Queer Visibility in Queer Internet Studies: A reflection on QIS2

This post is a recap and reflection on attending the 2nd Queer Internet Studies Workshop in Philadelphia on Friday, February 17. See their website for more information. The travel to attend this even was supported by the Diversity Committee Travel Grant from the University of Michigan School of Information.

Keywords: Visibility, safety, digitization, internet studies, queer studies.


Opening with the question “What is queer about internet studies now?”¹, Jessa Lingel and Jack Jen Gieseking kicked off the second Queer Internet Studies Workshop, held at the Institute of Contemporary Art on the UPenn campus in Philadelphia. Taking inspiration from topics such as porn, suicide, sex, and identity, we began the day with small group discussions about why we were attending and wrapping our minds around something like “the queer internet(s).” Following, a research panel convened with presentations on policing by non-police actors (Mitali Thakor), archiving queer games (Adrienne Shaw), self-disclosure during identity transitions (Oliver Haimson), transgender visibility (Mia Fischer), and community organizing online (Carmen Rios). These morning conversations primed us for an afternoon of critical engagement with each other around topics of digitzation and queer identity online during a hands-on workshop lead by TL Cowan. The day was capped by a rousing and inspirational conversation between Katherine Sender and Shaka McGlotten that spanned from questions of digital public sex to surveillance of workers. Throughout all of these conversations, visibility, and particularly the seemingly boundless visibility of artifacts, words, and/or feelings online, became a line through which I made connections.


In our first breakout group after Jessa and Jack’s introduction, I sat at a table with folks from a variety of backgrounds, from social computing to literary studies. Our conversation immediately turned to online communities and their features and affordances that support various forms of perceived safety. Facebook groups that are closed and/or secret have recently emerged into popular discourse, especially as it relates to political organizing in the wake of the election. Our table discussed how these groups feel safe but ultimately aren’t, that the visibility or invisibility afforded by their closed/secret status is tenuous as best (not to mention their place on a widely surveilled social network). Further, while these spaces may provide perceived notions of safety, people must have “an in” to get access in the first place, potentially leaving those most vulnerable out in the cold. It lead to this broader question of, what do we expect from platforms like Facebook that aren’t meant to be queer to begin with? Is it possible to design for security that ultimately doesn’t exist? And further, how do we cope with subjective security norms, values, and expectations when queerness has such a complicated history with visibility?


Many (most? all?) of the attendees benefitted from the visibility of queerness, of queer bodies in circulation through public media, in our own processes of understanding our sexual identities. In her description of the LGBTQ Game Archive, Adrienne Shaw described a need to make the LGBTQ characters and content of indie games visible in lists of queer game characters which frequently feature the same content over and over again. Additionally, she mentioned something that had come up in our small group conversation: the vanishing of technological queer artifacts from the 80s (e.g. queer indie games) that didn’t benefit from widely networked connection and distribution that started to emerge in the mid-90s. While Shaw and her team working on the LGBTQ Game Archive are trying to discover and make these queer artifacts visible, TL Cowan led an afternoon workshop inspired by the digitization of lesbian erotic magazine, On Our Backs, that questioned whether visibility is always a good thing. The digitization of something such as On Our Backs begs the question whether the folks who originally posed for photos and submitted to the magazine would have done so with the knowledge that these articles would be made easily available for the world to see. Cowan leveraged this to question visibility and strike the difference between queer disappearance as survival and queer disappearance as oblivion. While visibility indeed communicates needed knowledge, literacies, and subjectivities, invisibility is also just as important for the survival as queer people.


In my research with rural LGBT people in the midwest, I take inspiration from these conversations around visibility, and especially the politics of visibility. In Out in the Country: Youth, Media, and Queer Visibility in Rural America, Mary Gray asks readers to “consider how strategies of visibility that currently drive mainstream gay and lesbian social movements in the United States work out in the country” (4). Urban dominated discourses of the benefits of visibility to LGBT rights and political movements do not take into account the complexity of what it means to be visible in a small town where there are likely to be not only fewer LGBT-identified people, but drastically fewer people out of the closet. This is what Gray and others call, “the politics of visibility.” While those of us that do work in rural areas recognize that visibility operates differently depending on location, that also extends to increased calls of (forced) visibility on the Internet. We should continue to honor these calls around the complexities of visibility in order to not only acknowledge the silences (or oblivions) that may emerge in our research, but to also just recognize a basic queer condition: that visibility and safety are not always compatible.


1. This opening prompt was inspired by a 2005 issue of Social Text that asked the question, “What is queer about queer studies now?”

New publication on rural gay men and location-based social networks

Hello everyone,

I am happy to announce that my submission to the 20th ACM Conference on Computer Supported Cooperative Work and Social Computing has been accepted for publication! This piece wouldn’t have been possible without the co-authorship and support from my advisor, Dr. Silvia Lindtner. The paper is titled “Constructing a Desiring User: Discourse, Rurality, and Design in Location-Based Social Networks” and is based off research I have been doing since 2014 on the use of location-based social networks by rural gay men in the Upper Midwest. The abstract is below and you can download and read (and cite :-P) a PDF of the paper at http://bit.ly/DesiringUser


A growing body of literature addresses the use of Grindr and SCRUFF, location-based networking applications for gay, bisexual, and queer men. This study builds on that work, asking whose sexuality is produced in the design and use of these applications. Drawing from ethnographic research and discourse analysis, we build on analytical frames from science and technology studies, feminist HCI, and sexuality studies, proposing what we call the desiring user: a user whose desires and sexuality are mediated through technological devices in particular ways. In doing so, we demonstrate how the discursive constructions of the user put forth by the creators of Grindr and SCRUFF clash with the lived reality of our rural interlocutors. We address emerging themes in CSCW and HCI related to the construction of sexual subjectivities and social computing in rural settings.

Read more of the paper here.

4S/EASST in Barcelona

I will be attending the annual conference for the Society for the Social Studies of Science August 31 to September 3 and presenting a paper based on my summer 2016 ethnographic fieldwork entitled, “Queer technologies and rural world-making.”

This paper explores how embodied knowledge, mobile applications for queer men, and spatiality are enacted in the world-making process of rural LGBTQ people. Drawing from ethnographic research in a rural region of the American Midwest, I show how queer sexuality is negotiated through a range of artifacts including software, bars, periodicals, festivals, and stories of belonging. I focus on contextualizing the use of location-based smartphone applications and their role in LGBT world-formation since their popularization in 2009.

Discourses used by mobile apps creators, queer theorists, researchers of people-nearby applications, and the popular press frequently assume an urban user and traffic in techno-determinist discourses regarding both how these apps are used and their cultural effects. Designers assume that these technologies will be used only in certain ways and critics believe that their use will lead to “the death of the gay bar.” These discourses over-emphasize the role of queer technologies in modern gay life, offer a limited understanding of their place in LGBTQ culture, and mischaracterize how they are used by a wide variety of queer subjects.

In contrast, I argue that rural LGBTQ identity is enacted dynamically and that rural users employ these technologies in novel and unexpected ways. I draw on STS literatures on the co-construction of the user and synthesize Berlant & Warner’s framework of “world-making” from queer theory and Donna Haraway’s theory of “worlding” from feminist technoscience. In doing so, I offer a non-determinist view of these applications that centers processes of context-bound user interactions.