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  • We are all made of #hashtags

    We are all made of #hashtags by Chris Messina

    This past week we (Google) launched an updated design for Google profiles. Aside from a visual refresh, we made some changes to the structure of the page, including changes to the attributes you can set to express more about yourself. Though I like these changes, they are only the beginning of what I expect will be a series of constant improvements and iterations.

    Writing about these changes, Gina Tripani called out the limitations of expressing one's relationship and gender statuses in predefined list-based dropdown menus:

    She writes:

    For me, relationship status is a minefield of potential misunderstanding, because if I select "married," people often assume I'm heterosexually married. If I could answer this question in an open text field, I'd fill in "gay-married." That's how I want to characterize and specify my relationship status, not the overly cutesy and vague "it's complicated," or the doesn't-give-us-enough-credit-for-all-the-crap-we-went-through-to-get-legally-married "In a relationship."

    "Why not just choose married?" a few people have asked. That's the response I ultimately (and begrudgingly) chose. Yes: married is married is married. But I like to be specific, because the majority of marriages are heterosexual, so when people know I'm female and find out I'm married, they assume I have a husband. My "married" identity can eclipse my "gay" identity. The fact that I'm legally gay-married in California, one of only 19,000 couples in the U.S., is something I'm proud of, and a way I like to identify myself and my relationship. Isn't Google Profiles' whole purpose to provide a way for me to publicly identify myself?

    There's something fundamental in what Gina's expressing here. At once she forces an examination of the purpose of a profile — while drawing attention to the rather obvious question of what should go in a profile. If the purpose of a profile is to enable personal expression, how much control over the information presented is necessary to establish a feeling of true ownership of it? Do name/value pairs really do justice to the complex personalities and personas we inhabit in different contexts of our lives?

    Explaining the changes to the profiles, Greg Marra writes "We think this new design helps highlight the information that’s most important to you, making it easier for people who visit your profile to get to know you."

    But today's profile only represents a smattering of facts and details without context — which leads me to three observations:

    1. profiles in context are more interesting than profiles that are out of context
    2. in-context profiles can make more assumptions about the viewer, and should therefore put activities first, rather than facts first
    3. the purpose of a profile, like a personal tagcloud, is about providing tokens of commonality — to create openings (or barriers) to connection between people

    Activity-based profiles are, admittedly, harder to create than static fact-based profiles — especially when your audience is as diverse as Google's, simply because it requires you to capture a record of what someone did, and then to somehow categorize their actions into a newsfeed of some sort, using metadata.

    For example, my Flickr tagcloud gives you a very good sense for the subject of the images that I upload, since I'm a madman when it comes to tagging my screenshots:

    If you compare this list with Ade's, for instance, you can see that our foci are very different:

    If you asked either Ade or myself to try to come up with the top 150 tags that describe our interests, I imagine we'd have a hard time doing so. If instead you tracked our behavior and data stream over a period of months or years, I bet you'd have a much clearer picture (pun intended) of what's proven to capture our fancy.

    And that brings me back to Gina and her very valid complaint about the Google Profiles gender and relationship fields: a reductionist approach to one's gender identity or "primary relationship" status is bound to introduce some skew between what works for most people and what works for all people. And it's that finite gulf between most and all where real communities of interest form.

    Now, I don't think it was top of mind when I proposed the hashtag, but looking back now, and considering all the hashtags I've used on Twitter (and now elsewhere), it occurs to me that hashtags can do both a good job of capturing a gestalt of one's profile over time, and — more importantly — can unite people with shared interests by implicitly serving as public tokens offering commonality.

    Photo by Charles Peterson — &guot;Nirvana stage diver, UW Hub Ballroom, Seattle, 1990&guot;

    These tokens each have their own social gravity, which accrues and wanes over time (for the individual and the collective). Thus introducing a hashtag into the stream is like stage diving — sometimes the meme will be adopted (see also: #winning from @charliesheen), and other times it'll be dropped on the floor. So perhaps profile attributes should inherit some of the dynamics that inspire flocking behavior around hashtags.

    In Gina's case, the limited set of options in the gender and relationship fields kept her from expressing her own truth — preventing her from connecting with other people who may share a similar truth. Had Gina been able to express these traits in her own words — or as TheJeremyP put it, "let [her] explain" — she may have been able to build out her identity as a platform for new and meaningful interactions with people who think about themselves similar to the way she does.

    So, perhaps in a future version of the profile, Gina will be able to record her relationship status as #gay-married and gender as #tomboy, and be recognized for these hard-won traits that she believes truly define her.