Just a couple of weeks ago, I had a blast presenting my context collapse research to QUT’s Children and Youth Research Centre at their Keyword Seminar “Connections“. Just thought I’d share the slides here since they basically illustrate my article ‘He has a way gayer Facebook than I do’: Investigating sexual identity disclosure and context collapse on a social networking site. It’s not every day that research comes with pictures!
Like I mentioned in my last post, I’ve been mulling over this notion that we might be living in a ‘post-gay era’ now. I went digging in my interview data from my Master’s thesis, some of the findings of which have been published here, to further explore exactly what participants said about coming out and being out on Facebook. I explore their responses and possible implications in the following presentation, which I’m giving at the Brisbane ICA Regional Conference. This is still a work-in-progress so feel free to comment and suggest; hopefully I can wrap it all up in one coherent piece of writing one day.
1. Title Slide – Hello (not ello)
2. Little known fact: Facebook has a promo page called Facebook Stories, which they describe as a place “where we share extraordinary stories of people using Facebook.” In 2013, Kai Bailey posted her essay about coming out to everyone on her Facebook as transgender. Her story really hit me at the time and kind of kicked off my interest in asking, ‘what does it mean to come out on Facebook?’ Re-reading this essay, I noticed that she has a dual approach to being out. She notes that her and her trans peers are “gender rebels”, which can be read as challenging gender normativity. She also notes that “trans people are just people too, and deserve to be happy.” In the context of what I’ve read about LGBTQ movements, I was interested in this approach of coming out, being acknowledged and visible in a way that challenges the mainstream, and then moving forward. I wanted to know, is this possible (or more possible) through Facebook?
3. Explaining why I find this interesting requires a bit of background about gay and lesbian movements over the years – or at least my interpretations from Beasley, 2005 and Jagose, 1996. In the 1950s, the homophile movement’s main intent was integration with the rest of society. However, by the time the Stonewall Riots hit in 1969, it became apparent that this approach wasn’t working. Stonewall brought about the Gay Liberation movement, which said that society needed to change, basically we needed a sexual revolution. Eventually that fragmented into smaller groups of gays and lesbians, brought together through identity politics. They took the stance of fighting for minority rights – gays and lesbians should have their rights protected just like other minorities. The problem with identity groups though is that they draw boundaries around who IS and who is NOT in these groups. Defining who is a lesbian or who is gay left a lot of people on the outside. When the AIDS crisis of the late 1980s/90s hit, this also made it easy for people to say ‘that’s a gay disease, it doesn’t affect me.’ Queer activists came in and crushed that way of thinking by pointing out that identity, let alone gender and sexuality, is socially constructed. So the heteronormative and regulatory discourses relating to sexuality are of concern to ALL of us. This helped people to see that AIDS was a concern for everyone and did a lot to get money and attention directed to the epidemic. But, without a cohesive sense of identity to keep it together, the queer movement diminished over time, especially as its confrontational tactics were sometimes seen as overkill as laws and social attitudes slowly shifted. However, we still live in a society regulated by heternormativity and there is still often discrimination toward LGBTQ people – where are we today?
4. Today we might be ‘post-gay’. Post-gay is a contested term that was first used by a former editor of Out magazine, James Collard, to critique gay politics and culture. It’s been picked up by popular press and academics over time. Associate Professor Amin Ghaziani (2011) consolidates various definitions of it to include three key elements: a) defining oneself by more than sexuality; disentangling gayness from struggle (and stereotypes, which comes from other literature); and enjoying mixed company. However, Ghaziani identifies that there is a thin line between this approach and assimilationist. Catherine Jean Nash found this in her research of self-declared ‘post-mo’ (another term like ‘post-gay’) Torontonians. They were all male, middle class, tech-savvy, and ‘gay’, which allowed them to blend in and decrease the stigma around their sexuality. This blending in and upholding of heteronormative discourses is what Lisa Duggan calls ‘homonormative’.
