“Care is our core Zoom value,” Ronnie Dickerson Stewart asserts confidently, if not entirely convincingly, in a blog post introducing a new feature of the now-ubiquitous software. The blog post continues: “We understand that providing options for people to share more about themselves is important for improving everyone’s Zoom experience.” Vague, indirect, and jarringly optimistic for readers consumed by “Zoom fatigue,”1 this blog post is introducing a specific mechanism that allows users to share particular information about ourselves: gendered, third-person pronouns. In other words, Zoom users are invited to state explicitly how people should refer to each of us in the third person. Moreover, we are encouraged to do so as an element of our profile, a semi-stable set of data that follows us from one virtual space to another—although, as I will discuss shortly, the pronoun feature operates somewhat differently from other elements of a user’s profile.
The first illustration on the blog post demonstrates how the feature might work, showing a Zoom call with three participants and three different sets of pronouns: he/him, she/her/hers, and they/them/theirs [Fig. 1]. Technically, the Zoom pronoun feature is open to whatever information a user might choose to input, but this illustration reinforces the dominant practice of using they/them/theirs pronouns for those outside of the gender binary. Power doesn’t merely repress; it generates, it produces, it creates. A Foucauldian reading of this illustration is almost too obvious: in the name of inclusion, expression, and diversity we are disciplined into selecting one of three available options. At least this isn’t a binary—it seems. After all, there are three options. But more on that later.
Confronted by this choice, I know which one I’ll pick: they/them. As a genderqueer person, I long for social situations where I am not insistently reminded that when people see me they think: that body = vagina = she. Yet I feel a deep discomfort when I read this well-intentioned blog post about the new Zoom pronoun feature. Here, I want to think through this discomfort, and what it suggests about how trans existence is currently being discursively produced, shaped, and disciplined by technology in the global North.
Invitations to share “personal pronouns,” “preferred pronouns,” or “gender pronouns” have proliferated in recent years, fueled by the recognition that misgendering transgender, nonbinary, and gender nonconforming people causes harm. Cisgender people—those who identify with their sex assigned at birth—are also encouraged to share their pronouns in the name of inclusion, and this practice can make evident the extent to which pronouns communicate our assumptions about other people’s genders, identities, and bodies. But these effects are not the only meanings generated by this practice. Instead, sharing pronouns produces a variety of complicated, anxiety-provoking experiences that reveal unresolved cultural conflicts around gender.
Zoom’s pronoun feature—and the blog post announcing it written by a diversity, equity, and inclusion specialist—dramatize these tensions. The text of the blog post attempts to center care, but the accompanying illustrations tell a very different story—a story that more closely resembles the negative affective experience of navigating gendered language for many trans and queer people. In this case, the text is unable to pin down the rhetoric of the image; the image is excessive in its signification.2
Let’s return to the first illustration, the one that demonstrates with three smiling models how the pronoun feature is supposed to operate. Conveniently, each of the three people in this Zoom call uses a different (yet internally consistent) set of the most common third-person pronouns. (Perhaps predictably, the one person in this fictional scenario who doesn’t offer a full set of declensions is the one man present.) Following trends that scholars have identified on other digital platforms,3 race is presented as more obviously apparent than gender, coded in visual identifiers and (to some extent) the connotations of each figure’s name. Meanwhile gender is represented as something that is unknowable without the accompanying label. After all, without the pronoun feature, it would be hard for most people to recognize that K Shin and Theresa Johnson aren’t the same gender, even as their racial differences seem obviously marked. Yet simultaneously, gender is imagined as clear and distinct, measurable, and communicable. Through these sets of neatly organized pronouns, gender (it seems) becomes coherent.
The second illustration makes even more obvious the role that pronouns are assumed to play in communicating the knowable unknowability of gender [Fig. 2]. Here, the reader is introduced to another functionality of the Zoom pronoun feature: the option to disclose or conceal the data in the “pronoun” field upon entering a virtual meeting space. Looking at this image, I wonder if the writers, graphic designers, and editors responsible for this blog post and its accompanying illustrations understood the full affective dimensions of this image. I imagine that it is intended to be read as dramatizing how the new feature provides convenient, seamless opportunities to come out (or not) as a user desires. But when I look at this image, it feels more like a gut punch. It doesn’t say “care” to me. Instead, it both produces and conveys anxiety.
Welcome to this imaginary Zoom meeting, with 5 smiling faces visible and an arrow indicating that there are more people present. No one on screen is displaying their pronouns. Meanwhile, the user is invited to make a choice: “Would you like to share your pronouns (she/her) in this meeting?” The options are a gray “don’t share” and a bright blue “share.” In this way, color encourages disclosure. But everything else about this image suggests—to me at least—that disclosure may not be a particularly comfortable option.
