I told the same thing to the Diaspora devs, but they wouldn’t listen.
I am, however, in favor of giving as many options as needed.
I think you should just decide between ‘In a relationship’ and ‘Married’. You can also specify your loved one, so people who want to know, will know that she’s a woman.
Personally I think you should choose ‘Married’, since that’s what you are.
I think you’re overanalyzing the issue — use the Bio or other free-form field in your profile to write about the issues you care about.
Translations are a good argument against an open text field. That’s why I suggest a drop-down with a “None of the above; let me explain” text field. Most people won’t use it, but the few who will will appreciate it, even without the translation.
Also: how does “in an open relationship” and “it’s complicated” translate? Not well in a many languages.
Sorry, I meant you can specified your loved ones on Facebook, not in a Google profile.
@Pies: what about heterosexual couples who live together but have decided not to get married? What about couples who have a child together who are not married? What about people deeply in love and monogamous but just opposed to marriage in general?
Point is, there are LOTS of ways to be in relationships, and each way says something about the person. No drop-down could possibly include them all. Let users use their own words. It’ll make a better product.
Fair point, well made.
I’m very close to selecting “It’s complicated” on the drop-down (long relationship, kids, not married, monogamous for life, etc).
Then again, “In a relationship” is probably the best fit for me, though I’m married in all but on the paper. Perhaps I should select “Married” to protest these feeble boxes we’re put in? Gina doesn’t want to select “Married” out of a desire to protest the… oh, wait – same story, though “Married” fits Gina more than “In a relationship” fits me. Lucky her.
And the translation issue? Google is just using automated translation anyway, so that case is lost already. For example: “Present” is used to describe time in Google Profile; “employed 2007 – present”. In the Norwegian translation, the word is translated to “til stede”. Which means “present”, in the “I am present in this room” sense.
Most dating sites seem to have this figured out. You select “I am a (man|woman) seeking a (man|woman) who’s interested in (dating|friendship|fling)”.
Google/FB could just let you select “I am a (man|woman|person) (married to|in a relationship with) (|a man|a woman|a person)”
Pointy brackets in my comment were removed… that was supposed to say:
â€œI am a (man|woman|person) (married to|in a relationship with) ([person’s name]|a man|a woman|a person)â€
Personally, I think you’re married. Period. I really thought that was one of the points of the entire right to marry movement – to be treated the same. I don’t think two homosexuals that are married to one another should have to call themselves gay-married. But … that’s just me.
All that being said, I dislike social networking sites. Although, I do see a benefit to having a limited number of categories for friends (even if the categories are user created) being able to easily limit who sees what. It’s like if I create multiple email lists – co-workers, colleagues, friends, people I hate, etc. Makes it easier to narrow down who I am going to email.
@tasselhoff76: The point isn’t what YOU think I am, the point is what I want to say I am.
Of course my marriage shouldn’t be treated differently than other marriages. We had to wait years and years in order to have the right to marry, and then for a few short months we had that opportunity and took it, and then it was taken away from anyone else who also wanted to get married in my state thanks to the passage of Prop 8.
I’m not asking to be regarded differently. I am asking to characterize my relationship the way I want. Being in a same-sex marriage is a big part of my identity and means a lot of things that legal heterosexual marriages do not.
I understand what the point is. I was merely giving you my opinion (which means exactly nothing other than it is my opinion and everybody has one). Just as it is your opinion that Google is wrong to have done this – it’s an opinion.
I do not agree that you do not want to be regarded differently. I believe by wanting to call your marriage something different than a marriage means that you want it to be regarded as something unique and special (and it is). However, just as when the Supreme Court ruled that blacks could marry whites, the end result was marriage – not black-white marriage.
Again – it’s all opinion.
Just want to note that a Combo Box would be a fine user interface option for a case where there’s a legitimate need to get people to select, rather than type, a common option; but still allow people to type an uncommon option.
