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Getty Images

The Evolution of Facebook's Pronoun Problem

Getty Images
Getty Images

Remember when you had to talk about yourself as some sort of outside observer of your own thoughts on Facebook? In the early days, the status update frame was a fill-in-the-blank sentence (Arika is _______) that forced you to talk about yourself in the third person (…enjoying her breakfast). Later, under the influence of Twitter's more open-ended form, the frame dropped the "is" and used the prompt "What's on your mind?" At first people found the old third-person habit hard to break and persisted in using the username as the subject of every update (Arika ate an omelet for breakfast!), but eventually the username was moved out of the way and we started talking about ourselves in the first person (My breakfast was so good today. I love omelets!).

But the evolution of the status update didn't solve all of Facebook's third-person problems. Facebook didn't just report what you wrote, it would also talk about you to your friends. Before 2008, if you hadn't specified in your profile whether you were male or female, your friends might see updates like these: "Arika has changed their profile picture." "Arika commented on their status." If it didn't know whether to use his or her, it resorted to the old standby, singular they.

Singular they has a long, distinguished history, and though it is yet to be universally accepted as correct, it seems to be well on its way there. While sentences like "Everyone clapped their hands" and "Someone left their bag behind" don't ruffle too many feathers (they are at least less cumbersome than "Everyone clapped his or her hands"), sentences where the gender of the subject is known do sound a bit jarring with a singular they. People complained when they saw Facebook's singular they (especially with the word "themself" in updates like "Arika tagged themself in a photo"), and so Facebook came up with the solution of forcing people to chose male or female when creating profiles and asking those who hadn't specified before the requirement to make a pronoun choice:

People who wanted to keep the gender-neutral choice objected. Facebook explained that while they wished to respect groups "that find the male/female distinction too limiting" they also had to respond to "feedback from translators and users in other countries" where "translations wind up being too confusing when people have not specified a sex on their profiles."

Facebook's solution to the pronoun problem introduced a different sort of pronoun problem. People who didn't want to identify as male or female had to either switch to Google+ (which offered a choice between male, female, and other) or find a workaround. They eventually discovered some workarounds that involved changing elements of the Facebook code so that the old default with singular they showed up again, but one ingenious fix by Meitar Moskovitz goes even further than that, allowing the user to choose whatever pronouns "zie" wants. You can be zie, xe, thon, yo or anything you choose.

There have been attempts to introduce gender neutral pronouns since the 1850s. Dennis Baron, author of Grammar and Gender, keeps a list of them, ranging from hiser to zon, here. These were originally proposed for grammar reasons, to avoid singular they. Later, in the 1960s and '70s, they were put forward as tools for avoiding sexist language. Lately some of them have gained traction in transgender forums. But getting English speakers to embrace a totally new pronoun is a hard sell. English speakers already solved the problem long ago when they started using singular they (like Chaucer and Shakespeare did) which is already widespread in casual speech, if not in writing. Facebook is a mode of casual communication; they had the right idea in the beginning. Arika misses thons old profile.

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Logitech
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Live Smarter
This $40 Wireless Keyboard is Solar-Powered and Might Just Revolutionize Your Workspace
Logitech
Logitech

Meet the $40 solar-powered keyboard that's about to make your life a whole lot easier.

The Logitech K750 Wireless Solar Keyboard can be charged by sunlight as well as artificial lights, like your desk lamp, and stays juiced up for at least three months in total darkness. With this innovative gadget, Logitech is eliminating the annoyances that come with other wireless keyboards, like constantly having to change the batteries or plug it in to recharge. Best of all, the Windows-compatible model is on sale at Amazon for $39.99, down from $59.99. Never fear, Mac users—there's a model for you, too (although it's slightly pricier at $54.88).

(Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers and may receive a small percentage of any sale. But we only get commission on items you buy and don’t return, so we’re only happy if you’re happy.)

Having a reliable wireless keyboard can save you time and undue stress, whether you work in a cubicle or a home office. Plus, at one third of an inch thick, the keyboard is so sleek that Logitech compares it to typing on a laptop (and Amazon reviewers agree). You can monitor the gadget's power level by downloading the Logitech Solar App for your computer. Setting it up is easy: Just plug the receiver into your computer and you're done. It also comes with a three-year warranty for peace of mind.

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Logitech

Customers rave about this gadget on Amazon: One person writes that it's "the single best keyboard I have ever owned." Another loyal customer notes, "I first encountered one at work, and I liked it so much that when I switched jobs, I had to get another!"

