Nina Wakeford. Handbook of Lesbian and Gay Studies. Editor: Diane Richardson & Steven Seidman. 2002. Sage Publication.
Last June, I watched a group of marchers in the New York Gay Pride parade who carried signs saying, ‘We’re here, We’re Queer, and We Have E-mail.’ An off-line friend laughed, remarking ‘We have FiestaWare too—so what?’ (Senft, 1996)
Now, if the computer screen is soon to become the screen to the world as well as for our own so-called private production, its space will be the contested arena of the symbolic organisation of cultural and economic power. (Case, 1995: 334)
Lesbian and gay studies of electronic communication address the impact of new technologies on the everyday worlds of lesbians and gay men, and those identifying as bisexual or transgendered. Four themes run through existing research: (a) identity and presentation of the online persona; (b) the creation of queer virtual ‘space’; (c) the electronic facilitation of social networks and ‘virtual community’; and (d) the potential of new technology to transform erotic practice. Studies of new technologies are methodologically diverse, although many rely on first-hand experience of using electronic forums such as newsgroups, web pages and chat lines. As the uptake of electronic communication continues to rise, and the effects of what has been called the Network Society (Castells, 1996) become more apparent, it is likely that this field within lesbian and gay studies will be of increasing importance, not only because of the number of queer users who access the Internet on a daily basis, but also due to the changes in the way that academic knowledge is being produced and disseminated. Email and the World Wide Web are changing the ways in which lesbian and gay studies is developing as well as the topics which it encompasses.
In broad terms, new technologies of information and communication consist of all emerging electronic and digital devices and environments—including the computer, the mobile phone and the pager. However, most research concentrates on computer-mediated online services, and activities that are accessible via the Internet. As well as ‘online,’ other terms which are used in this field of study are ‘virtual,’ ‘digital’ and the popular ‘cyber-’ prefix. Many of the technologies and skills which are required to access online spaces began to be developed in the late 1980s, and as a result this area of study has a short history, with published works beginning in the mid-1990s and concentrating on the United States.
Whereas film, television and printed mass media have been the focus of substantial research by lesbian and gay scholars (Horne and Lewis, 1996; Berlant, 1997; Gamson, 1998; Gross and Woods, 1999a), studies of the Internet and other analogous forms of mediated communication are understandably much thinner on the ground. Nevertheless despite the field’s relatively small size, the variety of approaches—drawing on literary studies, anthropology, sociology, psychology and media studies—contributing to the emerging literature is notable. The label ‘Cyberqueer Studies,’ which I have used to discuss this body of writing (Wakeford, 1997a), encompasses a diverse set of topics, methods, and forms of output. Although many investigations of online communication have developed in an ad hoc way at the edges of traditional disciplines, there is an emerging discipline of Internet Studies, into which would fit much of the writing discussed in this chapter.
One notable feature, both of the field of Cyberqueer Studies and Internet Studies more widely, is a focus on the end user of technology and the ‘consumption’ of new media, rather than a concern with the design of technologies or the economic and political processes which frame consumption. Many studies have been inspired by theoretical frameworks from the cultural studies of science and technology. In this field the term ‘cyborg’ has been proposed as a metaphor to describe the inevitability of human association with technology and the contradictory possibilities of this relationship for marginalized groups (Haraway, 1985). This framing of the co-construction of humans and technology is cited by many authors writing about sexuality and new technology, although there is little sustained engagement with Haraway’s original formulation. Rather, the idea of the cyborg has become a stimulus for researchers to search out the ways queerly identified individuals and groups are using new technologies (e.g. Bromley, 1995; Hall, 1996; Kaloski, 1997).
Given that both studies of the Internet and Queer Theory emerged in the 1990s, it is hardly surprising that cyberqueer research has also been heavily influenced by frameworks derived from Queer Theory. Indeed, writers have engaged with lesbian and gay studies as a whole through the narrower prism of queer theory, rather than from any other part of the discipline. Therefore certain topics of investigation—such as those related to ideas of identity or performativity—have been prioritised at the expense of focusing on how everyday activities fit into institutional practices. Although theories of prominent writers in lesbian and gay studies have had a substantial impact on the development of cyberqueer research, the reverse is not yet the case. Cyberqueer studies have not made substantial inroads into the discipline of lesbian and gay studies, in contrast with other areas, such as research on HIV and AIDS (Watney, 1997; Patton, 1988; Epstein, 1996). This is probably a matter of disciplinary time lag, as the concerns which are foregrounded in queer studies of the Internet or other new technologies, and the questions which they potentially raise about contemporary lesbian and gay practice, the politics of representation, the operation of social movements and systems of social support/ intervention, are at the core of lesbian and gay research.
The Growing Importance of New Technologies in Queer Life
In the UK television series Queer As Folk, one of the central characters is shown using an online service to meet possible sex partners. From this portrayal of gay life in late 1990s’ Manchester, it appears that such activity, incorporating the swapping of digital photos, has become a common alternative to cruising bars or using telephone chat lines. The growing prevalence of images relating to new technologies and everyday experiences indicates a new media form which is becoming part of many queer lives.
Drama on stage also reflects this trend: Kate Bornstein’s play, Virtually Yours: beta 1.0, which was performed in San Francisco during 1994, reflected a curiosity about new technologies in the local queer community. Bornstein acts out the experience of being a transgendered activist faced with her girlfriend’s decision to begin her own gender transition. Her confusion about the flexibility of sexual orientation, the persistence of desire and the presentation of the body are explored through a juxtaposition of Bornstein’s autobiographical reflections and the experiences of playing an interactive computer game. How similar, Bornstein asks, are the paradoxes of contemporary sexual orientation and the experience of new technologies? What use are new virtual worlds for understanding our queer practices?Virtually Yours provides one answer, albeit highly ideosyncratic, to the question ‘We have FiestaWare too—so what?’ As Bornstein shows, new media can be used as a way to understand the complexities and contradictions of living a contemporary queer life saturated with technology.
Bornstein has produced subsequent work that draws on images of computer processes to describe and interpret transgender experience, and has used ambiguities about sexual identity as a way to characterise online exchanges (Sullivan and Bornstein, 1996). In doing so she has contributed to a growing strand of queer popular culture which reflects the use of computer-mediated communication among queer communities, particularly in North America. In the novel Prozac Highway a lesbian comes to terms with her mental illness through virtual intimacy as well as increasing immersion in computer games (Blackridge, 1996). Jeannette Winterson set her novel The Powerbook in ‘London, Paris, Capri and Cyberspace’ (Winterson, 2000). Filmmakers have also highlighted how new technologies can be integrated into the everyday. Pratibha Parmar’s film Wavelengths indicates the possibilities for connection between women through the Internet (Parmar, 1997). The potential anonymity of electronic encounters has proved popular for gay male fiction.
As well as sparking this new theme among producers of queer popular culture, researchers have also noted a shift in modes of meeting others, given the facilities which are offered through electronic communication. In Tsang’s work on gay Asian males online, he claims that for the users of one online service in California in the mid-1990s ‘electronic cruising has replaced bar hopping’ (Tsang, 1994: 119). Yet statistical estimates of use are extremely difficult to obtain. In February 2000 an audit of Planet Out’s website counted 1.6 million unique hits per month. This indicates the popularity of one online service, but does not tell us anything about the identity of the users or the nature of that use. There are no publicly available surveys of Internet use that collect information about sexual orientation. Some of the newer web content providers, such as Rainbow Network Plc, have commissioned their own surveys. Their nationwide survey of 608 ‘gay people’ in 2000 showed that 57 per cent of lesbian respondents and 51 per cent of gay male respondents in the UK were Internet users (Rainbow Network, 2000). One-third of the total sample were using the Internet on a daily basis. Relating these results to other activities, the research results show that ‘non-scene gays’ tend to be more frequent users than those participating in local gay scenes, and that all users were spending a third of their time online at sites identified as primarily lesbian or gay. These results offer us an overview of how gays and lesbians are integrating the Internet into their daily lives, but there is not yet any longitudinal data which could indicate how uptake is developing among the heterogeneous groups which make up queer communities. The research described here indicates some of the distinctive ways in which this may be happening in the pockets of activity which have already been studied.
The History of Queer Online Services
A rough chronology of lesbian and gay spaces on the Internet can be pieced together from the accounts of early users and research studies that focus on specific online sites. In general terms the evolution of queer online forums have kept pace with mainstream Internet services, beginning with gay newsgroups and bulletin boards and now characterised by elaborate queer web content and services. As commercial services for chatting to other users became commonplace, revenue-orientated gay chat spaces increased in parallel (Shaw, 1997). When graphical ‘3D’ worlds became available Pride!Universe was created for queer users (Wakeford, 1997a; Taylor, 1999). However, regardless of the specific features of the online forum, many services are short-lived. Some commercially run services, including Pride!Universe, have ceased to operate. The situation of local services, run as hobbies or as non-profit-making ventures, is even more precarious. This makes historical research difficult. Unless it is archived, much fieldwork in online spaces is characterised by a ‘disappearance of data’ (Kotamraju, 1999). Whereas old banners and leaflets may be retained, digital materials are often deleted or lost as new software and hardware systems are upgraded.
