Friday 7 June 2013

It's Time to Change Your (Facebook) Gender

Feminists were pretty pleased when Facebook bowed to user – well, OK, advertiser – pressure last month and promised it would do more to keep violent and misogynistic ads off its pages. According to The New York Times, activists sent more than 5,000 emails to FB’s advertisers and sparked more than 60,000 Tweets. (Or “posts on Twitter” as the NYT calls them). Of course, it’s early days and we’ll have to see what action is taken and how effective it will be.

Now, with that campaign checked off, I have a suggestion for another one. This one takes aim at something possibly just as pernicious, but definitely way more insidious.

Those of you FB users out who are either “FB-Female” or “FB-Male” will almost certainly have noticed it. (NB. I’m treating FB genders as just that, FB genders, not real-world genders; and, yes, FB only offers the binary, but wait up, I'll get to that -- and how to get around it -- at the end.) What I'm talking about are those targeted ads that, once you start paying attention, reinforce some of the most noxious  stereotypes around.

This all started back in May, when one add in particularly really started to bug me.

I bitched about it on FB, of course, and was advised to instal an ad blocker, which I did. But that only blocks (most not all) ads in your News Feed, and does nothing about the sponsored ads down the right-panel. Still, I didn’t mind those so much; they’re easier to avert the eyes from and occasionally even slightly relevant. Skinny Spotlight Woman, on the other hand, was always there, front, centre and right at the very top, her torso looking suspiciously like it's about to spawn an alien. Is it supposed to be a rib? (And no, I never ever click, so I did not bring this on myself!)

After Skinny Spotlight Woman disappeared from my Feed, though, I started to pay more attention to the right-hand panel. Yes, there she was again. Just smaller this time. As were myriad other ads telling me what I could do to make myself thinner, sexier, leaner, better dressed. I started tracking them by taking screen shots, and one day, it hit me: wow targeted stereotyping is really quite nasty and insidious. Out in the real world, we might be doing all we can to challenge all those restrictive -isms, we might be turning our eyes from the celebrity diet gossip mag covers at the checkout stand (to the candy), but on FB and elsewhere, the tide is pushing relentlessly in the other direction. 

I got to wondering what kind of crap the “male” version of me might be told to be, to buy, to look like, to aspire to; what kind of things "he" would be gently advised should inspire self-loathing?  And I decided it might be interesting to find out. There are, I know, myriad other things that factor into what kind of person FB’s ads think I am and should be: age, education, location, other stuff I’ve "liked", crap my friends "like" (you know who you are), relationship status and so on. The list is endless and endlessly spooky, and the people who keep warning us about cyber-Big Brother know way more about it than I do. But just so you know: for the purposes of my research, I’m in my early 30s and live in the Bay of Plenty and obviously tend politically feminist/progressive. (Because FB’s terms and conditions state that “you will not provide any false personal information on Facebook”, I’ll neither confirm nor deny any of this, particularly the age part, but I'll just say this: “you are only as old as you feel”. When I signed up, I only gave FB the info I had to give it, so my profile is free of everything that's not mandatory, like "religion", "political views", education, and so on. )

Bottom line, nothing changed for the purposes of this experiment but my "FB gender". (Oh, and I did remove the ad blocker). So, if you're interested, here are the illustrated results of my research, followed at the end by a conclusion with some recommendations.


First I should point out that these grabs are just a selection, but they're pretty representative. The post would be endless (and it's long enough) if I did any more detailed cataloging. Also, these grabs are in order of when I grabbed them, starting with earlier then later

Obviously, Skinny Spotlight Woman is there, along with skincare products and whether or not I’m going to get married (reflecting, perhaps, that FB has no ‘relationship' status info for me).

One weird thing is that I actually started to almost like car and insurance companies because their ads popped up for both the “FB-Male” and the “FB-Female” me. Also, in this selection (below), there’s an ad in Te Reo calling for  applicants for a preschool education qualification, one I never saw when I was a “FB-Male”, and that’s a pity; the ubiquitous Sovereign insurance is there; and dresses (I personally don’t wear ‘em; well, not these dresses anyway).