Take advantage of this deal on Amazon while you can. While you're at it, check out the $95 mattress that Amazon customers are losing their minds over.

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Pop Culture
How Mister Rogers Saved the VCR
Focus Features
Focus Features

In 1984, a landmark case laid down a controversial law regarding technology and copyright infringement. Here's a look back at the "Betamax Case," including the role Fred Rogers played in the Supreme Court's decision.

For many years in the pre-DVD/Blu-ray, pre-streaming era, the BetamaxSony’s prototype videotape player-recorder—was a punch line. A piece of technology that was quickly superseded by VHS and the VCR, it limped along in the shadows for two decades. And yet, it was the Betamax that gave its name to a court case that has played a pivotal role in both technological progress and copyright law over the last 30-plus years.

Like many other cool electronic products, the Betamax came from Japan. In late 1975, it was introduced to the U.S. by Sony, who touted its ability to “time-shift” television programming. In an era when most viewers still had to get up off the couch to change channels manually, this innovation was as futuristic as it sounded. Record a TV show right off the air? Are you kidding?

If the public was wowed by the idea, the major entertainment corporations were not. Universal Studios and Walt Disney Productions filed a lawsuit in 1976 to halt the sale of the Betamax, claiming that film and TV producers would lose millions of dollars from unauthorized duplication and distribution of their copyrighted content.

When the case finally went to trial in 1979, the U. S. District Court ruled in favor of Sony, stating that taping programs for entertainment or time-shifting was fair use, and did not infringe on copyright. Further, there was no proof that the practice did any economic harm to the television or motion picture industry.

But Universal, unhappy with the verdict, appealed in 1981, and the ruling was reversed. Keep in mind that up until the arrival of the Betamax, movie studios had received a cut of the box office or fee whenever one of their films was shown. Now suddenly here was a rapidly expanding scenario that undermined that structure. And in this scenario was the seed of much that would follow over the next 34 years, right through today’s ongoing battles over illegal streaming sites.

MISTER ROGERS GOES TO WASHINGTON

With large sums of money and copyright ownership at stake, the Betamax case arrived at the Supreme Court in 1983. By this point, nearly 50 percent of all homes in America had a VCR (VHS replaced Betamax, mainly because its tapes had longer recording capability) and sales of videocassettes were competing with theatrical box office. Universal Studios vs. Sony Corporation of America, nicknamed the “Betamax Case,” was argued for a year. It was a trial of extremes. On one hand, you had Jack Valenti, the head of the Motion Picture Association of America, yelling about the “savagery and ravages” of the VCR, and claiming that "the VCR is to the American film producer and the American public as the Boston strangler is to the woman home alone." On the other, you had the testimony from Fred Rogers. Defending the VCR, he said:

"I have always felt that with the advent of all of this new technology that allows people to tape the 'Neighborhood' off-the-air ... they then become much more active in the programming of their family’s television life. Very frankly, I am opposed to people being programmed by others. My whole approach in broadcasting has always been ‘You are an important person just the way you are. You can make healthy decisions’ ... I just feel that anything that allows a person to be more active in the control of his or her life, in a healthy way, is important."

The Supreme Court ruled in favor of Sony and cited Rogers's comments: "He testified that he had absolutely no objection to home taping for noncommercial use and expressed the opinion that it is a real service to families to be able to record children's programs and to show them at appropriate times."

The decision set two major precedents. The first upheld the original decision—that recording a broadcast program for later viewing is fair use. The second was, and still is, controversial—that the manufacturer of a device or technology that can be used for copyright infringement but also has “substantial non-infringing uses” can’t be held liable for copyright violations by those who use it. It’s kind of technology’s version of “don’t shoot the messenger.”

The same points of law would reemerge two decades later in cases against file-sharing sites Napster and Grokster (in the latter, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously against them for trading copyrighted material). Of course, despite the popularity of legal movie and TV streaming sites like Netflix and Hulu, file sharing continues. Whether it can be, or should be, stopped is a subject for another day. But it’s worth remembering that all the manufacturers of technology capable of copyright infringing (from computers to iPhones to DVRs) continue to sell their wares without fear of lawsuits because of the once-laughed-at Betamax.

To discover more about the fascinating life of Fred Rogers, check out Won't You Be My Neighbor?, the new documentary from Focus Features, which arrives in theaters on June 8, 2018.

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