Both shoulders, a new haircut and not pushed to the back.
July 9, 2015 6:46 AM   Subscribe

It won't be important to everyone, most people probably won't even notice it, but Facebook's icons are changing, in more than one case specifically so that the woman isn't "quite literally in the shadow of the man".

Caitlin Winner, Design Manager at Facebook, says she is now on "high alert for symbolism" after this project, which may sound like hyperbole to some but, when it comes to equality, seemingly small things (in this case literally) do matter.
posted by greenish (60 comments total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
 
Awesome. Now make change the icons so they don't look like white people. Because if symbols matter (and they do), then we can and should take this even further to make these icons more symbolic for a tool that's used around the globe.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 7:43 AM on July 9, 2015 [15 favorites]


Yeah, it really shows with the range of female silhouettes she considered, and they all have what look like Euro hairstyles. Shame as otherwise this is clearly progressive - I hope they consider other ways to be on "high alert for symbolism".
posted by iotic at 7:55 AM on July 9, 2015 [1 favorite]


They wouldn't have this problem in the first place if they just used neutral user images (previously).
posted by a car full of lions at 8:27 AM on July 9, 2015 [17 favorites]


I agree, very Euro-looking loose wavy hair. It isn't all that hard to depict an ambiguous hair type in a silhouette, and I wish they'd done that.
posted by Miko at 8:28 AM on July 9, 2015


Count me in with 'why do these have to be gendered in the first place.' Microsoft's IM, MSN Messenger, used totally neutral icons for ages, no? I think they were blue and green? No race, no gender, just generic blobby head shape on blobby upper torso shape.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 8:33 AM on July 9, 2015 [2 favorites]


Sorry to anyone this offended. I guess I got overexcited about it changing for the better in one sense and forgot to consider the other ways it could have.
posted by greenish at 8:35 AM on July 9, 2015 [3 favorites]


No no. Small steps lead to bigger steps. This is more "hey designer, that blind spot of yours is kinda big."

I mean, what icon do they use for people who aren't ticking 'male' or 'female' in their profile info?
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 8:37 AM on July 9, 2015 [1 favorite]


I'm a fan of gchat's little dollops. They're cheery and cute, and way too dollopy to bother with skirts or hair bows or giant eyelashes.
posted by greenish at 8:46 AM on July 9, 2015 [2 favorites]


They wouldn't have this problem in the first place if they just used neutral user images

Oh man, now I can't stop thinking about Lava and the pretty-hair volcano.
posted by psoas at 8:51 AM on July 9, 2015 [1 favorite]


No worries greenish, these icons are definitely an improvement for all the reasons the designer stated.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 8:56 AM on July 9, 2015 [1 favorite]


I really enjoyed this article! Thank you for sharing it. Something I liked was that she talked about how she felt timid and unsure, which is how I would have felt. It's always good for me to know that everyone that makes change is a little scared of what might happen when they do.
posted by stoneweaver at 9:13 AM on July 9, 2015 [3 favorites]


> what icon do they use for people who aren't ticking 'male' or 'female' in their profile info

Minions.
posted by The corpse in the library at 9:21 AM on July 9, 2015 [5 favorites]


Awesome. Now make change the icons so they don't look like white people.

Do they? To me the the icons could easily represent many different races of people, not just white people.
posted by gyc at 9:42 AM on July 9, 2015


It's the woman's hair that makes them seem white. Her hair isn't very straight and it isn't very curly; that excludes many hair types.
posted by The corpse in the library at 9:57 AM on July 9, 2015 [1 favorite]


here is one version of the icons I mentioned above.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 10:18 AM on July 9, 2015


Wow. A literal chip on her shoulder. The fix for having the woman in the background was to put the woman in the foreground. The comments suggesting that she didn't do enough. Symbolism. You know, the color blue, at least in the US, is associated with baby boys. So what do metafilter's choice of colors represent, symbolically?
posted by hellphish at 10:27 AM on July 9, 2015


Huh? The people look to be standing side by side, to me.
posted by agregoli at 10:30 AM on July 9, 2015


Do they? To me the the icons could easily represent many different races of people, not just white people

Awesome, but clearly not for me and others, hence the suggestion. The hair styles look very European and specifically no inclusive for Black people
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 10:31 AM on July 9, 2015 [3 favorites]


Huh? The people look to be standing side by side, to me.