I couldn’t agree more. I’m one of those annoying people who refuses to use Facebook just because I refuse to force myself into certain categories just for “targeted advertising” (which is something I don’t want anyway).
That said: my problem with JeremyP’s suggestion is that it changes this from an actual problem to just a microaggression. For gender, if I am “none of these, let me explain,” I have basically been Othered; I am not one of the valid categories, I am someone on the outside.
That said, I’ll take it as a compromise over what we’ve got on a sadly large number of social networking sites now. So, let’s do it.
And regarding drop-down identities, if you haven’t read Jaron Lanier’s latest, You Are Not a Gadget, I highly recommend it.
Gina – I admire you tremendously. But if married is what you wanted, why is it an issue? Why would you want gay-married to be a separate identity? Should I be listed as married-forever (or seems like it!)? I realize that gay marriage is a relatively new concept but I would like to think that your marriage is just as committed as my marriage and not really different – at least in some states.
If I say I’m married, people assume I have a husband. That’s why I prefer to say I’m gay-married.
Case in point, this afternoon on Facebook .
Gina, I read this a bit earlier, and it very nicely expresses why I dislike Facebook more and more.
One thing that didn’t find its way into the entry is even with all this structured data on people Facebook makes less off each ads than other ad platforms such as Google.
The fact that Google watches their users and crafts tools to help them is key, versus creating a tool in search of a problem like some of Facebook’s tools..
What if married isn’t used? Turn the question to inquire about the status of the petitioned’s personal partner – NA, Single, Separated, Divorced, Husband, Wife.
Obviously, Widowed would not be included.
One of the concerns about open text fields is that Dbags will fill them with utter nonsense.
I can understand the wanting to pigeon hole into neat slots (some people are very OCD), and I can understand not wanting to fit into those slots (some people are very independent).
In the days before GBs of RAM, TBs of hard-drive space, and GHz of processing power, pigeon holing was necessary in order keep things manageable. However, now you just set up a filter to find what you need.
But now I hear the programmers, advertisers, and OCD ones among us now screaming “BUT THAT WILL INEVITABLY MISS SOME PEOPLE!”
And I put it to you that just perhaps those people will not mind being missed.
You all seem to be fixated on being able to choose among myriad choices, while what I want to be able to do is remain as private as possible and leave it blank, which never seems to be an option. I do not see the need or even desire to put everything on display. Why does everyone seem to care whether I have a cock and balls or not? And furthermore, whether I prefer to make love to some that has cock and balls or not. Which is what this all seems to boil down to. I just want to keep people guessing because really it is not anyone’s business but mine and my partner’s or maybe partners’.
Additionally, as for the ads that will miss me, I will seek out what I want when I want it. I am signed up for some sale fliers and I listen to podcasts to get the latest information anyway. So I fail to see how targetting me is a benefit to me.
I just want to be left alone. And also, I suspect so to the Dbags.
A lot of comments here are quite positive about the possibilities of non-straight permapaired relationships, but there are many other kinds of deviance! :p
Take poly relationships. How should they be represented? “In a closed relationship with X and Y”. Or asexual people? Non-binary gendered people? Non-binary sexed / intersex people?
Point is, there are so many combos out there. Let people ID themselves and their relationships as they like. It’ll make your job a bit harder, but hey, that’s life!
And if it messes with targeted advertising, so much the better! :p
@Gina: what about heterosexual couples who live together but have decided not to get married? What about couples who have a child together who are not married? What about people deeply in love and monogamous but just opposed to marriage in general?
Last week I talked to Julie about a friend of ours who’s been in a committed relationship with the same guy for more than a decades, so committed that she eventually moved across a couple of states to live in the same city as him. But they’re not married, don’t live together, have no intention to. They’re happy the way they are.
Later that day I talked to a friend who told me he’s been in a committed relationship with a woman for six years, and hopes he doesn’t screw it up by getting married. He’s been married and divorced three times already. He believes this is evidence he should not marry.
