Coming out against Facebook's coming out feature
A view from Thomas Scovell and Miles Zilesnick

Coming out against Facebook's coming out feature

Facebook has added a feature where people can declare their "coming out day", but this shows a complete lack of understanding of LGBT+ issues

If there’s one thing the average person knows about computers it’s that they work in 1s and 0s. They're fundamentally binary. If there’s one thing the past few years of cultural turmoil have illustrated, it’s that humans aren’t. Whether gender, sexuality, or any number of other aspects of life – we all exist on a spectrum.

Which makes it tone deaf of Facebook to PR, for National Coming Out Day, a new feature that allows people to create a life event, on their timeline, declaring the specific "day they came out".

In some ‘After School Special’ world – where a person comes to the realisation of their sexuality, then has a tearful encounter with their parents, before proudly strutting out to let the whole world know – this feature makes sense.

But this doesn’t reflect the reality of ourselves or anyone else we’ve known. Coming out doesn’t just happen one day to everyone and never again. At different times, in different contexts, one is either in or out of the proverbial closet and this can happen throughout your life. In fact one of the key discussion points around being LGBT+ in our industry right now is how one has to come out to each new workplace you join.

Mark Runacus, in yesterday’s open letter to adland, wrote about the importance of senior LGBT+ leadership in agencies making themselves visible. But when we asked his thoughts he echoed our experiences: "Coming out isn't something we do once in our world.  I come out almost daily."

Some might defend Facebook’s move by suggesting it is doing more than many brands – not simply adding to the voices already supporting a cause, but actually creating functionality that helps the people it affects. 

Which would be true, if it got it right. But it hasn’t in this case. The way technology is implemented affects how people interact, talk and ultimately think. Facebook, of any platform, should know this. This feature will only serve to reinforce many people’s existing view of ‘coming out’ as happening at a single point in time. Dismissing the ongoing issues LGBT+ people face in society still today.

Coming out isn’t always a positive experience. Some are pressured into it, others are outed, and many still can’t come out. A recent study by The Albert Kennedy Trust found that 24% of all homeless young people identify as LGBT+, and 77% of them believe coming out to their parents was the main factor behind them being homeless. 

A quick social sentiment analysis shows broad applause for this feature. Ironically, in today’s world people often analyse things according to whether they are for or against something they support. In this case it is ostensibly pro-LGBT+. But the actual, nuanced, ramifications are not. 

If Facebook wants to re-engage Gen Z, who are flocking from its platform, it needs to recognise that fluidity is key to their identities. Ipsos Mori found that 34 per cent of young people, aged between 16 and 22, identify as non-heterosexual – the highest figure of any generation. When it comes to sexuality or gender, many in this generation eschew labels at all. 

What does this mean for a platform that often seems to exist simply to have its audience label themselves so advertisers can target against these facets? Not great things, unless it recognises the fluid, non-binary, messy reality of being human – not a computer. 

If a brand wants to engage with a group, like the LGBT+ community, it needs to look at what can actually support it – we’ve all had enough of cheerleaders and rainbow washing campaigns. 

In the case of Facebook, it could help you reach out to individuals in your community who understand what you might be going through. There could be a chatbot to support people whose coming out didn’t go as planned – giving them access to resources built to support people in this situations. It could do many things – built upon a proper understanding of the situation, rather than a superficial one.

Thomas Scovell is executive strategy director and Miles Zilesnick is strategist at AnalogFolk

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