First Monday

Can I study you? Cross-disciplinary conversations in queer Internet studies by Michelle Marzullo, Jasmine Rault, and T. L. Cowan

We first met around a workshop table at the queer Internet studies (QIS2) in Philadelphia in February 2017. This conversation began when we realized that we all had some disciplinary knowledges, training and practice that can bear upon queer Internet studies, but simultaneously we felt unprepared for the methodological-ethical challenges posed by the Internet as a queer research environment. Michelle was trained in ethnography as an anthropologist and Jasmine and TL were trained in humanities perspectives — mostly through literature, performance studies and art history, though about five years ago they had begun to retrain in the fields of online archives, pedagogies and networks, which has led to a new collaborative research project on digital research ethics. We had all been trained in dyke/queer/feminist methods and critical theory, and continue to work in this area. And we all were experiencing some gut feelings about the need for better understandings of disciplinary practices — what we are doing, how do we apply what we know how to do, and why are we doing it — across disciplines as we enter the Internet as researchers, in a research situation. What follows is a conversation the three of us had over email and videoconference between July–October 2017, which revolved around the question of what ethnographic methods can bring to Internet research, and what might queer and feminist research ethics look like in the context of digital research environments.


How now, disciplinary ethics?
From disciplinary to Internet ethics?
Queer Internet histories
What’s ethical about queer Internet studies now?



How now, disciplinary ethics?

T. L. Cowan: Michelle, we first started this conversation when you introduced yourself as an anthropologist and an ethnographer at that table in Philadelphia and I grabbed Jasmine’s arm and looked at you and said, “Oh ... we’ve been looking for an ethnographer!” Looking back on that moment it seems rather threesome-ish. Jasmine and I had been wading through all the materials on digital research ethics and trying to come up with our own set of practices, but we kept thinking that there are people in the world who already know so much about the various ethical and practical elements of embedded research. And we were looking for an expert. I feel like we cruised you for your ethnography. And then a few months later you emailed to say, “Let’s keep having that conversation we started at QIS2.” So it feels like a very queer sort of start to this conversation.

Anyways, after you e-mailed with the proposition for us to write about “how anthropological methods and online methods complement and exponentially extend inquiries in online forums,” I followed up with a question for you: I think one of the issues that is happening with text-based Internet research is that folks don’t think about what they are doing as ethnography or community-engaged research/observation but as data mining and analysis, so the bodies and the relationalities between bodies disappear. So I’m curious at a very basic level about your understanding of what is ethnography? What are its methods, protocols, best practices? And how can/what can Internet researchers learn from these?

Michelle Marzullo: For me, I participated in the workshop because I’m interested in getting started in this space — to think through the kinds of skills and ethical concerns that would allow me to shift my focus to Internet ethnographic research. So I came to the workshop for inspiration, really. And so, I think in terms of what I want to get out of this is thinking through with you both as experts in a field that I’m so interested in — for me to learn from you and you to learn from me. That’s why I was so inspired by your invitation really when you were talking and running the workshop. I was like, this could be really great.

To answer your question about ethnography, it is a qualitative approach to collecting research data by living with and among people for an extended period of time doing what is called participant-observation in which the researcher does not merely study the action but becomes a player in it, albeit slowly over time. The hyphen nods at the passage of time assumption inherent in this methodological approach. In terms of best practices for an anthropologist, the expectation is that we spend at the minimum 12–18 months in situ though there are ethnographers who return year after year for decades. The usual protocol is for us to live first near a people, setting up house near those we are interested in, then slowly we establish rapport via inserting ourselves into daily life until we move from observing to participating and back again. It is pro forma that we obtain a letter of support for our research from an institutional review board (IRB) that has considered the ethical impact of our proposed study on the population, helped us think through ways to overcome ethical barriers if any are there, and finally to provide approval for it in order to move forward. Data collection techniques involve keeping what are known as field notes that record observations as well as our own reflexive reactions to these notes, doing interviews with individuals or groups, holding focus groups, collecting archival data, participating in social and political events and so on. Many people use ethnography as a research method although anthropology as a discipline was founded on it and produces research studies that are able to tackle questions of “why” in regards to answering questions related to cultural phenomena that require deep insider knowledge to answer and are usually too complicated to answer with quantitative approaches such as surveys. In their 2016 book Feminist ethnography: Thinking through methodologies, challenges and possibilities, feminist anthropologists Christa Craven and Dána-ain Davis discuss the fact that ethnography is actually practiced across multiple disciplines in very different ways:

Ethnography typically involves long-term interactions through participant observation. While it dates back to Herodotus in the fourth century BCE, ethnography assumed prominence across a range of disciplines in the twentieth century and involves being immersed in a situation and/or among a group of people to understand society from the point of view of those being studied — what contemporary ethnographers have come to call the emic perspective. Ethnographic description, including etic or analytical point of view of the ethnographer, is thus a researcher’s primary tool to convey knowledge about a particular cultural group. [1]

So these are some of the approaches, some of the kinds of data that we collect from what is broadly referred to as one’s field site, or lovingly referred to as “the field” by anthropologists. Ethnography is considered a language-based methodology that often employs textual analysis techniques given the fact that most of the data that we collect is text based in written field notes, texts collected from archives, in digital encounters, transcripts from interviews and focus groups, political speeches, various reports and popular writings as well as cultural artifacts [2]. Therefore, I was trained to conduct social discourse analysis to make sense of the volumes of textual data we are left with at the stopping point of any ethnographic study. I think that Internet research methods and analytic techniques can be informed directly by these practices, especially in regards to IRB protocols.

