What's queer about Internet studies now?
First Monday

What's queer about Internet studies now? by Jen Jack Gieseking, Jessa Lingel, and Daniel Cockayne

Queerness owes much to the past, a past we can see playing out again and again in physical and online spaces. More than seeing the Internet as a tool for LGBTQ activism alone, our collective dialogue asks: what’s queer about the Internet? The interventions by queer theory and LGBTQ studies into Internet studies begets a new turn of phrase and a renewed queer studies in a terrain that queers have always made their own, i.e., online: Queer Internet Studies (QIS). The proceedings for the Queer Internet Studies Symposium 2 (QIS2) in Philadelphia in 2017 and the papers inspired from that gathering make up the heart of this collection. We also include a recommended reading list of sources that have inspired us in QIS. We planned the symposium and special issue without a prediction of what participants would say or do, and we were (and remain) shocked and encouraged by the excitement for making and sharing a space with, for, and about queerness. In its practice, QIS is a radical, fluid practice and project that remains porous still, even in the naming that we grant it here.




Jen Jack Gieseking (left) and Jessa Lingel (right) giving opening remarks at the QIS2 workshop
Figure 1: Jen Jack Gieseking (left) and Jessa Lingel (right) giving opening remarks at the QIS2 workshop.


In 2005, David L. Eng, Judith Halberstam, and José Esteban Muñoz wrote the introduction to a special issue of Social Text entitled “What’s queer about queer studies now?” Frustrated with the marriage-and-military fixation of the modern lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) movement, the authors observed:

The contemporary mainstreaming of gay and lesbian identity — as a mass-mediated consumer lifestyle and embattled legal category — demands a renewed queer studies ever vigilant to the fact that sexuality is intersectional, not extraneous to other modes of difference, and calibrated to a firm understanding of queer as a political metaphor without a fixed referent. A renewed queer studies, moreover, insists on a broadened consideration of the late-twentieth-century global crises that have configured historical relations among political economies, the geopolitics of war and terror, and national manifestations of sexual, racial, and gendered hierarchies.

Twelve-plus years later, we ask, “What’s queer about Internet studies now?,” as an anchoring question for the second Queer Internet Studies Symposium (QIS2), organized with the University of Pennsylvania’s Alice Paul Center and held at UPenn’s Institute for Contemporary Art (ICA) on 17 February 2017 [1].

The call for queer studies to intervene interact on behalf of social justice has only increased since Eng, Halberstam, and Muñoz wrote their call for a renewed queer studies over a decade ago. In part, this is because queer theory is no longer the domain of humanities scholarship alone (see Browne, et al., 2009). In part, queerness did not succumb to epic tides of homonormativity. In part, After Marriage and Abolish ICE have been galvanized in response to and alongside movements like Occupy, Black Lives Matter, NoDAPL, and now NoBanNoWall, the Women’s March, MeToo, and many more activisms to come.

Queerness also owes much to the past, a past we can see playing out again and again in physical and online spaces as well. QIS2 was hosted in the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA). In 1991 — when queer theory was first being named — the ICA’s associate director and senior curator Judith Tennenbaum wrote:

It has been more than two years since the controversy surrounding the Robert Mapplethorpe exhibition arose. Organized by the ICA Philadelphia in 1988, what started out as a “normal” exhibition turned into something quite different — a national cause celebre, the impetus for intense congressional debate about federal funding of the arts, and, ultimately, the focus of an obscenity trial in Cincinnati. [2]

The show “Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Moment” would forever change art, sex, and queer life. Debates about the visibility of queer sex lead politicians in support of Religious Right to call for defunding of the National Endowment of the Arts. Like Queer Internet Studies (QIS) itself, contributors to this special issue owe a debt to queer radicals like Mapplethorpe and their supporters, and our goal has been to ask for “something quite different” in our critiques of online technologies, digital culture, and the affordances and blind spots of queer theory.

