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Correction: Gender detection is not always helpful

Published on
21 Jun 2011
Written by
Bernie Hogan

In a recent New Scientist article I was quoted on a story about gender-detection technology. The hook was that this technology might have detected the fraudulence of the author of the moderately popular blog “gay girl from Damascus”. Turns out he was straight guy from the US at the University of Edinburgh. The quote reads:

Bernie Hogan, a specialist in social network technology at the Oxford Internet Institute in the UK, thinks there is a useful role for such technology. “Being able to provide some extra cues as to the gender of a writer is a good thing – it can only help.” The Independent, June 17, 2011

Its a classic taken-out-of-content quote by a good journalist for a sensible story. But the point is that it suggests I’m wholeheartedly validating the notion of detecting gender, almost as a pre-condition for interpreting content…“it can only help”. To note, the leading question was “would gender-identifying software be useful for curious end users?” To which I replied sure (almost tautologically). But what if someone doesn’t want to be tied down by their existing identity, or what if they want speak for a population that are reluctant to speak for themselves. What if they want a certain level of gender ambiguity?

Syria is currently engaging in significant human rights abuses, political strife and rampant state-endorsed homophobia. These significant issues were covered in the blog and telegraphed by the media. GGiD was addressing these issues, albeit with borrowed legitimacy and some significant factual inaccuracy. If technology can assess your race, class, gender, occupation, education level and so forth simply from your texts then it also politicizes your texts. Even if sex and race are biological (where gender and ethnicity are cultural), the importance we give them in evaluating legitimacy is a political act. This is especially true in Syria, where an exposed identity could lead to very serious consequences.

I like my pseudononymous Internet. I like the 4chans, reddits, and tumblrs of the world. Having a button that tells me whether content was written by a man or a women adds a contextualizing lens. Such a lens may help to detect fraud, but it may also have a chilling effect on the creative, open and free discourse currently found on these sites. If you want to detect fraud such a button can only help, but if you want creative blogs such as the story of a lesbian in highly surveilled, politically oppressive,homophobic country…that’s another matter.

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