TL: It strikes me that in the humanities, we’ve been trained to think about our ethical obligation towards textual analysis as cultural inquiry and knowledge production. By the time I was in grad school there was a shift away from new criticism towards a cultural studies/cultural criticism, but always with the text, its paratexts and contexts as the central objects of inquiry.

Jasmine Rault: I think of myself as academically raised in literary studies as well. And it was feminist, postcolonial, queer, black cultural studies-inflected scholarship that pushed back against new criticism to say something like, there’s more to the text than the text alone — texts emerge from a social location, a class location, a gendered location, a racialized location and we need to think about these things in context. But even the feminist, postcolonial, queer literary studies frameworks I was trained in were skeptical of any analyses that even hinted at authorial intention, or too much social or cultural explanation for a text. So while I came up in the 1990s through a lot of criticism of new criticism, I was still trained to treat the text (i.e., literature, artwork, film, TV show) as relatively autonomous. And perhaps a lot of us come into doing Internet research as though we’re doing new criticism?

TL: The shifts brought about by post-structuralist feminist literary criticism; queer and trans- literary criticism; and post-colonial, critical race, and decolonial literary criticism have been centrally about increasing the number of objects of study that became viable in literary studies, while simultaneously understanding the social and political context all of those things. But authorial intention continued and continues to be the realm of biography, of autobiography, and of interview-based and personal archive-based critical genres. But even in these forms I was trained that you certainly don’t ask a poet what she meant by this word or line break, because interpretation is in the mind of the beholder, and so it doesn’t actually matter what the text’s creator meant at the time. The questions became, what is the context of reception? Or, what is the context of creation? But that is all still based on textual evidence. That’s the textual method.

And so it’s actually striking me that when we make these genre status distinctions between a method that treats, for example, social media posts as texts and their producers as authors vs. a method that treats social media posts as part of an ongoing conversation and their producers as subjects within that conversation, I get lost in how to make that transition. I think most feminist and other justice-oriented experts in Internet research ethics are now coming to the conclusion that social media posts and much online content are potentially both, thus needing a cross-disciplinary approach to making ethical research decision, and here I’m thinking particularly about kick-ass new publications that have come out since we first met: the “Archives and new modes of feminist research” special issue in Australian Feminist Studies, especially Michelle Moravec’s essay on feminist digital archives; and Internet research for the social age, the latest from the Association of Internet Researchers especially chapters by Anna Lauren Hoffmann and Anne Jonas (on justice-oriented Internet research ethics); Mary Elizabeth Luka and Mélanie Millette (on feminist digital research ethics); and Tobias Matzner and Carsten Ochs (on relational research ethics and notions of privacy). Also, Natasha Whiteman’s Undoing ethics: Rethinking practice in online research helps us to think through and past these disciplinary methods in her chapter on “Texts or subjects,” which focuses primarily on the U.K. ethics boards context.

Jasmine: And I think, actually, humanities do have really robust ethical practices that just have not been identified or thematized as such. When you think about how long you have to spend in the text, or a set of texts, it’s not like, oh I’ll read a text and then I’ll write about it. You read it, and then you read it again, and you read it again. If it’s a play, if it’s a book, if it’s a movie, whatever it is. As a humanities method, you spend like a lifetime with a text before you feel like you can start to talk about it. And that is not dissimilar to the ways that various disciplines in the social sciences expect you to spend a lot of time with your research subjects, your “fieldwork” and data, or whatever it is you’re studying. But humanities don’t talk about spending time with texts as demanding and developing a kind of ethical relationship to texts. Michelle, you were saying that anthropological methods of participant-observation have the built-in expectation and understanding that the researcher (or the “observer”) will be changed by the research (will become a “participant”), and perhaps some of the ethical protocols and policies demanded of anthropology and ethnography have emerged from that understanding. I think the idea that over time, over the hours/weeks/years we spend with our objects of study, we are transformed by the things we study (people, texts, artworks, etc.), and conversely that we transform those things in the process of studying them, is the basis for most ethical research protocols — and can certainly form the basis of ethical protocols for arts and humanities research.

