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The Evolution of Facebook's Pronoun Problem

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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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Zillow to Introduce 3D Tours of Houses and Apartments
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Chances are you’ve been fooled by a too-good-to-be-true housing ad, from that “spacious, light-filled” abode that was actually dark and cramped to the “two-bedroom” apartment that was just a single unit with a large living room. To spare prospective homeowners and renters these types of experiences, Zillow, the online real estate database company, is working on a free app that will soon allow customers to take 3D house tours, according to Engadget.

Real estate agents with iPhones will use the Zillow Group Home Capture App to upload 360-degree pictures of rooms to Zillow Group, sans special equipment and hosting fees. The photos will then be fused together into a panoramic walk-through, and the virtual tour will be added to a Zillow listing.

About 44 percent of homebuyers and 47 percent of renters search for homes from a distance, according to data from the 2017 Zillow Group Housing Report. 3D tours “will help buyers and renters more easily visualize themselves living in the home, no matter how far away they happened to be,” said Jeremy Wacksman, Zillow Group’s chief marketing officer, in a news release. “Photos have always been vital to the home search process and now 3D tours can give buyers and renters a realistic understanding of what it would be like to live in the home."

The Zillow Group Home Capture App isn’t quite ready for release, as it’s currently being tested by a focus group in Scottsdale, Arizona. But if you live in Phoenix, you may see it hitting the iTunes store as early as 2018, with a nationwide rollout expected by the end of next year. In the meantime, you can get an online preview of Zillow’s 3D tours here.

[h/t Engadget]

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The iMac Was Almost Called the MacMan
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After breaking out with its Macintosh line of personal computers in the 1980s, Apple was in a slump. Sales had flagged as Microsoft's Windows operating system made waves. In 1998, the company was set to unveil a product that it hoped would reinvigorate its brand.

And they almost blew it.

According to Ken Segall, the advertising genius behind their "Think Different" campaign, Apple founder Steve Jobs was expecting the iMac to reverse the company's ailing fortunes. Where older Macs had been boxy, beige, and bland, the iMac came in an assortment of colors and had a transparent chassis that showed off its circuitry. The problem, as Segall writes in his new book, Insanely Simple, was that Jobs didn't want to call it the iMac. He wanted to call it the MacMan.

"While that frightening name is banging around in your head, I'd like you to think for a moment about the art of product naming," Segall writes. "Because of all the things in this world that cry out for simplicity, product naming probably contains the most glaring examples of right and wrong. From some companies, you see names like 'iPhone.' From others you see names like ‘Casio G'zOne Commando' or the ‘Sony DVP SR200P/B' DVD player."

According to Segall, Jobs liked the fact that MacMan was slightly reminiscent of Sony's Walkman branding concept for its line of cassette players. (Later, Sony had a Discman, Pressman, and Talkman.) But Segall, who named products for a living, feared the name would take away from Apple's identity as being original. It was also gender-biased, and alienating an entire demographic of consumers was never a good thing.

Instead, Segall suggested "iMac," with the "i" for internet, because the unit was designed to connect easily to the web. Jobs "hated" the idea, along with other suggestions, even though Segall felt the iMac could provide a foundation to name other devices, just as Sony's Walkman had. Segall kept suggesting it, and Jobs eventually had it printed on a prototype model to see how it would look. After encouragement from his staff, he dropped MacMan. With this key contribution, Segall made sure no one would be lining up to buy a PhoneMan 10 years later. 

[h/t FastCoDesign]

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