If that is the case, the man appears to have had his side eaten by something.
posted by hellphish at 10:40 AM on July 9, 2015


The new icons look uncomfortably like my parents' silhouettes. FWIW they're both in their late-50's, North American, and of European descent. My mother tends to stand in front of him for photos 'cause she's shorter.
posted by jpziller at 10:41 AM on July 9, 2015


The least biased, most inclusive symbol for an action like "Add Friend" is the literal sequence of letters "Add Friend". It has a clear meaning without accidental connotations. The only downside is that it takes up more space, but that's an incentive to not crowd the UI with possible actions.

Okay, so there are connotations to calling your connections on Facebook "friends" in the first place, but that's a deeper problem.
posted by Rangi at 10:41 AM on July 9, 2015 [1 favorite]


I thought this was super interesting! It's something I wouldn't even notice otherwise. I love hearing about the details about what others do for work. The small details, decisions, and tasks done on a daily basis in order to present consumers with a product is fascinating.
posted by Fig at 10:42 AM on July 9, 2015 [2 favorites]


Parents' silhouettes aside, I did find all the 'Facebook office culture' cheerleading in this article to be a bit off-putting.
posted by jpziller at 10:46 AM on July 9, 2015 [1 favorite]


Facebook should reach the point of 'getting it right' by 2035, at which time either it will have gone beyond My-Space-level irrelevancy or have become so powerful it can impose 'gender-neutral-race-neutral' haircuts on everyone IRL.
posted by oneswellfoop at 11:01 AM on July 9, 2015 [1 favorite]


facebook did take steps towards offering more inclusive gender self-identifiers. I think that says a lot, even if it has not trickled into all the other iconography (yet?)
posted by rebent at 11:02 AM on July 9, 2015


The least biased, most inclusive symbol for an action like "Add Friend" is the literal sequence of letters "Add Friend". It has a clear meaning without accidental connotations. The only downside is that it takes up more space, but that's an incentive to not crowd the UI with possible actions.

Also, text is language-specific, and it takes longer to read words than recognise an icon.
posted by iotic at 11:07 AM on July 9, 2015 [2 favorites]


> They wouldn't have this problem in the first place if they just used neutral user images (previously).

Gender-neutral tends to read as male, or least probably-male.

I do find it amusing the way hair length is used for gender differentiation here. A short-haired woman as a sign of femininity...ooh, don't point that out to all the dudebros who have Strong Opinions About Women's Hair Length.
posted by desuetude at 11:11 AM on July 9, 2015 [3 favorites]


why not something like this?
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 11:18 AM on July 9, 2015


Her head is now bigger, indicating they are standing together. I would rather have smiley faces or something non gendered, but this is a weird thing to get grarrr about, hellphish.
posted by agregoli at 11:19 AM on July 9, 2015 [2 favorites]


It's something I wouldn't even notice otherwise.

Gender-neutral tends to read as male, or least probably-male.

I used to not to, either, but the last 10 years or so, probably because I work in a super male dominated field, I've started to really notice symbols like this. And it drives me crazy. It's both the symbols that represent activities, professions, avatars, etc. that are explicitly male gendered, and it's the symbols that should read as gender neutral that don't like desuetude said. The ones that should but don't are especially maddening because I'm not sure if there's something about it that is subtly gendered, after all, or because it's societal conditioning.

For example: the symbol for a Forest Service Ranger Station: link. It's a person wearing the standard USFS uniform, definitely could be any gender, and I'm sure there are people out there who read it as such. But it reads as male, to me, and I don't know why - the hands on the hips? conditioning? Ugh. It drives me crazy because I'm sure it's conditioning. Or the symbol for hikers which definitely reads as sexist to me: image. Yes, it could be a mother leading her child. It could be a tall female leading a short female. There's nothing gendered about it at all. But the image of the taller person in front of a shorter one just reads as a male leading a female. Now do most people read it that way? Probably less so on MeFi, but I'd be curious if you polled most people on the street if the answer would be yes. So is it that one of those subtle things that enforce patriarchy, and so was subtly designed that way, probably unconsciously? Or is it the sign okay and it's just I need to readjust my viewpoint? Or both?

I know those are examples that not everybody would see what I see, and again less so on MeFi. But when I see these kinds of symbol, which are everywhere, it's always a good reminder of how hard it is to make things truly "gender neutral", how just ingrained certain attitudes are, and how these things are also feedback loops.