Michelle: As I understand it through anthropological ethnographic practice, there is a definite embodiment that centers our studies. Ethnographers put our bodies in the line of sight and sometimes in dangerous or precarious situations. That is the hallmark of ethnography: you put your body in front of another body and you say, “Can I study you?” And all kinds of reactions go on in those situations when humans, whether insider or outsider, approach another to say, “I want to study you.” There’s no way to get around that question in ethnography. There is a pivot point when you have to sit as the uncomfortable researcher, even if you are part of the community, to say, “I want to study you.” And there are all kinds of rapport building techniques that anthropologists use to do it like strategically choosing the places we put ourselves given the context, gifts we might bring, and other ways of insinuating ourselves explicitly with folks in their worlds. We deal with the important question of whether we “come out” as a researcher at first, or whether we just kind of observe for a while — nonetheless at some point we are going to have to come out, right, because there are those pesky things called IRBs that I mentioned above that we have to deal with as ethnographers who are in situ. The bodily piece is unavoidable as is the rapport building piece, which takes time. So in terms of gift giving, many anthropologists bring symbolic or special foods or alcohol to ingratiate ourselves to those we work with. So, what do you do when you bring alcohol or food into an ethnographic setting? You share it with them, right. And so in that case, you’re altering your bodily state with those you are interested in studying, and you’re sort of building rapport and trust through that physical sharing. The big thing about anthropology that makes it different qualitatively from other social sciences is that it takes time given the ethnographic method. It take a whole lot of time. Because humans, you know, we’re picky about who we like and who we want to talk to. And so, these are long engagements, usually. As I mentioned above, a good ethnography usually takes 12 months to 18 months on the ground — this could be spread out over different stints in a place or done consecutively depending on funding and those kinds of practical considerations.

TL: Michelle, I keep coming back to the moment in our conversation when you say, there comes a pivot point in an ethnographic research practice when you have to say “I want to study you,” “Will you let me study you?” In literary studies or even performance studies, when you are approaching a book of poems, or even a zine or chapbook, or a staged performance, you don’t have to ask the author or the performance artist “Can I study you?” because — unless you are doing a biography or some other interview-based research, in the textual critical tradition — you would need to say, “Can I study your text?” and we have long had the understanding is that it is ethically important that researchers have access to cultural artefacts whether the creator of those artefacts knows about it or likes it. I remember the first moment when I felt myself to be a bit of an academic troll. I was presenting at a poetry conference and realized that the young guy whose poem I had written about was there in the room. We had never met. I was presenting this hugely gay analysis of his poem and it turns out that my reading of the poem was way gayer than he thought it was. I have to say, it was an uncomfortable moment. I still stand by my reading that it was a super gay poem for me, but I was left with this lingering hesitation about being a creepy invisible researcher and having my way with his text! But of course without this critical ethical method of historically situated and shifting textual analysis, we would never understand, for example, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of darkness as a racist text. If every critic had to get permission from Conrad or his estate to write about that book, the critics writing from a post-colonial and critical race perspective might not have had their ways with that text.

Another thing that I like about the “I want to study you” moment is that there’s a parallel there between “I want to study you” and “I want to fuck you” or “I want to kiss you.” There’s a stated desire, but we’re going to have to talk about it. I can’t just realize my desire on you. Here I keep thinking about that classic must-read from the 1990s, The ethical slut (Easton and Liszt, 1997), and I wonder if the author(s) might write an edition for Internet researchers. Or perhaps that’s what we’re doing here.

Jasmine: We seem to be interested in what it would mean, ethically, to approach texts like an ethnographer would a living culture. And it’s quite a high demand. It is a utopic project in many ways. And therefore, by definition, impossible. But it might provoke or enable some useful reimaginings of the present, to posit such a utopian vision of arts and humanities research in the context of networked online cultural production.

TL: It totally is. And it’s also really interesting because one of the main things that, like large-scale data projects in digital humanities-activated literature departments and other environments are doing, is exactly the kind of sociolinguistic analysis that you’re talking about, but doing it at a much larger scale. So when, I don’t know what would be the word, but you can track, for example, how often “gay” is used compared to how often is “homo” used, within a certain publication over the span of many years, and then potentially make some larger claims based on this research.

Jasmine: Right? These machine reading software work on a huge amount of text (big arts data!), and go through to look for these collocations (i.e., “gay” and “homo”) and that becomes a way to read a data set that is a bunch of socially and culturally-embedded stuff you found online that you don’t need to fully contextualize. You’ve pulled out these collocations so you can make an argument about what you found there, without needing to grapple with the contexts in which you found it. These methods seem to be exercised on a “data set” without a concern for the research subjects and the social, cultural and political scenes which produced the knowledges, analyses, languages and styles that get reduced to “data” for mining.

Michelle: As I mentioned above, the “data” that is produced from ethnographic works are considered texts that are most usefully analyzed through discursive and linguistic techniques, including corpus analyses (which deals with very large volumes of textual data). I know that Internet researchers also employ other techniques to analyze large volumes of texts extracted from online sources that are similar to these. But the rub here is in the interpretation. In how researchers ethically engage that material and how we think through our place within that — or whether we do at all.

