Two areas where Facebook falls short on new gender identity options

Facebook should receive some kudos today for adding an option for its users to select from a range of gender identities beyond solely male or female. The Associated Press, via the Sacramento Bee, spells out the changes. However, the changes fall short in the gender identity selection field and in the somewhat related “Interested in” field.

Facebook's updated basic information settings now allow users to select a custom gender identity.

Facebook’s updated basic information settings now allow users to select a custom gender identity.

First, while “custom” gender line allows the user to type in their preferred gender identity, users must ultimately select from a list currently limited to 56, as reported by DFM Thunderdome. I tried to type in a gender identity beyond those on the list and was rejected.

If you’re used to just male or female, 56 sounds like a lot but many on the list seem to be duplicates. For example, there are cis female, cis woman, cisgender female and cisgender woman (there is a similar set for men). To a layperson and aided by the Wikipedia article on the matter, all four sound like slight variations on the concept that a person’s body type and gender identity are aligned together as female.

Through the list there are items that are apparently similar, but may also reflect key distinctions (such as between transgender and transsexual). Ultimately, it appears that Facebook wanted to give users several options on how precisely they wanted to identify themselves, but that exposes a possible shortcoming.

No matter how many options Facebook provides, it seems likely that some categories or variations were left out. That leads to me to propose the following: Why not offer users a truly blank line to fill in? If it is important for people to feel comfortable to define themselves as they see fit, what better option is there than a purely empty canvas?

Facebook already allows users this option in the potentially volatile fields of religion and political affiliation.

Most people will likely stick with the two generally accepted gender types, but the blank field will allow anyone to put any response that they feel is appropriate.

There could be some downsides. It may be harder to individuals to search for people with a specific gender identity (and it would be harder to Facebook to characterize and subsequently monetize a user’s profile along those lines). Also, there may be some chuckleheads who use the blank form to make an insensitive statement.

The first point will likely only be a minor inconvenience for users (and Facebook likely has enough data on its users to sell advertisers on). The latter point could be resolved by limiting the field to a certain number of characters and speech that violates Facebook’s terms of use should be addressed with accordingly.

The expansion of possible gender identities underscores the woeful inadequacy of Facebook’s “Interested In” field. As of now, users can only use checkboxes to indicate an interest in either males, females, both or neither. Given that users can now express themselves as 56 gender identity types or some combination thereof, this now seems like an area for expansion.

However, opening up the “Interested in” area may pose additional complications because the area seems to be more about sexuality, although genders are listed. While there isn’t an express field for it, a user’s selection in the current “Interested In” field combined with their gender identity can heavily imply whether one is straight, gay, bisexual or none of the above.

Although I initially thought it would be simple to expand the list of genders one may be interested in, I’m now unsure about the best way for Facebook to expand this category. Maybe Facebook can keep this category around for those who prefer simplicity or don’t wish to be overt, but can also add a blank field where people can outright declare their sexual orientation if they choose.

Both the gender identity and “interested in” categories can be deeply personal and it seems prudent that Facebook allows users to keep this information private. At the same time, Facebook’s expansion of its gender identity category seems to beg for adding even more options for users seeking the best way to identify themselves and their interests.

My phone thinks I live at a bar and other digital foibles

Google Now on my new smartphone initially thought I lived at the Madison Bear Garden.

Google Now on my new smartphone initially thought I lived at the Madison Bear Garden.

Following my last post, I’ve made the switch from Sprint to Ting and got a refurbished Samsung Galaxy SII (Epic 4G Touch). It led to a little bit of drama when the first one I received was a dud, but more on that later.

One of the joys of getting a new-ish smartphone is trying out the new bells and whistles, including updating the phone’s Android operating system to a more recent version. That upgrade allowed me to test the updated Google Search app and came away only modestly impressed — the app’s Google Now feature aims to display cards of information based on your searches, location, preferences, etc.

It’s Google Now’s virtual anticipation that recently caught me off guard. I was about to leave work last week when I checked into the app. Anticipating that I would like to know how long it would take for me to drive home, the app displayed the approximate travel time to my “home” — Madison Bear Garden.

I was a little curious at first why Google would think I live at a bar. I could think of a couple of possibilities. I used the app at the bar one evening to look up some trivial items that came up during a discussion. Because I made that search at night when many people are at home, it’s possible the app guessed my home on my evening location — at the bar.

Thankfully it asked to confirm if the location was my home and I could correct it.

These types of tech gaffes point out how digital companies try to sort out relevant information from the bushels of data we submit everyday. While it may be wise to be cautious about such data mining, these shortcomings sometimes underscore the old programming principle of GIGO — Garbage In, Garbage Out. The difference is that sometimes the computer gets garbage out of what we would consider to be relevant information.

