security vs. safety – the implications of social media & community construction for queer youth and their subcultures

approximately one zillion words of analysis under the cut

The new Internet media climate is often characterized by the idea that everyone is on it.

Cyberspace is no longer accessible only by tech nerds, early adopters, or the computer savvy,

and with the increasing trends of mobility and ever more user-friendly interfaces, having some

sort of Internet presence has become less and less avoidable. However, that’s not to say that all

Internet spaces are created equally, and demographic use does vary across even different social

media platforms. What’s important is that the type, depth, and extent of use varies, especially

among demographics such as youth, which in turn help form the characteristics of different

cyberspaces. Considering a demographic that is quantitatively less easy to measure using social

media data – queer youth – this variation in “space purpose” implicates certain questions. For

queer youth, “safety” is a priority which takes forms such as safety “from being identified,” safety

“in numbers,” and safety “to express oneself.” All of these things are offered in a queer

subculture or cyberculture, but only given that certain terms are provided for by the space they

occupy. By examining the applications and functions integral to the construction of different

Internet spaces, then, we can see how different etiquettes of the spaces are formed, elucidating

whether certain platforms are more conducive to minority cultural production – more specifically,

to fulfilling the needs of queer youth and their activism, movements, and subcultures. Comparing

the structures of Facebook, reputed as the ubiquitous mainstream of the Internet, with Tumblr

(known as the hotbed for creatives, radical politics, and cat .gifs) allows us to compare their

climates and the types of connection they afford, and thus what kind of spaces they entail for

queer youth.

The narrative of the queer youth’s journey has, historically, taken the form of leaving the

home for the metropolis – a lonely, singular journey from familiar faces and naturalized hostility to

the unfettered freedom of a shaken-up downtown with no rules and no one watching and nothing

to your name. You can trace that all the way back to friends of Dorothy following the yellow brick

road over the rainbow from stark Kansas to technicolor Oz, or look no further than New York City

marketing itself as the destination at the end of the global Rainbow Pilgrimage – positing itself as

literally sacred. The move to the city entails particular importance for queer youth with regards to

the idea of connection based on self expression, as well as safety. It’s no question that outing

oneself presents a very real danger to the queer teenager. One need only look at the percentage

of homeless LGBTQ youth or the spike in harassment-related suicides (part of the recent media

panic over youth and “bullying” as a phenomenon.) In the “journey” metaphor, the home

represents culturally conservative ideals about gender and sexuality, and the smallness of the

hometown mimetically informs the small range of diversity and possibilities – also the small-

mindedness of its inhabitants. The city becomes an aspirational escape, a place where the

dominant culture is still obviously present, but in a space varied, filled, and colorful enough that

queer communities, however loosely, have been able to archive and sustain themselves in

niches, neighborhoods, bars, museums, and other landmarks.

At the start of the Internet, narratives pertaining to the experience of the metropolis also

arose – dealing with anonymity and a lack of social regulation. Many pictured the Internet’s

dissociation from “real life” and real identities as either a utopia (where no minority is

subordinated by their lived experiences) or an abyss (where no one can be truly known.) Many of

the latter anxieties have still persisted in today’s corporatized Internet environment, but moreso in

the form of identity theft, and the hope for a space untainted (by names, records, capitalist

motivations and the trappings of identity) has been utterly obliterated. This deals, of course, with

the conversion of where time gets spent on the Internet from “online only” spaces – forums,

chatrooms, websites, where one need only be identified by nothing more than a username or an

IP address – to “social media,” which merely entangles the Internet and real life by colluding all of

one’s online activity (and mediated offline activity) into an “online presence” tied to one’s real

name. It is actually the anxiety of the Internet-as-abyss which precipitated this entanglement:

tying online life to IRL identities gives the illusion of security. The formation of this anxiety

explains the genesis of Facebook and the death of what came before it; that is, how MySpace –

an early iteration of social media which did not mandate its users to fully and therefore “truthfully”

disclose information about their full name, age, education, and location – fell out of favor to

Facebook, which has, since its conception, explicitly requested or required users to identify as

part of a real-life network (such as a university), under a real name. MySpace came to be seen as

pervaded with anonymous perverts and killers, arbiters of real-life violence, masquerading under

stolen photos, friend requesting naïve youth at random, whereas Facebook was more akin to a

cyber class yearbook – “secured” by its attempts to verify social ties to the real world.

