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Thursday 7 March 2013

When The Guardian is 'heteronormative'

'Heteronormativity' is the practice of assuming that the entire world is straight and that there is nothing wrong with presenting it that way. Words like that are not normally my favourites, anything requiring an explanation is usually dodgy and this one, as they often do, has an academic world source so should be automatically suspect. However I can't think of a better one to describe this way of looking at the world.

If you regularly visit the Guardian's website you may have noticed that they run little adverts (illustrated above) for their in-house produced 'Soulmates' dating service. These adverts exclusively present what look like heterosexual potential couples.

The first thing which struck me as problematic with this was actually not that I'm a raging gay activist scouring the internet looking to make trouble but that it made no business sense.

On the face of it, presenting the service consistently on the site as being for heterosexuals - first appearances count a LOT on the web, people barely glance at adverts - seems like plain bad marketing practice. Here's a Guardian 'profit centre' which could earn more (cough) 'pink pounds' if it actually promoted itself better.

The 'Soulmates' to be found on the website are definitely not exclusively heterosexual. In fact, the last time I looked there were 1,500 hits for 'man looking for woman' and 1,200 for 'man looking for man'.

Now if I was a raging troublemaker I might think of this as 'disappearing' gay people, almost 'closeting' them, certainly representations of them. My mate who writes the Fagburn blog has been documenting this in another area; how news websites keep on using cake-top decorations on gay marriage stories rather than photos of happy gay couples. Or when they do use photos their heads are cut off or they're viewed from the back walking down the street.

So I wrote with a positive inquiry and have a response. The images are "chosen automatically according to which profiles are proving to be the most popular on the site (the most-viewed, most-favourited, etc)."

It isn't a manual choice which profiles appear in the ads on the rest of the Guardian's website, but it is a choice to present one male and one female one.

I also got an answer to a question I hadn't actually asked, which is that:
Because the majority of Soulmates members are straight, this means that straight members are always likely to be getting more views and 'likes' than gay members, and therefore are much more likely to be automatically selected for the homepage slot.
This would be the service's homepage, not the Guardian's. But that shows an array of profile images, so I wouldn't have any issue with it.

They do know that a big minority of their users are lesbian, gay, trans or bisexual and, I'm told, are happy users of the service. So did they take my comments in the spirit offered in order to both better serve those users as well as their bottom line? Happy to report that it's a yes:
We are reviewing how we can make changes to this process to promote a more diverse selection of our users.

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