It is a small step for Facebook, these are important steps, and I understand that there's a lot behind it that shows how much thought you have to put into it - as demonstrated here about how the woman reads as white. It's also a little infuriating that they didn't consider all this earlier, as other companies have (like Netflix did with their avatars). Because these symbols are everywhere and do build on each other to help form those subtle cues that, overtime, turn into ingrained attitudes.
posted by barchan at 12:01 PM on July 9, 2015 [9 favorites]


I just don't see how flipping who is in front is an improvement, rather than just a different choice. Just call it what it is. Is this really any deeper than one artist's idea that "Man in front = bad. Woman in front = good?"

If you have space for three silhouettes, why do two need to be a man at all? Why does a woman need to be present? Why does a man? Obviously the best solution would be to have a library of silhouettes and have the server generate a group of three, selecting at random. Then you don't have to deal with that whole icky human influence and cultural bias crap that it seems everyone is so offended by these days. It seems the best way to be all inclusive is to just be a random number generator, that way nobody can accuse you of perpetuating the patriarchy or whatever just because a picture of a woman is behind a picture of a man on that particular roll of the virtual dice. The artist literally calls out her own bias/prejudice in the article: "As a woman, educated at a women’s college, it was hard not to read into the symbolism of the current icon."

I'm also reminded of high school English teachers and their ability to read into symbolism that authors never intended, hence my comment about "the blue." I don't believe the choice to use blue on the site was anything more than "this works and looks nice." Similarly, I don't believe the original icons' designers were considering anything other than how to make a readable icon in a small amount of space. I also don't think that is a problem. If you spend a second to think of how every person on Earth will react to something you create, you'll be spending a several billion seconds doing nothing at all. There has to be a line somewhere. IMO where that line lies is up to the artist.

I disagree with the basic premise of the whole article (emphasis mine):

"I found something in the company glyph kit worth getting upset about...The iconic man was symmetrical except for his spiked hairdo but the lady had a chip in her shoulder."

I do really like the globe icons though, or anything that caters to any culture's norm in the name of international inclusion. I see that as a "neat thing" to detect your IP's country and show the appropriate globe.

The designer put what she though were improvements into these icons, and they look great. They are still readable, still communicate the idea. She didn't make them any better or worse in my opinion. I happen to like Darth Vader hair. I just think that it is much ado about nothing, something nobody would ever notice save for the high-school English teachers among us.
posted by hellphish at 12:08 PM on July 9, 2015


Also, text is language-specific, and it takes longer to read words than recognise an icon.

Some icons are also language/culture-specific (Unicode 🙇 is a respectful bow in Japan, and a person doing push-ups in America). A person icon is probably universal, but Facebook already has translated interfaces, so they wouldn't have to add a whole new i18n department to make text labels work.

A simple icon is fast to recognize, but hard to learn its function in the first place. Three people together could mean "Create Group," "Create Event," "List My Friends," "My Contacts," "Show Family Members"... Users depend on the position of a button as well as its label, whether it's text or an icon. Nielsen recommends to use text labels along with icons, and to keep icons simple and easy to understand (since a text label may be slower to recognize, but a 16x16 detailed picture is unrecognizable; that 🙇 looks to me like a blue-and-beige blob).

There are very few standard icons with a clar meaning to everyone—even a magnifying glass could mean "search" or "find" or "zoom". It's telling that the two icons Metafilter's comment form uses, "B" and "I", are really just self-illustrating letters. Would "▶" be an adequate replacement for "Post Comment"? And should it really be "◀" in a language that reads right-to-left? Plus at least those are icons for abstract actions; anything involving real people or places or objects, like Facebook's person-oriented icons, opens the way to unconscious bias.
posted by Rangi at 12:18 PM on July 9, 2015 [2 favorites]


Huh? The people look to be standing side by side, to me.

Nah, you can see both of the woman's shoulders, but only one for the male figure. Clearly someone is standing in front of someone.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 12:25 PM on July 9, 2015


Similarly, I don't believe the original icons' designers were considering anything other than how to make a readable icon in a small amount of space. I also don't think that is a problem.