5. So why look at Facebook to see if we’re post-gay? A number of scholars, including Nash and Ghaziani, have looked at the exodus of gays and lesbians from ‘gay villages’ in urban areas. The trend is that people are moving out of these ‘gay ghettos’ and integrating into mixed communities. If LGBTQ-specific websites, like AfterEllen, are like gay villages (or lesbian villages), then Facebook might be very much like the mixed suburbs, with everyone from your co-workers to your granny in the neighbourhood. So, are LGBTQ people able to take a ‘post-gay’ approach of coming out on Facebook but not having their sexuality define them? To begin looking at this question, I revisited interviews I conducted with 27 LGBTQ university students about coming out and being out on Facebook. Detailed methods can be found in Duguay (2014) – the sample included 14 (11 men, 3 women) who identified as gay, 5 bisexual women, 4 lesbian women, 2 queer women, 1 pansexual woman, and one who identified as agender and asexual. I coded their stories of coming out on Facebook according to trends that resembled post-gay (acknowledgement but not definition), homonormative (blending in), or queer (confrontational) approaches.
6. What I found is that identity is a messy thing to evaluate. Participants often showed indications of a post-gay approach mixed in with homonormativity and queerness. One example is Samantha, a participant who wrote an article about being queer and then shared it on her Facebook. She was motivated by a need to challenge homophobic religious institutions and wanted people to know that “Queer people exist whether or not you tell them they can in a Catholic high school.” She also explained that coming out like this helped her get past coming out to distant acquaintances: “It just stops the concern for me that when I go home and hang out with these people they’ll be like, ‘Why didn’t you tell us this earlier?’ It’s such a silly thing because how would you contact all of these people that you don’t really keep in touch with across the country and be like, ‘Hi, just checking in, I’m gay.’ You wouldn’t do that.” And she also didn’t want to stick out in certain situations where heterosexuality is assumed: “The situations where everyone’s talking about their romantic life and I feel like I’m being burdensome…Everyone has to pause and be like, ‘Oh, you’re queer.’ Like, do we have to have a session about it? People don’t know what to do and so, yeah, I wanted to say it and stop having that fear.”
7. There were however some recurring trends. The first was that many participants had ‘post-gay’ intentions – they wanted to come out, have it acknowledged, and then move past it without having their sexuality define them. Robert explained: “[Facebook] is a really good tool for me to broadcast that I am gay to people who I would never feel like coming out to in real life… I don’t want to run the risk of having a confrontation in real life so if I have it on Facebook, they can take it in, deal with it themselves and then it’s over and done with and I never had to say anything.” Similarly, Brianne changed her ‘interested in’ to women and said about it that “It’s easier than telling everyone separately – not that everyone, like, I couldn’t rely on everyone checking that kind of thing, because obviously my friends know my birthday and my gender and all the other things on that page. So I couldn’t rely on them checking it but just in case they did, it was there.” She touches on a key point that many participants noted: It was difficult to tailor the volume of coming out expressions in order to fulfill post-gay aspirations. Announcements could be seen as too loud while changing profile information could go overlooked.
8. For some participants who took this post-gay approach, their description of being ‘out’ in everyday life on Facebook more closely resembles an approach of blending in. Henrik came out by posting his relationship status but explained that he hesitates to post anything political: “For example, if I sat down with a lot of people that I didn’t know that well and there was an advert that had gay people in it but they were like, I don’t know, drinking Diet Coke together or something then I wouldn’t feel that uncomfortable about it. And then if it was about gay people being political, I would feel more uncomfortable about it, and then if it was gay people having sex, I’d probably be feeling more uncomfortable.” Henrik touches on something that queer theorist Michael Warner has written about at length, which is the privatization of gay sex. Gay sex is seen as something that is meant to be hid away, kept inside the household, bound up in domestic partnerships, monogamy, and coupledom that look exactly heterosexual pairings. In contrast, heterosexual sex is everywhere, we live in a culture of heterosexuality that is on billboards, it’s evident in the baby photos in people’s wallets that testify to heterosexual sex, it’s as ubiquitous as the air around us. So no wonder it’s difficult for Henrik and others to challenge heteronormativity or to not feel uncomfortable about Facebook posts that do. In fact, the dominance of heteronormativity can have an overall silencing effect, making alternative sexualities seem invisible. Jennifer explained that this is why she came out on Facebook: “If I were face-to-face, I probably wouldn’t have done it… I would have just said it to myself several times and then nothing would have actually [come out].”
