Facebook gets a feminist twist with new friends icons

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As software updates go, the one coming soon to Facebook appears relatively minor.

It’s a slight visual update to the icons used to represent friends and groups on the platform, and probably won’t even be noticed by the vast majority of users. But symbolically, the change says a lot.

Why? Because it puts women first – literally.

Until now, both icons had been fronted by a male silhouette. On the friends icon, one woman stands behind him to his right, and on the groups icon, he’s backed up by one woman and one man.

But as part of a refresh of the icons,which also gives them modern haircuts, women have been put front and centre.

Facebook’s design manager, Caitlin Winner, explained her reasoning for making the change: “As a woman, educated at a women’s college, it was hard not to read into the symbolism of the current icon; the woman was quite literally in the shadow of the man, she was not in a position to lean in.

“My first idea was to draw a double silhouette, two people of equal sizes without a hard line indicating who was in front … I placed the lady, slightly smaller, in front of the man.”

Winner instituted a similar redesign of the groups icon, placing the woman in the centre and having her backed up by two men.

It’s not the first time someone at Facebook has launched their own project to make small but symbolically-important changes. In 2014, the globe icon was updated to focus on Europe for users outside the Americas. Since then, an Asia-focused globe has also been added.

“As a result of this project, I’m on high alert for symbolism,” writes Winner. “I try to question all icons, especially those that feel the most familiar. For example, is the briefcase the best symbol for ‘work’? Which population carried briefcases and in which era? What are other ways that ‘work’ could be symbolised and what would those icons evoke for the majority of people on Earth?”

The new icons have already started to show up in Facebook products.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Alex Hern, for theguardian.com on Wednesday 8th July 2015 12.24 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010