In 1986 George Marcus and Michael Fisher wrote the book Anthropology as cultural critique: An experimental moment in the human sciences in which they were responding to what they saw as a new orientation in anthropological writings and ethnographic inquiry. They characterized this shift in the American practice of anthropology as such:

Collectively, these are in process of reconstructing the edifices of anthropological theory from the bottom up, by exploring new ways to fulfill the promises on which modern anthropology was founded: to offer worthwhile and interesting critiques of our own society; to enlighten us about other human possibilities, engendering an awareness that we are merely one pattern among many; to make accessible the normally unexamined assumptions by which we operate and through which we encounter members of other cultures. Anthropology is not a mindless collection of the exotic, but the use of self-reflection and self-growth. To accomplish this in the modern world of increased interdependence among societies and mutual awareness among cultures requires new styles of sensibility and of writing. Such exploration in anthropology lies in the move from a simple interest in the description of cultural others to a more balanced purpose of cultural critique which plays off other cultural realities against our own in order to gain a more adequate knowledge of them all. [3]

They go on to point out that the interpretative model of knowledge generation that emerged as a characterization of this new style was not the actual point but instead the point was to open the field to challenge the basic notion that a paradigmatic style, that a discipline-centric characterizing of knowledge generation, was insufficient for doing justice to the multivalent human phenomena anthropologists encounter. I think those engaging in Internet studies implicitly know this as well.

Yet as I mentioned above, ethnography can be a precarious practice and those engaging it confront all manner of personal and ethical dilemmas and even moments of danger if our question, “Can I study you?,” is not well received. So that our work, like the sex metaphor you use above, often hinges on consent agreement to move forward with each other or risk harm. As Marcus and Fisher go on to explain:

complicities of all sorts are integral to the positioning of any new ethnographic project, offering interesting possibilities for productively increasing the “cartographic” precision of ethnographic analysis, but at the cost of any easy “taking of sides.” The view that we argued for, and that became more obvious through the 1990s, is that fieldwork should be recognized as a complex web of interactions in which anthropologists in collaboration with others, conventionally conceived as informants and located within a variety of often contrasting settings, track connections amid networks, mutations, influences of cultural forces and changing social pressures. [4]

The complicities that Marcus and Fisher are commenting on are the kinds of ethical realities that researchers encounter in the field such as working around taking a political stand, observing inequities or confronting/sustaining hegemonic power structures through the deconstructive discursive analytic practices that similar to current queer theoretical practice are trying to avoid the “easy” taking of sides. These are clear tensions among Internet researchers.



From disciplinary to Internet ethics?

Jasmine: So the reason why TL and I started to think about digital ethics, or queer and feminist ethical practices in digital research, is because we began working to create an online archive for this one performance scene — the Meow Mix cabaret produced and organized by Miriam Ginestier in Montréal from 1997–2012ish. We were hoping to put the photos, videos, posters, various ephemeral documentation of that dyke-centric queer scene online, and realized: it turns out there are so many reasons this is a bad idea. Or, this is an idea that we need to think through in a lot more careful and complicated ways. Do people want us putting their first (and perhaps only) drag performance from 1998 online? Do working artists who create careful and beautiful documentation of their performances want a grainy, shaky, terribly lit video of their work in its earliest draft forms shared online? Can we contact everyone in these photos and video files (between 10–30 performers per show) to ask them for permissions to put them online? Can we even find these people (who are often living names and lives that would be put at risk if we searched for them using their 90s markers)? Whose interests and well-beings are we prioritizing if we online this material without every participant’s consent? The process of working on this archive sort of tipped us off to the fact that there are not yet a set of ethical guidelines or understandings for doing queer and feminist politically accountable work in and on digital networks. So we started our research into what those accountable or ethical practices might be. Michelle, I’m interested in what brings you to think about the Internet? How did your research bring you to consider “the queer Internet” as an object or context of study?

Michelle: Yeah, yeah yeah. I think it’s a valid question because in terms of the patterns that I’m seeing as a feminist anthropologist working on issues of sexuality, it’s where people are. You know, if we’re going to do research on sexuality, and we ignore the Internet, which is the main place where people meet, date, hook-up, talk about sexuality, learn about sexuality, you know. In terms of sexuality education these days, when we think about the delivery of sexuality education, if that sexuality education isn’t taking into account the fact that the first sexuality education that most of these young people are receiving is by Googling the word “sex” and coming up with some sort of images of pornography then it is irrelevant. It is an important social phenomenon to consider that among many of the first images those doing these searches receive are images of highly stylized, procured bodies that, in the consumption of these images, produce all sorts of bodily expectations about for example what a vagina’s supposed to look like, what a penis is supposed to look like, what’s the size my body is supposed to look like, what’s the shape, what’s the colour, what’s my pubic hair supposed to look like? It’s all of this, these standards that are set up, implicitly, just from those first moments. And there’s a lot of undoing that has to be done in sexuality education as a result now.