The first gay and lesbian online services were based on plain text posted in electronic arenas such as newsgroups and bulletin boards. Newsgroups were one of the earliest forms of globally accessible computer mediated communication. Gay newsgroups emerged in the early 1980s, more than a decade before the growth of commercial cyberqueer spaces (Goodloe, 1997). In 1983 gay users of USENET set up one of the first globally accessible queer online spaces: a newsgroup called net.motss. ‘motss’ is the acronym for Members Of The Same Sex. As is frequently the case, there is little documentation about the first users of this online service. Nevertheless, fragments of the group’s history are contained in an archived posting written by one of net.motss original users. This account shows how the group gained visibility in a public Internet forum despite pervasive homophobia within newsgroup space.
It [net.motss] arose out of some comment in net.singles about having a newsgroup for gay issues, passed on to some folks saying ‘yeah, good idea, I’ll support it,’ and then gathering the requisite ‘yea’ votes. We then presented the results to ‘net.groups’ or whatever it was called, where it encountered violent opposition. People were sure it would not only scare the horses but that it would scare upper management as well, and lead to Netterdammerung: death-of-the-net-as-we-know-it. I mean, if upper management knew they were spending money so that gay folks could chat clandestinely to find sex partners, what would be next? The whole house of cards would be in danger of falling: first net. singles, then net.lang.c.
Some folks thought that ‘net.gay’ was too hot a name, and some rather frivolously suggested alternatives. Someone lost to antiquity peeped up with net.motss, a pun on MOTOS/MOTSS, and it stuck. It took a lot of calm but relentless and impassioned arguing with people to achieve consensus and to convince folks that this would be wonderful and not a disaster, but I believe that we did. The newsgroup was formed, and the rest is history. About a year later, I got a note from M[name], one of the backbone folks (and at the time spiritual leader of all of USENET), saying that we could consider, if we wanted to, changing the name to net.gay, since there had been no problems and the quality of the group was self-evident. It didn’t seem worth pursuing; motss was fairly well-ingrained. (Dyer, 1988).
The ‘violent opposition’ of early USENET authorities is just one example of how prejudice has shaped queer spaces on the Internet. Early gay forums from the online service provider Prodigy were included in a ban of unsuitable groups by a court in Germany in 1988, although after much outcry they were reinstated. Later the confidence that queer Internet users could maintain a boundary between online activity and their lives elsewhere was severely shaken when America Online (AOL) was found to have passed on private information revealing the homosexuality of a member of the United States military. Such events are equally as significant in the development of cyberqueer online communication as the technical programming advances that appear to be the driving force behind more sophisticated services. Furthermore, they undermine the utopian rhetoric. How far is the Internet global if services can be blocked by one country? To what extent is the impression of anonymity undermined if service providers reveal private information to employers or other authorities? Apparently benign actions can also have consequences on the provision of lesbian and gay content. The website http://lesbian.org was temporarily overloaded and shut down during its initial months online by the volume of users being directed to it via a link set up by a heterosexual pornographic site (Goodloe, 1996).
The process of vote-collecting for USENET groups deemed necessary for the formation of net.motss stemmed from Internet culture which championed a democratic space of inclusion (Ludlow, 1996). However, other arenas existed that did not need such collective permission, and could therefore operate outside the surveillance of those who controlled the formally organised spaces. Bulletin Board Services (BBSs) were small regionally focussed services, often with direct local telephone dial-ins to electronic chat spaces. In an ethnographic study Shelly Correll describes the Lesbian Café BBS used by women in the Midwest of the United States in the early 1990s (Correll, 1995). Woodland describes a similar gay male service, Modem Boy High School, which was populated by users in the Los Angeles area of California (Woodland, 1995). Tsang reports on a BBS in Orange County, California which began in 1991 and attracted many Asian American gay male users (Tsang, 1994). Other relatively unregulated electronic services offering ‘live chat,’ such as IRC, have also been popular. In 1994 three of the Wired ‘Top 10’ list of most populated chat rooms were men4men (#3), MenWhoWant2MeetMen (#6) and YoungMen4Men (#8), names which suggest gay male users or homosexual content (Shaw, 1997). Most of these chat services, on IRC and in BBSs developed a loyal following via personal recommendations rather than widespread publicity. BBSs flourished among early adopters of computer mediated communication, and until the mid-1990s they operated as social networks which were largely unnoticed by wider queer media.
Internet services based on the use of electronic mail and the World Wide Web grew rapidly with the development of Internet Service Providers and the increasing use of email in educational institutions, particularly among students. As a consequence, email ‘discussion lists’ developed. The inventory of lists collected at the online Queer Resources Directory shows the wide variety of interests and groups with such forums.
Email discussion lists have enjoyed a far higher profile than newsgroups or BBSs among lesbians online, although there are several personal accounts of substantial lesbian activity on the Backdoor BBS in San Francisco. Probably the most well-known lesbian list, SAPPHO, was started in May 1987. Early lists such as SAPPHO tended to be facilitated by women working in the computer industry who could use the computers at their organisation to run the mailing list distribution software. These women could spend up to four hours per day administering requests for subscription, dealing with messages being returned by non-functioning email accounts, or simply moderating the discussion which was happening in the forum. Even though in theory its membership is not limited exclusively to lesbians, the majority of participants on SAPPHO identified as lesbians, dykes or bisexual women, and SAPPHO has been represented in several accounts as a lesbian online space (Case, 1995; Wakeford, 1995; Hall, 1996; Isaksson, 1997). By the early 1990s what had begun as a small list of women who mostly worked with computers or in education developed into an important point of entry for any lesbian starting out on an exploration of Internet services. Postings originated not only from university sites, but also from addresses in NASA and the Jet Propulsion Lab (Case, 1995). By 1994 there were nearly 700 subscribers to SAPPHO, and up to 300 postings per day and the main list soon generated regional sublists (Isaksson, 1997). One of these regional lists was in the San Francisco Bay Area of California, established by a new arrival to the city in order to meet other lesbians (Wakeford, 1998a).
In the early 1990s, discussion lists were dominated by subscribers from the United States, in particularly those logging on from educational institutions. Ron Buckmire, who founded the web-based Queer Resources Directory, undertook an analysis of the geographical distribution of the mailing list QueerPlanet in 1995. Of 319 subscribers worldwide, 42 per cent were from .edu domains, indicating educational institutions in the United States. A further 28 per cent were from .com, .org, or .net domains, usually implying a user in the United States. Although there was such over-representation of Americans on ‘global’ lists, pockets of queer Internet activity elsewhere began to emerge including several European lists set up by Eva Isaksson. From her base in Finland she established the first Finnish sapfo list in 1993, the year that also marked the beginning of dedicated lesbian ‘Chat’ spaces.
The mid-1990s marked the beginning of a period of intense growth for all lesbian and gay discussion lists. Isaksson documents the surge of lesbian lists in 1994, including the OWLS (Older and Wiser Lesbians) list in late Spring, a list for European lesbians Euro-Sappho in July, and a US-based alternative to SAPPHO, DykeNet, in November. Lesbian lists began to serve increasingly specific groups: kinky-girls, boychicks, poli-tidykes and lesbian-studies scholars, for example (Goodloe, 1997). Also in 1994, California-based http://www.lesbian.org was set up by Amy Goodloe, and soc.support.youth. gay-lesbian-bi was approved. Other newsgroups with explicit lesbian and gay labels were also approved on USENET, such as soc.women.lesbian-and-bi in 1995.
Although most discussion lists continue to be based in the United States, in the late 1990s, European lists began to be facilitated, sometimes operating in languages other than English. By 1997 Isaksson had counted thirty-nine general or topical lesbian email discussion lists which were running on computers in North America with English as their ‘default’ language, eight additional lists which had local emphasis such as BA-Sappho for the Bay Area area around San Francisco, five lists which were run on European computers using the language of the server’s host country rather than English and three which were run from European servers in English for Europeans (Isaksson, 1997).
The timeline of lesbian lists constructed by Isaksson has not been replicated for other queer spaces. There is no systematic documentation about the development of gay male newsgroups, email discussion lists or web resources, and also lack of information about the development of online services by or for the transgender population. It is difficult to assess the importance that websites such as FTM International have had for the queer population, although they have undoubtedly played an important part in providing access to information and stories which were not previously in wide circulation.
There is also a gap in research on how particular kinds of online services—newsgroup, discussion list, chat, and/or web—are chosen above others on the same theme. This may be a significant factor in determining the future shape of queer Internet services. Early research on gendered use of spaces online, although not taking into account sexual orientation, suggested that for a topic which had both newsgroups and discussion lists, women were more likely to participate in the latter (Clerc, 1996). As the most visible queer Internet services are now based on the Web, researchers would do well to keep track of the consequences for other arenas.