AMEX is to be commended for not giving a toss what gender you are, they just want your gender-free moolah; their ads popped up over on the “FB-Male” side, (as did Sovereign), and quite a lot. Along with -- and this surprised me a little bit -- the very same Jenny Craig ad. I had wrongly assumed Jenny would be targeted primarily at “FB-Female” me.

No offence to heel fanatics, but I'd rather see "FB-Male" shoes than most of these.  

Oh Noes! Skinny Spotlight Woman is multiplying.


Enough of that. Let’s see how my “FB-Male” counterpart is doing,

After switching FB gender to "male", I was immediately ticked off that “FB-Male” was offered the chance to become a builder, something “FB-Female” is apparently not interested in. And it's an ad came up a lot for "FB-Male". This is part of the insidiousness, because I immediately thought of young(er) people, and the messages the two FB-genders are getting about their career options. I assume this appears because BOP Polytech is targeting “FB-Males” in my area. If that's the case, they should change their targeting. Oh, yes, apparently “FB-Males” like stereo stuff, which "FB-Females" don't, lots more SKY TV than "FB-Females" and seemingly endless amounts of male-dominated sports. Various rugby ads come up over and over for “FB-Males”, and I never saw even one of them in my “FB-Female” line-up.

The next day, poor “FB-Male” starts getting socked with the "male" counterpart to Skinny Spotlight Woman. I'll call him Steroid Man. (Yeah, I know it's billed as a "New Steroid Alternative" but, ahem.) He also should be thinking about quitting smoking, insuring his family (mainly his cute baby) and getting tix to lots of rugby matches. (If he's smoking, that insurance really might be a good idea. I think we've got some synergy going on here for "FB-Man"?)

Moving right along into the dubious: Steroid Man is back (did he ever go away?), and now there’s what looks like an ad for Chinese women. I didn’t click to explore that one … so won’t comment further. Interesting that this particular “FB-Male”, located in the Bay of Plenty, got an ad for a Hawke’s Bay Life Coach, as if he's not getting enough advice thank-you-very-much Facebook. Oh, and "men" really like cool sunnies.

As noted above, next came the very same Jenny Craig ad "FB-Female" had been dished up. Also, a bit of an iffy looking outfit called “Doreen Virtue – Angels.” Sorry folks, I’m not going there; but Doreen popped up quite a few times, so to speak. 

Oh, and here’s one “FB-Female” never got (definitely offensive stereotyping!):

  “FB-Male” me got as tired of Steriod Man as “FB-Female” me got of  Skinny Spotlight Woman. Just go away. (He looks like he's 12, for goodness sake.)

 And there were a few variations on the mysterious China Woman, of which this is another one:

"FB-Select Gender"

After I let my fingers do some Googling, I finally found out how to deselect “FB Male” and “FB Female” so my "FB gender" became “FB Select Gender”. That's right, not having chosen your gender yet is the best you can hope for with FB (see Conclusion/Recommendations below for details). Meanwhile, to continue the experiment a bit longer, I followed the ads in my new incarnation as an “FB Select Gender” person for a couple of days. Without wanting to spoil the ending, I’ve decided to stick with this as my FB gender. The ads are, so far, way less offensive, which I can only assume is because FB just doesn't know quite how to stereotype us “Select Gender” folk. (I also love the ambiguity around the word "select" in this context.) Anyway, here’s a selection of "FB Select Gender" ads:

First, there are flu shots, energy efficient lightbulbs (neither came up for “FB-Female” or “FB-Male”), Telecom (that came up elsewhere, clearly not gender targeted) and SKY again.

Insurance (again), Keno, more cars and a new surprise entry, BNZ Literary Awards. It turns out that writing and literature are popular among us "gender select" folks.

Next up, a TV show, more insurance and something I have no idea what is: SSV Midway, and a “web based RPG” is. (I thought RPG stood for Rocket Propelled Grenade?) “Explore the universe after ME3”? Huh? Again, not going there with the clicky thing, sorry. Also, more writing and a carpet ad. Go figure!

And so it went. There was an ad for an actors workshop, writing help (on thinking about it, this writing focus probably reflects my background in journalism/writing), more insurance and carpet ads. Basically, "FB Select Gender" is served with the least annoying set of ads I’ve seen, with little of that ugly -- and quite frankly, for me irrelevant -- gender stereotyping. What’s more, a lot of the time, there are no sponsored ads at all, just pages that my FB friends have liked. All of which leads me to my conclusions and recommendations.