Here are some other recent tech peeves I’ve observed:

  • At the consumer budgeting site, the service says I’ve been spending a lot of money lately at Chico’s — a clothing store I’ve never purchased from and don’t recall ever being inside. Apparently the site skims recent purchases and tries to determine where they should go.
    In this case, it sees a purchase from “Chico CA” and assigns it to Chico’s. The site currently applies this to all Chico purchases. There is no option to change it other than manually editing every entry … which defeats the purpose of having the site easily display how a user’s money is being spent.
  • Facebook tries its best to guess certain information about its users, often to hilarious effect. At various times, the map on my Timeline said I was born in Chico and identified one of parents. That’s all fine if it were true — at the time I said Chico was my hometown, but that’s not necessarily where I was born. Also, my parent isn’t necessarily my biological one so that doesn’t make sense either.
    Another time, Facebook finally correctly identified the town I was born, but then indicated I was born at the city’s airport. Boy, that would be a fun story for my parents to tell me — again, if that ever happened.
  • The photos feature on Google+ uses technology to try to identify people’s faces (Facebook has a similar tool). Sometimes that tech fails in a cruel way:
Google+ doesn't believe there's a face in this image.

Google+ doesn’t believe there’s a face in this image.

Although some of these goofs can be annoying or time consuming to fix, I’m generally content to let these inaccuracies stand if they’re not causing any harm. I’m leery at providing too much information online. These errors can stand as reminders of what these companies are trying to do and how far they have to go to accomplish their goals.

#nbcfail: Complaints about NBC’s Olympics coverage reach new heights

NBC Live bug during Vancouver Games

“Live – NBC” Something West Coast viewers saw only briefly during the 2010 Vancouver Winter Games. For this year’s London games, seeing such a thing may almost be a mirage.

During the Calgary Winter Games in 1988, I remember the announcer for ABC (I want to say Jim McKay) explaining to the audience watching at home how, even though the event was live, there could be brief seconds of delay as the feed is uplinked from Canada and downlinked from orbiting satellites to local stations. I believe the point was that ABC was making was that the coverage was as live as technically possible.

Contrast that with NBC’s coverage of the London Summer Games, where they’re largely sticking with their “If you haven’t seen it, it’s new to you!” mantra. That motto didn’t work for summer reruns in 1997 and it doesn’t work for covering an immense, live sporting event in an age of Facebook and Twitter.

With the London Games fully underway, an old sport of sorts has taken off online — complaining about NBC’s ever-lackluster presentation of the Olympics. As this Associated Press article indicates, critics and supporters alike will point out that this isn’t a new event, but the increasing use of social networking has bolstered criticisms and underscored NBC’s relatively poor broadcasting choices.

Social networking spoils NBC’s tape-delay plans because people around the world are sharing results as they happen. Unless people go out of their way to avoid the results, the results of key competitions are known hours before NBC gets around to broadcasting them over the air.

This was an issue during the Vancouver 2010 Games, but it seems like a much bigger issue today.

I’ve never been shy to criticize NBC’s broadcasting choices, especially those that force West Coast viewers to suffer tape delays for events happening in their time zone (like during Vancouver). In the past, the complaints just seemed to peter out after a while. Not so in London, where comments are shared and added to like flames of a fire.

Thus far, people watching the London Games have taken to using the #nbcfail tag on Twitter to help express their disdain of the coverage. The complaints have been wide-ranging, but have thus far focused on the delayed Opening Ceremonies on Friday and a 7- to 11-hour delay for Saturday’s 400 IM men’s swimming final featuring Ryan Lochte and Michael Phelps.

Sunday’s gripes seem to be less focused, with people carping about a bevy of events delayed into primetime and some tweeting about the reaction to #nbcfail. There’s also a Internet meme where people are jokingly tweeting about NBC’s tape-delayed coverage of historical events.

So what’s the solution? I think the Canadian model works well for a sports fan and a viewer — live coverage whenever possible and highlights when necessary. I’m not sure what current rightsholder CTV is doing, but the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation would only air highlight packages during times when live coverage wasn’t feasible … but after airing the live coverage.

Looking at NBC’s position, they did fork out the dough to air the Games, so they’re obviously in the driver’s seat about their decisions. Their arguments include the fact that they can reach a greater audience and earn more ad dollars by airing taped events in primetime. That seems to be borne out by the record ratings for the first two days of the London Games.

They’ve also made fun of the Canadian model. I remember during the Athens Games in 2004 reading about an NBC producer touting the higher American ratings than their Canadian counterparts.

NBC has also countered critics by saying all the events are streaming live online. I appreciate that effort — although I question how much of an effort it really is, considering that Olympic Broadcasting Services provides feeds of every event anyway. Still, it’s a step up from the Vancouver Games, where most events were kept offline until they aired on the Peacock.