If the Internet was the metropolis because interacting with it inherently causes the user to

interact anonymously with strangers at least on the level of the minute, then the recent trend in

social media — identity pervading Internet — has reconstituted the space metaphor of our Internet

use. We are no longer escaping to converge anonymously in the city, but have been stagnated in

the place we came from, the home, because for the interests of the mainstream or majority, the

home is safer. Indeed, it is part of Facebook’s mission to seem more like the familiar home of the

Internet than any other website. Between offering an “email” service, operating comment sections

and “Share to Facebook” badges on various news websites, blogs, and other apps, and

constantly prodding its users to “find” or “invite” their friends by Facebook search or email,

Facebook has made clear that it wants to be the first stop on the Internet for all inhabitants of

cyberspace. It’s done quite the job already, self-reporting a sixth of the world’s population as

“active” users as of the first quarter of 2013, including around 40% of the US population (the

country with the most Facebook users.) These statistics make Facebook the social media

platform that most closely resembles a “mass” media, which illuminates certain things about the

kind of social and cultural climate Facebook attempts to (and, arguably, does) maintain and

enforce.

The effects Facebook has on the social and cultural behavior of its users is analogous to

a certain effect on users that media critics like Larry Gross have pinpointed in TV viewers as a

result of television itself – “mainstreaming,” a convergence of outlooks regardless of viewer

demographics and backgrounds and a simultaneous diminishing of divergence and alternative

viewpoints. Gross discusses television’s dependence on advertisers necessitating that it seek

“large and heterogenous audiences,” thus cultivating dialogues that are “supposedly

nonideological” or centrist, “balanced…designed to disturb as few as possible.” (p7) While

Facebook is not a disseminator of messages and therefore can’t program the content its users

can post, it can certainly restrict it, most notably that which is “explicitly sexual” or even a “display

of nudity.” This regulation has come under fire in feminist critiques of Facebook policy, such as

that pages of sexy yet clothed photographs like “Big Booty Hoes” are permissible while photos of

breastfeeding and anatomical drawings of vulvas have been removed for violating the anti-porn

stipulation, but the policy also notably toxic to communities built around sexual minorities.

Importantly, in contrast, Tumblr does not censor or regulate images of nudity or pornography at

all, and browsing through one’s Tumblr dashboard in a public place on occasion will awkwardly

yield gifs of naked bodies in both sexual, pornographic, and aesthetic contexts, a reason Tumblr

users humorously cite as even more reason to stay in the comfort of their home as they traverse

the space. Either way, the distinction sets up an important opposition: Facebook, like other

mainstream public spaces, is not an acceptable context for discussion of sex and sexuality,

whereas Tumblr doesn’t dissuade the user in either direction (and thus is sexually “liberated” just

because it chooses not to engage in censorship.) Joyrich compares television to a “blue light

district” – signifying both “an area where one might buy sex for money [or] an area filled with

surveillance cameras and heavily patrolled so as to impede the selling of sex.” (p 16) I would

extend that metaphor to Facebook, who are strict on content that they deem explicit but

permissive of commodified sexuality used to either disseminate advertisements (ads for Gay

Pride on the sidebar) or in collecting information that may later be used by marketers (Big Booty

Hoes).

Looking again at critiques of the effect of television on constructing discursive spaces

with regard to sexuality, it becomes even more clear (and more disturbing) why an Internet space

would make the choice to regulate and censor explicit content. After all, the Internet is free from

the regulatory stipulations made by government bodies, such as the FCC. However, those

regulatory relationships are just one of the “mainstreaming” forces that television content are

mediated through and surveilled by. The other, of course, is revenue streams and commercial

relationships, and Internet spaces certainly fall prey to that. Just as the “dizzying array of…”

available TV channels “is not there because someone actually asked for all of [them],” but

“because someone…has a commercial interest…in attracting our attention so it can be ‘sold’ to

advertisers,” Facebook does not provide fillable user profiles and likable “business-style” pages

merely so that you can bond with your friends over which corporate entities and political

candidates you both endorse. It’s so that your attention and information can be recorded and

resold to marketers and advertisers who can then target and tailor their attempts to woo your

wallet to personal information that you’ve willingly given them. Thus, Facebook imitates the

conditions of other mass media with “mainstreaming” effects so as to cultivate a similar

environment. It inserts regulation and dissuades its users from venturing too far into the

alternative or deviant in an imitation of similar bodies like television, so as to attract the largest,

most heterogenous audience possible in a homogenized environment, literally for the same

commercial purposes. If everyone’s on Facebook, then Facebook has access to everyone’s

attention, and can resell the whole world’s attention to advertisers.

