As any consumer of Kellogg’s Pop-Tarts could have told you, Facebook's new and expansive gender-identification options are a woefully lagging indicator of the wide-ranging and decades-long trend toward increasingly varied options for being in the world. That’s true whether you’re a toaster pastry or a human being. Indeed, until last week, Facebook users could only identify themselves as male or female, or just half the number of flavors available to Pop-Tart fans over 40 years ago.
Introduced in 1967 and named after the pop art craze surrounding Andy Warhol, Roy Lichenstein, and others, Kellogg’s popular breakfast product originally came in four flavors (blueberry, strawberry, brown sugar cinnamon, and the quickly discontinued apple currant). They’re now available in over 100 variations and versions. At a 2010 pop-up store in Times Square, customers could even create hyper-individualized flavors (and sample something called Pop-Tart sushi to boot).
The same sort of expansive multiplication of variety has been happening to people. As the anthropologist and business-school professor Grant McCracken put it in his 1997 book Plenitude, we live in a world characterized by a quickening “speciation” of social types. “Teens,” he wrote, “were once understood in terms of those who were cool and those who weren’t.” In a tour of a Toronto mall in the late 1990s, McCracken’s adolescent guide pointed to 15 distinct types of young adults, including “ heavy-metal rockers, surfer-skaters, b-girls, goths, and punks.” By now, the same tour would easily yield double or triple the number of types.
In a broader context, then, Facebook’s new policy — which allows users to pick from phrases such as androgynous, intersex, transsexual, and dozens more — tells us less about changing social and sexual roles and more about the social-media giant’s desperate attempt to stay relevant in a world that often moves too fast even for its greatest innovators. Facebook’s purchase of WhatsApp, a dominant and fast-growing messaging app for smartphones, for $19 billion is another.
While a recent report that Facebook might lose 80 percent of its users by 2017 has been thoroughly debunked, it’s also no secret that the decade-old social media platform is, in the words of a study of 16-to-18-year old kids in the European Union, “dead and buried” to the heavy-using teens that generate much of the service’s most-sought-after audience. “Teens,” observes TechCrunch’s Natalie Lomas, “are the most exciting demographic not just because they are so lucrative from an advertiser point of view, but because they are such energetic users....They become addicts and advocates.”
As younger users migrate to newer, less-fussy platforms such as Snapchat, Twitter, and Instagram (itself acquired by Facebook in 2012), Facebook may well end up being about as hip and happening as a local VFW hall. Sure, its older, less-engaged users will now be able to define their gender orientation with greater clarity, but it may all be too little too late to save Facebook from the fate of once-dominant platforms such as MySpace and AOL. Similarly, it’s not clear what adding WhatsApp’s 450 million (and counting) users to Facebook’s portfolio of products will do to keep people on Facebook’s main platform itself. WhatsApp allows unlimited and virtually free text messaging over phones; it doesn’t keep users in one place.
If Facebook fades, it will be because in an age of constantly proliferating options and possibilities, it chose for too long to try and limit its users’ experiences, and not simply in terms of gender identification. During Facebook’s rise, founder Mark Zuckerberg talked boldly of creating a truly “open platform” and “social operating system” that would allow users to control not just their Facebook experience and the personal information they willingly pour into the platform but their ability to come and go between Facebook and the larger World Wide Web.
But almost the exact opposite has been happening, with Facebook evolving more and more into a classic Internet “walled garden.” As in the old days when AOL kept its users from directly accessing the Internet and instead hosted its own versions of Usenet groups, Facebook increasingly confines and boxes in its users in the service of delivering a captive audience to advertisers. As Gigaom’s Mathew Ingram noted last summer, “There is only one truly open platform, and that is the web. Proprietary networks like Facebook are designed to generate value for their owners, period.”
That’s not a bad thing, in and of itself. Facebook is a business after all, and it’s got bills to pay and personal information to sell. But to the extent it means users are cut off from going where they want online and doing what they feel like, Facebook may end up being as appealing as an apple currant Pop-Tart.