9. Just like Nash’s post-mo Torontonians, I also found a number of factors that made it harder or easier for people to take a post-gay approach. The first is sexuality – almost everyone who talked about their sexuality not defining them identified as gay or lesbian. Mackenzie, who identifies as asexual, said that Facebook fell short for coming out: “I don’t think there’s really an option that describes accurately how I feel.” Participants’ physical location also played a role in that their Facebook audiences often reflected networks in urban, liberal environments. Elizabeth said, “[My city] is not a metropolis but I came from a very small part of the world and suddenly I could really, really enjoy being gay.” Ethnicity and culture were also factors. Marco, who came out in a status update, noted he was an exception: “[For Italians] the message that passes is like, ‘You are gay, keep it for yourself.’” Finally, digital literacy played a role in that individuals who could tailor their coming out statements to liberal audiences more often put indications of their sexuality on Facebook. Erin described that discovering certain privacy settings allowed her to post about her relationship with her girlfriend: “When I found out you could block some people I was just like, oh okay, I can put it up now.”
10. So what can we conclude from this? I still have some analysis yet to do but I think these preliminary findings point to a sense that many young LGBTQ people have post-gay aspirations that come up against heteronormative constraints (wanting to be accepted, not wanting to be stigmatised or stereotyped). This results in activity that mostly serves the purpose of blending in or homonormativity. Therefore, Facebook can help some in the sense of how it helps people to get the word out about their sexuality if they wish to, but Facebook is not transformative in terms of coming out and being out because we have not yet transformed society’s heteronormativity.
11. References (and rainbow books)
12. More refs
13. Questions?! (Of course this is also where I babble about the study’s limitations)
(Image courtesy of The Keep Calm-o-Matic)
I’m starting a little investigation into the development of ‘post-gay’ identity. And I mean this not at all in the sense of ‘ex-gay Christians’ but instead in the way LGBTQ youth are claiming post-gay as an identity that signals sexual fluidity and doing away with labels (as explored in Edmund Coleman-Fountain’s latest article). Pretty sure this will be a thing as I look at identity expression on different social media platforms. To get started, here’s a quote from Foucault that might resonate with people who claim a post-gay identity:
“On this point I have not always made myself well understood by certain movements for sexual liberation in France. In my opinion, as important as it may be, tactically speaking, to say at a given moment, ‘I am a homosexual,’ over the long run, in a wider strategy, the question of knowing who we are sexually should no longer be posed. It is not then a question of affirming one’s sexual identity, but of refusing to allow sexuality as well as the different forms of sexuality the right to identify you. The obligation to identify oneself through and by a given type of sexuality must be refused.”
Foucault, Michel. Wrong-Doing, Truth-Telling: The Function of Avowal in Justice. Chicago, IL, USA: University of Chicago Press, 2014.
(Image courtesy of Robert Acevedo on Flickr)
Given my large number of Facebook friends who are former Internet Studies alum or current colleagues, and that this article was published by Buzzfeed, it was all over my newsfeed this morning: How Ferguson exposed Facebook’s breaking news problem
The gist of the article is that while Twitter has been buzzing with news stories, commentary, and live tweets about the protests in Ferguson over the past week, Facebook has been relatively silent. That’s true, and while Buzzfeed invites us to “blame” the algorithms or the users, I want to focus on us, the users, because our actions are what we have the most control over in the face of black-box, proprietary algorithms. The people I know who are most informed still have to work at it, even in the age of social media. But they don’t do much, just one key thing: they diversify their media intake and participation.
One of the greatest lessons that the broadcast media era taught us was that monopolies don’t work. I remember reading Benkler’s explanation of the Berlusconi effect – the way that controlling the media ramps up political power – which was coined after Italy’s former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who used his ownership of the country’s main media outlets to his political benefit. Similarly, America has its own media monopolies, except these are owned by large corporations such as NewsCorp and Time Warner. These monopolies often lead to one, universal account of a story being perpetuated across all news outlets. Since no other angles are explored, audiences tend to accept this version as the story without further contention or dialogue. Then it gets pushed out by the next headline-grabber and everyone moves on with their lives, except the people whose lives were affected by the news event itself, like those in Ferguson who are still dealing with the circumstances and aftermath of Michael Brown’s death.
Of course, social media has diversified the way we receive and disseminate information. But it still requires us to go out and get it from places where dialogue about politics and breaking news is likely to be happening. If you spend all your time online in a Facebook cocoon, then I’m not surprised you haven’t heard anything about Ferguson. The Buzzfeed article points out that Twitter and Facebook are vying to be people’s sole news source by introducing similar features to display what’s trending. But your friends would still be more likely to post a cute cat photo on Facebook than to rant about politics, and I don’t blame them. Facebook is not Twitter. People have different, although sometimes overlapping, networks on both of these sites. You can’t be sure that Aunt Millie, your pastor, and your former boss all want to hear about the violation of Americans’ human rights, but it’s pretty certain that none of them will raise a fuss about another ALS Ice Bucket Challenge video. So, you can blame the algorithms, and if Facebook is censoring ‘depressing’ content as it did in its controversial ’emotions study’ then that’s another issue, but it might be more likely that your Facebook friends are the reason you’re not seeing much real news.
