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.

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  1. I am identifying as gnomosexual. My Swiss Masters insist.

    1. They don’t have vegisexual? This is the worst kind of discrimination! The kind against me!

  2. I want “pansexual oratal pluker” for my totally not made up Facebook identity (because I’d never violate a website’s terms of service). Is that an option?

  3. I don’t know if it’s just the image you chose, but that pop-tart sushi looks horrible, like corned beef hash wrapped in fruit roll-ups.

    1. I agree. And that is a better description than I could come up with.

    2. Do they have corned beef hash Poptarts now?

    3. Good call on the fruit roll-ups, but for the filling I was thinking raw ground beef mixed with feta cheese.

    4. You don’t need the image, just the name of it disgusts the shit out of me. Pop tarts are disgusting.

      1. just the name of it disgusts the shit out of me

        Laxative Pop-Tarts?!

        1. Yeah, basically, that’s how they work.

            1. Coming Soon! Frosted Syrup of Ipecac Pop-Tarts.

  4. until last week, Facebook users could only identify themselves as male or female

    Oh the horror.

    1. Our long national nightmare is over.

  5. Does Polymorphous Perverse fit in the taxonomy?

  6. Unless one of the choices is awesexual, Facebook is still lacking in options.

    1. is that the partner of shocksexual?

      1. Shocksual. But then the Novocain wears off.

    2. I don’t believe in labels, so I chose neither*.


      1. You still have made a choice.

    3. (Warty Hugeman looks for “omnisexual”, cannot find it, destroys Facebook)

      1. They are also missing Sasqasexual…STEVE SMITH SMASH!

      2. Warty Hugeman’s sexual orientation is “terror.”

        1. You forgot the “gibbering” part of “gibbering terror”.

          1. Wait a minute. Why is everyone conflating sexual orientation with gender?

            1. With Warty, they are one and the same.

    4. I’m holding out for Sexual Tyrannosaurus.

  7. This is why Obamacare is so popular. We now have three (THREE!) coverage options!

  8. “Take THAT! = people who accuse libertarians of ‘Glib’!”

    I for one would like to defend strawberry poptarts as being, well, “stale pie-crust filled with dry jelly” – but nevertheless something a 5yr old kid LOVES every now and then. Why? Cause he’s a fucking idiot and he has no taste. But then, who are you to judge?

    Re: gender labels and facebook? I’m not sure most FB users actually understand what the word “pandering” really means, so who cares?

      1. How old is that song? The aspect ratio on that terrible music video is 16:9.

        1. Mid-90s?

          I had a thing for Robbie Williams* during his early solo career which is the only reason that I know about it, although people a few years older than I am remember the song fondly.

          *I’d insist that you not judge me, but I know that’s futile, so enjoy the fodder.

      2. I watched that with no sound

        That’s just gay soft-porn. TELL ME I AM WRONG?

        1. Is anyone even shirtless?

          Robbie Williams and Gary Barlow (another member of Take That) did a song together as a reconciliation that feels very Brokeback Mountain and has them shirtless.

          And there is of course Rock DJ where he strips for a bunch of women on roller skates.

          1. That’s no denial.

            Although it should have occurred to me that the Gay Soft-Porn world is divided between ‘shirted’ and ‘shirtless’

            its Abercrombie ads all the way down.

            Frankly i think there’s going to have to emerge some gender category somewhere between strict-Hetero Male and strict-Gay Male… which is NOT “bi”, per se… but a thing unique to itself.

            We currently call this thing “guido”.

            It is *legion*.


            1. I find your ideas intriguing but I believe this is already covered by “English.”

              1. I lived in England. They’re not all like that.

                Guidos ARE all like that.

                Although I admit, you do have a point.

    1. Pandering? Isn’t that the thing where you dress all in black and white and sit around eating bamboo while “scientists” try to encourage you to reproduce?

      1. Every time you float a pun, God kills another kitten.

      2. I thought those were Furries.

        Oh, and is that an option on FB? I’ll take Muskrat.

          1. Sam is so skinny

  9. The thing is the government has been tracking sexuality like this for a long time. I put a lab system in public health lab way back in 2006, we spent a day coming up with gender ids – genetic male identifies as female, male genotype female phenotype,… which when tracking the info they track (stds for one) is important. Long story short, the private sector is FINALLY catching up to the government.

    1. “mb|2.20.14 @ 2:05PM|#

      The thing is the government has been tracking sexuality like this for a long time”

      I’m not sure why, but the image in my mind is of a fur-clad trapper, smoking a pipe by the fire in the Alaskan tundra, sharing, “Ayeah, I’ve been a-tracking them sexualities for oh, many a year now… never seen an albino trans-sexual, have you? Oh, but its out there… yessir…. I got *this close* once, but they’re skittish…they can *SMELL* cisgender….”