One distressing thing to think about is that the Internet climate of yesterday that today’s

college students grew up in was much less chained to corporate interests and media

conglomerations, and thus was much more queer or at the very least openly deviant, and there’s

a huge disconnect in what one may even “stumble across” on the basis of which Internet space

one participates in. The disconnect can be viewed as splitting along a delineation, what theorist

James Carey calls the difference between “transmission communication” (where communication

is a means of transcending space and time to ever more quickly and immediately deliver

information from point to point) and “ritualistic communication,” where communicating is

something we do to feel some semblance of “togetherness” and bonding with others. With its aim

to provide corporations as quickly and effectively with as much information it can glean from its

users, Facebook has more and more settled into the business of “transmission” communication –

targeted advertising is, of course, information about identifications as transaction. It would explain

why its user experience has diminished with its monetization. As a medium which merely

transmits information, Facebook comes off as a cold and unfriendly, “untogether,” unritual

experience – “distanced, yet overly close.” (Joyrich, p 16) Additionally, Facebook is literally in the

business of outing, publicizing, and selling who identifies with what – which users identify with

which products. For example, there was a small outcry among media outlets that specialize in

coverage of social media when some Facebook users determined that Facebook’s algorithms

had been able to figure out that they were gay (without the users listing the information on their

profiles themselves.) How did the users deduce this? They noticed ads that started to crop up

along their Facebook sidebars that were targeted at the gay community, such as ads for pride

events and advice services for “coming out.”

Following this logic of identity as commodity, Facebook is particularly exploitative of

queer subcultures along the lines of Halberstam’s critique of “mainstream culture” — a process by

which “subcultures are recognized” and acknowledged by marketers and then “absorbed” and

regurgitated “mostly for the profit of large media conglomerates.” (p 317) Rather than repurposing

and cheapening the tastes and aesthetics of a subculture for mainstream consumption, targeted

marketing actually absorbs those tastes, then sells it back to the subculture itself at a profit.

It is everywhere that Facebook fails, then, that Tumblr has succeeded. What Tumblr

lacks as an Internet space – a preoccupation with identification and “security,” a fixation on

censorship of explicit content, and overt and massive commercial interests – lays out the

conditions for what it can’t be, i.e. the mainstream. The mechanisms it does employ, similarly,

constitutes what it does provide, and this is safety in spaces, safety from being identified, and

safety in numbers. By not mandating that users maintain “real world” information like names and

networks anywhere on their blog, or not requiring them to identify themselves by anything but a

created username of their choosing, Tumblr forsakes security concerns for safety in anonymity,

an immensely valuable tool for queer youth. It makes it easier to friend complete strangers with

whom a user may have no real world connection, but instead things in common such as cultural

interests or sexual identities, which is integral to the construction of queer subcultures. Even the

“dashboard” rather than the “news feed” or the “tumblog” instead of the “timeline” has beautiful

metaphorical and practical significance in denoting spaces that can be queered and spaces that

privilege hegemonic constructs. Facebook’s “news feed,” even in name, suggests that it forces

the transmission of personal information to imitate the transmission of information about the world

at large, such so that what everyone is up to is the same thing as public knowledge. It is this

reciprocity of exposure between Facebook friends that has embarrassing or potentially

dangerous implications for sexual minorities – take, for example, cases in which Facebook has

outed LGBT youth without consent, by publicly adding their RSVPs to events like gay pride

parades to the “news feed” of everyone that they’ve friended – every homophobe who might bully

them, every family member who might disapprove of them. Tumblr’s “dashboard,” instead, follows

a more queer sensibility of merely updating the latest content as a constant stream of images,

text, and media, privileging the content over the person who posted it. The name of “Dashboard”

even hearkens back to the idea of the queer journey, or more basically just a traversing of space,

aimless and exploratory. Facebook organizes the user’s profile according to a “Timeline,”

denoted sharply by time of posting and following chronological structures and “logics…” of the

“conventional forward-moving narratives of birth, marriage, reproduction, and death.”