Facebook may be apolitical compared to Twitter, but that’s like comparing the Family Channel to CNN (I mean, if CNN presented diverse perspectives on the news). News is out there and being talked about on the Internet but you have to go out and get it. In 2013, PEW reported that only 26% of Americans get their news from two or more social media sites. That means the rest of us are settling for cat pictures. If you think people should bring political and news-related discussions to Facebook, then start talking about these things on your Timeline. If you want to be informed and hear multiple angles about what’s going on, then get on Twitter, seek out independent news blogs, and diversify your media. Instigate conversations, bring them back to your platform of choice, discuss them with others often and loudly, and in as many forms as you can handle. Be the change you want to see, not the algorithmic victim.
UPDATE: After a week of mulling over this, I realize the above is a bit of an idealistic call for individuals to empower themselves in obtaining news/media diversity. It’s since occurred to me (or been brought to my attention by excellent thinkers) that not everyone has the time, money, and media literacy necessary to seek out a variety of independent news sources. I also downplayed the tyranny of invisible algorithms and the fact that most people don’t know the extent to which their newsfeeds are filtered. So, my take home message remains that I believe in empowerment through (social) media literacy and attention to our information sources, but I know it’s just not that easy. Here’s an Atlantic article with some good ideas of how we can tackle algorithmic sorting and give people more agency in obtaining information that’s pertinent to them.
As a Canadian overseas, I can’t say that I want to perpetuate news about Toronto’s Mayor Rob Ford, since he is often one of the main topics that people bring up in relation to Canada. However, as he’s still making headlines and causing a stir on Twitter, I thought a Ford story would be a good way to share a slice of my latest learning about ‘big data’ methods and analysis.
With the purpose of trying out some new tools and ideas, I collected tweets about Toronto’s WorldPride festival, which took place this past June. It was a huge shindig and while I wasn’t able to capture every relevant tweet, the 6 hashtags that I tracked* (#WP14TO, #WorldPride, #PrideToronto, #TorontoPride, #PrideTO, #WPTO14) turned up a pretty good dataset totalling 68,231 tweets. This dataset showed some cool trends relating to participation, especially people’s awesome selfies and photo documentation of the WorldPride parade (check out the National Post’s photos if you’re lacking rainbows in your life). I hope to eventually share some of these broader analyses but today I just wanted to look at a little bump that showed up after the festival, circled in Figure 1.
Figure 1. Total WorldPride tweets over time
This little spike of nearly 1000 tweets happened when Toronto’s Mayor, Rob Ford – fresh out of rehab, as all the latest news stories note – refused to join in the standing ovation at a city council meeting to thank WorldPride’s coordinators. That’s right, everyone else stood up and clapped but Ford, with his history of avoiding Toronto Pride and opposing visible support for LGBTQ people throughout the city, remained seated. Apparently, to add insult to injury, all of this came alongside Ford casting the only vote against launching a study to determine if more homeless shelter space for LGBTQ youth is needed in Toronto.
So what did Torontonians do? Well, when the incident first happened, some of the city councillors tweeted about it. This is reflected in the first bump in Figure 2, when many people retweeted these preliminary expressions of disappointment with Ford’s behaviour. Figure 2 shows the volume of tweets over time for the bump that was circled in Figure 1 but here I’ve also plugged a bit of code into Tableau to show the different types of tweets. You can see that this whole Twitter event was characterized by people retweeting, often using the popular #TOpoli (Toronto politics) alongside the WorldPride hashtags.
Figure 2. Rob Ford incident over time, sorted by tweet type
The mainstream press caught wind of the story and a bit later in the day, CBC News tweeted about it, adding a photo of Rob Ford sitting during the applause. However, the real kicker in terms of momentum happened when media personality Jian Ghomeshi (broadcaster, musician, host of Q) made a tweet that resonated with a bunch of people:
— jian ghomeshi (@jianghomeshi) July 9, 2014
Okay, so Ghomeshi’s tweet wasn’t an original, he simply added his own opinion to the CBC’s previous tweet. But the combination of celebrity critique with the compelling visual made this the most popular retweet of the whole debacle, raking in nearly 300 retweets in my dataset and gaining even a few more that weren’t captured during my data collection.
