The Associated Press announced this afternoon that Facebook, the Silicon Valley-based social media company, would soon give users the option of selecting roughly 50 different terms to describe their genders.
“Facebook said the changes being rolled out Thursday for the company’s 159 million U.S. users are aimed at giving people more choices in how they describe themselves, such as androgynous, bi-gender, intersex, gender fluid or transsexual,” the AP wrote. “Facebook, which has 1.15 billion active monthly users around the world, also allows them to keep their gender identity private.”
The announcement was followed by both praise and condemnation of the tech company’s decision. Liberals praised the open-mindedness and inclusiveness of the move, while conservatives mocked Facebook for pushing politically correct nonsense.
Look at you, Facebook. Bravo. pic.twitter.com/V0lrAs1tW2
— Chris Geidner (@chrisgeidner) February 13, 2014
Unintended consequence: the Facebook headquarters is going to have to be like, 90% bathrooms now.
— L (@OrwellForks) February 13, 2014
My new Facebook gender is "uber-heterosexual super-male who is not over-compensating for anything."
— Frank J. Fleming (@IMAO_) February 13, 2014
Will every time you update your gender be considered a life event? The Facebook 20 videos will be funny.
— Amy Otto (@CAAmyO) February 13, 2014
Facebook was clearly hoping to capitalize on people’s assumptions that it was motivated by nothing but altruism. On its Diversity page, the company posted a picture of rainbow flags that were hung around the company campus to commemorate the occasion.
Facebook even posted a detailed statement re-iterating its completely selfless commitment to inclusion:
When you come to Facebook to connect with the people, causes, and organizations you care about, we want you to feel comfortable being your true, authentic self. An important part of this is the expression of gender, especially when it extends beyond the definitions of just “male” or female.” So today, we’re proud to offer a new custom gender option to help you better express your own identity on Facebook.
Call me a cynic, but this strikes me as an ad targeting play, not a diversity one. Facebook’s bread and butter is delivering an eye-popping number of ad impressions each month. Or, as the company wrote in its most recent annual report to investors, “We invest extensively in advertising technology capable of serving billions of ad impressions every day while maximizing the relevance of each impression to selected users based upon the information that users have chosen to share [emphasis added].”
And how does Facebook maximize the relevance of those ad impressions? From the annual report:
We enable marketers to engage with more than 1.2 billion monthly active users (MAUs) on Facebook or subsets of our users based on information they have chosen to share with us such as their age, location, gender, or interests. We offer marketers benefits such as targeted reach, engagement, Facebook ads, Facebook ad system and ad measurement.
While Facebook is clearly profitable — it posted $1.5 billion in profits on $7.8 billion in revenues in 2013 — its grip on the market may be slipping. Much has been written about teens abandoning the site in droves — so much so that even President Barack Obama mentioned Facebook’s declining popularity among teenagers during a recent cafe conversation with several Millennials.
All the more reason to give its current users an even greater ability to share intimate personal details with corporate advertisers. When your three main revenue levers are active users, ad impressions per user, and ad rates, and it turns out the first lever isn’t really giving you the juice you need anymore, you’ll naturally begin to focus on the remaining two levers. For Facebook’s users, that almost certainly means more ads showing up in the news feed (to increase impressions delivered per user) and more ways to customize the demographic information that is shared with the world (to increase ad rates in exchange for narrower targeting).
Now, I don’t doubt that Facebook’s head honchos believe they’re doing the right thing by giving you the ability to customize the term you use to describe the XX or XY chromosomal combinations that define the biological differences between men and women. But let’s not pretend the decision was free of the desire to increase Facebook’s revenues and profitability.
Sometimes business is just business, even if Facebook doesn’t see the benefit in being transparent about it.