Who is being addressed by the Zoom pronoun feature’s invitation or demand? It isn’t clear which on-screen Zoom user is meant to represent the addressee. Nonetheless, Henry Park is spotlighted as the speaker and the question is superimposed above Henry’s head like a thought bubble in a cartoon. As a result, it is hard to avoid reading the question as addressed to Henry. In this reading, the image stages a stark disjunction between Henry’s appearance and Henry’s pronouns, making evident why the pronoun feature is necessary. No one is going to call Henry “she” without a prior self-disclosure.
As a result, opting to “share” likely means coming out, and moreover, Henry would be coming out in a space where no one else seems to be disclosing such information about themselves. Thank goodness, it seems, for the flexibility and choice offered by the Zoom pronoun feature. Easy enough, it seems, to just click “don’t share.” But of course, the idea that “don’t share” is easy and safe depends upon other particularities constructed by this image, situated realities that aren’t available to all trans people. After all, while some people are constantly confronted by the question of whether, when, and how to come out, other people are always, inevitably out, whether they want to be or not. Meanwhile, the data in the pronoun field remains visible to other users through the “profile card,” and it is also valuable user data for Zoom to collect, search, sort, and sell.4
Discursively, this image tells us a lot about how gender and gendered language is assumed to operate in tech-friendly, white-collar spaces in the 21st century. As James R. Ball III, Weiling He, and Louis G. Tassinary write of Zoom: “digital technology can afford a magnified experience of art and everyday life.”5 This particular image vividly stages an experience with which many trans and queer people are familiar: the continuous demand to choose whether to come out or not. Moreover, the image’s construction of how the Zoom pronoun feature works implies that sharing gendered pronouns has a predictable performative effect, even though in practice others are likely to misunderstand, misgender, and mistake the meaning of this act of self-disclosure. And it also asserts a false narrative that coming out is an individual choice—a liberating experience of self-expression—an option that is simply a click (or not) away.
As a genderqueer person who is most often read by others as a woman, I have my own stories about pronouns on Zoom. In 2020, I added “(they/them)” to the lastname field in my institutional Zoom account, ensuring that this indication of my gender identity is always available in professional settings. It is rarely used or acknowledged, including by well-meaning cis people who have their own pronouns in their Zoom handles. Nonetheless, I haven’t removed it. I also feel a deep resistance when I think about updating my Zoom account to put my pronouns in their “proper” place, populating this newly created data field with the same information I’m already disclosing routinely. Perhaps I’m just lazy. But I think there’s something else going on here.
Ultimately, this update to the platform seeks to regulate the way Zoom users have taken up the firstname/lastname spaces to share all kinds of identifying markers, jokes, emojis, slogans, and other information or content. Writing about Zoom, T. Nikki Cesare Schotzko describes a performance staged on the platform in 2020 where the audience was asked to use the “rename” feature to rename themselves in honor of a dead loved one, with this open-ended action creating layers of intimacy and meaning that exceed the simple notation of letters in the video square.6 In place of this riot of signification, where users iteratively transform those data fields by using them for our own purposes—including sharing pronouns—this particular aspect of identity is being stabilized. It is being centered and highlighted. By separating out gendered pronouns from all of the other idiosyncratic details Zoom users might share with each other, the Zoom pronoun feature asserts what is already true in most social spaces—that gender is one of, if not the, most salient pieces of information we are compelled to share about ourselves.
I still haven’t updated my Zoom profile, but I did explore the feature just to see if the pronoun field is entirely open or if it is constructed as a drop-down menu of limited options, more reminiscent of Facebook’s 50+ gender possibilities introduced in 2014. As Facebook moved from “non-mandatory” gender disclosure in 2004 to the option to select a “custom” gender in 2014, the opportunity to simply leave the gender field blank disappeared, leaving “non-binary possibilities increasingly restricted” despite the apparent proliferation of categories.7 On Zoom, the pronoun feature offers an open field—I could write anything in it [Fig. 3]. Though I leave it blank as I close out of the tab, I wonder if Zoom users might take this space and, just like the firstname lastname fields, use it to construct meanings that the software designers never intended. (Perhaps I should be the change I want to see in the world.)
But for now, I imagine that the first image represents the reality of how this new feature will be used—and not just that it will be used to disclose pronouns in their proper declensions, but that there will generally be only three possibilities imaginable. In many ways, this is what has been happening throughout liberal cultural spaces in response to nonbinary gender identities, expressions, and experiences. Instead of a proliferation of ways of being beyond the binary, a new binary is emerging, becoming rigid and reified: binary versus nonbinary. He/him/his/she/her/hers versus they/them/theirs. Scholars have noted that nonbinary language typically marks merely an absence of a binary identity rather than an affirmation of an experience beyond the binary.8 An obstinate part of me wants to fill the pronoun field with colorful emojis; after all, few people honor my pronouns even when they are visible in my Zoom handle. However, I anticipate that I will just leave everything alone, caught up in the cruel optimism9 of hoping for that moment of delightful self-expression and agential self-disclosure that is “important for improving everyone’s Zoom experience.”