(Halberstam, p 314) Tumblr’s “tumblog” situates the posts as they are posted, and allows the

user to choose their own “themes” to organize the content or even manipulate and code their

own. The tumblog’s queer sensibility lies in its privileging of the user’s curated content rather than

information about the user themselves – it allows for what Halberstam calls an “alternative

temporality” merely by allowing the user to decide themselves if they even want to privilege time

as an integral concept to their blog at all. (p 314)

Importantly, the Tumblr community is unified only by reckoning with the idea that it is not

unified – not to the “communities” they come from, and not to each other, except that everyone

on Tumblr is well aware of “the forms of unbelonging and disconnection” that manifest for them

elsewhere on the Internet. (Halberstam, p 314) Mantras of the Tumblr community include “forever

alone” and related jokes about being “Tumblr famous” and having “no friends” IRL – inherently

reconciling that they’ve realized that the “fantasized moment of union” embedded in “the

conservative stakes of [traditional] communities” are nonexistent in a community connected by “

transient, extrafamilial and oppositional modes of affiliation.” (Halberstam, p 315) Most notably,

the “rules of Tumblr” posit Tumblr as a safe space, and a sacred space, a getaway:

1. No one knows of Tumblr,

2. Do not mention Tumblr to non-Tumblees,

and, (all caps)

7. DO NOT CONNECT TUMBLR TO FACEBOOK OR TWITTER

8. RULE #7 IS A PRIME EXAMPLE TOWARD RULES 1 AND 2

Indeed, Tumblr has recognized that its survival as a community of subcultures involves

quite intimately an active rejection of the “mainstreaming” process. However, bonding on Tumblr

is centered around a sort of ritualistic sensibility of togetherness – and much of that togetherness

is borne out of both connection over mainstream cultural texts that users might be interested in,

as well as where the mainstream has personally rejected them. In a complicated manner, Tumblr,

like IRL queer subcultures such as drag, does not reject the products of mainstream culture –

much of the contents of people’s Tumblogs are pieces of culture, both underground and

mainstream, that are repurposed and refashioned (quite literally, reblogged) to provide new

contexts and new meanings. Just as traditional queer subcultures “are related to old school

subcultures like punk, [while] carv[ing] out new territory for a consideration of the overlap of

gender [and related issues of identity] …and sexuality in relation to minority cultural production,” a

Tumblr user’s tumblog may consist of pictures of Beyonce next to pieces of a Vogue editorial

juxtaposed with a photoshoot their friend did next to a screencap from an old episode of the

Powerpuff Girls next to a blog post someone wrote analyzing a media object in the context of

feminist and queer theory. Kate Bornstein says that “[a queer] identity and fashion are based on

collage” – and this is really what’s at the heart of Tumblr: collage. Collage of mainstream

influences, subcultural inspirations, and personal reflections that feels at once intimate, private,

and collective, and in turn produces subcultures themselves through the process of constantly

“archiving, celebrating, and analyzing.” (Halberstam, p 317.)

Even if the Tumblr community at large is not a queer one, it participates in the art mode

of “queering” just by repurposing and manipulating cultural texts through mechanisms like

nostalgia and collage. Finally, by denoting safe spaces and discussions with easily-locatable tags

(such as “queer,” “LGBT,” “social justice,” and “feminism”) and maintaining anonymity, Tumblr is

the easiest platform for finding and responding to and generating and exposing the political

commentary and personal reflections of the youth movements it encompasses. By rejecting

traditional notions of security, Tumblr is able to provide an environment that bends to suit the

safety requirements of its individual users. Time will tell if monetization or other security demands

will warp Tumblr into a space that surveils rather than a space that insulates creativity and

connection, but as of right now, it is one of the only social media platforms that encourages

connection on the basis of common experiences rather than existing familial or community

connections, and that is a very valuable source of information and emotional support for queer

youth.

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