Conclusions and Recommendations

It's obvious: We should all subvert FB by changing our FB-genders. At first I thought, well, we need a campaign for FB to offer more than the gender binary to its users, and a few people are arguing that, for example here

But then, I realised, no, nuh uh, that’s playing the game their way. If there’s an “other” or a “none of the above” or even more specific options like: “trans*”, “intersex” and so on, the algorithms will just start stereotyping those groups. What's more (worse!) is that FB will know even more about us than it already does, stuff I'm not sure FB deserves to know. Better to subvert the ad targeting by switching gender (frequently?) or, if you're up for a bit more complicated clicking, changing to “FB Select Gender”, which the site Genderqueer Identities tells you how to do that here. It was a bit tricky for me as I'm not much of a nerd, but after a few tries, it worked! Now, I'm FB Gender Free! And loving it. 

(FYI, for the basic FB gender binary switch -- to change from "male" to "female" or vice versa -- go to “Edit Profile”, scroll to “Basic Information” and click on “edit”. The gender binary options are at the top. Don’t get me started on “I’m interested in”. For one thing, there’s no “cats” option. Jerks!)

Finally, a word to parents: I wonder if it might not be a good idea to suggest that your kids do a bit of personal information tweaking so the stereotyping effect they're exposed to is lessened a little bit. I don’t actually know what kind of ads target children and young people, but if anyone wanted to run a similar experiment on different ages, it might prove interesting.

[Note: I did not include any ads in this survey or the screengrabs that were linked to my FB friends, e.g. "So-and-so liked such-and-such" for obvious privacy reasons. Or it might have been out of concern that they might not want to be associated with me in public.]


Hugh said...

An 'RPG' is a 'Roleplaying Game', like Dungeons and Dragons or whatnot.

Psycho Milt said...

At first I thought, well, we need a campaign for FB to offer more than the gender binary to its users, and a few people are arguing that...

The argument you make for not going with that first thought is a good one, but for anyone who isn't persuaded by it, here's another: Facebook's users aren't its customers. The customers are the advertisers, so it's what they want that counts as far as Facebook is concerned. Any user attempts to pressure Facebook into making life more difficult for its customers are doomed to failure.

Rebecca said...

Wow, I've never noticed the ads until I toddled off to FB after reading your blog... and yes, I get Special K, weight loss stuff and reading glasses. Hilarious! They clearly haven't looked closely enough at my profile. I might possibly notice ads for second hand books and sci-fi movies. Such a pity 'geek' isn't a gender option.

ChundaMars said...

Very interesting post. I pay scant attention to ads on Facebook - the only ones I notice that show in my feed constantly are for terrible casual games (Bejewelled Blitz 6 or some rubbish) which I imagine are "gender neutral".

Psycho Milt is right though: the ads aren't for our benefit, so it's the opinions of the advertisers that will matter to them.

LudditeJourno said...

Fascinating Alison, thanks for doing all the work on this.
I wonder a little about the intersectionality of information being gathered. I've never clicked on any Facebook ads either, and generally speaking I'm lazy as hell about my Facebook profile, partly due to inertia, partly to dislike of systems gathering info about me. So I don't have store cards or air points or any of those other things either.
But Facebook offers me "Hot Thai Women" and other escort sites - I presume because I post and "like" queer things - and I am offered both the opportunities of Steroid Man and feminine weight loss, continually.
It would be interesting to know what differences different race/ethnicity profiles made too.
More research perhaps?
Thanks again for a great post.

tiffany267 said...

As a non-FB user, I can say you've exposed something very interesting and I like the idea of subverting FB, but why not just get rid of your account? Wouldn't that really take care of the problem much better?

FB-free and happy for it.

PS Found you from Homepaddock on WordPress. I have an awesome WordPress blog myself at :)

Katherine said...

The only ads I see on facebook are the 'recommended pages' and such on the sidebar, that are mostly recommended because friends have clicked them (I assume). I hace adblock and noscript, though noscript never appears to be blocking anything on facebook.

Anonymous said...

interesting comparison!! thanks :)