The call from Eng, Halberstam, and Muñoz as to what queer studies is and could be was necessary and generative. It also lacked one critical area for action: the Internet. The goals and aims of QIS2 mimic those of the first Queer Internet Studies symposium (QIS1) in 2014 in New York at Columbia University: to connect, share, collaborate, and amplify the work and voices of scholars, artists, and activists who study and work on issues related to queer lives on the Internet on behalf of social justice [3]. Our conversations, projects, and connections sought to unpack the importance of queer history and archives, and to generate a space of play to interact with digital materials, radicalize our economies, intervene in computational, software, and hardware selection and use practices, and claim new terms for our communications.

Bringing QIS2 to Philadelphia, we again wanted to queer the structure of the usual conference, and continue to build an interdisciplinary space that could foster conversations, provocations, and connections among artists, activists, and academics. This special issue includes not only the proceedings from symposium participants but also articles and reflections from symposium attendees. We were especially keen to bring queer work on to the pages and screens of First Monday, because research on gender and sexuality in Internet studies often winds up siloed in journals that focus explicitly on gender and sexuality. We are excited to have these proceedings and articles printed in First Monday in order to reach the broadest audience possible with this work, and to bring further queer work to what is broadly understood as Internet studies. Likewise, the organizers of the symposium (Jack Gieseking and Jessa Lingel) wanted to open up the dialogue and collaborated with a symposium attendee (Daniel Cockayne) to bring this special issue to life.

More than seeing the Internet as a tool for LGBTQ activism, our collective dialogue was meant to ask: what’s queer about the Internet? The intervention by queer theory and LGBTQ studies into Internet studies begets a new turn of phrase and a renewed queer studies in a terrain queers have always made their own, i.e., online: QIS. As we created the list of participants who were known to various fields and took part in various networks — digital humanities, Internet studies, FemBot, FemTechNet, computational studies, sociology of the Internet, communications studies, critical geographic information systems (GIS), and so on — the symposium participants admitted they were worried where they would fit in this practice they had not heard of (or what some of our attendees referred to as a new subfield). Upon attending, they realized that they were and are Queer Internet Studies, a practice, a project, and a boundary public that has existed for some time without a proper name.

Both as a symposium and as a special issue, our goal has been not just to share existing work but to make inroads and connections to grow future work and ideas that account for the multitude of what Mary Gray calls the “boundary publics.” Boundary publics are the “iterative, ephemeral experiences of belonging that happen both on the outskirts and at the center(s) of the more traditionally recognized and validated public sphere of civic deliberation” (Gray, 2009). After a brief introduction from the symposium organizers, Gieseking and Lingel opened the day by inviting participants to break into groups for small discussions. We asked them to sit with the key questions driving the symposium: what would a queer Internet look like and how could we study it? As these ideas circulated throughout pairs and groups, the individuality and commonality of the research interests of those in the room started to bridge new connections and fostered excitement. To share a room with so many who research such boundary publics was rare and invigorating.

Next, a panel of five experts shared research presentations on their perspectives on a particular facet of queer media and technology: Mia Fischer (Colorado — Denver) talked about intersections between trans people and surveillance studies; Oliver Haimson (University of Michigan) described his work on trans identity and social media; Carmen Rios (social media director for Ms. magazine and Autostraddle lesbian culture Web site) spoke about online communities and feminist politics; Adrienne Shaw (Temple) talked about the LGBT games archive; and Mitali Thakor (Northwestern) shared her work on digital vigilante-ism against sex trafficking. Drawing upon both queer theory and Internet studies, speaking from across a number of fields and disciplines, the research roundup spoke to the breadth of possibilities for thinking about queer Internet as both a research and policy agenda. Across their papers and ensuing conversation, the role and import of the politics of queer visibility became a central issue.

Artist and academic T. L. Cowan (University of Toronto) then led a participatory workshop called “Internet of Bodies/Internet of Bawdies.” Part theoretical inquiry, part brainstorming session and rapid prototyping exercise, the workshop offered an embodied means of working through sexuality, performativity, and technological change for all attendees. More than thinking about what the Internet(s) could be, QIS offered a space to theorize how online platforms and practices can be studied, and moreover studied ethically. Cowan builds on a problem from her own research of the ethics around digitally archiving queer performance art videotaped or otherwise recorded prior to the Internet age. These performances include slam poetry, drag, and burlesque performances, and the issues pertain to whether the new visibility associated with putting something online could cause problems for the performers, who most likely never anticipated the potential for the digital archiving of their work. Cowan uses this example as a prism in the workshop for thinking through other issues pertaining to the ethics of queer online research.