Jasmine: One of the main concerns TL and I have in our collaborative work is: what measure of accessibility and publicity is ethical, when it comes to queer cultural content? We’re thinking specifically of queer performance documentation that emerged from, and was originally meant for, a small intentional audience. How do we imagine a framework of accountability for the practice of taking things (texts, art, performance, stories, zines) that were meant for a really limited audience — deliberately not meant to circulate too far beyond the feminist and dyke scenes in which they emerged — and putting those online? On the one hand, some people want to do it and it’s great for them, but on the other hand, people need to be able to have some say in whether the photo-essay about their first girlfriend that they published in a local zine in 1995 goes online.

Michelle: So with me, it’s very funny, because I run this program, right. So I’m working with a whole lot of people to create this program called the Ph.D. Program in Human Sexuality and I have to think really broadly to answer such fundamental ethical questions like: what does the field need? And what do these people who are studying this stuff need? And then there’s me. As a researcher, right. My interests are more around intimacies, and what makes me so interested always is how high-level global, economic processes come down and impact our most intimate decision-making. And if we are being honest, there is no way to think about the global economy without thinking about the parallel development of information communication technologies (ICT), which we just call among other things the Internet. Processes like neoliberalization and globalization exist in a complex relationship with technological change and with the development of the Internet. But as you all know, these all lots of technologies working together in different ways that continually recombine to produce different social, cultural and economic impacts. So I’m really super interested in those moments of contact and those moments of interpretation of the self and desire, and the desire to be linked with someone else through those mediated contacts. Like what you said above, I’m interested in it in regards to how these Internet-mediated encounters shape who we desire, how we desire, and how these are contextualized in time and place.

But I’m also interested in it because I’m always interested in the economy and work opportunities, and how work — not only in terms of the class that it places us in and the kind of work that we do but also in terms of the amount of free time that it gives us — how work shapes the way that we have time and access to these intimacies. Because most of us are in the economy, right. Most of us have not found a way out of it yet. And so, for those of us who are in it, and we have to deal with this, this crazy thing that classical economists identified as turning our blood and our sweat and our tears and our energy, our human energy, into a value that we then place a money value onto, exchange money through that energy. How that whole exchange impacts the way that we think about each other, that we evaluate each other, at the most intimate level is crucially important to all kinds of emotional and political actions/reactions that we deal with every day. And in terms of the way that marriage works on this is that since the passage of U.S. LGBTQ marriage, people are now able to evaluate each other through these formal exchange networks, queer people included.

So, the questions at the crux of your digital archive and my ethnographic/social science work is the same in terms of consent and the power of the researcher when we are asking really interesting questions like: How do this work change the calculus of sexual freedom and the inspiration of sexual mavericks and outlaws to push us towards more sexual freedoms? How has dating, hooking up and the like changed after marriage? There was before marriage, when queer people were much more in charge of the terms of their intimate relationships at an interpersonal scale not at a juridical scale/form. Yet now we have this policy that’s available, which sucks us into pre-existing frameworks for relationships and asks us to evaluate each other through those prior terms. These are temporal questions grounded in actual geographic specificity — as your archive is and even as texts produced in large quantities on the Internet are. And how do those interactions/analyses reduce the effervescence, the jouissance, the queerness of the ways that we meet and fuck and create worlds is really interesting. And so, I’m really interested in how the Internet can help us track that but equally as interested in how we are researchers think clearly about the ethics of this.

Jasmine: I think that it would be worth writing out what you just said: your interest in the way Internet studies might help you track a cultural and intimate shift, that you intuitively know has been happening, which has to do with rendering queer relationality to a kind of economic matrix that complements the structures of marriage. But using the Internet to pursue these research questions will likely bring you into all sorts of ethical quagmires, right? Because even the idea of data scraping: imagine trying to scrape a bunch of Grindr profiles for “data” to analyse in pursuit of your research question. It’s ethically really fucked up, right? So, what are some ethical ways into the research project that you would like to do? What are some ethical ways into the research projects that TL and I have been liking to do? What would be on your mind if you were turning to the Internet to try and to pursue your research questions? What would anthropology say you need to do? You would probably need to develop a clear ethics protocol and be reviewed by your university ethics board. But would you need institutional ethics approval if this research was done online? Because we’ve found that most universities in Canada and the U.S. don’t necessarily expect or provide ethics protocols for research in an online environment.