The service was fairly comprehensive during the Beijing Games, but I’m shut out this time — people need to prove they’re paying for an expanded cable or satellite subscription before they can get access. People with rabbit ears on their televisions are shut out.

One final point about NBC that people rarely seem to consider is the fact that NBC isn’t a monolithic network — they have to keep their local affiliates happy. I have no doubt that local stations’ desires to garner the largest audiences is also a factor in NBC’s scheduling. That’s also why I believe local news and key syndicated shows are still shown, despite the huge amount of Olympics events available.

It’s hard to say what the ultimate impact of #NBCfail will be. For now, the ratings tend to support NBC’s decisions regarding the tape-delayed experience they offer television viewers. However, perhaps #NBCfail will continue to point out that this should be a golden era of sports broadcasting and that a significant number of people are aware of better, live offerings than what NBC is serving up.

Opening Ceremonies concerns: While I’m still making my way through an over-stuffed Opening Ceremonies, I have to ding NBC Olympics for its decision to air ads instead of showing the Olympic Oaths (prior to the caldron lighting). Amid all of the symbolism of the Opening Ceremonies, having athletes, coaches and officials swear to the true spirit of sportsmanship is a huge one.

The Age of Australia identified the oath takers as UK taewondo athlete Sarah Stevenson, boxing referee Mik Basi for officials and canoeing coach Eric Farrell.

Also, according to the International Olympic Committee’s guide to Opening Ceremonies (PDF), every ceremony is to include 11 elements. The oaths are three of the elements. NBC should have made time for at least the athletes’ oath.

For the record, the oath for athletes is — “In the name of all competitors I promise that we shall take part in these Olympic Games, respecting and abiding by the rules which govern them, committing ourselves to a sport without doping and without drugs, in the true spirit of sportsmanship, for the glory of sport and the honour of our teams.”

The network was also criticized for airing a pretaped interview instead of showing a portion of the ceremonies commemorating victims of terrorism (particularly the July 7, 2005, attacks in London).

Facebook offers games, extras, but I’m not playing

I have huge queue of requests in my Facebook account. I’ve been meaning to go through and clear them out — by denying nearly all of them. I thought it would be useful to explain why.

  1. Games – A ton of my friends are playing social games, like Mafia Wars or Yoville. The thing is, I’ve played similar games before and they really don’t interest me. I don’t really want to spend time hunting for items or recruiting friends for specific causes.

    So instead of adding clutter to my account and perhaps leaving my friends in a lurch when my attention is focused elsewhere, I’d rather not go down that path again.

  2. Special apps – Some of friends have asked me to submit information for apps called “We’re Related” or “Birthday Cards.” They’re pretty straightforward — to help people track relatives or people’s birthdays.

    Sounds great. right? Well, Facebook has most of them without needing to add a different program.

    Some of the apps are also scuzzy — full of poorly implemented advertising and visual traps for users. They often try to get the user to send out spammy messages about the app in order to view quiz results (but you should always be able to skip past such prompts). Thanks, but no thanks.

  3. Causes – Some people have asked me to join certain causes. Professionally, I do my best to keep my Internet position agnostic (although it can be tough given the worthy causes and controversial issues that we face).

While I feel bad turning down these requests, these apps aren’t what I’m looking for on Facebook. When I come to social-networking Web sites, I would like to see what people are up to and what they’re producing (like stories, photos, discussions, etc.). There are places for games on Facebook, but I’m just not playing right now.

For want of spite, Twitter was lost

Less than a day after the microblogging Web site Twitter was briefly knocked offline and social Web site Facebook was hampered, a picture of what happened began to develop and who was targeted. Instead of some sort of corporate or international intrigue, it appeared like the attacks were a massively misguided effort to silence one individual.
It was pretty clear that Twitter, Facebook and others were hampered because of a Denial of Service attack — where a Web site is hit with so many requests or Web traffic that it buckles under the pressure. According to BBC News, the target was believed to be one blogger, named Georgy, who has criticized Russia’s role in last year’s war against the country of Georgia, the BBC reported.
Facebook officials said the attack was directed at the blogger’s page, but it impacted the rest of the service as well.
Talk about overkill. In this effort to target one individual, the people responsible attacked several networks affecting hundreds of millions of people. It would be like nuking a large city in an effort to kill one man, or burning the haystack to get at that needle.
If the intent was to silence one person’s opinion — it will probably backfire. More people will now probably be more interested in what this one person has to say because of this effort.
Additionally, cyberterrorism is not likely to engender the hackers to the general public. Personally speaking, I feel a little bit of animus toward whoever would be willing to launch such a foolhardy and unsophisticated attack.
While the target was apparently Georgy, also known as Cyxymu, it’s not known who launched the attack. The blogger apparently blames Russia although some experts said there is no evidence that this is the case.
I definitely hope that we find the parties responsible. It’s also a reminder to Web sites that they need to develop more defenses against these types of attacks.