What does it mean that retweets dominated the dialogue throughout this whole spectacle? Does it show that mainstream media still has the loudest voice even on social media platforms, which are often lauded as being participatory and democratizing? Perhaps. Does it mean that Torontonians are lazy and would rather just press the ‘retweet’ button than weigh in with their own opinions? I think not.
Retweeting IS a form of participation (boyd, Golder & Lotan, 2010). It serves multiple purposes: it gets the word out by making a conversation more visible, it engages a wider network of participants in the dialogue, and it shows support for a particular viewpoint. Ghomeshi’s tweet hits the important points – it expresses a negative sentiment for Ford’s actions and drives it home with visual evidence of his non-participation. People who retweeted likely felt that this tweet represented their feelings accurately. It’s also likely that a broader range of people feel comfortable retweeting something fairly political when it’s led by a media personality because they may not be ready to make such strong statements independently.
A couple of the participants in my MSc research who weren’t out to their families talked about this. They explained that they wanted to show support for LGBTQ people and did so through political tweets that didn’t reflect their identity as much as personal statements. It seems that retweeting might be a way for a lot of people to get involved and stand in solidarity with a certain viewpoint without their actions implicating them beyond their capacity. Our personal situations may not always allow all of us to be highly vocal activists, but retweeting could add power to those who do speak up so that they speak on behalf of a collective – a collective of Twitter users, at least.
Personally, I might also guess that users mostly retweeted during this incident because, well, is there really anything left to say about Rob Ford?
- I’ve added Tableau to the “Assorted tools” page in case you’d like to have a closer look at it. Their website allows a free trial along with some great video tutorials.
- A good resource for what/why/how to work with Twitter data is the book “Twitter and Society” edited by Katrin Weller, Axel Bruns, Jean Burgess, Merja Mahrt and Cornelius Puschmann.
- You may have noticed that we’ve been talking about ‘big data’ without heaps of numbers and statistics. While this speaks to my tendency toward qualitative research, it’s also a technique from the digital humanities methods that I’ve been learning about. It’s possible to take large sets of data and do a ‘distant reading’ (Moretti, 2007) of them in their entirety (like Figure 1) and then to drill down into more qualitative types of content analysis. I turned to Richard Rogers’ book “Digital Methods” as inspiration for this.
- Disclaimer: This was just an exercise (with a relatively small number of tweets!) that I’ve presented for discussion – there are of course lots of limitations to ‘big data’ analysis and the use of Twitter data. While I don’t address these here, other people have – start with boyd and Crawford’s “Critical Questions for Big Data” to get a handle on the issues.
*All of this was done with the gracious help of QUT’s Social Media Research Group, especially with Jean Burgess’ ninja Twitter data collection skills and Darryl Woodford’s crash course on Tableau analysis for Twitter data.
In text references:
boyd, d., Golder, S., & Lotan, G. (2010). Tweet, tweet, retweet: Conversational aspects of retweeting on Twitter. Proceedings of the 43rd Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences, IEEE. doi:10.1109/HICSS.2010.412
Moretti, F. (2007). Graphs, maps, trees: Abstract models for a literary history. London: Verso.
(Image courtesy of the Degrassi Wiki)
Let’s travel back to a formative time when I used to come home after school every day and watch reruns of the original Degrassi Junior High – a Canadian-made TV drama about tough teen issues. An episode* halfway through season three stands out: one of the main characters, Snake (they had great nicknames in the late ’80s) has an older brother named Glen who is away at med school but comes back home to tell his family he’s gay. In an intense coming out scene, Glen tells Snake he’s moving in with a guy who is gay and Snake reacts by saying, “What are you living with one of those for?” And then when Glen explains that he’s gay too, of course Snake doesn’t react well. The rest of the episode tracks Snake’s process of coming to terms with his brother’s identity. At the end, we see Glen, having just been kicked out by his parents, driving off into the sunset after letting Snake know he’ll return “when I’m welcome.”