But exactly what you have just identified, Michelle, as very much working through a kind of history of experience of harm in anthropology — that thing of being embedded, so that you can dedicate your work to a kind of rich, contextual account — the rich context that anthropology has cared a lot about for a long time seems to be missing right now for Internet research. So people do talk about stuff that’s happening in hookup apps, or on Facebook, or whatever digital network. And researchers can make nearly any kind of generalization or conclusion based on the conversations/posts/likes, etc., that they’ve been ‘scraping’ or ‘mining’ from these sites, without giving the rich context and the kind of thick context that anthropology helps to prioritize. And this is not only about cultivating intellectual rigor, it’s largely about ethical rigor. In the humanities, we don’t have these aspirational guidelines. I mean, we have an attention to context, but not quite, not in the same way. In a very different way. And it’s not demanded as part of a kind of, an ethical practice.

TL: In the Canadian research ethics context, you’re implicitly encouraged to not identify yourself in Internet research. Because if you identify yourself, then you have to go through the Research Ethics Board. If you don’t identify yourself, you get a waiver. So this is a problem, since there seems to be very little guidance or understanding at the institutional level about the lurking academic researcher. There also seems to be very little guidance or understanding of the ethical implications of transmedial transfer or remediation: What are the scaled-up ethical obligations for researchers who are re-publishing on the Internet, previously not-online materials — a process we’ve been calling “onlining”? Since the potential audience/potential exposure is scaled up in an Internet environment, so too are our ethical obligations and accountabilities to the texts, authors/research subjects we study. I feel like my analysis and practice has been shaped by so many folks in this regard, especially Jennifer Guiliano, Carolyn Heitman, Jane Anderson and Kim Christian, Moya Bailey, Jessa Lingel, Alanna Kumbier, Vanessa P. Dennen, Zeynep Tufekci, Tara Robertson, micha cárdenas, Cass Adair, Nishani Frazier, Joss Greene, Dorothy Kim and Eunsong Kim, Jamie Nesbitt Golden and Monique Judge, Veronica Paredes, Alexandrina Agloro, Gabrielle Bellot and Izetta Autumn Mobley, Jessica Marie Johnson, Danielle Cole, Jade Davis, and Jacqueline Wernimont — scholars whose work in the fields of decolonial, indigenizing, feminist, queer, trans- and anti-racist digital scholarship and archives has made a massive impact on my digital research praxis. In my work with the Center for Solutions to Online Violence (CSOV), I continue to learn from the perspectives of The Alchemists — a collective of social media activist, artists and researchers who “explore the unique ways that anti-feminist violence impacts women of color who are Black and Latinx in the Americas.” [5]

Jasmine: In Canada, academics apply for research funding from one of the three federal councils — Canadian Institutes of Health Research; Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada; or the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada — and any “research involving humans” needs to abide by the Tri-Council Policy Statement on Ethical Conduct. But the Statement doesn’t yet deal specifically with research conducted online, or in an online environment. So one of the guidelines in the ethics policy is that if the conversation or interaction is in public and has no reasonable expectation of privacy, then no ethics clearance is needed. In a way the ethics policy is actually just encouraging researchers to act a bit like trolls — to take and use whatever and however they want from people’s social worlds online, or sex worlds or political worlds with no conversation, no consent, no accountability. Technically, many conversations on Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr etc., are “public” and open, but as the social sciences have recognized for a long time now, just because it’s in public, doesn’t mean that it’s public.

Michelle: In my research practice, I do deal with these ethical boundaries. Comprehending the day to day of people’s lives in a way that allows me glean meaning-making, find durable behavior and identity patterns, work across my own biases and blindspots, deconstruct normativities as we would say in queer research practice, or in feminist anthropological praxis find the universal in the particular, the historical, the grounded experience — is at its most basic an orientation to research method informed iteratively by theory and a deep understanding of power relations. As an ethnographer, I fundamentally place people at the center of the inquiry — not theory making, not deeper discourse analysis techniques, not statistical tests, not new data scraping fanciness, and so on. What I am saying is that we can get lost in the techniques and idea-generating and easily lose sight of the fact that we as social researchers interested in doing work with people need to keep them at the center of our work as living, breathing, thinking, and acting not as straw people to make our academic careers or as afterthoughts that invoke liberal inspiration devoid of contextual action but as central, crucial and generative as they create their cultural worlds through their cultural practices.

Jasmine: And so many of the minoritized artists, activists, intellectuals, cultural worlds and cultural practices around which so much trans feminist, queer, critical race studies revolve do not need unsolicited or academically self-serving online exposure. There’s a recognition of how dangerous it is to expose those practices beyond those small groups. The reason minoritized cultural scenes are often deliberately kept small or private is because we live in a larger culture that’s really hostile to their existence. So many of the anti-feminist super racist attacks we see online come from taking minoritized knowledges, cultures and conversations out of context — the decontextualized circulation of feminist analyses in gaming culture, or any anti-racist critique of police or articulation of abolitionist politics. These are often knowledges cultivated as common sense within minoritized cultures, but when you pick up those common sense phrases or those common sense observations out of their context, and they’re circulated in larger more hostile contexts, they’re subject to so much attack and serious harassment.

