Why Facebook’s New ‘Friends’ Icon Is A Boost For Gender Equality

Posted on July 10, 2015 in Sci-Tech, Society

By Bhanvi Satija:

Have you visited your Facebook profile recently? Noticed any changes? I am quite sure you haven’t. Next time you log in, strain your eyes a little bit and concentrate hard on the icons that Facebook uses. There’s a slight possibility you will notice the change.

Image Credit: Caitlin Winner
Image Credit: Caitlin Winner

After a subtle change in their logo, which only the font-freaks must have noticed, Facebook has come up with new ‘friends’ and ‘group icons’. The design manager at Facebook, Caitlin Winner, recently shared her experience of the process of change in a blogpost on Medium. The post and the adoption of these icons by Facebook is nothing less than inspiring for all those concerned about gender equality.

In her post, Winner explains how she stumbled upon one of the photoshop files in the company’s glyph kit (stylebook) that represented people. “The iconic man was symmetrical except for his spiked hairdo but the lady had a chip in her shoulder. After a little sleuthing I determined that the chip was positioned exactly where the man icon would be placed in front of her, as in the ‘friends’ icon”, wrote Winner. She also mentions how the ‘chip in the shoulder’ was offensive for her (and possibly for many other women) as she herself is a lady with ‘two robust shoulders.’ Her first idea was to draw a double silhouette, with no hard line indicating who was in front. However, she describes that the icon looked more like a ‘two headed mythical beast’ if put in that manner.

The new friend’s icon shows the lady silhouette in front instead of the man. The chip in the shoulder is gone, and the silhouette has a new bob cut too! The male silhouette now has a smoother hairdo. What is important to note, is that both the silhouettes appear almost of equal size even when the woman is in front of the man and despite the fact that the female silhouette is actually smaller than the male one. Winner did achieve her initial goal of making both the silhouettes equal. She has also brought about a change in the ‘Groups’ icon on Facebook. The earlier icon was represented by a man in the center, and two people in the background – the right one being the silhouette of a man and the left one of a woman. In the new icon, the woman silhouette comes in front with two men silhouettes behind her.

Of course, Winner had her doubts about her actions. However, it all seemed to have worked out fine. She writes, “Timidly, I saved out a new version of the glyph file, not sure if I was breaking any rules and half expecting a bunch of angry designers to message me asking why I was messing up Facebook’s glyph kit. Instead, and somewhat magically, the new icons began to appear in new products across the company and our many platforms.”

Many of us need to learn and adapt what the Facebook office preaches – “Nothing at Facebook is someone else’s problem.” In the fight against patriarchy and for a just and equal world, we must be pro-active and directly engage with the issue that we think must change. It turns out that such a self-initiated project is not the first at Facebook. Designer Julyanne Liang worked with engineer Brian Jew, last year, to give the non-American half of the globe an accurate world view from the notification icon. Since then they’ve added an Asia-centric globe too.

The change of icons is a small step and might even seem insignificant, but such symbolic acts go a long way in facilitating conversations around how we have been conditioned to accept the patriarchal order that we don’t even pay attention to such subtle reminders of the dominant worldview. With this move, Caitlin has become an inspiration for all those who resist gender discrimination or stereotyping on a daily basis. “As a result of this project, I’m on high alert for symbolism. I try to question all icons, especially those that feel the most familiar”, wrote Caitlin. I have been awe-inspired by her actions and she has reinstated my belief in the fact that resistance to discriminatory or stereotypical behavior is possible in any form we choose – including through our day-to-day activities.