The whole thing is pretty heart wrenching. Admittedly, the episode is from a time when things were quite politically different in Canada than they are now. Degrassi was actually pretty progressive for its time, intertwining a subplot about AIDS into the episode to educate viewers that you can’t contract the disease from shaking hands and that heterosexual people can transmit it too. Today in Canada, this type of episode would be overly dramatic. Same-sex marriage has been legal for more than a decade and there are at least 8 LGBT characters in Degrassi: The Next Generation – the present-day version of the show. However, that’s not to say I haven’t seen herds of protesters on Parliament Hill during LGBTQ Pride festivals who would like to see the Civil Marriage Act repealed. Also, marriage is just a start and individuals with non-mainstream gender and/or sexual identities still face many challenges to their rights and well being. LGBT teens still experience higher rates of depression, more bullying, and are more likely to commit suicide than their heterosexual peers (Almeida et al., 2009). Rights for people along the gender spectrum (e.g. trans, genderqueer, agender) are also still in an early stage, often with a lack of support, resources, funding for medical attention, and barriers to changing one’s gender identity on legal documents.
I’m telling you all this not only because I think Degrassi needs to foster more edgy, progressive plot lines again but mainly because I want to discuss the continued importance of coming out. In political movements throughout history, such as the ‘gay liberation’ movement that arose in the 1970s out of the Stonewall riots, coming out was seen as a way to liberate oneself from discrimination and to challenge others’ perceptions of homosexuality as something that is evil or an illness (Jagose, 1996). This is apparent in the old Degrassi episode’s narrative: Glen has to come out to be true to himself and he also makes Snake think twice about his prejudice against gays. This is not to say that coming out is a magic bullet or that it’s always necessary or even always possible (this is much contested; e.g. Sedgwick, 1990). Putting pressure on individuals to come out has also been criticized as shaming closeted individuals when society is to blame for making the closet (see Warner, 2002). However, it remains a powerful idea that when individuals (voluntarily) come out, it can have an impact on their identity development and the views of people around them.
When Glen told Snake and his parents that, “Hey, I’m gay” it took some time, a lot of effort, and quite a bit of emotion. That was just the start of a whole process of coming out; as he goes back to med school, meets new people, and bumps into old acquaintances, he’ll have to go through it all again. Imagine if there was some way Glen could amplify his coming out to make it persistent but not ‘in your face’. Enter social media, with features that allow individuals to broadcast personal messages to multiple audiences (boyd, 2011). These days Snake is just as likely to watch Glen’s ‘coming out confession’ on YouTube or to see him take a #queer #selfie and post it to Tumblr or to notice that he’s sure talking a lot on Twitter about heading to Toronto’s World Pride Festival. This causes me to wonder, how can coming out or communicating non-mainstream sexuality in everyday ways using social media affect LGBTQ people’s identity development and self-perceptions?
But wait, there’s more: If there are hundreds of people posting videos and ‘coming out vlogs’ become a genre on YouTube, or if #queer #selfies are a daily presence in the Tumblrsphere, or if dialogues using Pride hashtags become so huge that they garner mainstream media coverage – can this accumulation of (fairly) personal coming out activities influence wider perceptions about gender and sexuality? As posts, exchanges, and information accumulates on social media, it forms “big data”, the aggregate of all our social traces. This big data could create big visibility that may put faces to the real-life struggles caused by hate and naivety, which may have the potential to shape perceptions and understandings of diverse gender and sexual identities.
Either way, it’s worth investigating, so onward with this PhD journey.
Almeida, J., Johnson, R. M., Corliss, H. L., Molnar, B. E., & Azrael, D. (2009). Emotional distress among LGBT youth: The influence of perceived discrimination based on sexual orientation. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 38(7), 1001–14. doi:10.1007/s10964-009-9397-9
boyd, d. (2010). Social network sites as networked publics: Affordances, dynamics, and implications. In Z. Papacharissi (Ed.), A Networked Self: Identity, Community, and Culture on Social Network Sites (pp. 39–58). New York and London: Routledge.
Jagose, A. (1996). Queer theory: An introduction. New York: New York University Press.
Sedgwick, E. K. (1990). Epistemology of the closet. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.
Warner, M. (2002). Publics and counterpublics. Brooklyn, NY: Zone Books.