The knowledges, practices and intimacies that we most care about, academically and also personally, are only possible in a kind of smaller network. So, in a context where people have a capacity to make those networks bigger all the time, how do we respect people’s desire to cultivate and protect smaller, intimate networks?

TL: I’ve never really asked someone who practices ethnography about this. What is the position in terms of being an outsider studying a culture?

Michelle: I touched on this a bit earlier but can definitely say more. Anthropologists in general think of participant-observation as starting as an observer but always ending as a participant, right. So in that sort of learning that happens, there is that understanding that at some point, the ethnographer is going to lose the perspective, right. And that’s generally when, anthropologists say, “Leave.” Leave. Leave. Leave. That’s the point at which the researcher should realize they’ve done enough research. If you’re starting to think that you’re a part of that world, when you’re clearly not, that’s the time to leave as you have lost that ethnographic etic tool that Davis and Craven discuss above. And that’s when anthropologists generally stop respecting you because you all of a sudden start to think that you’re part of that and you’ve completely lost the plot of what you were doing. This is of course complicated a bit when you self-identify with a group but even then you are generally in a position of power as a researcher.



Queer Internet histories

TL: In the most recent article Jasmine and I wrote (Cowan and Rault, 2018), and which we sent to you, we tried to reckon with the convergence of the theorization of the Internet and digital cultural practice which coincided with the emergence of queer theory. Personally, I was a much earlier adopter of queerness and queer theory than I was of the Internet. I shared an e-mail account with my then-girlfriend until about Y2K. So I guess the two were very entwined in my personal life.

Jasmine: So yeah, this is an interesting historical argument. The Internet becomes both a social and cultural phenomenon but also an object of study at about the same time that queer activism becomes a social and cultural political force, and queer theory becomes a method, as well as a discipline.

TL: I don’t know if you follow this historical alignment. It was also an aesthetic and pop cultural alignment, where a lot of early Internet movies featured some connection to HIV/AIDS and ACT UP and other ways to communicate a queerness of virality as well as fear of and resistance to virality. We’re not the only people to make this connection but it was particularly interesting when we were looking back at this question of queer archives. And what’s funny is that they didn’t really align theoretically until very recently. There are a few people — our colleague Cait McKinney (2016) is one of them — who have been doing this work on the convergences of queer networks and the Internet.

Michelle: Yeah. So what it brings to mind for me is sort of the, kind of the fetishization of the universal, or universalizing tropes, which were only really made possible via neoliberalism. The idea of globalization is a positive spin on neoliberalism. Thomas Friedman’s book The world is flat is an example of that spin that exalts supply chains joined with ICT technology that would allow the transfer of goods, supposed seamlessly, to create this kind of universal experience via access and being in the world through material supply. But the ethics and class politics of all of that is rarely questioned or highlighted in such works: who is allowed to travel, who was allowed to work in these worlds, to gain materially, is of course not really discussed.

So, but you know, there’s such a tension in that early queer theory around feeling something was not right there and wanting to intervene. It was kind of at the tail end of the gay and lesbian movement in the 1980s but before the LGBTQIA movement collapsed all into a limited set of identity categories. Queer theory came around to say, “No, no, no, there’s something particular about that.” I remember when I first started graduate school in 2000, that there was such a tension in my sexualities program — I got my Master’s in human sexuality studies at San Francisco State University — that you couldn’t speak, there was a lot of policing around speaking the word queer. Queer theory became dogmatic in that, you know, we understand that there’s no universalizing of sexuality, and so it cut off debate and talk about sexuality as something crucial because we understand there’s no universal. But then humans are meaning-making creatures, right, so then what stepped in as the universal became all of these unexamined power structures à la white gay male sexuality concerns. And so, it was so difficult to try to untangle all of that. For me, in my positionality as a student to try to pull all of that stuff apart across all of the different professors that I had to deal with was difficult. Going to school in San Francisco in the 2000s, right after HIV/AIDS had decimated most of the population of gay men in San Francisco, that there was a lot of emotional work to be done theoretically as well as politically there. That these strands even in the academy started then, they meshed up together, into an intellectual and emotional project. And it made it really hard to understand as an emerging scholar, what’s going on here? Like where’s the political and where’s the theoretical? And, you know, what can I learn? It gave me a front-row seat to understand that theoretical, intellectual, personal and political projects feed each other — pretending these are separate just feeds systems of inequality and violence. But it also allowed me to see that I could do something that’s not just this emotion — I mean there was lots of rightful emotion, rage, but it fueled an understanding that we needed to do something more and better.

