If Facebook can do it, why can’t dating sites allow their users to set their own gender terms?
I’m often asked what makes a good digital dating site. One of the first things I always say is that the user experience needs to resemble Facebook. It’s a website which most of us use at least several times a week, and, as such, it sets the “norm” for our expectations of modern technology. Over the past ten years the interface has changed both frequently and dramatically – but the individual changes are often so small that we barely notice or remember them.
One such change happened two years ago. After a decade of limiting users to identify themselves solely as male or female, the site decided to expand its gender options. Recognising the nuances of gender distinction, and the ever-growing glossary of gender terms, Facebook decided to offer 71 different genders for users to self-define.
It was an important step for the social media site – one which was received well by non-gender-binary members, who could now select which pronoun the site used to describe them / xem / chem.
Earlier this year, in a survey presented at the Texas tech festival SXSW, The Innovation Group revealed that 56 per cent of US Gen Z-ers know someone who uses gender-neutral pronouns. And while Gen Z is proving a key new market for dating apps and sites, none of the sites seem capable of accommodating the glossary of gender terms in the same way that Facebook has.
“There’s a huge number of people for whom gender just isn’t a deciding factor in who they are. And when you try online dating, your gender is front and centre and probably the most important thing”
Why? Because gender isn’t simply something used for self-definition on a dating site. It is also used to match up users and to allow them to search for other people. These matching and search functions have all been set up with gender being a binary option. While it would be easy to let a member on a dating site describe themselves with any term they liked, the issue arises when someone searches for them as an option – how do you group up the genders so that the right people find each other?
One of the dating apps leading the way when it comes to the question of gender and dating is Bristlr, a site and app powered by M14 Industries. Bristlr is designed, it claims, to connect “those with beards” to “those who like to stroke them”. By virtue of that mission statement, when John Kershaw, the CEO of M14 programmed the site, he never added a question about daters’ gender. Users are simply asked whether they have a beard or not…
Kershaw has a number of non-binary friends himself so the issue has always played on his mind. “Gender is often still used as an example of a binary value in computer science, so it’s no wonder many companies struggle with it. When websites are built with a binary gender, the code is really easy. Really, it needs rethinking from the ground up. We need people with real-world genders to be able to use these apps. Given the huge number of Gen Z-ers starting to use these platforms, who don’t just accept the gender binary, it’s essential that companies fix their broken stuff.”
Artemis is a trans-woman who has struggled with online dating. “When using online dating, there is an underlying current (from my experience) that one must fit into a box. In these boxes, one must clearly appear ‘M’ or ‘F’. If there could be any doubt, or androgyny, in your appearance, you immediately fall into a pile of ‘other’.”
Low has also been put off online dating because of the “boxes”. “I’m kinda trying to figure out the labels for my gender. Sometimes it seems important to figure out the right labels (pan? demigirl? androgynous?), so I read up on stuff. Most of the time I kinda shrug my shoulders and don’t worry about it too much.”
Discussing Artemis and Low’s reactions, John Kershaw explains that this is where he thinks the problem with gender and online dating lies. “There’s a huge number of people for whom gender just isn’t a deciding factor in who they are. It’s part of who they are, but not a defining part. And when you try online dating, your gender is front and centre and probably the most important thing.”
“Dating sites need to go out and talk to people. Until you actually reach out and chat to real people, you’ve really got no idea. A couple of tokenistic extra options in a dropdown menu just isn’t good enough in 2016”
So what should dating sites be doing to solve these problems, and ensure they don’t alienate a generation of non-binary daters?
“Dating sites need to go out and talk to people. It’s very easy to think you can read up on the topic, and then know it. But until you actually reach out and chat to real people, you’ve really got no idea. Then, actually put real resources behind the engineering to make sure your solution is good enough. A couple of tokenistic extra options in a dropdown menu just isn’t good enough in 2016.
“At M14, we certainly don’t have all the answers, but we’re trying to find them. We’re constantly talking to a large range of people to make sure we meet their needs and reflect their reality. And we’ll be publishing all of our work as part of the Open Gender Project. It’s important to us to be as open as we can with this, so everyone can feed back – and we can avoid screwing up – and everyone can benefit.”