*Bonus – here’s the whole episode discussed in this post:
It’s taken a while to get settled in (such as being an Internet studies researcher without home Internet, yargh!) but I think I’ve finally got my bearings here in Australia so it’s time for a blog post. Just to bring you up to speed, I’m doing a PhD in Media and Communications with the Social Media Research Group here at the Queensland University of Technology. It’s an expansion of my MSc research in which I’ll be looking at how LGBTQ people use a mix of social media (not just Facebook) to express themselves and how their social media use features during major life transitions (e.g. starting a new job, etc). More on that as it develops over the next 3 years, but today let’s talk about new developments in the Facebook-o-sphere…
I’m a little late on this so you’ve probably already heard about how Facebook expanded options for listing gender on your profile. Clearly, this is a step forward. That being said, forward was about the only direction Facebook could go with its originally binary gender options of ‘male’ or ‘female’. Now we’ve got a list of 51 gender identities developed in collaboration with LGBT organizations (though FB doesn’t seem to state which ones). Since this change, there has been some discussion of whether this was the right way to go about increasing users’ freedom to self-present on Facebook. These arguments line up with certain paradigms in gender and sexuality studies that I’ve been reviewing so let’s have a look at them through that lens:
(Reviewing the classics, er, the postmodern classics)
A) Identity cannot be defined by labels
This article mentions the complications of Facebook producing a prescribed list of gender identities, which leads to the suggestion that perhaps Facebook should have done away with gender as a category altogether. This is definitely a very postmodern/poststructuralist viewpoint in that it questions whether identity can be defined by gender labels, no matter how many are available. Queer theorists such as Judith Butler focused on how we should dismantle concepts such as ‘gender’ to reveal them as being entirely socially constructed. In fact, postmodernists like Butler and Foucault spent a lot of time stressing that there is no such thing as ‘identity’ in the sense of a person having an inner essence or core. Instead, identity is fluid, unstable, and shaped by power structures. Butler, in particular, argues that the best way to counter these power structures is to mess with existing social constructs by revealing them to be unstable, such as the way that dressing in drag makes it obvious that gender is simply a performance.
How does this apply to Facebook’s reconfiguration of the gender profile field? For starters, the field doesn’t allow users to type their own gender if they don’t identify with one of the 51 options. And even if 51 sounds like a lot to choose from, concepts of identity are always changing over time, so if Facebook doesn’t continue to update this list it will likely be out of date in the near future. This set-up also doesn’t allow for multiple or nuanced understandings of gender identity (e.g. ‘cisgendered-gender questioning’ just to splice a couple of Facebook’s options). The new gender options are currently only available in English, which also illustrates how challenging it will be for Facebook to offer a similar listing in other languages where cultural understandings of gender affect the very words that are used to describe it (e.g. people who identify as Fa’afafine are common in Samoa but not in other countries).
Having the ability to write your own gender identity on your profile could also open up new possibilities for identity construction, expression, and challenging the concept of gender. In my MSc research I came across many participants who would use humour to hint at aspects of their identity that they weren’t quite ready to reveal to everyone. They would mess with the intended function of a feature, such as by ‘marrying’ their best friend in the relationship section, so that they could either side-step having to post their real, non-normative relationship or prepare people for their coming out by paving the way with something that’s a ‘little bizarre’. People have remarked to me that having prescribed gender options is a good way of preventing users from putting totally absurd things, like identifying as a tree or a pancake. However, that sort of behaviour is exactly what could turn the gender category into a joke – effectively messing with the whole concept of gender identity in a way similar to Butler’s illustrations of resistance discussed above.
B) Labels can be useful ways of constructing identity
I realize that the exact opposite of postmodernism would be to present an essentialist viewpoint that says identity is a stable, concrete essence of a person and that is why individuals should be able to articulate their inner identity with these gender labels. However, I don’t buy that and I’ve done a lot of work developing an ontological standpoint somewhere along the continuum between social constructionism and postmodern paradigms. Both of these believe that identity is not inherent, so those are the perspectives I’ll speak from today. If you still want to argue for a more biological determinist reasoning, we can grab a drink and duke it out another day.
In contrast to postmodernism, social constructionists believe that concepts of gender and identity are still (of course) socially constructed. However, they believe that identity categories can become stable over time (such as the way many people identify as one gender throughout their life) and that stability comes from identity being situated within specific social and historical contexts. Right now, these 51 gender identities might be more than sufficient to recognize that gender is not a binary and it might be the best way to raise awareness given that current views toward non-mainstream identities are still shaped by social institutions that look at gender very traditionally (e.g. even though capitalism is often agile at meeting consumer needs, there are a lack of buying options for more queer gender expressions). In fact, throwing away identity altogether is often only a luxury available to people who can afford to ‘other’ themselves (e.g. those who don’t have to hold down a job that requires conforming to gender standards, such as waitressing). Also, often when people try to shirk identity labels, that very act becomes their identity – this is frequently what happens to ‘queer’ as a label that was supposed to be ‘outside of labels’ but often succeeds in conjuring stereotypes of some sort.