This got me thinking that if you’re over 40 or so, and not married, then marriage might well seem like a what’s-the-point? By then you’re probably set in your ways and have independent finances. Since children are likely no longer an issue, why get married?
So this is an endorsement of your view that life is more complicated than married/single/in a relationship/it’s complicated. Even for cisgendered heterosexuals. (Man, I love that word. “Cisgendered.” “Cisgendered.” “Cisgendered.”)
Gina, I agree with your technical points but not your personal rationale. I understand it is, by nature, personal so I just wanted to share my experience.
My name is Syed Ahmad. Most people read that name and don’t realize I’m a U.S. citizen, work for the federal government, hold a TS clearance, and am pretty darn westernized. When I was younger, I wanted to say how much I struggled to get here (being called names, feeling like an other, etc.) and how much more my parents gave up to get me here. But wanting to prove my American-ness is the wrong way to approach it, because Americans named John Smith don’t have to prove it.
I’m not Asian-American. I’m American. In that sense, I think you should strive to be called married and not gay-married.
I prefer to call the fellow with whom I am in a romantic relationship with and with whom I live in an unmarried cohabitational state my partner. And I admit that, while I kind of feel like I’m too old for a boyfriend, mostly I do this because it challenges the heteronormative expectations of (sadly) many of the people I speak to – just like that person who commented on FB to you, Gina (which! I can’t believe it!).
And you know, even if we do get married at some point, I will STILL call him my partner. Because that’s what we are – partners. That never seems to be one of the handy drop down options, either.
While I do, in fact, agree with your main argument, I want to point out that your Metafilter example seems to undermine your purpose. If Metafilter is *parsing* “Male” and “Female” values out of any given input, they’re ultimately ending up with rigid data that is potentially wrong up to 75% of the time.
If I say I’m gay-married, you don’t map it to ‘married’ without giving careful thought to what that actually means.
You go Gina! I completely agree with you. In our ever changing world, the big tech companies should be the FIRST to be adding these options. They are all about what’s trending and changing the way people act and think.
I think some people are missing the picture that gay-marriage people are VERY Proud to say they are legally married and want the opportunity to tell the world.
P.S. Been a hard-core gina fan since I’ve been watching you on TWiG. You have great ideas, insight, and you are truly an influencer to me. Keep doing the great things you are doing!
I’m gobsmacked by all the people here telling Gina what she should do and how she should feel about her marriage.
I like your suggestion, but I think it can be enhanced to satisfy more needs and to further clarify things. Instead of “None of the above. Let me explain” I suggest an optional “Specify” text-field where the choice can be – well – specified.
I don’t want to degrade your gay-marriage but by my understanding (and on a very basic level; perhaps even legally) your relationship-status is “married”, so “none of the above” would not be entirely correct as your status can be easily defined as married. To make my point clearer it may help to imagine a Venn-diagram. With this additional field you could give more detail to your selection. The same can be done for “gender”/”sex”.
This will also be preferred by the people behind the machines (and the people in the ad-offices) as they will still have something they can analyze.
I don’t want to turn my post into a political rant of why it is important to differentiate marriage and gay-marriage, except that people might want to reflect their legal status.
For reasons unknown to me, my google profile page is in German (and while I am German, my google account is configured to english) and so I came to the major problem with this specific drop-down list: translations are wrong!
‘open relationship’ becomes ‘longterm relationship’, which is the main reason why I looked up the original list. ‘single’ is ‘simple’ etc.
I’ll have yet to check out the French translation, but I’m willing to take the bet that everyone will have a problem with that list except for couples in so-called ‘traditional marriages’
Oh, and facebook got it wrong too, while they translated domestic partnership and civil union (gay marriage?) to existing legal terms in european countries, the backwards translation gets it still wrong.
so yes, I want my ‘none of the above’ field, I think it is just as important that localized versions of global sites also need more attention, which is an even stronger case for text-fields in some categories, imo.
oh…update, the german version has two more entries than your screenshot above…
This is a great post, and it’s so interesting to see so many objections to allowing people to define their own relationships.