By inviting a dialogue between two scholars, we sought to queer the format of the traditional keynote. In such a dialogue, communications studies scholar Katherine Sender (Michigan) acted as an interlocutor for anthropologist Shaka McGlotten (SUNY Purchase). Their conversation ranged from racism and the desire to speed up and slow down experiences of intimacy, from surveillance and performativity to social media platform politics. As a freeform conversation, Sender and McGlotten both addressed and reworked themes that had surfaced throughout the symposium around queerness, technology, and desire. Drawing on their past and present work, they touched on new practices of digital intimacy in the smartphone era, but also the relevance of queer of color critique online, turning in particular to the topics of Afrofuturism and black affect.

Much of what inspired and continues to inspire the practice of queer Internet studies is the scholarship and activism of our colleagues, mentors, friends, and students. Much like our symposium participants and attendees being unsure what queer Internet studies is until realizing they were already a core part of it, we want to share with our readers the literature that gave us common threads for finding and recognizing one another and the practice of queering the Internet. As a conclusion to the conference proceedings, the editors provide a long, varied, and truly incomplete list of queer Internet studies literature. We (Gieseking, Lingel, and Cockayne) draw across our respective fields and interests, thereby highlighting certain issues over others but hopefully demonstrating connections between ideas and research that extends further than merely the work recorded on this list.

As both a symposium and a practice, QIS2 was never meant to be a one-day conversation, but rather a meeting and starting point for further dialogue and collaboration. In addition to including dialogues and responses from QIS2 speakers and presenters, we include work inspired by and connected to broader QIS themes and concerns. Immediately after the conference, we issued a call for papers (CFP) that sought to explore particular themes such as the relationship between queer Internet studies and other areas of critical scholarship on digital activities, code, Internet infrastructures, communications, and digital media, in an effort to queer existing areas of scholarship [4]. We also sought scholarship on the relationship between queer Internet studies and activist, policy, and research agendas. Finally, we sought research that would extend existing debates within queer theory by engaging in Internet-based research through a queer lens. Our goal with placing the symposium proceedings in conversation with academic papers was to solicit scholarship from the participants of QIS2, as well as the broader academic community, in order to diversify this special issue and engage in conversations beyond those undertaken by our invited keynote speakers and panelists.

In a collaborative and conversation-style format, Michelle Marzullo, Jasmine Rault, and T.L. Cowan engage with the question of the ethics of queer scholarship online head on in their paper, entitled “‘Can I study you?’: Cross-disciplinary conversations in queer Internet studies.” With expertise spanning disciplines that include (among others) anthropology, comparative literature, performance studies, and art history, these authors examine some of the methodological challenges that accompany queer Internet research, and in particular digital ethnography. The authors discuss the relationship between text and event and how digital ethnography is both different from and similar to traditional forms of ethnographic encounter. They strike at the heart of some of the major issues pertaining to queer Internet studies that include visibility online and the danger of the possibility to out someone through digitizing archives. The writers also discuss how queer Internet studies might provide a means for examining shifts in the cultural dynamics of intimacy, given the proliferation of dating applications and Web sites.

Operationalizing some of these ethical challenges, Vanessa Kitzie’s paper entitled “‘I pretended to be a boy on the Internet’: Navigating affordances and constraints of social networking sites and search engines for LGBTQ+ identity work” explores some of the major themes related to affordances for and constraints of LGBTQ+ identity formation online. Kitzie draws on empirical research with over 30 participants to outline how identity expression, visibility, and anonymity play a role in the everyday experiences of her interviewees. She examines interviewee’s descriptions of discrimination online, but also how they were able to experiment and play with different identities, while navigating an Internet culture that many described as generally cis-normative. Kitzie recommends based on her findings that designers should pay closer attention to the potential diversity and difference of their users, so as to better facilitate the wide range of uses to which their Web sites and applications are put.

