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Diaspora’s gender field controversy and the consumer internet

Facebook’s rise has been incredible, but it hasn’t exactly been smooth.
It’s easy to forget that on its way to the top of the social networking
world, it has faced a fair share of challenges.

One of the biggest challenges: numerous privacy flubs. Flubs which in
part inspired Diaspora, the high-profile open source project to create
an ‘open‘ Facebook alternative.

Diaspora has become the poster child for those who believe that Facebook has grown too big for its britches. Tim Berners-Lee even mentioned the social network in his misguided attack on closed social networks like Facebook.

Backed with some 0,000 in donations, including one from Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg himself, Diaspora would appear to have a bright future as an ‘open’ social networking platform, even if it isn’t a Facebook killer.

When the New York Times profiled the four New York University students behind Diaspora earlier this year, however, one provided an intriguing quote:

What Facebook gives you as a user isn’t all that hard to do. All the little games, the little walls, the little chat, aren’t really rare things. The technology already exists.

For anyone who develops consumer internet products, such a quote might be the source of a laugh. That’s because consumer internet veterans understand: very few things that appear simple or easy were simple or easy to develop.

It looks like the Diaspora team is set to learn this the hard way. 

Yesterday, one Diaspora contributor, Avery Morrow, decided to throw in the towel. The reason: ‘gender‘ is being made a free-form text field. In Morrow’s eyes, “this is a sign that the programming team — not some unrelated pinheads, but the five or six people who are supposed to be writing the code — have put strong, usable code last on their priorities.

The person who turned gender into a text field, Sarah Mei, explained why she did so in response to a growing number of people who noticed the change:

I made this change to Diaspora so that I won’t alienate anyone I love before they finish signing up.

I made this change because gender is a beautiful and multifaceted thing that can’t be contained by a list.

I know a lot of people aren’t there with me yet. So I also made this change to give them one momentary chance to consider other possibilities.

I made it to start a conversation.

I made it because I can.

And, of course, I made it so you can be a smartass.

Not surprisingly, there has been a lot of controversy over this subject because of the issues it touches on, and Morrow in particular has received a lot of criticism.

Is gender an important field? Certainly. Can gender be a complex subject? Yes. But from the standpoints of database design and usability, a free form text field is not an attractive solution. In fact, it’s the worst and laziest design possible. One can permit more than two selections for this important field without creating data integrity, usability, localization, and search nightmares.

This said, the field — ‘gender‘ — is really a red herring. The real issue here: building an open Facebook by consensus is clearly not going to be easy.

While Facebook lets small teams of talented developers create new functionality that, when released, will almost instantly be exposed to millions upon millions of users, Diaspora contributors are already fighting over the minutia of their open Facebook alternative. Facebook develops new features, of course, based on an analysis of real-world usage, and when it ships new code, it iterates as necessary based on the feedback it receives from real users. Diaspora, on the other hand, isn’t even out of private alpha and one developer has already single-handedly decided to how one of the most important fields will function with implications for data consistency, search and usability being brushed aside. “To start a conversation“, and because she can.

That’s not likely to be the foundation of a successful consumer internet product. If Diaspora is going to succeed in building a viable open alternative to Facebook, the people running the show are going to have to try a lot harder and be a lot more creative.

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