It IS a problem not to think about it, because it perpetuates the same mode of thinking, that male is the default, when the genders are equal and should be presented more equally. There is no "default" person. It is also a huge benefit of privilege to say "its not a problem."
posted by agregoli at 12:44 PM on July 9, 2015 [8 favorites]


Yes, ok, but at least the female isn't smaller than the male now. I still would rather smiley faces or something else.
posted by agregoli at 12:46 PM on July 9, 2015 [1 favorite]


I reject the notion that switching positions is "presenting the genders equally." It seems more like compensation. "Man has been in front for a long time, now it is Woman's turn" is what these changes say to me, not "let's present things more equally." In over-thinking the symbolism, the artist revealed her own bias.
posted by hellphish at 1:09 PM on July 9, 2015


Rangi, I agree that icons can be culturally specific (though I can't really see that they are language specific), and can lead to usability issues. Thanks for the links and further knowledge on the subject.

It strikes me that usability is not Facebook's only criterion here. This is also a branding exercise. For them, these icons should indeed be culturally specific - specific to the globalised culture of Facebook. That they require learning on the part of the user is thus not a bug, but a feature. This becomes part of the symbolic branding arsenal of Facebook, which is a huge thing. There aren't many brands that get to piggyback on all sorts of other businesses' advertising, worldwide, in print and on screens, for free.

Also, I would say as someone who has worked with interface design, that there are practical issues with having both text and an icon. Screen real estate is an obvious one. Another is finding the right text in every language, and then dealing with the variations in visual size amongst those. From what I recall of Nielsen, he is willing to sacrifice such design concerns for the great God of usability, but I may be misremembering.
posted by iotic at 1:31 PM on July 9, 2015 [2 favorites]


I didn't say that switching positions was presenting the genders equally, so don't know what you're arguing against. It appears you don't believe that its worth it to try to change male-default things to be more inclusive to all people. It's worth it to me that the effort is made. There's obviously room for improvement here, but that doesn't mean its stupid to strive for better.
posted by agregoli at 1:33 PM on July 9, 2015 [1 favorite]


I just don't see how flipping who is in front is an improvement, rather than just a different choice. Just call it what it is.

The fact that someone thought about that choice is the improvement.
posted by maryr at 1:45 PM on July 9, 2015 [8 favorites]


I accept that notion, maryr. Thinking about things is always good. Still, though. All I see is a woman putting women in front. Doesn't seem much more progressive than a man putting a man in front. I'll stand by what I think the best idea is to satisfy everybody: random selection. Refresh the page to see which vector layer is in front of which, or to read into it more, "who is leading and who is pushed to the back."
posted by hellphish at 1:54 PM on July 9, 2015


hellphish, you're sure standing by something, and we're all remembering it for future reference. Congratulations, man.
posted by Jimbob at 2:00 PM on July 9, 2015 [5 favorites]


No one should be in front. But you appear to be ignoring that men have been chosen to be "in front" of women for most of human history, so yeah, a woman in front is rather progressive to some folks. You obviously are bothered by the notion enough to state repeatedly the woman has a "bias" for trying to change things up.
posted by agregoli at 2:01 PM on July 9, 2015 [5 favorites]


[hellphish, it seems like you've made your point and folks have responded, and rather than just going round and round some more, it would be good to take a step back and just let the conversation follow other paths now.]
posted by LobsterMitten (staff) at 2:03 PM on July 9, 2015 [2 favorites]


Do they use the same icon in right-to-left language locales?
posted by rhizome at 2:04 PM on July 9, 2015


Yes, for this one at least - you can change your language temporarily to see it by scrolling to the bottom of the page (on a page other than the News Feed).
posted by the agents of KAOS at 3:41 PM on July 9, 2015


Oh man, now I can't stop thinking about Lava and the pretty-hair volcano.

The thin! Young! Pretty-haired volcano! With the old, large volcano!
posted by Deoridhe at 4:24 PM on July 9, 2015


Hey, that's just nature, you know how volcanos are.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 4:43 PM on July 9, 2015


"White" does not mean "not Black". These icons look like white people, and Hispanic people, and Asian people. If you mean "Design them so they don't exclude blacks", then say that, don't just ignore the existence of around a third of the planet.
posted by Bugbread at 8:34 PM on July 9, 2015 [1 favorite]


No, they look white. Because that's the default. It's more of a stretch is to argue that the artist consciously intended to include Hispanic and Asian people (whilst not including anything to suggest membership of these groups), and nevertheless forgot all about black people, than that she came up with a bunch of different icons that all represented white women without really considering that that was what she was doing.
posted by iotic at 1:32 AM on July 10, 2015


iotic: "No, they look white. Because that's the default."

I'm pretty sure the default is Japanese.

