PhD thesis: Identity modulation in networked publics

My PhD was awarded in September 2017. The abstract below provides a sense of my research and findings. If you wish to to read more, you can find the full thesis on my QUT ePrints page.

Identity modulation in networked publics: Queer women’s participation and representation on Tinder, Instagram, and Vine

Lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, and queer (LGBTQ) people now have access to a range of rights and protections in several countries and frequent visibility across television, film, print, and digital media. Despite this, they still experience stigmatisation that affects their wellbeing, access to support, and participation in society. Queer women, in particular, face sexual stigmatisation and gender inequality. Social media platforms can facilitate social and political participation. However, platforms also bring together audiences with whom individuals may otherwise interact in separate contexts. In this thesis, I examine queer women’s participation and representation on contemporary social media platforms. I analyse how they negotiate these social conditions and, in turn, how platforms shape their activity. I combine traditional and digital research methods to examine queer women’s use of: Tinder, a platform for dating and meeting people; Instagram, a platform for photo sharing; and Vine, a platform for sharing short, looping videos. For each platform, I conduct a close reading of platform features and materials, analysis of queer women’s content, and interviews with queer female users.

Findings across platforms highlight a common set of practices, which I refer to as “identity modulation.” I define identity modulation as individuals’ continuous decision-making about whether and how much to make their sexual identity recognisable in relation to personally identifying information (e.g., names, face photos) for particular social media audiences. This concept is analogous to adjusting device settings, such as volume and brightness: users can modify the noticeability of elements of identity but their adjustments are subject to a platform’s features and constraints. Queer women in this study engage in identity modulation for platform-specific purposes. Individuals increase the visibility of their sexual identity on Tinder to attract other queer women, often while minimising identifying information. Instagram users accentuate their sexual identity as part of their personal brand while frequently maintaining a separation between Facebook and Instagram audiences. On Vine, individuals display sexual identity and shared experiences to form close-knit communities while avoiding discriminatory audiences.

Across platforms, identity modulation facilitates these queer women’s connections with other users in the form of networked publics, as gatherings of people that are structured by networked technologies. Queer women’s networked publics often enhance their self-validation, access to social support, and ability to challenge stigmatising discourses. However, individuals also encounter impediments to identity modulation, such as embedded platform biases and discriminatory user practices, which inhibit their participation in networked publics. Such impediments highlight ways that users, platforms, and media producers can better facilitate identity modulation. These findings pave the way for research that further explores the concept of identity modulation, examining the social media practices of other stigmatised populations across a variety of platforms.

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