I’m in a UK civil partnership. They are only available to same-sex couples. I sometimes use “married”, if I am trying to demonstrate the sameness of relationships, but generally I specify that I am in a civil partnership to flag up that I am not married to a man. I also use it point out that we are not _quite_ equal yet, and so the fight isn’t over. I don’t want anyone ever to assume I am straight, because outness is important, and saying that I am married still leads people to assume that my partner will be male.
Also, if this info is going to be used for marketing, I’d like the stereotypes they use to choose my ads to be a little more stereotypically lesbian, not stereotypically married. Then I might actually be stereotypically interested in them.
Re: the guy’s comment on Facebook – Gina that has nothing to do with who you are married to. That guy is just creepy!
Wow Gina! Your post left me pondering this topic for two days.
One of the biggest issues is that while our society has evolved enough to accept (or at least recognize) different types of relationships, our language, at least English, has not.
The only change in our language has been to stick a single adjective in front of words like married, such as the “gay married” you choose. We refer to other marriages by using single adjectives such as open, loving, loveless, interracial, interfaith, and even commuter. But we don’t develop new words that capture the nuanced differences of these relationships.
We added many other words to our language for far less important ideas. I’ll offer “pwned”, “chillax”, and “staycation” as examples. Why do we coin snappy new words for these but accept more colorless terms to describe our relationships?
Language is the basis for formulating and exchanging ideas. When language limits us, as it has here, we diminish our ability to effectively share our views and perspective with others.
We don’t just need more check boxes, we need more words.
Why do you even bother filling in fields like that? It seems kind of silly to me. It’s one thing when you are filling out a legal document, but why would anyone care otherwise? Is your marriage so insecure that your partner checks some website to make sure you haven’t filed for divorce? That’s what process servers are for. Are your “friends” placing bets on whether your marriage will last? You know the odds better than anyone. Pick up a few bucks at their gambling site.
One of the nice things about the internet is that you find out about people by what they write, not what they or others write about them. If you want them to figure out your relationship, write about it, or don’t. When they teach writing, and so much of the internet is about writing, they always say show, don’t tell.
Some years ago I was hiking in some beautiful alpine back country and taking pictures. A hiker I met offered to take a picture of me. I asked him why I’d want a picture of myself with all this beautiful scenery around. (I’m not horribly ugly or anything, but this was really beautiful scenery.) He said I might want it as proof. I couldn’t imagine what he meant, proof of what? Yes, I can be spacey, but when my memory gets to be so bad that I stop believing my memories of such beautiful alpine back country, I doubt a photograph will cure me.
Remember back in 2000 when we were discussing this very issue re Honey Profiles?
Miss you, Tomboy!
I am a little surprised that no one has mentioned the possibility yet, but wouldn’t it be better (from at least a software standpoint) to split the field into two? One for relationship status and one for orientation? Both should, in the end, allow for user input, but together many more types of relationships would fall into the dropdown boxes.
Thanks for the mention Gina (TheJeremyP). There have been some comments about the ease of targeted advertising with restricted drop down selections. Really?!?! This is a Google product we’re talking about. I’m sure they are more than capable of parsing a text field for keywords and getting more relevant information to target advertising. They do it with searches, gmail, and just about everything else. I still stand by my suggestion of of a joint dropdown/text field. They can ignore the text field if they want or put it to use at a later date. At least give the option, when has more data ever been a detriment to Google?
Wired piece on dropdowns published right before this one, which I had not seen till now:
Hey Gina, don’t know if you noticed, but The dropdown has been updated to include the following options:
In Domestic Partnership
In a Civil Union
No telling if it was this little article that prompted the change or more widespread talk, but either way, it’s a small step forward.