Andi Schwartz’s paper “Scrolling through the archive: Locating femme knowledge online” offers an epistemological challenge and redress to some areas of scholarship (in queer theory and beyond) that has trivialized feminine knowledges. She defines femme as a not-necessarily- or not-only-lesbian queer political engagement with femininity manifest in terms of value and style. Pointing to the lack of theorizing around femme knowledges and practices, she suggests that online sources can be a particularly rich archive for such theorizing. Schwartz uses the example of Tumblr in particular as a source of femme knowledge, displacing the idea that theory and epistemology are the sole property of those working in the academy, and are also produced through everyday practice.

Finally, as an homage to the work that came before us, we asked communication studies scholar Lisa Henderson (in attendance at QIS2) to write a critical response to the symposium. Her piece, “Still queer — or, What is queer Internet studies for those who don’t study the Internet?,” follows the papers in this special issue. Bringing three decades of work on the media practices of gender and sexual minorities, Henderson offers a thoughtful provocation on how to conceptualize queerness and socio-technical praxis in a broad and politically activated way.

Much like the project of making this issue, Henderson (2013) describes the work of queer film-making a form of “queer relay” that blends queer and non-queer networks to tell stories in the “context of queer narration and cultural recognition.” Queer relay, on these pages, is also a project across disciplinary boundaries. I (Gieseking) am a cultural geographer and environmental psychologist whose research on LGBTQ spaces (and own queer life) inevitably led me into and always bound me to online realms. Research into queer spaces so intertwined between the “virtual” and “real life” has required me to read (and live) broadly and with much excitement over the years. After meeting Jessa over five years ago now, it felt like joining a conversation we are already midway through and that sensation has not ebbed, especially as Dan joined us. We all wanted to find a way to not only share that connection, community, and conversation with other queer Internet studies scholars but to give us an IRL environment to build further connectivity and generate work, activism, and interventions. Beyond my interest in private-public dimensions of queer digitalia, I am increasingly drawn to the production of trans identities and culture as specific to and shared within online networks like Tumblr and Facebook. I am deeply inspired by the work of digital queer and trans studies scholars whose work has grounded me in my own research.

Technology always has radical capacities, although these capacities are often hidden, forgotten, or difficult to activate (see Browne, 2015; Suchman, 2005; Wajcman, 2010). I (Lingel) study digital culture as a way of thinking about how power is distributed through devices, networks, and infrastructure. As a set of conversations, as an orientation towards the margins and as an attentiveness to power relationships, queer Internet studies offers a way of seeing and holding onto the radical capacity of digital technology. This special issue is meant to share the conversations and tactics that began at QIS, with the hope of building on, drawing out, and stitching together new dialogues and provocations. We need queer Internet studies as a set of academic, activist, and artistic projects that are committed to retaining what is radical, disruptive, and queer about the Internet.

It struck me (Cockayne) as I flew to Philadelphia to participate in QIS2, that this was the first academic event that I had ever attended (at the time I was mid way through my first year as an assistant professor) that was not hosted by geographers and that broadly could be conceived as interdisciplinary. I was also beyond excited to be in a room of only queer and explicitly allied scholars — also a first for me and for the invitation and the opportunity to engage with researchers exploring similar themes (my empirical research is on the critical human geography of digital work) from different disciplinary perspectives. Though not always directly geographical, the themes and issues explored in QIS2 were directly pertinent to my own discipline, and many of the conversations — particularly around ethics and methodology — gave me pause and forced me to examine my own disciplinary practices. In turn, I felt that my expertise as a geographer — that has explored these themes through the lenses of “digital sexualities” (Nash and Gorman-Murray, 2016) and “queer code/space” (Cockayne and Richardson, 2017) — brought a useful understanding of space to the event. Geographers, I feel, have much to contribute to the practice of queer Internet studies, that they have already begun to explore through their close attention to mapping, GIS, and spatial big data (Brown and Knopp, 2008; Ferreira and Salvador, 2015; Gieseking, 2018), but also to research on spatial reorganizations of intimacy and subjectivity that the Internet may herald (Jenzen, 2017; Bonner-Thompson, 2017; Miles, 2017).