In other words, you're defaulting to white, probably because you live in a mainly white country. The fact that the Facebook icons don't look black is a problem with the icons. The fact that not looking black defaults to white and erases all other ethnicities is a problem with the commenter, not the Facebook icons.
posted by Bugbread at 5:12 AM on July 10, 2015 [2 favorites]


What do you hope to gain from making these comments Bugbread? Because it reads like you're playing individuals for their perceptions and telling them they're completely wrong in what they're seeing. I can't really see much point in responding to you seriously if that's the tactic you're taking.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 6:30 AM on July 10, 2015 [1 favorite]


While the newer icons are an improvement over the older ones, the changes highlight a subtle with icons in general, where they are a little too specific with the hair. TFew people actually wear their hair like that, so it's almost an ethnic and/or class marker.

The classic male and female icons are almost better (while still problematic) for the level of abstraction they present.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 6:46 AM on July 10, 2015 [2 favorites]


Brandon Blatcher: "What do you hope to gain from making these comments Bugbread? Because it reads like you're playing individuals for their perceptions and telling them they're completely wrong in what they're seeing. I can't really see much point in responding to you seriously if that's the tactic you're taking."

I'm trying to gain what I initially said: "If you mean 'Design them so they don't exclude blacks', then say that, don't just ignore the existence of around a third of the planet." It rankles me that you discounted offhand the existence of my wife and my kids and my friends and all my coworkers and all my neighbors by saying that because the icons don't look black, then they look white.

I mean, seriously, there's no deeper hidden agenda or anything at play here. It makes total sense to take issue with the fact that the icon design ignores the majority race of an entire continent and big chunks of other continents. I've got no problem at all with you taking issue with the icons on those grounds. I just, literally, meant "don't use the word 'white' to mean 'not black', because there are lots of non-white non-blacks, and erasing them sucks".
posted by Bugbread at 7:24 AM on July 10, 2015 [1 favorite]


If want this discussion to go anywhere productive, then start it over without insinuating I have problems. If you can't, then just drop it, because at this point I'm really not listening to you.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 7:41 AM on July 10, 2015 [1 favorite]


Okay. Please do not use the word white to mean 'not black'. It erases people.

Hopefully that's neutral enough? I don't know how to be any more neutral than that.
posted by Bugbread at 7:46 AM on July 10, 2015 [1 favorite]


Correcting someone's speech is not neutral, Bugbread. Nobody used the word white to mean not black. There are valid reasons to evaluate the silhouettes as specifically white-coded, and you have not engaged with that discussion. Keeping repeating the demand for your interpretation of someone else's words to override the fact that they really did mean exactly what they said, isn't adding anything to the discussion at this point.

I really would try and develop an understanding of racial bias through a lens of history and societal power relations, rather than purely in the abstract. What it is to be white is not just the arbitrary fact of being a particular race or ethnicity, and being in a majority or minority - it is hugely informed by actual power structures of privilege, and a lot of history. If you are not dealing with these issues with that understanding then you are, frankly, underequipped.
posted by iotic at 8:23 AM on July 10, 2015


Okay. Please do not use the word white to mean 'not black'. It erases people.

Seriously, the haircuts read to me as generally older and European. Could the icons be Asians or another ethnic group that has similar types of hair? Sure, but the fact it's possible to see them as such means they aren't being erased, unlike some other ethnic groups.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 8:41 AM on July 10, 2015 [1 favorite]


> Seriously, the haircuts read to me as generally older and European.

It occurs to me with some bemusement that were the haircuts were gender-reversed, it would be somewhat more accurate for stylish younger white people.
posted by desuetude at 12:52 PM on July 10, 2015


Ha, I can see that too! Just plain round circles are better.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 12:56 PM on July 10, 2015


All I see is a woman putting women in front. Doesn't seem much more progressive than a man putting a man in front.

Context.

In a world of male-default patriarchy, one of those is a much more progressive and radical choice than the other.

I'll stand by what I think the best idea is to satisfy everybody: random selection.

Yeah no. Social issues don't want computer science solutions, they want social ones. You can't solve sociology with maths or an algorithm.


These icons look like white people, and Hispanic people, and Asian people.

Politely, I disagree. As The corpse in the library put it: "It's the woman's hair that makes them seem white. Her hair isn't very straight and it isn't very curly; that excludes many hair types."

I grew up in South East Asia and other than on the occasional expat, I don't think I ever saw any woman with hair that could create the silhouette in the new female FB user icon.
posted by Dysk at 4:08 PM on July 12, 2015


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