PhD thesis: From being #instagay to queering Tinderella

It seems to me that writing and re-writing a description of what you’re studying is a standard part of PhD life. It’s bound to shift, evolve, and undergo re-alignments, but I find that composing these summaries helps me to keep my head in the game and make sure I’m as focused as I can be at this point in my research. Here’s the latest one-pager:

From being #instagay to queering Tinderella: A cross-platform investigation of sexual and gender identity performances on social media

My PhD research seeks to understand the everyday practices used by women attracted to women to perform sexual identity on social media. In doing so, I wish to answer the questions:

  • What is involved in the performance of sexual identity (e.g. through posts, videos, photos, etc.) on social media among women who are attracted to women?
  • What influence do social media have on these women’s practices of sexual identity performance?
  • How do practices of sexual identity performance vary or extend across different social media?

Although there is a significant body of work about gay men’s use of digital technology and growing research into lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, and queer (LGBTQ) people’s online participation, there are few contemporary studies focused specifically on the use of digital media by women identified as lesbian, bisexual, queer, fluid or another same-sex attracted identity. The sparse existing studies focused solely upon women attracted to women and digital media tend to examine early online technologies (e.g. chat rooms). Yet, developers continue to build biases into technology relating to gender and sexual norms, which complicates these women’s attempts at identity performance. Further, studies of LGBTQ people’s use of social media have generally focused on either identity performance or platform influence while examining only a single platform. Thus, this study expands existing research by paying equal attention to the media practices of women attracted to women and the influence of contemporary digital technology on these practices across multiple social media platforms.

Using a theoretical lens of Actor Network Theory combined with queer theory, I will be examining women’s social media practices across three platforms: Instagram, Vine, and Tinder. I have chosen these platforms because they present similar and contrasting affordances, engage diverse audiences for identity performances, and have been under-represented in social media research. I will respond to the research questions by triangulating findings from three methods. First, I will conduct an in-depth analysis of each platform using a novel walkthrough method that my supervisors and I are developing. This will involve analysis of each platform’s vision, operating model, governance, and technological architecture, which will begin to identify the influence of digital technology on identity performances. Then I will conduct interviews with users from each platform, identifying groups of women engaging in specific media practices relating to sexual identity. Interviews will provide insight into individuals’ identity performance decisions, interactions with/through social media platforms, and experiences resulting from identity performances. Lastly, I will conduct textual analysis, with interviewees’ social media artifacts (e.g. posts, photos) as texts, to further examine how these users are performing sexual identity as well as platform influences shaping these artifacts and their messages. These methods will be conducted across platforms in order to compare and contrast technological affordances for identity performances.

Given this study’s focus on the intersection between sexual identity and digital media, it will provide a significant theoretical contribution to the fields of media studies, gender and sexuality studies, and science and technology studies. It may also indirectly yield practical insights for digital literacy development and inclusive platform design. Since LGBTQ people still experience high rates of depression and suicide, with women among those at greatest risk, knowing more about their identity performances and experiences on social media is also a step toward providing greater support and understanding how digital media can be reconfigured to suit the needs of a diversity of people.


Background Literature

Campbell, J. E. (2004). Getting it on online: Cyberspace, gay male sexuality, and embodied identity. New York: Routledge.

Cooper, M. (2010). Lesbians who are married to men: Identity, collective stories, and the Internet online community. In C. Pullen & M. Cooper (Eds.), LGBT Identity and Online New Media (pp. 75–86). New York: Routledge.

Cooper, M., & Dzara, K. (2010). The Facebook revolution: LGBT identity and activism. In C. Pullen & M. Cooper (Eds.), LGBT Identity and Online New Media (pp. 100–112). New York: Routledge.

Correll, S. (1995). The ethnography of an electronic bar: The Lesbian Cafe. Journal of Contemporary Ethnography, 24(3), 270–298. doi:10.1177/089124195024003002

Couldry, N. (2012). Media, society, world: Social theory and digital media practice. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Duguay, S. (2014). “He has a way gayer Facebook than I do”: Investigating sexual identity disclosure and context collapse on a social networking site. New Media & Society. doi:10.1177/1461444814549930

Duguay, S., Burgess, B., & Light, B. (2014) Dating and hooking up with mobile media: A comparative study of Tinder, Mixxxer, Squirt and Dattch. Paper presented at #Digcult14: Making Digital Cultures of Gender and Sexuality with Social Media. 28-29 October 2014. Queensland University of Technology (QUT), Brisbane, Australia.

Edwards, M. (2010). Transconversations: New media, community, and identity. In C. Pullen & M. Cooper (Eds.), LGBT Identity and Online New Media (pp. 159–172). New York: Routledge.

GLSEN, CiPHR, & CCRC. (2013). Out online: The experiences of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth on the Internet. New York: GLSEN.

Gray, M. L. (2009). Out in the country: Youth, media, and queer visibility in rural America. New York and London: New York University Press.

Laukkanen, M. (2007). Young queers online: The limits and possibilities of non-heterosexual self-representation in online conversations. In K. O’Riordan & D. J. Phillips (Eds.), Queer online: Media, technology & sexuality (Peter Lang., pp. 81–100). New York: Peter Lang Publishers.

Light, B. (2007). Introducing masculinity studies to information systems research: The case of gaydar. European Journal of Information Systems, 16(5), 658–665.

Light, B., Fletcher, G., & Adam, A. (2008). Gay men, Gaydar and the commodification of difference. Information Technology & People, 21(3), 300–314. doi:10.1108/09593840810896046

Marwick, A. E. (2013). Status update: Celebrity, publicity, and branding in the social media age. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Mowlabocus, S. (2010). Gaydar culture: Gay men, technology and embodiment in the digital age. Farnham, UK: Ashgate.

Raun, T. (2014). Video blogging as a vehicle of transformation: Exploring the intersection between trans identity and information technology. International Journal of Cultural Studies. doi:10.1177/1367877913513696

Szulc, L., & Dhoest, A. (2013). The internet and sexual identity formation: Comparing Internet use before and after coming out. The European Journal of Communication Research, 38(4), 347–365.

Varjas, K., Meyers, J., Kiperman, S., & Howard, A. (2013). Technology hurts? Lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth perspectives of technology and cyberbullying. Journal of School Violence, 12(1), 27–44. doi:10.1080/15388220.2012.731665

Wuest, B. (2014). Stories like mine: Coming out videos and queer identities on YouTube. In C. Pullen (Ed.), Queer youth and media cultures (pp. 19–30). London: Palgrave Macmillan.

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