The Internet is at its best when it is queer. With the rise of Big Tech, the Internet has become more commercialized and less provocative, more entrepreneurial, and less experimental. As a practice, project and collection of thinkers and makers, QIS has adopted a mandate of keeping the Internet queer. Eng, Halberstam, and Muñoz wrote that “The operations of queer critique ... can neither be decided on in advance nor be depended on in the future.” We planned QIS1 and QIS2 without a prediction of what participants would say or do, and we were (and remain) shocked and encouraged by the excitement for making and sharing a space with, for, and about queerness. In its practice and its aftermath, queer Internet studies is a radical, fluid practice and project that remains porous still, even in this naming we grant it here. In the face of an uncertain, terrible, radical moment in history, never before have we bound so clearly to so many, looking back on a LGBTQ movement history whose organizations repeatedly failed when failing to account for racial, gender, sexual, religious, ability differences. We seek to make our present and our futures differently, online, off-line, and across lines. We hope this collection of paper makes some inroads to sharing that work more broadly and affords greater commonality amongst all of those who may yet be part of queer Internet studies; if you’ve read this far: you are very welcome and very much needed here. End of article


About the editors

Jen Jack Gieseking is Assistant Professor of Geography at the University of Kentucky. He is engaged in research on co-productions of space and identity in digital and material environments, specifically how such spaces support or inhibit social, spatial, and economic justice in regards to gender and sexuality. He is working on his second book project, A queer New York: Geographies of lesbians, dykes, and queers, 1983–2008, which is under contract with NYU Press.
E-mail: jack [dot] gieseking [at] trincoll [dot] edu

Jessa Lingel is an Assistant Professor at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. She studies digital culture and the technological distribution of power. Her first book, Digital countercultures and the struggle for community, was published in 2017 by MIT Press.
E-mail: jessa [dot] lingel [at] asc [dot] upenn [dot] edu

Daniel Cockayne is an Assistant Professor of Economic Geography at the University of Waterloo. He explores anti-work politics through the lenses of feminist, queer, poststructuralist, and Marxist theory. His empirical research concerns work culture, the production of gender and sexuality, and emotions and affect in digital media startup firms in San Francisco, California, and the Kitchener-Waterloo Region, Ontario. He explores queer Internet studies in geography through a series of papers; most recently he co-edited a themed section of Gender, Place & Culture with Lizzie Richardson, entitled “Queering code/space.”
E-mail: daniel [dot] cockayne [at] uwaterloo [dot] ca



We are deeply grateful to those who supported both the creation of the QIS2 issue, especially Anne Esacove, the Alice Paul Center, and the Institute for Contemporary Art (ICA), as well as Waldo Aguirre, Corey Falk, and Julie Sloane at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. We also send our thanks to our participants, attendees, and others out there who do this work and inspire us. Finally, we remain deeply appreciative of one another, for the energy, ideas, determination, and queerness to keep going and bring QIS to print.



1. See http://jgieseking.org/qis2.

2. Tannenbaum, 1991, p. 71.

3. See http://jgieseking.org/qis2014.

4. See http://jgieskeing/org/qis2/cfp.



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Kath Browne, Jason Lim, and Gavin Brown (editors), 2009. Geographies of sexualities: Theory, practices, and politics. Aldershot, Hampshire: Ashgate.

Simone Browne, 2015. Dark matters: On the surveillance of blackness. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

Daniel Cockayne and Lizzie Richardson, 2017. “Queering code/space: The co-production of socio-spatial codes and technology,” Gender, Place & Culture, volume 24, number 11, pp. 1,642–1,658.
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Carl Bonner-Thompson, 2017. “‘The meat market’ The production and regulation of life and hyper-sexualized masculinities on the Grindr grid in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, UK,” Gender, Place & Culture, volume 24, number 11, pp. 1,611–1,625.
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Judy Wajcman, 2010. “Feminist theories of technology,” Cambridge Journal of Economics, volume 34, number 1, pp. 143–152.
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Editorial history

Received 1 June 2018; accepted 5 June 2018.

Copyright © 2018, Jen Jack Gieseking, Jessa Lingel, and Daniel Cockayne.

What’s queer about Internet studies now?
by Jen Jack Gieseking, Jessa Lingel, and Daniel Cockayne.
First Monday, Volume 23, Number 7 - 2 July 2018
doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.5210/fm.v23i7.9254

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