(‘Queer’ just sort of means ‘gay’ on Queer as Folk – though I love this show)
All that to say, sometimes labels can be useful. In my MSc research, many participants talked about how indicating their sexual orientation on their profile (using the ‘interested in’ field or the relationship status field) was a good way to include this information without being ‘in your face’ about it. Having it out there meant that people could assume this information was in the background of future interactions, which allowed them to skip over often-awkward coming out conversations. It also shaped expectations for future interactions, meaning that relatives or acquaintances who were their Facebook friends could no longer get away with passive-aggressive homophobic remarks and would have to act differently now knowing they could be insulting someone directly.
I fear that if we do away with the list of gender options, people won’t put anything other than the binary ‘male’ or ‘female’ choices. This would make it a bigger deal when someone lists something outside of the ‘mainstream’ and would preclude the option of coming out subtly as having a different gender identity. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying people should have to be subtle when coming out, I’m just saying that having to make a big expression in order to come out can sometimes make it a larger challenge and more daunting. In this way, it certainly seems like these new gender options are one step closer to normalizing non-mainstream identities. Although that’s the opposite of how postmodernists would fight power structures, it might be the best option currently available to someone who needs the support of family and friends within a social context that can still be quite hostile to diverse identities.
Despite this discussion of different possibilities for online gender expressions, the reality is that Facebook has chosen to provide a prescribed list of 51 new gender options. I’ll be eager to see what sorts of outcomes this has for people with diverse gender identities. Since technology users are often creative in their use of adoption of new features, it will be interesting to see if ways can be found to use these new options for positive outcomes in spite of the constraints noted above.
Disclaimer: Postmodernism and social constructionism do exist on a continuum and so contrasting them in this way is probably a more extreme illustration than their actual application in a lot of studies. I’m accentuating their differences here just to make my points a bit more stark.
Concepts and understandings of these paradigms are based on my interpretation of:
(Photo courtesy of Alyssa L. Miller)
While preparing for work this morning, the casual banter went as follows:
My Partner: “Are you ready to go?”
Me: “No, I’m reading some article about Snapchat.”
MP: “Is that the one about the security issue where they leaked-”
Me: “Names and phone numbers?”
MP: “Yeah… But we should get Snapchat anyway, I want to send you naked pictures.”
My point in contributing this anecdote is that it illustrates something sorely missing in today’s public outcry: your biggest threat to privacy (not to mention dignity and pride) on Snapchat remains the character of the people receiving your messages. I don’t want to get into the history of whether or not Snapchat misled users through faulty features intended to safeguard against screenshots, but instead I want to argue that at its crux, sending any kind of ultra-personal or incriminating information is still a matter of social trust between yourself and the info’s recipients. While it’s true that organizations claiming to provide a secure space or conduit for that information are responsible to deliver, whether by ensuring that no one meddles with your post, taps your phone line, or presses their ear to the other side of the door, these communication enablers/providers are not liable for what your friends, lovers, and acquaintances do with your sensitive information.
In this day and age, I don’t ever assume that my name and phone number are ‘personal information’. They are easily skimmed from the phonebook or online databases and while I think that telemarketing should be illegal just in the same way David Eaves argues that physical junk mail should be treated like spam and legislated against, I accept that these fundamental pieces of data are public in order to prove my existence as a real person (the same way I’m obligated to give my home address to everyone from grocery stores to health care providers in exchange for services). What’s getting lost in all the hoopla and smearing of this start-up is that they didn’t actually leak anyone’s incriminating photos. They continue to provide an app with radically different affordances from leading social media, which are rapidly becoming archives of our lives (see Zhao et al., 2013), that allows people to share things for a limited amount of time rather than having them available to the whole world long after their death*. Until something goes wrong with that functionality (i.e. a Snapchat database of every incriminating photo leaked on to the web) it’s really up to your BFF, your partner, or your special friend to uphold the often unspoken social contract that defines decency** as refraining from saving and redistributing others’ personal information.
*E.g. Facebook memorial pages – see Marwick & Ellison, 2012
**Not to mention respect for privacy as well as lawfulness since defamation of character is still illegal.
I’m giving this presentation at a “Lunch and Learn” event at work tomorrow! It will be my first time translating my research and literature review into practical advice and media literacy tips that everyday social media users can apply. Very excited to put academia to work for the people!