Facebook's Purchase of WhatsApp, Expanded Gender Identities Are Like Pop-Tart Sushi (That's a Compliment)


I've got a new column up at Time. It's about Facebook's recent expansion of its gender-identity categories and, well, Kellogg's Pop-Tarts.

Here's how it begins:

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 androgynousintersextranssexual, 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.

I argue that Facebook has been long been too much of a "walled garden," in which users' choices and options are increasingly constrained. And so:

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.

Read the whole thing.