BBSs were usually run on home computers whereas mailing lists were almost always run on Unix servers. Moderators could be likened to the computer hobbyists described in a study of early computers users (Turkle, 1984). Even BBSs which charged for online access were rarely set up with the sole purpose of making money. Most of the services in Finland described by Isaksson were developed by Kari Koivumaki, a nurse who worked on the http://seta.fi web space on a voluntary basis. Commercially orientated services began to flourish as content providers realised the value of the gay and lesbian online market. In 1996 an Associated Press report noted ‘It’s the unspoken secret of the online world that gay men and lesbians are among the most avid, loyal and plentiful commercial users of the Internet’ (quoted in Gross and Woods, 1999b). More recently Planet Out proclaimed that >>> ‘The gay and lesbian market is finally accessible en masse through Planet Out Partners, Inc.’ Commercial services such as Planet Out, http://Rainbownetwork.com and Queer Company, have established themselves—often with expensive advertising campaigns—alongside those run by the pioneers, many of whom subsidised the running of the free services from their own pockets, or from fund-raising drives.
AOL has been at the forefront of providing commercial unmetered access to the Internet, and since the early 1990s it has been the largest domestic Internet Service Provider in the United States. It was host to one of the earliest commercially facilitated lesbian and gay spaces. In 1991 the Gay and Lesbian Community Forum (GLCF) was established with official support of AOL, although one researcher noted that this forum had a distinctly ‘corporate air’ compared to unofficial AOL areas (Woodland, 1995). As well as lesbian and gay spaces on otherwise mainstream sites, dedicated queer commercial services began in the mid-1990s. Planet Out began on the Microsoft network in 1995, quickly also establishing a space on AOL (Lewis, 1995). Rainbow Network began in the UK in 1999 and by February 2001 boasted 47,000 individual subscriptions.
In the late 1990s as the capacities of bandwidth, hardware and software increased, graphic virtual worlds began to appear (McDonough, 1998). For a brief time Planet Out joined forces with Microsoft in providing access to a lesbian and gay graphic world in which the avatars were designed by the lesbian cartoonist Alison Bechdel. Such a development drew upon the more traditional forms of queer popular culture, in this case the ‘Dykes to Watch Out For’ comic books. Although this ‘virtual world’ with characters such as the ‘Lesbian Avenger’ did not survive more than a matter of months, other spaces had a longer lifespan. In October 1996 an alliance of Pride Media, a private company based in San Francisco, Compuserve and Fujitsu Software Corporation announced the launch of Pride!Universe. The service relied on the interface of an exisiting mainstream service called WorldsAway on the Compuserve network (Taylor, 1999).
As the Internet becomes more widely used, and the content continues to evolve via more sophisticated graphics and animation, the most visible Internet services for the queer user are provided by large commercial organisations, such as Planet Out or Queer-Company. However, a large number of more informally organised chat spaces and discussion lists continue to exist, as the listings on the Queer Resources Directory make clear. Small, more specialised websites continue to be developed, attracting participants on the basis of shared interests in the same way that newsgroups and discussion lists connected earlier users.
Queer digital content is also being created by artists, representing the expression of queer experience through technology. Significant moments in queer history have been explored by creating interactive multimedia content for the web, such as Shu Lea Cheang’s web project related to the story of the murdered Brandon Teena (Harrup, 1997). Two such art projects which have been discussed by researchers in terms of theories of queer performance are Linda Dement’s CD-ROM ‘Cyberflesh Girl Monster’ produced from scanned body parts of the clientele of an Australian dyke bar, and Barbara Hammer’s Community Cyberspace Biography located on the ECHO system in New York (Willis and Halpin, 1996). Independent filmmakers such as Hammer have made extensive use of the new media as a way to express contemporary queer experience, and for those within dance and performance studies interactive work online provides a rich new source of material for pursuing lesbian and gay themes.
Most research in cyberqueer studies has focused on the services which were developed around the mid-1990s. At this time many services were free to Internet subscribers and not commercially organised. In the studies described here most researchers managed to avoid the potential logistical and legal wrangles of recruiting subjects via large commercial organisations. Newer online content providers, which are owned and run by well-financed new media companies, have not yet been the subject of sustained analysis. Yet the form and substance of their output pose significant dilemmas about online representation, in particular the strategic development of quasi-brands which cross-cut different types of media. Increasingly this will either encourage or force researchers to address the methodological issues of access to corporate environments.
Dominant Themes within Cyberqueer Studies
Identity and Self-Presentation
Recent debates within lesbian and gay studies have addressed the nature and viability of identity-based social movements, reflecting a long-standing concern with what constitutes identity claims and processes of recognition (Butler, 1997). Yet since the mid-1990s the meaning of lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans-gender or queer identity has been challenged by the ways in which new technologies have become part of many people’s experiences of being a member of a sexual minority. This shift has not yet been incorporated into the wider debates about social identity within the discipline.
As the Rainbow Network survey showed, roughly half of all lesbians and gay men used online services, reflecting the impact of the Internet in the UK by the late 1990s. This new queer sphere of activity presents a challenge to those researchers studying the formation of social identity amongst contemporary queer populations. They must now take on board the potential significance of online experiences in the processes of coming out, meeting others, being politically active, contributing to a ‘community,’ participating in non-normative sexual activities, and other aspects of identification.
New information and communication technologies do not have a straightforward impact on pre-existing queer identities, and certainly not one which can be predicted in advance with any degree of certainty. Indeed, certain marginal sexual identities have been implicated as figures through which cyberspace is understood. This is particularly the case with transgender identity, which has been used as a metaphor through which the impacts of the Internet on identity can be described (Bromley, 1995; O’Brien, 1996). Transgender has been invoked as a metaphor for boundary crossing, fragmentation, and hybrid/cyborgs, as it was in the work of Kate Bornstein (1995), although the potential political risks of so doing have not been explored.
Existing studies of queer sexuality and the Internet have assumed that issues of identity can for the most part be reduced to issues of self-presentation. The creation of an electronic persona online—whether through text or graphics—may permit misrepresentation as well as the opportunity for sustained fantasy or deception. Early Internet studies developed an emphasis on the nature of self-presentation online, and a central motif of this first wave of research was a male user who presented himself as a woman in online interactions (Stone, 1991; Dibbell, 1996). This act was offered as evidence of a ‘freeing’ of users from the ‘constraints’ of the gendered body. The emergence of the interest in identity and self-presentation in cyberqueer research is probably a consquence of this framing. Some writers locate their investigations of cyberqueer directly in terms of the flexibility of self-presentation which is supposed to be a feature of interaction in online spaces (Hall, 1996). Equally influential in casting the issue of identity in terms of self-presentation were the writings in the early 1990s of queer theorists Butler (1990) and Sedgwick (1991), who were read as if they were proposing a theory of voluntaristic performance of the queer self. The ideas of performance and performativity were aligned with the concern with identity mutability in Internet Studies. For example, as well as being used to frame Hall’s investigation into the discursive practices on SAPPHO, references to the work of Judith Butler and/or Eve Sedgwick appear in a study of queering discussion lists about female pop stars (Fraiberg, 1995), in an article on the significance of gay male chat spaces (Woodland, 1995) and in an exploration of the relationship between online and trans-gender identities (Bromley, 1995).
The consequence of equating the presentation of self online with the formation of self-identity is that the relationship between activities involved in creating an electronic character and the ways in which that electronic character is implicated in everyday life and social institutions may be left unclear. Since much of the writing has focused on highly specific questions—the credibility of user nicknames in a particular forum or which forms of talk are censored—it is difficult to tell whether or not we are seeing new forms of queer social identity in any more general sense. Nevertheless, creating a successful online nickname or working out the discursive norms of an online environment are not trivial matters to users, and are significant in terms of the internal functioning of a forum.
Changing the online description of your ethnic identity seems to have a significant impact on the chances of being selected as a conversational partner. Tsang reports the story of ‘one BBSer from Taiwan [who] picked ‘Caucasian’ and found out lots more people wanted to chat with him than when he was “Chinese”’ (Tsang, 1994). Such differential treatment can become an informal means of gatekeeping for a ‘virtual community,’ as is described in the section below.
Studies of online worlds can provide researchers with a rich set of data on how codes are evolving to describe aspects of self and behaviour. Subcultural codes, akin to the hanky code (Miller, 1995), form an important part of the functioning of some online forums (Hall, 1996; Wakeford, 1995; Livia, 1999). A study of the French Minitel, an early form of computer-mediated communication which in many ways is analogous to a text-only chat space on the Internet, illustrates the complexity of abbreviations in gay male electronic chat spaces (Livia, 1999). On the Minitel a gay man may identify himself as VRP BFT/62 80: DISPSOIRS, which is equally opaque as an unknown hanky colour. This highly concentrated Mintel code contains a great deal of information about the user, including occupation, physical attributes, geographical location and availability.
VRP BFT/62 80:DISPSOIRS appeared on a gay male sex line based in Lille, in northern France. The mysterious letters ‘VRP’ refer to a vendeur representant placeur (seller, representative, order placer, or sales rep), ‘BFT’ describes this sales rep as bien foutu (well hung), ‘62 80’ refer not to his height, weight, or other dimension but to the two regions in which he plies his trade: Pas de Calais and Somme. ‘DISPSOIRS’ is not a misspelling of desespoir (despair) but the important message that this individual is available in the evenings (Livia, 1999: 432).
Due to the pay per minute structure of the Minitel all interactions must be as brief as possible, and significant insider knowledge is assumed in order to decipher the resulting codes. Other online codes reflect the ancestry of lesbian and gay forums in wider computer cultures. The Muff Diva Index (‘MDI’), which allowed early lesbian mailing list participants to categorise themselves on scales such as hair length, shoe style, and relative size of their women’s music collection (Wakeford, 1995), was an adaptation of the Hacker Index through which early Internet users created a light-hearted way to categorise themselves using the significant attributes and stereotypes of computer hackers. Codes such as the MDI were regularly included in ‘signature files’ at the bottom of email postings on discussion lists such as SAPPHO in the early 1990s (Hall, 1996). Additionally, by including mottos and quotations in these signature files, users could affiliate themselves with authors or ideas which were already associated with queer culture.
Given the extent of the light-hearted banter reported in chat space and email discussion lists, it would be tempting to dismiss many online exchanges as trivial in terms of a wider lesbian and gay identity politics. However, other researchers, and in particular those who have combined online observations with face-to-face contact, suggest that certain social and political identities are only made possible through Internet exchanges (Yue, 1999; Barry and Martin, 2000). In Taiwan and South Korea queer communities have only existed openly from the mid-1990s. The authors of a study of the effect of the Internet in these countries conclude ‘queer communities and subjects use computer-mediated communication to construct their identities and communities on and off the net in a dialectical and mutually informing manner’ (Barry and Martin, 2000). They suggest that the possibility of an openly gay identity in Taiwan and South Korea emerged alongside the popularisation of the Internet. Usage of online services in general was much more widespread in Taiwan than in Korea, including thriving BBSs and around eighty MOTSS sites in mid-1999. In Korea it has been more difficult for users to establish such electronic spaces, and most users access content via the web pages of commerical Internet Service Providers. In both countries Internet sites were used both for meeting other lesbians or gay men, and as a primary resource for queer activist information.
Much has been made of the fragmentation of self-identity in contemporary societies. Some writers on sexuality have attempted to describe autobiographically how the Internet has changed their sense of self-identity, although their accounts show how difficult it is to make such claims without slipping into technological determinism (Haskel, 1996; Case, 1997; Yue, 1999). Yue suggests that constructing a hypertextual narrative which includes records of her online experiences is a way to bring together, however partially and temporarily, the fragments of diasporic identity which she feels cannot be consolidated elsewhere. She presents the act of writing about the desires and possibilities of cyberspace as a way to reconcile potentially conflicting elements of herself; arriving as an immigrant to Australia, being excluded from some gay venues, and working as a political activist. ‘<interface: reflections of an ethnic toygirl>’ (Yue, 1999) was written as a result of this process:
Scrolling along very much like the tentative pixels of an interactive computer screen, this text performs as a circuit, inviting readers to interline the webs of their configurations into this fabric, which can only be in the beginning of an ongoing platform for further points of critically queer departures. Articulating the oral, the vernacular and the subaltern, ‘interface’ injects as a kind of postmodern self-writing which presents an emerging visuality and functions as a post-colonial entry into the metropolitan Australian queer culture. (ibid.: 114)
The way in which Yue constructs her ‘postmodern self-writing’ narrative can be understood as an attempt at expressing the mutual constitution of sexuality and the technology. Her ‘postcolonial entry into the metropolitan Australian queer culture’ is constructed through the availability and capabilities of Internet technologies.
The Creation of Queer Space
They’re meeting places so free and open and wild and fun they make the Castro Street look Victorian. (quoted in O’Brien, 1999)
Another key topic within cyberqueer writing is the exploration of the kinds of spaces which are created for queerly identified users online. Queer ‘spaces’ online exist in so far as ‘places’ are created by the exchange of electronic text as chat contributions or emails, or via a website (Woodland, 1995). Focussing on the interactions alone misses an important component of the spatial contextualisation of those interactions, and the ways in which these spaces are often presented as locations rather than conduits for communication, and described as ‘towns,’ ‘rooms’ or ‘bars.’ Yet queer online services have also been described using metaphors of the body. Case suggests that the SAPPHO is the lesbian body on the Internet (Case, 1995).
The quotation which begins this section appeared in an advertisement in The Advocate in 1996, and illustrates the way in which many guides and mass media articles about gay and lesbian online services have drawn parallels with well known physical places which are already marked as queer. Such places—San Francisco’s Castro district or Manchester’s Gay Village around Canal Street—have received substantial attention in lesbian and gay studies, particularly among cultural geographers (Bell and Valentine, 1995, 2000; Ingram et al., 1997). However, tracking down spaces online can be far more difficult. For the most part queer online spaces have been publicised by word of mouth, until the late 1990s’ advertising campaigns. Although early Internet Service Providers such as Prodigy, AOL and Apple’s eworld offered some gay content, this provision is not a good indication of the extent and content of queer online spaces. Hundreds of ‘gay-related’ message folders outside the Gay and Lesbian Community Forum were frequently better populated than the official queer area on America Online (Woodland, 1995).
Several writers have provided descriptions of the textual means by which queer spaces are created. It is notable that there is more work on the text-based services such as BBSs than the new graphic-based worlds. On a BBS the textual description of a space can be offered to users as they enter the system. The Lesbian Café BBS was organised around the image of a bar and associated features such as a fireplace. ‘TJ described the bar using features everyone would recognise as a bar. There was the bar itself, highly polished so she could slide drinks down to her patrons. The pool table was to be a gathering place, but “no-one is to knock the balls off the table”. She added a fireplace and a hot tub,’ (Correll, 1995: 279). In common with many descriptions, this BBS encouraged the user to imagine an interior with features which encourage interaction. The creator of Lesbian Café sought to portray ‘a place more grand than any lesbian bar that actually exists,’ while retaining elements of a scene which would be familiar to many participants (Correll, 1995).
Woodland paints a similar portrait of the Stonewall Café (Woodland, 1995). His description illustrates the ways in which online places may be modified in response to participant activity—in this case the addition of the ‘bisexual futon.’ ‘Depending on the imagination of those writing entries, the room’s amenities may contain a hot tub (or two, if separatists are online), a fully stocked bar with attractive co-gender bartenders and a range of comfortable furniture: a love seat, some dark booths in the corner, the “dyke couch” and the most recent addition, the “bisexual futon”.’ (ibid.). The visions of those who create these spaces range from the everyday—the café and the bar—to more utopic scenes incorporating iconography of paganism or anarchy.
Woodland also describes Weaveworld, which draws upon a quite different set of references to either the Lesbian Café or the Stonewall Cafe. Rather than encouraging the impression of an enclosed location, the user arrives in an outdoor landscape surrounded by statues and within sight of Michel Foucault.
You are standing on the top of a hill covered with fragrant and unfamiliar flowers and grasses. From this vantage you see a large part of Weaveworld, a riotous patchwork of geographies hastily rescued from some ancient peril…
On a large marble pedestal is a statue of two Greek warriors clad in bronze and silver armour…
You see Jorgé Borges, saying ‘Oh time, thy pyramids!’
Quentin talks with what appears to be a box containing Schroedinger’s cat.
You see the two boys from the statue, wrestling.
You see Michel Foucault in white pants and a leather jacket. (Woodland, 1995)
The layers of gay imagery incorporated into Weaveworld encourage the participants to see themselves as participating in a complex environment in which considerable knowledge of queer cultural references is expected. By contrast the graphic environment of Fujitsu’s Pride!Universe relied heavily on the imagery of science fiction. ‘The visual setting for the Universe in the gleaming interior of a space station, including public thoroughfares with sliding doors, meeting places, private spaces, a landscaped garden and other objects of interest’ (Pride Media Press Release, October 2, 1996).
The kinds of representations which are created in the virtual architecture of these spaces are significant because they suggest the kinds of participants who are anticipated, and the types of interactions which are expected to happen (Crang, 1994; Wakeford, 1998b). Modem Boy High School BBS has developed an elaborate set of spatial metaphors including public spaces (classrooms, a cafeteria, a library) and private spaces (locker rooms) for the ‘STUDents’ who log on to the system (Woodland, 1995). Although Woodland points out that this sets a ‘tone of playful camaraderie amongst users,’ he also comments that it simultaneously constructs gay men as ‘horny, sexually compulsive, adoldescent boys.’ He concludes, ‘ModemBoy gains the comfortable uniformity of a consistent spatial metaphor, but potentially disenfranchises more diverse expressions of queer identity.’
An alternative way of creating queer space is through the exchange of electronic text on a discussion list (Fraiberg, 1995). Although via a discussion list there is no sense of entering a space with defined parameters such as a bar or a landscape, Fraiberg suggests that queer space emerges via the exchange of emails which are sent to the main list address and then distributed to all members. Her study considered the types of interactions which occurred on the discussion lists formed by the fans of Melissa Etheridge and the Indigo Girls, particularly before these musicians had spoken publicly about their lesbianism. Queer consumption of popular culture has frequently involved the appropriation of mainstream stars and fictional characters. Fraiberg suggests ‘queering’ takes in the course of discussions in which list members speculate about the stars’ sexuality and appropriate them as lesbian icons. Lesbian participants, not without resistance from others, create their own narratives about the stars, and then dominate the discussion amongst those who might dissent. The same kind of queering might be said to take place on SAPPHO, although this list is clearly more dominated by overt lesbian-related content than are other interest-based lists.
Although this means of creating queer space has been tremendously successful on the Internet, discussion lists remain largely underground in terms of the official representations of appropriated cultural icons. For example, the television series Xena Warrior Princess has attracted a huge lesbian following, which is reflected in discussion list participation and a substantial number of fan organised websites. Lesbian fans have more webpages than any other subgroup of Xena fans. Yet on the official Xena site they are virtually invisible and MCA/Universal never mentions Xena subtext. Pullen comments ‘Even the [online] database that promises unlimited information does not recognize the terms “subtext” or “lesbian”’ (Pullen, 2000). Unlike discussion lists, many websites which allow discussion are highly regulated by commercial sponsors, and the potential for queering a mainstream site seems restricted.
Social Networks and ‘Virtual Community’
Based largely on his own experiences as a participant in a BBS, Howard Rheingold’s book The Virtual Community: Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier (1993) proposed that electronic communication that allowed people to share information and emotional support encouraged the formation of ‘virtual communities.’ The book was one of the first widely read statements advocating this new means of sociality, and it was widely referenced in early Internet studies (Shields, 1996; Jones, 1999). The forms of social support to which Rheingold refers includes the rapid sharing of information in everyday crises, for example between parents, as well as sustained emotional bonds which were developed over time in relation to those with long-term illnesses. Rheingold’s ideas contributed to an existing concern circulating in the United States about the need to revive ‘third spaces’ in which people could gather, away from the first and second places of home and work. Cafés, coffee shops, bookstores, bars and hair salons were characterised as being such third spaces. They provided places where community-making could happen, and also were at the heart of democratic society (Oldenberg, 1988). Rheingold suggests that the virtual community is another third space, providing a supplement to traditional meanings of finding information and offering support. The virtual community reflected a specific kind of nostalgia, and offered a potential replacement for the loss of such third spaces in the ‘real’ world. Whether or not third spaces actually functioned as beneficially as is implied in these debates remains largely unexamined in relation to the notion of virtual community.
Internet researchers have tended to accept Rheingold’s position, including many within cyberqueer studies. Woodland cites Oldenberg’s work in his study of the Stonewall Café and Weaveworld (Woodland, 1995). Although other writers do not make such explicit references, cyberqueer studies tend to replicate two assumptions which characterise the virtual community perspective; first, that communication in online spaces is a replacement for ‘community’ elsewhere; second, that groups of users interacting electronically on a BBS, newsgroup or mailing list, are assumed to have already achieved some kind of community simply through having this communication.
A frequent assertion is that online interactions are a substitute for participation in gay bars, clubs and other organisations of ‘the scene.’ Correll suggests the primary function of the Lesbian Café was to provide a ‘sense of community’ for women who were isolated from bars, bookstores or community centres (1995). The role of online spaces in providing social venues in the lives of those who identify as queer but are isolated or marginalised—geographically, economically or socially—has been noted by several writers (McKenna and Baugh, 1998; Wincapaw, 2000). Overcoming such isolation seems to be particularly crucial for queer youth seeking advice and support (Gray, 1999; Silberman, 1999). Having access to online services serves as a proxy for face-to-face involvement, and often respondents talk about online participation as the only way to keep in contact with similarly identified others. A respondent to Wincapaw’s survey commented: ‘(I) needed to communicate with other African American L/B/T (Lesbian, Bisexual, Transsexual) women. Hey, I’m the only out black dyke in this white city of 44,000’ (Wincapaw, 2000: 55).
Although providing access to an alternative queer sphere of activity, it is unclear how these online services compare with their geographically situated counterparts. Users may participate in a queer forum online, whilst not necessarily identifying in this way elsewhere (Correll, 1995; Wincapaw, 2000). Correll demonstrated that the Lesbian Café provided a sense of being with other lesbians, and that this was particularly important for users who described leading otherwise ‘straight’ lives. Researchers of internet spaces tend to be sensitised to the ways online behaviors may be separated from other activities, and this raises the question of the ways in which participants in other (offline) queer spaces—such as bars and cafés—may be experimenting in analogous ways.
The other assumption involves the nature of ‘community’ itself. Rheingold’s original example, The WELL BBS, was an established electronic forum with a large number of regular and long-standing participants, many of whom were based in Northern California. However, it is questionable that we should presume any group of electronic participants thinks of itself as a virtual community. This tends to have been an assumption in Internet Studies, without a clear indication about what might differentiate a social group, a social network and a community. Rather than assuming that any gathering of electronic participants equals a community, looking at the specific kinds of activities in that group – including communication, rules and responsibilities—uncovers a range of ways in which groups of users create configurations of social relationships. Contrasting the Minitel exchanges (Livia, 1999), which may be extremely brief, pseudonymous and cryptic rather than discursive, with the extended ongoing narratives between those with established personas on a discussion group such as SAPPHO (Hall, 1996; Wakeford, 1998a; Case, 1997), illustrates the possibility that electronic communication can facilitate both weak and strong social ties. If Minitel and SAPPHO are both to be characterised as queer virtual communities, researchers will need to develop more subtle ways of describing the very different types of social relationships which predominate in each space.
Even though research on weaker ties largely focuses on seemingly more ephemeral chat spaces, and research on strong ties has highlighted the role of apparently more robust discussion lists, the nature of the group interactions cannot be read off the technical features of the forum. A BBS, for example, may be used for contrasting purposes. Whereas in some BBSs such as those discussed by Tsang, users might change their self-description to attract different interactional partners on different occasions, other BBSs such as the Lesbian Café have regulars who maintain a consistent persona which is expected to be free from any deliberate deception.
Research on the activities happening in online forums shows how far users are taking on roles and constructing reponsibilities in ways which might indicate distinctive types of sociality, such as those associated with being a community. Although these activities are understandably varied, many of the cyberqueer studies have concentrated on networks which are used as a way to pass leisure time, such as swapping news or gossip, rather than more overtly political ends. Informal ‘chatting’ of this kind seems to occur in all computer-mediated forums, although the actual form varies. In graphic worlds, user actions involve both typing in text, the manipulation of a graphical representation of a character, as well as movement through the virtual architecture of rooms (Taylor, 1999), whereas in chat spaces or IRC, most chatting is done with out the conscious and continuous reworking of the participant’s persona during the session. Flirting is a frequent feature of these casual interactions (Wakeford, 1995; Wincapaw, 2000). Yet even apparently trivial chat may involve those taking part in understanding complex sets of rules and vocabulary which are distinctive to that cyberqueer arena, such as the Muff Diva Index (Wakeford, 1995). Although individually many of the electronic messages sent and received appear to be mundane and of little importance, the cumulative effect of participation can sometimes have an intense psychological impact on the interlocutors (Haskel, 1996). In the gay media several stories have highlighted the potential of these social networks to enable ‘online romances,’ although when these involve younger queers, they are often framed in terms of the potential vulnerabilities of these users (Silberman, 1999).
Elsewhere in Internet studies, some research has suggested that prolonged use of the Internet may lead to a decline in psychological well-being. However, a study undertaken by psychologists on the impact of newsgroup use for those with ‘concealable marginalised identities’—in which were included users of alt.homosexual—concluded that participation of a virtual group was ‘a crucial part of the demarginalisation process’ (McKenna and Bargh, 1998). The researchers found that 37 per cent of the users ‘came out’ as a direct result of newsgroup participation. This would widely be regarded as a positive outcome, and highlights the heteronormative assumptions of the previous study. McKenna and Bargh’s results concur with first person accounts which suggest that involvement in a gay forum online may lead some users to question their own sexuality, and then come out to themselves and friends (Walsh, 1999).
Although not yet extensively documented by researchers, computer-mediated electronic networks have had a significant impact on political activism. Soon after the first discussion lists were launched, the Queer Planet list was established to keep subscribers informed of the latest activist news and events. Queer Planet existed purely as an online mailing list, but electronic resources were also built for existing campaigning groups. The Queer Resources Directory was started in 1991 as an electronic archive for Queer Nation, and later turned into a more comprehensive resource available on the Web (QRD FAQ document). Digital Queers (DQ), a fund-raising group, also sprung up around the need for queer organisations to have Internet access. DQ began in San Francisco as a social group which held events at large computer fairs and used funds to provide hardware and training for other groups such as PFLAG. More recently the electronic transmission of information between activists in Seoul impacted on the local Film Festival (Berry and Martin, 2000).
Much of the research on lesbian and gay communities has stressed the importance and the nature of boundaries which are established between group members and outsiders. This has also been a feature of writing about the construction of identities within social movements, particularly separatist movements (Green, 1997; Roseneil, 2000). Similarly, the means by which participants are allowed to join or are refused entry to electronic arenas has provoked interest in cyberqueer studies. Such gatekeeping can occur both through the requirement of formal applications to join a service, and more informally through the operation of discursive norms (Hall, 1996).
Although many online services do not require registration for access, a substantial number of spaces such as discussion lists operate a screening policy administered by the list moderator. The ‘intro message’ sent out by the moderator may be accompanied by the request for email confirmation that the intended user is indeed lesbian or gay. Some lists also require or expect residency in a particular area, and thereby erect another boundary around the group. Often the rationale for this regulation is that offline meetings will be possible (Wakeford, 1998a).
The use of the intro message alongside the requirement of an affirmation about sexuality is intended to prevent lists being taken over by outsiders, usually heterosexuals. However, an extract from one such intro message, from a list in California, shows how debates about ‘who is a lesbian’ become part of the way in which the screening policy operates. The first section of the intro message reads: ‘This list is for lesbians and dyke-identified women ONLY∗(∗for the purposes of this list, dyke-identified means any woman (born or TS[transsexual]) who identifies as lesbian or bisexual)’ (Wakeford, 1998a). This wording reflects an inclusiveness in the San Francisco area about the transgendered population which was not true for other locations. The rule requires only that a user ‘identifies as’ lesbian or bisexual, and explicitly includes transsexuals under the category woman. In fact when the list was first formed, the intro message was more restrictive, suggesting only ‘post-op[eration]’ transgendered users were welcome. After several months the moderator changed the message so that it was in tune with the local queer culture, rather than reflecting the policy on other women-centred lists (Wakeford, 1998a). However, intro messages, through an insistence on defining certain qualifications for participation, may construct boundaries which are just as impermeable, or perhaps more impermeable, than those which occur in bars, clubs or other public places where socialising takes place.
Users of discussion lists and other forums which screen participants often describe the resulting forums as ‘safe spaces’ (Hall, 1996; Wincapaw, 2000). Participants contrast the high number of homophobic insults which are included in the content of unmoderated groups, particularly newsgroups and chat rooms. In addition to attempts to exclude outsiders via the intro message, or the naming of the forum, particular skills have been developed to combat homophobic speech online, and these are passed on informally. These skills include technical knowledge about gaining ‘op’ status and how to disconnect other users, or means by which posts can be ignored by the system. Hall describes how ‘kill files’ were encouraged to exclude a user with a particularly aggressive posting style, as she was thought by the majority of the users to be a man. Inventive naming of chat rooms counter the expectations of unwelcome guests. Thus an AOL forum called ‘lesbian chat’ may be supplemented with ‘sensible shoes,’ the new name acting as a code which will be understood by the intended participants.
Monitoring of participants also may occur in the course of ongoing conversations. In her study of SAPPHO, Hall was particularly interested in investigating the workings of the discursive practices through which users determine the credibility of the participant. This ‘online screening process’ begins with an assessment of the subscriber’s name. Traditionally masculine names are subject to intense scrutiny and require explicit public justification. Participants are also expected to conform to SAPPHO’s norm of what Hall calls ‘discursive femininity.’ This discursive style is characterised by the avoidance of any verbal utterances which might be seen as adversarial—such as ‘flaming’—and encouragement of a ‘politeness-based communicative ethic’ (Herring, 1996). Hall indicates that the list’s desire for discursive conformity is so strong that jokes have been written about the political correctness of the forum. Users are instructed not to raise discussions of men, straight or gay, including past experiences with male lovers, boyfriends or husbands. In maintaining this policy, SAPPHO subscribers were often required to justify their separatism to other lists to which gay men also subscribed, such as GAYNET (Hall, 1996: 164).
Whereas in some forums of the Internet, such as newsgroups, cross-posting is actively encouraged, on discussion lists such as SAPPHO, which are seen as private spaces, cross-posting is against list policy. There is thus a tension on many lists of wanting to encourage new members, and to maintain a strong screening process. Issues of the permeability of boundaries of the forum are therefore frequently at the forefront of the discussion.
Some subscribers feel that the social and cultural diversity of the group is rarely reflected in the conversations that take place within the postings to the list. White, well-educated repondents considered ‘race’ to be a ‘non-issue’ in discussion list communication, whereas a woman of colour stressed the intensification of invisibility which occurred in these spaces. ‘Race itself doesn’t come up until one of “us” walks in the room’ this survey respondent replied. She continued ‘people—especially articulate folks—are presumed white until proven otherwise’ (Wincapaw, 2000: 55).
Existing cyberqueer studies have not yet developed firm indicators of what would constitute ‘community’ participation in online spaces. ‘Regulars’ are defined as those who post regularly to the discussion list, or who frequently log on to the BBS (Correll, 1995), but there are few indications of the effects of regular use. McKenna and Bargh’s study suggested that the effects that they noticed on demarginalisation were stronger for self-identified posters than ‘lurkers’ (McKenna and Bargh, 1998). However, other studies suggest that users may think of themselves as participating in a forum even when it is used as a background noise to other activities. When used in this way online participation would be close to the creation of a queer sound-scape, a concept which has been described elsewhere in lesbian and gay studies in relation to the use of music in domestic spaces (Valentine, 1995).
New Technology and Erotic Practices
Synthetic cyberdyke wants non-blonde (fakes OK), non-herbal types for sexual interfacing. (Yue, 1999: 115)
Online environments are a new arena for queer sexual and erotic practices. As portrayed in Queer As Folk, text and graphics can be exchanged via a computer as a precursor to face-to-face meetings, in this way fulfilling a similar role to telephone or postal small-ads. Early services from Prodigy and AOL included online ‘personals’ databases, and these continue to be a popular feature of large web-based environments. However, the possibility of rapid exchange of information electronically has also promoted a new kind of sexual practice—sometimes called ‘cybersex’ (virtual sex)—in which the experience of computer-mediated communication is constructed as sexual experience, rather than being an addition to other activities. Early mainstream writers speculated about the possibilities of elaborate ‘teledildonics’ (Rheingold, 1993). However, cybersex usually consists of a jointly authored narrative of a sexual encounter, often in spaces which encourage speedy exchange of electronic text, such as chat rooms.
Eroticism online may occur in less explicitly sexual spaces. Replies to Haskel’s request for commentaries about lesbian online experiences produced an example of the powerful effects of rapid communication.
There’s often an intense excitement involved. Your screen becomes electric in a very real way. Her name becomes magic, your days are spent in fingering her [tracking online status], talking with her, writing/reading email to/from her. And the intensity builds until the words on the screen become flesh and sound when she reaches over the distance to touch you. (Deva, quoted in Haskel, 1996: 57)
A variety of new erotic repertoires are being created in the course of such intense exchanges. The material culture of the computer itself has sometimes acquired an aura of queer desire (Haskel, 1996; Tsang, 1994). Haskel writes of her own feelings about the technologies of computing, and the associated cultures of mastery and control.
Women like my machine. It’s not phallic like a flashy mobile phone, but had all its cybernetic thrill. Is the fantasy to master machines and be mastered by them? Or is it simply childhood memories of visits to my mother’s office: clicking keyboards, dextrous ladies at their typewriters, smelling good, looking smooth and soft and so in control? I’ve always found typing sexy. (Haskel 1996: 53–54)
Often, as in the novels Nearly Roadkill (Sullivan and Bornstein, 1996) and Prozac Highway (Blackridge, 1997) desire appears to cross-cut use of the computer, the forums which are accessed, and the others with whom connections are made. It is difficult to know what or whom are being desired. Both Haskel and Yue use expressions of their own erotic practices as a way to explore the potential implications of new technologies for queer life. This is a theoretical and methodological strategy which has been advocated elsewhere in queer theory (Probyn, 1995, 1996; Halperin). Drawing on her own memories Elspeth Probyn suggests ‘ways in which desire may be put to work as method in queer theory’ (1995: 4). Rather than locating desire as having an object to which it must be attached, Probyn uses the conception of desire as a productive force with which to make queer connections (1995). Yue’s (1999) article ‘Interface’ seems to employ a similar strategy, including an account of a sexual encounter which is described in terms of an interactive computer game in an arrangement that is similar to Bornstein’s Virtually Yours. Yue’s queer connections bring together not only women and machine, but narratives of cyberfiction, the fetish scene, and urban drug cultures. <Interface> is an experimental text, at the boundary of artistic intervention and academic commentary, and suggests how Probyn’s method might work with an individual biography, resulting in a highly personal view of the erotic potentials of cyberqueer activities.
It is difficult to understand the type of sexual practice which Yue is describing outside the context of the technology and new media through which it is expressed. Her writing illustrates one way in which changing erotic practice throughout the 1990s has begun to incorporate online activities, and the part that new technologies might play in the construction of sexual activities. The fact that in the early 1990s advice about sex toys was offered on SAPPHO (Case, 1995), and this reflects the growing acceptability of public discussion of lesbian use of sex toys during this period, and at the same time demonstrates the importance of SAPPHO as a means by which these discussions and practices could evolve.
Many discussion lists have been set up for the discussion of non-normative sexual practices, such as kinky-girls which was formed for the discussion of lesbian S/M. By establishing such discussion lists, their creators were also consolidating or formalising what were sometimes disparate groups of interest. Whereas access to groups of those with marginalised sexual practices has largely been concentrated in urban centres, more remote users might have their first contact with the existence of such queer sexual practices through the Internet. Online spaces may provide the opportunity not only for having cybersex, but also be part of the way sexual practices themselves are defined. The recent research on the sexual practice of ‘bare-backing’ has demonstrated the extent to which the practices and debates about this behaviour cross-cut any division between ‘virtual’ and ‘real.’
There has been at least one attempt to deploy the technical features of the online service to create a sex-positive queer environment which would subvert the usual practices in online spaces. In DhalgrenMOO a programmer experimented with computer commands which automatically replaced every user’s identity with the word ‘someone’ in an attempt to explore the possibility of creating a ‘backroom’ (Woodland, 1995). The participant would become part of a narrative that might include the following statements:
Someone brushes up against your leg.
You touch someone’s arm. (Woodland, 1995)
However, Woodland points out that both DhalgrenMOO and Weaveworld are unusual in their unconventional imagery. More common are the descriptions within Modem Boy High School BBS that reproduce images which are already in wide circulation. Rather than using new technologies to invent new forms of queer desire, BBSs such as Modem Boy High School encourage users to engage in sexual fantasies which have a more easily accessible set of spatial metaphors.
Lesbian and gay studies has recognised the importance of narratives about sex and sexuality (Plummer, 1995). Cyberqueer researchers have documented several kinds of queer sexual practices, but there are no studies of how online narratives about erotic practices might be integrated in the everyday experiences. At this stage most of the innovative erotic practice that draws on the culture or use of new technologies is being developed by lone writers such as Yue, or in fleeting experiments such as the one in DhalgrenMOO.
Online Data Collection
The methods used in cyberqueer studies range from electronically administered surveys and research based on traditional psychological measures to email interviews and participant observation. In conducting studies of online services, cyberqueer researchers have struggled with several distinctive challenges that relate to the technological and social infrastructure of the fieldwork environment. This has led to several new modes of data collection and some experimental data presentation.
Participant observation has long been used in lesbian and gay studies, both in older ‘classics’ of research (Humphreys, 1970) and in more contemporary work (Green, 1997). However, in conventional studies participation involved covert or overt face-to-face contact with research subjects. Many studies have collected logs of data online through some form of observation, often combining this with electronic participation in, or even administration of, the space (Isaksson, 1996; Goodloe, 1997). Several researchers have gained access to participants for online interviews after having been involved in virtual world or discussion list exchanges, but many have had no face-to-face contact with their research subjects (Hall, 1996; Wincapaw, 2000; Woodland, 1995). Where researchers have participated in offline meetings or conducted more traditional face-to-face interviews, it has tended to be as a supplement to data collected online (Wakeford, 1998; Berry and Martin). The implication of online data collection versus material gathered through face-to-face exchanges has not been raised.
Some cyberqueer researchers have been physically located in the same geographical area as the service or population that they are researching (Tsang, 1994; Wakeford, 1998a; Correll, 1995), but most are not, and it is surprising that most existing work has not questioned the potential effect of researcher location on the kind of data that is collected. One exception is Anna Livia’s study of the Minitel, in which she pays close attention to the possible effects of joining messageries based in France from the United States (Livia, 1999). Even though in terms of her on-screen interactions she was just as ‘close’ to a participant in Paris as any French user, she faced two peculiar challenges: the difference in time zones and the financial infrastructure of Minitel. Given that she was logging on from the United States and respondents were in France, the data was necessarily constructed around different temporal and bodily experience. The other infrastructural restriction was the fact that users paid per minute for their use. Livia had to develop strategies for understanding the linguistic structure of the Minitel acronyms without engaging in long interactions which were expensive for, and resisted by, her participants.
Despite such problems the global range of computer networks does allow research that would have only been previously possible at disproportionate cost. In considering the implications of new technologies for methodology in lesbian and gay studies, it is worth noting that even those with no interest in studying online worlds per se have successfully employed the Internet in order to reach a queer sample (Nieto, 1996; Wood, 1997). Other researchers indicate that their participants could only have been reached via online contact, considering the long-standing difficulty of reaching marginal or stigmatised populations, and this is particularly the case for queer youth (Nieto, 1995; Gray, 1999).
The proliferation of queer spaces on the web, in chat spaces, discussion lists and beyond is often not being archived. Although researchers can log discussions as they happen, as can any subscribed user, there is no organisation that is storing queer Internet history. Data which has been generated on older software versions may be particularly at risk in the long term. The problem of disappearing data is not evenly distributed across all services, particularly where content has been created by a corporation. Any archive of the now defunct Pride l Universe, if indeed it has been stored, is now part of the digital assets of the corporate alliance that set it up. It is difficult to imagine that researchers in the future will have easy access to such data, and the most likely outcome is most such digital assets will be deleted before they can be archived.
Studies of queer culture have frequently included the researcher’s personal responses to undertaking fieldwork in spaces such as clubs (Wilton, 1995; Amory, 1996). Cyberqueer studies are no exception. Some writers have also experimented with new narrative forms in the presentation of their results. In his review of the state of contemporary ethnography Norman Denzin suggests that qualitative research faces a crisis of representation in which the traditional forms of academic writing are being challenged by such new narrative forms (Denzin, 1998). In the cyberqueer literature research carried out via auto-ethnography includes attempts at reproducing hypertext narratives within the traditional format of an article or book (Haskel, 1996; Case, 1997; Yue, 1999). Texts may combine different typographical fonts and narrative styles to indicate interactions between the researcher and their subjects, or changing perspectives of the author. Sue-Ellen Case’s book presents a traditional academic text which is interrupted by an italicised reflexive narrative on the writing and computing experience (1997), whereas Haskel includes the email texts of her exchanges in her article, switching between responses and personal reflections (Haskel, 1996). As well as including email texts, Yue’s writing draws on Teresa De Lauretis ‘migratory consciousness’ and is a deliberate attempt at intervention in the written form of feminist and queer theory in which passages from personal advertisements and computer game narrative are interwoven with commentary. Although other ethnographies, such as the study of the Lesbian Café BBS, have been written up in a more traditional style, the experimental work has opened up the possibility of integrating the experience of the online medium into the form of the presentation, and in so doing has increased the repertoire of queer writing styles.
Part of the explanation for the popularity of the auto-ethnographic componant in many cyberqueer studies is the newness of the medium to the researchers themselves. Descriptions of the online space become accounts of the author’s own entry into the queer spaces on the Internet. Most are positive about the possibilities about online services without subscribing to the hyperbole of earlier commentaries. Many authors situate their own stories of getting online as part of their introductory remarks and their motivations mirror those of the populations that they describe; a desire to find a safe space online (Case, 1995), or a place to have sex encounters (Tsang, 1994). Explicit commentary on the sexual practices of the authors is occasionally included (Tsang, 1994; O’Brien, 1997). The pioneer writer-moderators, such as Eva Isaksson and Amy Goodloe, have written about their participation as a form of activism, and as a way to realise their lesbian identities.
In some areas cyberqueer studies have reflected methodological trends in mainstream lesbian and gay studies, and a surprising lack of reflexivity. Although the possibilities for researching groups of which you are not a member is feasible via some online services, researchers have stayed close to the environments in which they might normally participate. Lesbians tend to study lesbian-orientated online services, gay men to study gay male-orientated online services. Perhaps an assumption that this raises fewer ethical dilemmas explains the absence of any extended discussion about issues such as the desirability of asking permission before reproducing exchanges verbatim, the level of privacy that should be given to information shared in electronic spaces, and the effect of any research intervention on the group structure. None of these issues have yet been well covered in such studies.
Queer Theory Online: QSTUDY-L
The pervasiveness of Internet facilities amongst scholarly researchers has produced new fields for data collection, such as newsgroups or web pages. Simultaneously it has had an impact on the production of academic knowledge in lesbian and gay studies. The production of queer theory itself has been modified by the popularity of online discussion lists, web archives of unpublished papers, and, far from trivial in the popularisation of queer theory, the rapid dissemination by email of gossip. Archives of discussion lists provide snapshots of intellectual history in lesbian and gay studies, including the ways in which online lists become battlegrounds for different intellectual positions. A set of events on QSTUDY-L—a list dedicated to the discussion of queer theory—highlights the symbiotic relationship between queer theory and new communication technologies.
QSTUDY-L is an online discussion list based at SUNY-Buffalo. Created in 1994 out of a previous forum housed at UC Santa Barbara, the archived postings from QSTUDY-L show how intellectual disputes emerged, captivated the list, and then were integrated into subsequent discussions or disappeared entirely. By mid-1995, from a relatively modest beginning, more than a hundred topic threads each month were being posted to the list. The early logs show that contributors were just as likely to be well known authors in lesbian and gay studies as graduate students or independent scholars and activists; Eve Sedgwick participated in a debate of which the subject header was ‘Social constructionism and the sodomite’; Gayle Rubin became involved in an exchange on Camille Paglia. QSTUDY-L seemed to epitomise the early hopes for the Internet as a means through which scholars at all levels could share intellectual interests.
The use of QSTUDY-L grew steadily through the late 1990s, but the numbers of widely known published writers who posted to the list decreased. Then, in June 1998, the posters of QSTUDY-L found themselves unexpectedly in the spotlight, targeted in an article by Daniel Harris in the Harvard Gay and Lesbian Review as examples of queer theory’s academic insularity. Harris’ article was based on a spoof posting which he had written to QSTUDY-L, much like a similar hoax that had been published in the journal Social Text mocking the cultural studies of science. Harris’s post concerned a translation drawn from ‘a mythical French “subjectivist” named Marie Françoise de Ricci’ (Harris, 1998). The fictional De Ricci had been inspired by Judith Butler’s article ‘The lesbian phallus and the morphological imaginary.’ De Ricci’s invented response was entitled ‘Towards a Theory of the Absent Orifice: Labial Engenderings and Oral Antecedents’ from which Harris posted a summary of her ‘orifice theory.’ He admitted that he composed this ‘more or less as a Rorschach blot of postmodern cliches, a suggestive but utterly opaque quilt of theoretical slogans culled from the email of other QSTUDY-L subscribers.’ Asked by Harris to comment on the utility of de Ricci’s work in queer theory, some participants had taken the bait. One spotted it as a parody of the previous debates. When the text of the article in theHarvard Gay and Lesbian Review was posted electronically to all subscribers, the aftermath of Harris’ hoax reverberated through the electronic community, as it had in the fallout after the spoof article inSocial Text. Some participants were furious that Harris had used QSTUDY-L not only as a vehicle for a specific critique about what he saw as the over-zealous policing of queer intellectual terrain, but also as a way to engage with queer theorists by deception. Harris accused the most vocal posters on QSTUDY-L of excluding the very minorities whose experiences the list supposedly sought to analyse. His article is highly critical of the alleged worship of the writers of ‘the minute anti-canon of sacred texts.’
Far from protecting the rights of the silenced few it [QSTUDY-L] stamps out dissent, censors minority positions, and legislates conformity to the minute anti-canon of sacred texts written by queer theorists’ real oppressors, not Dead White European Males, but the unchallengeable politburo of postmodernist Big Brothers who dictate every word and every email they write (Harris, 1998).
Harris’ choice to target QSTUDY-L, and to use it as a foil for his argument, indicates the partial integration of online spaces into the production of queer theory. He presents the list as a ‘virtual community’ of queer theorists, and his reporting slides from a specific set of debates on this discussion list (‘dildo scholarship,’ ‘trucker porno theory,’ ‘gender liminality’) to a more general critique of the state of queer theory in toto and allegations of abuses of newly acquired ‘power and bourgeois respectability’ of its key figures.
As an isolated event on a list primarily of scholars, the action hardly caused a ripple in the wider world of lesbian and gay newsgroups and discussion lists. Yet it indicates a significant moment in the integration of online and offline debates in lesbian and gay studies. It is sometimes tempting to treat discourses generated via the Internet less seriously than discussions that occur elsewhere, and undertake a kind of policing of the boundaries of the sites that are considered appropriate for theoretical production. Feminist theorists have recently questioned the utility of such restrictions (Ahmed, 2000). As increasing numbers of students use the Internet as a primary source of information, the archives of QSTUDY-L, which are freely available on the web, are an easily accessible source of data. Several journals have published guides to online resources for lesbian and gay scholars, and the Queer Resources Directory lists several discussion lists for scholars with interests in a specific subfield. Given the proliferation of lists such as QSTUDY-L, lesbian and gay studies needs to understand the impact that online services are having on the development of the discipline, and more consideration will need to be given to the effect of circulation of online material, pedagogically and in terms of research dissemination.
Cyberqueer studies have demonstrated the range of ways in which new information and communication technologies impact upon queer lives, and also how queer experience comes to be understood in terms of these technologies. However, studies are often small scale or exploratory studies and not widely read amongst lesbian and gay scholars. More extensive research in this area should be supported, and the emphasis put on the integration of cyberqueer research into a wide range of perspectives as the discipline of lesbian and gay studies continues to develop. In the spirit of encouraging further studies in this area, and in the light of some of the omissions in existing material, this conclusion will point to some possible issues that might be tackled by future research.
The history of queer online spaces reveals not only the piecemeal development of these services, but the lack of virtually any documentation—electronic or otherwise—on the evolution of cyberqueer services. It points to the need for some kind of routine archiving of the spaces which do exist. In the current climate commercially orientated content providers are attempting to demonstrate in their publicity that their users constitute a queer market, rather than a group of individuals with shared interests. The rapid expansion of lesbian and gay services in the 1990s was due largely to the increasing amount of free content and the facilitation of social networks by companies for whom getting loyal users who would use their website was the primary goal. This shift in ownership and control of the dominant content, from hobbyists to commercial content providers, is the most significant structural change in relation to the development of future cyberqueer research. Who is financing and producing cyberqueer content? The call within Internet studies for an ‘ethnography of infrastructure’ (Star, 1999) is of crucial importance in cyberqueer research, which has tended to ignore the technological and economic infrastructures that frame online exchanges.
The four themes highlighted in this chapter, addressing the issues of identity, space, community and the erotic, reflect the overlap between existing concerns of Internet studies and contemporary debates in lesbian and gay studies. Overall, the influence of a particular reading of queer theory, for example understandings that centred around self-presentation, provided the theoretical justification for stimulating research questions and has fostered some sense of similarity between studies, but may have hampered the development of alternative frameworks that might have drawn on other developments in queer theory and elsewhere in the discipline. The impact of Internet studies has perhaps led to an overemphasis on traditional views of community, rather than an examination of what assumptions underlie these views, and the potential distinctiveness of queer modes of affiliation that may or may not be exemplified online.
The most significant contribution of cyberqueer studies has been to highlight a new domain of lesbian and gay practice, and new spaces which may be queered. The Internet can be characterised, at least in part, as a new media form, and similar questions may be asked of the Internet as have been asked of television, film or radio. This would add a new set of questions and engage a different set of queer scholars. Issues of representation of queer lives could be brought to the foreground, along with the risks of standardisation and the reproduction of marginality as the large corporate websites overshadow the smaller offerings.
Although cyberqueer studies have been concerned to examine how one creates and maintains a queer persona in online spaces, the focus on the on-screen textual manifestation of such activities tends to have obscured the diverse ways in which this new media may be integrated into everyday lives. Future studies might start to develop models of these practices, and compare them to the inclusion of other media in public and private queer spaces. Issues such as the way in which the Internet fits into queer household structures have not been tackled, although other researchers of new technologies have focused on such questions (Silverstone and Hirsch, 1992). We need to know more about both the mundane use of email, the reasons why users would participate in exotic utopian spaces such as Weaveworld, and how each kind of use fits into their wider social relationships. Methodologies that have been developed in queer media studies have as yet not been influential in writings about the Internet. The analysis of the construction of images that has been carried out in lesbian and gay film studies could be a model for examining web based content. New questions would surely arise such as ‘Are ideas such as ‘camp’ relevant in terms of the images found online?.’ These discussions could play a part in bringing cyberqueer studies back into a dialogue with other scholars working on queer cultural studies.
As well as generating new forms of representation, cyberqueer writers have illustrated the ways in which online services have provided spatial metaphors that have encouraged users to think of themselves as participating in activities based in places—online cafés, bars or locker rooms. As well as generating more descriptions of how images are constructed and understood in these arenas, future cyberqueer research could produce more complex models of how activities in such places are constructed, and engage in debates about the usefulness of concepts such as ‘interactivity’ for queer users. Is there a distinctive kind of queer interactivity, for example? How would interactivity relate to other notions, such as intimacy, which have already been exposed in terms of their normative framing? (Berlant, 1997).
In contrast to other media, the Internet has emerged in parallel with specific cultures of computing and computer mediated communication. As well as being analysed as a new media form, the Internet can also be studied through the ways in which it interacts with the social shaping of artefacts. Cyberqueer writers have touched upon the erotic potentials of artefacts such as the computer, both as things through which erotic contact can be made, and as fetishised objects in their own right. There are fruitful connections here to be made with the ways in which material cultures become associated with queer identities.
Some cyberqueer writers treat the online interaction itself as an object that can be queered (Fraiberg, 1995). Yet as a whole researchers have not paid attention to the ways in which Internet interactions are changing the politics of social movements, or even the ways in which social movements themselves are constituted. Even though there has been an interest in how intra-group discussions frame the constituency and norms of the participants, there has been little work looking at the implications of on-line activist resources for local actions, or the effects of groups such as Digital Queers on voluntary organisations or the policy process. It is important to note that such lack of research attention does not reflect an absence of activism on the Internet.
Finally, cyberqueer research will undoubtedly evolve in the context of further technological change. As new technological goods enabling mediated communication continue to be offered to consumers, some will attract groups of users and new cultures of practice. The most recent example in Europe of a related technology becoming involved in everyday life is the integration of mobile phones use into public spaces. This development has had particular impact on gay areas such as Soho in London. Although the mobile phones have been promoted as portals to Internet services, currently they appear to have different, although overlapping, patterns of use (Brown, Green and Harper, 2001). Whether cyberqueer writers will pay sustained attention to technological object that are related to the Internet other than the computer remains to be seen.
This review has shown that much work still needs to be undertaken to develop the research directions that are underway in cyberqueer studies, as well as to find means to consolidate the field. Meanwhile researchers elsewhere in lesbian and gay studies should be encouraged to engage with the topics that have already been raised, whether it is to challenge the use of theory, debate the importance of the findings, or to draw upon the data about emerging queer practices. Certainly having email has a greater impact on many queer lives than owning FiestaWare, and by shouting about their Internet access the marchers in the quotation that began this chapter expressed both their recognition that the idea of a Network Society was on the horizon, and their desire that others should know that queers were already part of it.