      1. Sir, that is the probably the funniest comic imagery anyone has ever come up with.

        Kudos, sir. Kudos to you. I bow to your sense of humor and talent.

  10. My friends include gay and transgender people, and some who are kind of out there, but I’ve yet to see any of them change their Facebook profiles this way.

    1. I’m willing to bet the majority of the switches to the “out there” ones are high school/college guys who think it’s funny.

      1. My understanding is that they just made it a free-text field rather than a drop-down.

        1. Yep, you can be male, female or custom, with “custom” providing a text-box. It also asks whether you would like a male, fem, or neuter pronoun when FB mentions you.

          1. And most of the drop-down listings are variations on a few categories.

          2. Why must they limit us to only 3 pronouns?

            1. This one agrees with that whole-heartsedly.

          3. I should make a list of Facebook friends who are going to do something dumb with this thinking they’re making a statement, being funny or edgy and check back in a few weeks to see how accurately I know these people.

            1. That was my thinking as well.

  11. Great alt-text.

    1. I was expecting a bit of SEC-rage…

  12. I am suddenly reminded of taking the SATs many years ago…

    the first 30mins of which are someone instructing you to fill out all the “information” bubbles before the test actually starts.

    For ‘ethnicity’ they had more options than I had hitherto been familiar with.

    There was
    “Caucasian: Non Hispanic”
    “Caucasian: Hispanic”
    “American Indian”
    “American Indian: Inuit”

    I had never seen the last one before. I looked at it, and silently mouthed, “Eskimo”

    I had a flashback to the movie Heathers, and how the word was repeatedly underlined in Heather Duke’s copy of Moby Dick, a mysterious sign of her internal struggles with day-to-day life…

    I carefully filled in the bubble. Eskimo.

    It was maybe 6 months later when the letters started to arrive from the Ivy League universities. Then phone calls. There was talk of money. great interest in the increased diversity of institutions.

    My life as an Eskimo was short lived. My father proof-read the letter I had to send to the College Board requesting that my ethnic identity be ‘corrected’. I also had to explain to a number of recruiters that I was not in fact, Nanook of New York.

    The only take-away here is that I would guess that a vast majority of people who choose gender-identities other than “male” or “female” on Facebook will do so mainly because *they can*. Why not?

    1. If you’d kept up your Eskimo thing, you could have become a Senator.

    2. I’ve always been curious: do they verify that sort of thing? If you had accepted an Eskimo-only scholarship, would they ask for some sort of proof?

      1. He could club a seal or harpoon an orca for them?

      2. Ok – carve a scrimshaw boat from this walrus tusk. You have 45 seconds.

      3. I’ve always been curious: do they verify that sort of thing? If you had accepted an Eskimo-only scholarship, would they ask for some sort of proof?

        They do. Normally birth certificate plus letter from tribal council. Some request other docs as well.

        1. “its a show dog dude, it has fucking papers, You can’t board it. It gets upset, its hair falls out.”

      4. Followup question: if they require proof, is there a quota of blood purity you have to meet? Like if you’re a lily white dude who’s 1/16 Cherokee, are you disqualified?

        1. Followup question: if they require proof, is there a quota of blood purity you have to meet? Like if you’re a lily white dude who’s 1/16 Cherokee, are you disqualified?

          It is up to the tribe. The Cherokee determine who is considered Cherokee or not. Most other tribes are the same.

      5. Jordan|2.20.14 @ 3:11PM|#

        …If you had accepted an Eskimo-only scholarship, would they ask for some sort of proof?”

        This was the early 90s. I’m not sure “proof” was real big back then – especially given how desperate schools were to ‘include’ just about anyone claiming something other than “White Guy”.

        a horrifying cultural reference, here=

        While I hadn’t exactly thought this particular thing through at all, in my mind I saw myself rolling with a fur coat and eating a lot of jerkey. Which would have been pretty badass on its own.

        I think it is a little sad that I was denied my right to determine my ethnic-consciousness myself…

        … while apparently in the modern world, ‘having a dick’ (or not) is completely irrelevant to how one chooses to gender “self-identify”.

        Deep inside, I’m still an Eskimo, yearning to be free.

  13. A friend just sent me a picture that had a “healthy” set of lungs from an autopsy on the left and a “smoker” set on the right. Now I’m no medical doctor, but if the lungs are on the outside and not connected to the heart or esophagus, they damn sure aren’t keeping someone healthy.