Parallel to that, the Internet came along in San Francisco. I moved to San Francisco in ’96, before the 2000 dot com bust, during the boom. And that was sort of the atmosphere I had entered into. And there was a convergence between that queer activist and theoretical work I discussed above and the rise of the Internet. I lived through it. I moved in in ’96 and there was, you know, the only apartment I could get was in the Mission, in this area that was fully surrounded by a variety of complex forces that included highly racialized forms of gentrification that disrupted local ways of life, a rise in evictions closely connected to the high technology scene, and the price of rent had tripled in the month before I arrived because of the economies of these Internet companies and all of the capitalist money that was beginning to be poured into this area. But at the same time, we were dealing with all of these, you know, this really super traumatized gay and lesbian community that had, you know, beyond their political differences, had found community through caring for each other, because of the epidemic, because people were just literally dying. So, would you say, “No, I don’t agree with your sexuality politics” when you see someone dying in front of you? No, you don’t do that. So you take care of each other, right. So the epidemic helped to heal some of that stuff, but I think in all of that work that needed to happen, there was some collapsing, but it was, like you said, all of these things just kind of came together in parallel motion, right. But started rubbing together in our minds: emotion, sexuality, care, intimacy, economy, power, survival.



What’s ethical about queer Internet studies now?

Jasmine: Researchers can scrape a hashtag from a Twitter feed, process and analyze that data without ever needing to be observed, or to out themselves as researchers. This method of research can be completely disengaged from questions of context or ethics — neither the useful methods of close reading that literary studies brings us nor the useful methods of engagement that ethnography brings us. But this has been making me think about this one passage of an essay by Noah Tsika (2016) from the “Queer methods” special issue in WSQ. Tsika cites Sara Ahmed saying, “it is the non-transcendence of queer that allows queer to do its work[6]. Tsika connects this to José Esteban Muñoz’s disidentification (Muñoz, 1999) and Roderick Ferguson’s (2004) queer of color critique, to suggest that,

the search for queer objects must proceed from within a range of arenas, including those that seem most hostile to queer methods and must also deploy “queer” as a verb transforming — if, as Ahmed contends, not necessarily transcending — the circuits of global capitalism in order to reflect and respond to a more diverse range of subjectivities. [7]

What can we learn about ethical research practices for queer Internet studies if we understand non-transcendence, embeddedness in and accountability for the structures of power that we seek to transform, as guiding our queer methods?

Michelle: I agree with Tsika’s idea that queer theory does its best work when forced to contextualize, that “the search for queer objects must proceed from within a range of arenas.” This begs the question of how to move these insights to reading sexualities writ-large in in-person and virtual spaces, not pinned to minoritarian identity groups. That move could allow us to apply these methodological and ethical stances to understanding all sexualities and genders and to deconstruct these in time and space to see networks and linkages that are not apparent otherwise.

The point I am emphasizing in this discussion is the characterization of queer theory as “a diverse range of critical practices and priorities” and as a “critical method of deconstruction” [8]. These points anchor the idea of queer theory as ethical praxis necessitating it as a method aiming as it does to somehow “queer,” or better said to critique the normalizing characterizations of sex, gender, desire, intimacies and connect these to the larger socio-political and economic scaffolds that emerge from/with those normativities.

As Seidman in 1995 presciently observed, queer theorists often simultaneously point out the sources of normativities in their deconstruction/s, while eliding their own. In this way, the history of queer theory knowledge generation has sidestepped the question of anchoring their own practices within a particular generation, geography, academic affiliation, politics, and sexual/gendered aesthetic — though it has and still does that anchoring. In their special volume of Social text (2005), Eng, Halberstam and Muñoz summarize queer as political intervention emerging as it did into 1990s public consciousness:

as a term that challenged the normalizing mechanisms of state power to name its sexual subjects: male or female, married or single, heterosexual or homosexual, natural or perverse. Given its commitment to interrogating the social processes that not only produced and recognized but also normalized and sustained identity, the political promise of the term resided specifically in its broad critique of multiple social antagonisms, including race, gender, class, nationality, and religion, in addition to sexuality. [9]

Yet for queer to be generative as methodology the aim is to extrapolate the useful practices, move beyond the mobius strip of a queer intervention deconstructing normativities to an anarchist, nihilist impulse, an impulse towards nothingness, or as Seidman puts it towards a reification of the politics of difference more accurately stated as the recent mainstreaming of Crenshaw’s “intersectionality.” Writing in 2011, Puar argues of the potential efficacy of the concept of assemblage instead of a politics of difference/intersectionality to say, “along with a deexceptionalizing of human bodies [...] Matter is an actor. Following Karen Barad on her theory of performative metaphysics, matter is not a ‘thing’ but a doing,” [10]. In this, Puar brings the body back in, avoiding the essentialist purism of sexuality as only “natural” or emanating from the internal but the natural being erected discursively in language and discourse leaving us with the idea ala assemblage that the body exists but so does the social as such.

Here she astutely avoids the binary of “nature vs. nurture” refusing to give in to either an essentialist or constructivist ethos to point instead to processes of “deterrotorialization and reterrotorialization of sexualities and genders as patterns of recurring links and properties of those links,” [11]. