Friday, 17 January 2020

‘The Man Behind the Digital Curtain’


Investigating Social Support and Heteronormativity in an Online Lesbian Community
Charlotte Jones
PhD Sociology and Social Policy

Myfanwy Davies,
Senior Lecturer in Social Policy,

Abstract

Computer-mediated communication (CMC), offers new spaces and opportunities for sexual minorities. This nethnographic (net-ethnographic) study explored forms of social support among self- identified lesbian women within a closed, online community and sought to trace what kinds of identifications it might afford.
While most interactions were positive, referrals to experts outside the group were rare. Advice given reflected conservative social attitudes to relationships and family commitments. We consider the content and reception of a series of memes - including those objectifying women, some consolidating ethnic and social hierarchies alongside representations of empowerment using symbols from the off- line world.
We argue that dominant cultural structures filter through to the online group, despite its having been formed to provide a space to foster alternative identities. The choice to participate in a closed, online group may enhance lesbian women’s identification - and provide support - but may also depoliticise lesbian identity.

Keywords
Social support, lesbian identity, heteronormativity, CMC, ethnography, memes, female agency, Facebook.

Background - Queer geographies

This study observes interaction within a closed LGBT online community and examines how some threads and structures serve to enforce normative ideals of heterosexuality (heteronormativity). It takes as its starting point the concept of ‘place’ as a space ideologically constructed, contested or claimed by a community (Binnie and Valentine, 1999; Smith, 2002; Burgess, 2005). Urban areas have traditionally been regarded as ‘‘a space for social and sexual liberation’’ (Valentine and Skelton, 2003, 849). While Manchester’s gay village is a place for LGBT people to meet, Formby (2012) and Simpson (2012) demonstrate that many LGBT people still censor their gay identities when in heterospaces. Cities seemingly offer greater anonymity, refuge and an escape from confined settings, claustrophobic relations, and gender norms (Wilson, 1991; Domosh, 1999). Moreover, Valentine and Skelton (2003) maintain that lesbian and gay places (often dubbed ‘the scene’) facilitate the expression of self and sexual identities as ‘‘...traditional orthodox heterosexual morality’’ is challenged and new possibilities for living emerge (Valentine and Skelton, 2003, 856). Practices of disclosure and support; empathy; and freedom from societal definitions of roles are associated with the scene (Binnie and Skeggs, 2004; Popke, 2007) as is a sense of protection from ‘‘the surveillant gaze of heterosexual men’’ (Valentine and Skelton, 2003, 856).
The confined nature of the scene may also constrain lesbian social networks. Valentine (1993), and Valentine and Skelton (2003) maintain that, hierarchies and ascriptions of character and conduct are clear to newcomers who then feel obligated to conform, leading to a setting where tensions, hierarchies and segregation may be unchallenged.
Marketing the scene – as ‘‘cosmopolitan space’’ open to all, may also serve to transform gay spaces such as bars and restaurants into spaces of ‘banal consumption by branding’ (Binnie and Skeggs, 2004, 57). Indeed, drawing in non-gay customers may lead to venues and public spaces becoming core-user unfriendly (Binnie and Skeggs, 2004). This may be particularly the case for lesbians as advertising tends to celebrate the gay male consumer as the archetype of urban cosmopolitanism (Clarke, 1993). As gay spaces become more visible to mainstream society, sexual minorities may be exposed to acts of discrimination, prejudice and homophobia (Tomsen and Mason, 2001; Valentine and Skelton, 2003; Kelly and Gruenewald, 2015). For these reasons, many lesbians welcome the potential of computer- mediated technologies as a means to circumvent problems of physical space.

Digital utopias or dystopias?

For Castells (2010, 156), implicit in internet-based networking are non-hierarchical relationships of power: ‘‘… networking means no center, thus no central authority. It means an instant relationship between the local and the global’’. Virtual worlds have been seen to be limited only by the imagination of their inhabitants, fundamentally disrupting physical forms of social and cultural relations as real world identities are obscured (Green, 1997). Online spaces can also serve to bring individuals together who are strangers in the offline world (Walther and Boyd, 2002; Clark, 2007). For example, Baym (2010), in her longitudinal study of the online interactions between soap opera fans, discusses how the medium enables people to enact communities that challenge normative expectations about gender and class.
Memes, pieces of digital culture that are user-generated and usually combinations of images and text, can be used to create powerful identifications and to politicise debate. Hohenstein (2016), examines how members of closed online groups can use memes relating to female protagonists in popular entertainment such as Katniss Everdeen (The Hunger Games) and Buffy Summers (Buffy the Vampire Slayer), to challenge the norm of teenage female passivity and dependence by emphasizing female agency, empowerment and equality.
The extent to which online communities challenge normative beliefs about sexuality and gender has been questioned. Sassen (2002), Brickell (2012) and Siebler (2016) demonstrate how dominant social and cultural gender norms are transported from offline society and re-enacted in online spaces. For example, Brickell (2012, 39) describes how in male gay chat rooms ‘conquest stories’ replicate themes indicative of heterosexual masculinity. Siebler (2016, 66) observes the consumption and assimilation of patriarchal sex and gender roles by lesbians in virtual environments:
‘‘when a sexuality or gender identity becomes so closely integrated with narrow media representations and capitalist consumption, the internalized message is that one consumes one’s way to that particular identity. For lesbians this means messages of body type, gender expression, beauty standards, and sexual ways-of-being mirror those streamed to heterosexual women and men. Instead of rocking the patriarchal systems of power … lesbians in the digital environment are products of heteronormative systems just like heterosexual women.’’
Gay women online are said to seek to disassociate from the term ‘lesbian’ and to ‘‘work hard to assimilate to the dominant culture’’ (Siebler, 2016, 67). This endeavour may include adopting a commitment to: ‘‘embrace rather than resist or upset standards of sex/sexuality/gender’’ (Siebler, 2016, 67).
The potentials and risks of CMCs for challenging dominant groups are encapsulated in the use made of ‘closed’ topic or interest-based groups supported by Facebook. Only those individuals who request access to the group can join it and be hidden from those who are not also members. Groups thus offer a safe space for forming and shaping gay identities (Valentine and Skelton, 2003) through networked personal communities (Wellman, 2001; Zhang et al. 2010). However, by remaining hidden from the mainstream of virtual interaction, they may be seen to contribute to the invisibility of gay content in the virtual - and actual - world. The development of sophisticated algorithms and user-generated content (UGC), may further the self-segregation already implicit in online communities (Kenny et al. 2011, 410). Algorithms used on Facebook collect detailed data regarding individual browsing behaviour (Roosendaal, 2011). Using an individual’s browsing history (e.g. ‘likes’ and ‘reactions’), Facebook and companies can thus personalise content shown in ‘News feeds’ and deliver targeted advertising (Loomer, 2013; Oremus, 2016a) thus furthering a perception of belonging while potentially limiting engagement outside the group.

Methods

An ethnographic approach was adopted for this study. Nethnography entails ‘‘participant-observational research based in online fieldwork’’ (Kozinets, 2010, 60). Kozinets (2010) highlights key differences in the ethnographic approach used in online research, for example the ethical procedures for in-person fieldwork do not easily translate to the online medium, often requiring substantial negotiation by the ethnographer wanting to conduct online research. With regards to this study, the group moderator’s permission was sought as it would have been impractical to private message thousands of individual members as well as intrusive. Information relating to the research and copies of all relevant participant documentation were posted on the group wall as a pinned post prior to data collection. A document was also posted within the group so that participants would be aware of our intention to publish the results. We provided an opt-out option should group-members want their data excluded, no group-members opted-out.
Primary research was conducted overtly within an existing closed Facebook group of which the lead researcher had been a member of for five years prior to the research. Members of this group must fulfil three essential criteria; members must be female – this includes male to female trans-persons; they must identify either as lesbian, bisexual or pansexual; and be aged 18 years old or over. The group itself has thousands of members and originated in the United Kingdom (UK). Due to its size, a twelve- hour data gathering timeframe was selected in order to keep the project manageable. To enable us to include participants from different time zones, data was collected between 18:00pm and 06:00am GMT on June 25th- 26th 2016 using NVivo 10.6 as it allows the incorporation of materials from other applications such as social media (Silver and Lewins, 2014, 70) via its NCapture feature.
Given that the initial focus of the research was on social support, a deductive approach involving a priori codes based on Harel et al. (2012) modified version of Cutrona and Suhr’s (1992; 1994) Social Support Behaviour Code (SSBC) was used. The SSBC assesses the frequency and occurrence of 32 individual behaviours using eight overall categories, however, some categories were modified to reflect the online nature of interaction. Consequently, the tangible support category containing four sub-categories were removed as they refer to actual physical assistance that rarely occurs on the internet (Ko et al. 2013; Chiang and Huang, 2016), as was the listening sub-category. During the coding process as Ko et al. (2013) found, several responses either could not be categorised into the social support typology of Cutrona and Suhr (1992; 1994) or into the adapted version of Harel et al. (2012). Therefore, four additional sub-categories were created based upon the lead researcher’s interpretation and placed with the overall category of other (see Table 1).
Access to the data was gained via the lead researcher’s personal Facebook account. Data were captured in Portable Document Format (PDF) rather than as a dataset from the groups’ home page/wall as had been initially intended. Accordingly, only participants/respondents whose names and activities could be seen within the data were counted as participants/respondents (N=272). Their activities (such as their written comments and emojis, any images or shared content) were grouped into 64 posts or conversations where the original post was categorised as either having a broadly negative, neutral or positive sentiment. Original posts, where the poster was the recipient of further comments were not coded to the SSBC, instead these were used as the context for the coding of whole message responses made by individual participants (responders). Figure 1 shows how inferences were made and reactions were considered within this context. Some responses were coded into multiple categories.

Figure 1

Findings & Discussion

A particular ‘pinned’ post outlined the group rules according to the Moderator. The rules themselves exhibit traits of empowerment by outlining the purpose of the group, which is to provide a safe space for lesbian identified women of all backgrounds to socialise, make friends and discuss topics of interest and sexuality without judgement. Respectful behaviour and inclusivity were promoted and negative behaviours such as bullying were detailed as grounds for expulsion. The presentation of this particular section of the rules (e.g. capital letters, explanation points and the detailed description given of types of bullying) may suggest that these issues had previously arisen in the group. Members were prohibited from sharing group content outside of the group. Adherence to this rule was reflected in the data as some respondents asked original posters if they could share the content posted. Another observation is the explicit statement of no advertisements and that the group is not a dating website. This particular section of the group rules suggests a conscious effort to preserve the space from the commodification processes that have consumed and monopolised physical spaces (Binnie and Skeggs, 2004; Simpson, 2012). Advice was also given within the rules. A description of group etiquette was outlined, where ‘thread’ pages were promoted as a first point of call for anyone wanting to post something within the group – although the data revealed that one post that belonged to the ‘pet’ thread was posted on the group wall. A comprehensive list of regional and local administrators was also given suggestive of an attempt to guide new members’ online behaviour to enable them to adjust to the group and avoid any behaviour that others might find irritating, such as selfies and Hit-me-ups (HMUs).[1]
However, the group rules could be interpreted as a form of social control as non-conformity results in expulsion. This may encourage individuals to employ impression management strategies (Goffman, 1967; 1990) that contradict the fundamental principles on which the group was created, which was to be inclusive, embrace diversity and encourage participation. However, of the 64 posts in the group, four posts seemed to disregard the group rules, perhaps out of naivety, or resistance. For example, the group rules stated that nothing should be posted on the group wall if there was a specific thread available and HMUs were prohibited, yet both occurred during data collection. Equally, the group rules stated that pornographic material and illegal activities were prohibited. However, the data obtained revealed one post that blatantly ignored these rules: ‘‘How can I stream Wentworth here in the US? I’m dying’‘. Respondents ‘liked’ the comment and offered advice, there were no negative comments or reactions. Another group member, in response to a post, condoned drug use: ‘‘Id love to drop shrooms on a camping trip with a lovely girl and fantastic music.”. This received only positive reactions. It seems that the list of prohibited activity has a ranking system and some rules were flexible. None of the aforementioned posts were removed from the group during the 12-hour data collection timeframe. Nonetheless, the Moderator and the array of regional and local administrators can be viewed as governing people’s conduct within this online space through structuring the possible field of action of others.

Online interactions

The eight modified SSBC overall categories and related sub-categories for each overall category are provided in Table 1. This includes the percentage each sub-category occupies when all are aggregated. Table 1 indicates that the most common supportive behaviour was attentiveness. However, consideration to the context in which the data was gathered and coded should be noted as data was acquired from a social networking site (SNS) whereby individuals must consciously type comments, make choices regarding emojis and/or select reactions to interact with others (Walther and Boyd, 2002). Interactions occurring online were coded according to the definitions of the modified SSBC. Accordingly, nearly all interactions were coded under the attentiveness category and its giving attention sub-category. Results for this sub-category were omitted from further analysis for that reason. Figures from the responsivity sub-category may illustrate a more accurate picture of attentive social support.
The results suggest that most interactions within the group were positive, with validation being the most frequent behaviour. Within the esteem support category 73% of responses came under the validation sub-category. This figure is in stark contrast with that of the compliment and relief of blame sub-categories. However, what these results suggest is that at the time of data collection, most group members tended to agree with the views of other members.

Table 1: Modified SSBC, instances of occurrence & aggregated sub-category percentage
Support category
Definition
Attentiveness
Giving attention
Just responding to a comment, post or picture with a comment, like, reaction or emoji.
Responsivity
Responding quickly in a way that meets the needs of the recipient and which is
emotionally tactful and positive.
Emotional
Confidentiality
Keeps the recipients problem in confidence.
Encouragement
Provides the recipient with hope and confidence.
Prayer
Offers prayer for the recipient.
Relationship
Conveys the importance of closeness, or articulations of love, or spousal connections.
Sympathy
Sorrow or regret for the situation faced by the recipient.
Understanding/empathy
Expressions of understanding of the situation or discloses similar experience in a way that conveys understanding.
Virtual affection*
Offers virtual affection such as emojis and reactions, or puts affectionate words into
the written text (e.g. babe/s, bae, sweetheart etc).
Esteem
Compliment
Says positive things about the recipient.
Relief of blame
Alleviates any feelings of guilt the recipient has about the situation.
Validation
Agrees with the views of the recipient.
Information
Advice/suggestion
Provides ideas or suggestions for action.

Referral to experts
Refers the recipient to other sources of information (e.g. charities, legal aid, subject/problem specific websites) either by giving the information via the interaction or by sending a ‘link’.
Situation appraisal
Helps reassess or redefine the situation or issue being faced by the recipient.
Teaching
Offers detailed information, facts or news to recipient.
Negative behaviour
Complaint
An overt statement of disapproval of the recipients’ actions or response to a problem.
Criticism
Disapproval of recipients’ actions or response to a problem.
Disagreement
Not agreeing with recipients’ views or opinions.
Refusal to help
Overt statement or non-response.
Sarcasm
Mocks or ridicules recipient.
Network
Access
Provides the recipient with access to new people e.g. ‘Tagging’ or link ‘sharing’.
Companionship
Reminds the recipient that there are others who share similar experiences and are
available.
Express willingness
Offers or expressions of willingness to help.
Presence
Offers to be there for the recipient.
Tension reduction
Diversion
Changes the topic of discussion, or does not respond directly to recipients post.
Humour
Amusing or comic antidotes or humorous past experiences are presented to the
recipient.
Other
Gratifiers
Is involved in the conversation/interaction, but offers little in terms of the
aforementioned forms of support including negative behaviour.
Empowerment
Anything that symbolises the female sex, positivity of the female sex, positive
messages of lesbian sexuality and for women in general.
Greeting
Starts an interaction/conversation, announces one’s self or presence to others.
Status
Redirects the convocation to focus on the respondent rather than the recipient and/or their original post.

Of the informational support sub-categories, advice (e.g. ‘‘No hmu allowed’’), or suggestion (e.g. ‘Read up on cystic personality disorder, maybe she’s on the spectrum?’) and situational appraisal (e.g. ‘At least you’re not 50 and single’), were the most commonly used forms of support. Referral to experts, where the poster would refer the recipient to other sources of information (e.g. charities, legal aid, subject/problem specific websites) and teaching, which offers detailed information, facts or news to recipient, were modest. Informational support was most prevalent within negative posts of all types and advice or suggestion was usually based upon the stated personal experience of the responder.
The lack of referral to experts and teaching may suggest that the group either lacks the required knowledge to give this aspect of support, or that these forms of support are obtained elsewhere outside of the group. Another view is that the nature of the group (e.g. being closed) could mean that group members are engaging in what Fox and Warber (2014) term co-cultural separation practices as they choose not to signpost other group members to help outside of it. Accordingly, by limiting support to other group members to advice, suggestion or situational appraisal within the group, group members may be limiting their visibility and potential contribution to wider debates framing feminist and gay rights issues (Munro, 2013; Fox and Warber, 2014).
Of the negative behaviours, criticism and disagreement were the most common, accounting for 77% of all negative behaviours. For example, one group member whose friend who has expressed romantic feelings toward her knowing she is in a relationship, explains the situation and asks only for positive advice. She wants to remain friends as they go walking together and she has no attraction to her friend. Despite the request for positive advice, some of the responses she received included: ‘don’t go there unless your ready for whats going to happen’, ‘plenty of other places to walk.. stress free...better off without friend like that or it will coz probs’, ‘it might cause undesired stress for your girlfriend ... I mean she is the most important thing right?...Other places and other people you can walk with’.
Equally, most negative original posts centred on being single or relationship issues, the majority of these garnered emotional support from respondents. Two particular posts regarding attending family functions as a couple exemplify this. Poster A expressed a view that partners should attend the family functions of their partner regardless of their personal feelings:
‘My gf of 9 months continues to fight me on going to friend & family functions saying that they don’t like her and barely talk to her. I don’t see it. We are having a 4th of July cookout early... and of course here we go again she doesn’t want to go. So I told her if she didn’t want to be part of my life then we shouldn’t be together.’
Poster B expressed the view that one should not be obligated to attend one’s partner’s family functions:
‘My wife’s cousin is getting married...She says i have to go. I say NO i don’t. I don’t want to go, and I always give her the option of not going to stuff like this.’
Both posts received similar activity and positive support over a similar timeframe. For example; a group member responded to Poster A: ‘Do you go to all her family functions if so then you have the right to get upset if she doesn’t go to yours’; and another group member responded to Poster B: ‘You don’t have to go! Your wife should go, it’s her family member.’. However, Poster B also received negative responses and more emphasis on a commitment to wider family networks of one’s partner and spousal connections:
‘No, you should have the option of going or not but shoudn’t be forced to go BUT if she is asking and it’s very very important to her that you go you might have to suck it up‘.
This suggests that Poster A’s perspective was the more accepted behaviour by the group.
The network support category, involving belonging to a group of persons with similar concerns or experiences is fairly equally split between three of its four sub-categories, with access (through ‘tagging’ or link ‘sharing’) being the exception. This may be due to participants’ choices not to direct other users to services outside the group. However, it could also be attributed to a lack of knowledge about what services are available or to a lack of knowledge of gay rights in different national contexts, or the parameters of conduct set out within the group rules that disallow the sharing of some content such as recommendations to services.
Within the other category, empowerment (encompassing positive messages of lesbian sexuality and for women in general) accounted for over a quarter of responses. Some examples of the discussion included: ‘You’ll find your princess and she’ll treat you right and the way you deserve to be treated never give up on love’, ‘Don’t lose hope, She’s out there!!’ in response to posts where posters were single and feeling lonely. Another example was: ‘You tell her bye Felicia[2] real quick’ in response to a poster who had found nude pictures of other women and of an ex-partner on her girlfriends’ mobile phone. Giving an empowering response to those facing romantic difficulties may support identity formation and development (Haimson et al. 2015).
Conversely, the sub-category status whereby an individual redirects the focus onto them (the respondent) rather than the original poster, was the most dominant of the other support category suggesting that struggles for power are present within the group. The high instance of status behaviours may be indicative of the competitive dimension of SNS and as individuals compete for position through incentives such as the number of reactions and comments. For example, a group member posted ‘I need more friends. Ones that will go camping, fishing, hiking, and swimming with me.’ She received 39 replies on this post, but from the seventh reply posted where another group member posted a picture of a lake and commented ‘I own the lake. Pack the tent and pole and hop in your car!’ the remaining responses were in relation to this group members reply which then garnered gratifier and status behaviours: ‘You OWN a lake’, ‘u should be friends with me’, ‘More of a glamper. I need to buy one of those storage containers and transform it [truck] into a mobile home ‘.

The context: a place for the production, distribution & reception of expression

While sexual activity was not a thread, one particular post regarding sexual frustration from over three months prior to the data collection timeframe, was still active during data collection and afterwards. This suggests that many group members wanted to talk about sex (or the lack of sex) as they were still posting on it. Upon closer examination, the prolonged activity on this post could have been due to there being no specific threads for this type of discussion within the group. In fact, over a quarter of original posts related to sexual activity/inactivity or had responses that were sexually orientated. Of these, most were expressed using memes. Others used written text: ‘What makes you bored in a relationship? Mine is no chemistry no time and no sexy time’ and ‘Aaaahhhhh! Officially sexually frustrated. I’ve never been in this position before. So annoyed.’
However, there was a boundary of acceptability in these discussions. Two neutral memes both expressed explicit sexual content but both received very different responses from the group. One with the accompanying text of: ‘Why is there a string on a tampon? So you can floss when you’re done with your meal’ received the most negative behaviours of any other post within the shortest time frame (an hour). The comments, which included: ‘Seriously??? FFS [For Fuck Sake]’, ‘No words at all...’, ‘Just plain nasty!!!!’ and ‘angry’ reactions however, provide no definitive answer as to why this particular post created such friction and was received with such hostility. Perhaps the ‘women-as-object’ (Crawley and Willman, 2018, 164) connotations within this image were too familiar for those who used the space as a retreat from actual world objectification. The other meme, which was a sign for a new aquarium opening with the tag line ‘Guess what’s coming?’ The poster had photo-shopped a two- finger salute (a reference to a sexual act) on the sign with the headline of: ‘When you stick your hand down her pants and she’s already wet’. This received only positive reactions (like and ha-ha) and no comments within twenty-six minutes, suggesting this post was more acceptable to other group members perhaps due to containing the more positive message of female sexual agency. The fact that the data shows multiple threads regarding sex in some way, and some had prolonged activity over long timeframes suggests that the group members were setting their own agenda and priorities. We also note that since the research took place, a specific ‘sex’ thread was put in place. Users’ persistent discussions may be interpreted as acts of resistance to heteronormative ideals of passive female sexuality - and the eventual provision of a space for such discussions might also be interpreted as claiming more online ‘place’ for sexuality on the forum.

In the eye of the beholder: Expression and subjectivity

One particular image depicting a silhouette of the female form using paint drips of Pride flag colours received the most activity over the shortest timeframe (1 hour). Within 3 hours it received 236 positive (like or love) reactions and positive comments such as ‘Awesome!!!!’, ‘I thought it was just paint flung on a canvas but then I stopped to look when I saw y’all post that y’all have this as a tat [tattoo]... ok, I see that sexy thang now...lol’. Additionally, this image also received the most coded instances of empowerment, validation, compliment and responsivity indicating it was well received by those who viewed it. An explanation could be that the image contains many positive symbols of female gay identity and sexual agency. She is seated, leaning back, with legs crossed and head thrown back and propped up by her arms. Her pose is sensual while depicting no explicit sexuality. She is small-breasted and slim with curved hips. However, when analysing the image further, it became clear that a possible reason for its overwhelmingly positive reaction was that it can act as a cipher whereby onlookers can project their ideal. For instance, upon first glance, from the lead researcher’s perspective as a white Western lesbian woman the image appeared to be that of a tall, mid-twenties, slim built, white woman with small breasts, curvaceous hips and long dark hair. Others might interpret this image differently.
A further finding was that video posts were not that popular with the group. Neutrally coded videos that offered humour or depicted exotic locations garnered responses that offered emotional and esteem support primarily in the form of positive reactions and the occasional comment. The one video, coded positively, that discussed the placement of a monument to commemorate the LGBT community at the site of the 1969 Stonewall riots received responses that exhibited negative behaviours, mainly disagreement, criticism and complaint. Responses also included informational support, particularly situational appraisal and teaching:
‘Too bad Obama didn’t do a frickin thing for marriage equality. We owe that to a persistent lesbian couple from Hazel park Michigan. No politician deserves any praise over LGBT rights’
This corrective response then received several positive reactions from other members of the group. Commentary inside the group may however serve to curtail political activity outside it.

Stereotyping & pigeonholing

There were many memes that were neutral in sentiment and which either asked a general question or were intended to be humorous. For instance, one particular meme depicted a woman of colour in sport socks wearing high-heeled shoes that were duct taped to her feet – implying that studs[3] are incapable of expressing femininity, and that should they try, they would deserve censure or ridicule. This meme elicited positive reactions and comments such as ‘They taped their feet down lmao [laughing my ass off]’, ‘Just noticed that lmao’ and ‘I’m cracking up’ which were consistent with encouraging and validation forms of support. However, a minority of members disagreed with this stereotype and criticised the original poster. One group member commented: ‘That’s just wrong’. Based solely on her profile picture, she was a woman of colour whose aesthetic matched the stud stereotype.
Other examples of humour, such as the two sexually explicit memes discussed above are highly ambiguous, framing women as things to use or be used for the gratification of another - albeit another woman. Equally, another post asks: ‘What attracts you more about a woman? Eyes, lips, dimples?’. Another shows four images of what the poster seeks from another woman (a meal on the table, sex and romance, a clean house, holidays) and asks: ‘What do I have to do to get this treatment?’.
Similarly, a Rachel Maddow meme reads ‘Hey Girl, I’ll fight to keep their laws off your body. My hands, however, are a different story’. In this case, the text is sexually authoritative, and the image displays scripted masculine features – short hair, trousers, shirt, jacket and status that are associated with the ‘butch’ lesbian stereotype (Brambilla et al. 2011; Walker et al. 2012). Although it was received as being empowering, it also appears to endorse the passivity of other women. Another meme focuses on ‘blonde’ women:
‘A blonde goes on a hot date and ends up making out with the guy in his car. The guy asks if she would like to go in the back seat. ‘No!’ yells the blonde. Things get even hotter, and the guy asks again. ‘For the last time, no!’ says the blonde. Frustrated, the guy asks, ‘Well, why the hell not?’ The blonde says, ‘Because I wanna stay up here with you!’.

Limitations

Due to the group’s privacy settings, it was not possible to capture and collect demographic or biographical information that would have provided greater insights into the group’s dynamics. Similarly, tracing physical location and demographics was not possible and as such we were unable to undertake a social network analysis or to provide as rich a discussion of context as we would have liked. The closed privacy settings also constrained us to capture data only in PDF form so that only the most recent and visible participant activities during the data collection time frame were captured and analysed. There were many instances within the data where many comments had been posted to original posts but only three were visible to read, code and then analyse. Equally the short data collection window may have limited this study as out of the thousands of group members, we examined the activities of only 272.
There is also ambiguity regarding how the algorithms Facebook uses for personalisation may have affected the data collected. The lead researcher used a personal account to access group data, and it is understood that Facebook uses an algorithm on users individual ‘News feeds’. According to Oremus (2016b) the algorithm uses an automatic ranking system to scan and collect posts from individuals who are part of the user’s network. It then displays posts in an order that it predicts will capture the user’s attention. It is then unlikely for a user to see every post from everyone in their news feed. However, it is unclear if this applies to Facebook group home pages (Oremus, 2016b).
A final limitation to this research might be concerns over the lead researcher’s objectivity due to her group affiliation. It is inevitable that her life experiences would colour her perceptions of the group, however her interpretations were discussed in detail with the second researcher, a heterosexual woman, and were found to be valid. Neither was it our aim to achieve objectivity, as traditionally understood. As Harding (1993, 71) explains, objectivity ‘insists on a rigid barrier between subject and object of knowledge’ which, stifles the production of socially situated knowledge, particularly for minority social groupings. We have set out the theoretical perspective taken in this work and it is hoped that additional knowledge can be gained from it.

Conclusion

Advancing technologies present new spaces and opportunities for sexual minorities such as lesbian women and have been heralded as providing a safe environment in which to establish new identities and communities (Castells, 2010). We have delineated practices of resistance and compliance to heteronormativity and considered the affordances offered by this online social space for lesbian women.
Closed groups, such as the one studied, have an ambivalent cultural role, providing freedom of expression and safety to individuals at the expense of contributing to the continued invisibility of lesbian women. Baym has argued that: “Too few of us focus on platforms’ force as actors in this socio- technological economy” (Baym, 2015, 1). A closed Facebook group could be considered a way of placing non-normative individuals on the periphery of society, reducing their visibility (Brickell, 2012).
The findings reported here demonstrate that members of the group exchanged various forms of support through the forum and circulated memes that served as vehicles for empowerment as women and as lesbians. Nonetheless, data reported corroborates this suggestion of elective invisibility as informational support; particularly referrals to experts and teaching were minimal. Users of the group may thus be unlikely to become visible to mainstream services as a result of their interaction as part of the group. This could have further negative effects in the future as continued use of online spaces as support networks such as this one may justify further reductions of real world services for lesbian women as has happened under the UK austerity programmes (Davis et al. 2016).
An examination of the group rules suggests that they are used as an instrument to maintain group order and to confer authority to a hierarchy. The initial lack of a specific ‘sex’ thread would appear to reflect heteronormative assumptions about women’s sexual passivity and decorum (Gordon, 2006; Hill and Fischer, 2007). However, group members continually posted content discussing sex, its problems and its insufficiency resulting in the eventual provision of a designated space for such discussions, thus challenging the group hierarchy and the heterosexual cultural scripts it may be said to have reproduced.
In terms of the support offered and the memes used, group members displayed conservative attitudes to family responsibility and sexual fidelity. Memes understood as being humorous that served to objectify women or establish racial hierarchies indicate that, even within this closed, online group, hierarchies that disfavour women or some groups of women, continue to structure users’ experience and limit their identifications.
Personalised online space creates the illusion of autonomy as consumer choices increasingly define identifications (Holmes, 1997). Here, users can select the content of their posts, but their field of choice is limited by the choices of administrators who determine all content displayed. More widely the choice to participate in an online, closed group may enhance lesbian women’s identification (and provide support) but may also serve to attenuate and depoliticise lesbian identity. Certainly, the re-enactment of dominant gender norms relating to spousal support and references to the sexual passivity of other women suggest that the online world provides an illusion of power for lesbian women. In that respect this paper mirrors Siebler’s (2016) work on virtual lesbian communities through which she observes the assimilation of patriarchal sex and gender roles in virtual space.
The extent to which online closed groups for lesbians might be serving to present artificial representations of autonomy and choice needs to be addressed in order to understand emerging lesbian identities in both the online and offline world. Further research might also usefully examine the use of intra-group humour and information sharing among other minority groups or within majority female groups as these practices may begin to structure group identities and relations with the ‘actual’ world.

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[1] HMU is an acronym for: Hit Me Up. Generally used to get personal details in order to start a relationship or meet up for sex.
[2] A memorable quote from the 1995 comedy film Friday, signifying a dismissive farewell - http://knowyourmeme.com/memes/bye-felicia.
[3] Walker et al. (2012, 91) explored lesbian stereotypes in their study and they describe butch lesbians or ‘studs’ (the term used by and for women of colour) as ‘lesbians who present gender alongside the ‘masculine’ end of the gender spectrum’ - also see Brambilla et al. (2011).

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