    1. “This lung is from a healthy person we autopsied…”

    2. Don’t you care how YOUR guts look after you’re dead?

      Which reminds me of my friend who got a liver transplant. He was dying from Hepatitis. He was a month or two from kicking it, when he got a call in the dead of night that there was suitable donor and he was getting prepped for surgery the following day. It was a tense 48 hours. Finally i heard from him and he croaked, laughing =

      “…*21 year old MORMON…. died in car crash 2 days ago… MORMON!… its untouched! Grade A virgin! bwa ha ha hahAHAAH HAHA cough”

      He brings this up anytime he has a drink. Its kind of gross now. he never gets tired of it.

  14. Ahhhhhh….the art of gender bending is a wonderous thing to behold!

    All hail the gender benders!

  15. The utter narcissism of over 50 choices of gender status is ridiculous. It is like the insanity of 15 racial choices on the 2010 U.S. Census, where Filipino, Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese, and Chinese were listed as races instead of nationalities or ethnic groups. Not to mention dividing Hispanics into three ethnic groups.

    Also, consider the insane ethnicities we now have to choose from on some forms today, such as “Non-Hispanic Black”, and “Non-Hispanic White”. Non-Hispanic now is apparently an ethnic group. Since ethnic groups foremost derive from a shared language, one can only assume “Non-Hispanic” is the common language of American White folk and Black folk. Not to mention American pangender interracial folk.

    1. And no “Mogorian” selection?

      Fucking Mongorians!

    2. It’s a private company making a voluntary move to accommodate a part of their userbase (those Candy Crush and Farmville micro-payments do add up). What’s the big deal?

      While I’m assuming most of the commentariat is being facetious about something they really don’t care about it seems to me that there are people here who are really upset. Why?

      If the story were that Facebook refused ads targeted towards gay people the vibe here would be “eh, sucks but whaddya gonna do? It’s a private company, they can do what they want.” But they’re throwing a small bone to a small yet loyal bunch of users – and it’s a problem.

      1. It doesn’t have to be a “problem” to be a pathetic example of the self indulgent narcissism that spawned that piece of shit site in the first place. Or: sometimes libertarians have personal opinions. Not wanting to unleash the government hounds on Facebook doesn’t mean it’s immune from any criticism.

      2. It’s a private company that is making a huge splash in the PR department. They’re not doing it because they’re concerned hyperprogs, they’re doing it for the publicity.

        1. And? Since when is making a few bucks uncool around here?

  16. I keep thinking, “I could not possibly care less about this.”

    Then I realize that – in commenting – I must still have some little, tiny smidgen of “care” left. So me try harder. Cause I REALLY don’t care about this…but apparently not all the way. Yet. I’m working on it.

  17. “Teens,” he wrote, “were once understood in terms of those who were cool and those who weren’t.”

    Yeah, sure they were.

    When, and says who? (The explosion of “types” he mentions seems to ignore even the “types” that have survived in cultural reference from the 50s, as if “Back then” it was “just cool and uncool”.

    I say “back then”, because the idea of cool dates to around then.

    Were there not jocks? Greasers? (Cool? Uncool? Depends!) Nerds? “Smart kids who were also socially able”?

    I can’t help but think that thesis is untenable and based on modern myth.)

    1. It’s a gen x caricature and it’s bullshit. People have always had individuality even before every special flower got to have his own parade and the right to a life free of negative judgment.

  18. Reason, you bastards. I’m currently on a ketogenic diet and even the image of a pop-tart makes me want to inject high fructose corn syrup directly into my blood stream.

    1. Wait, where are you? One of my hobbies is baking fresh bread, pulling it out of the oven and setting it down still crackling next to people on ketogenic diets.* If I’m feeling really sadistic there is a small table fan pointed at them and a dish of fresh garlic/herb butter.

      *Everyone in my family has done Atkins at some point, as have many of my coworkers.

  19. I don’t care what other people call themselves. But I do mind when other people insist I use their choice of pronoun. To do otherwise is to be cast into that special hell reserved for troglodytes and Republicans. That special hell.

    Why we need 51 words is beyond me. I’m sure the language can get by with only five or so. And PLEASE don’t make me say ‘genderqueer’, that’s every bit as offensive as ‘racialniggah’ and ‘religiouskike’.

  20. Love Status for Whatsapp have their own charm and appeal because unlike Facebook, they are short, pithy, crisp, and even at times, monosyllabic. This lends an ambiguity and curiosity to them which urges readers to read them and respond to them unlike Facebook where the long status messages are not being read by most people.

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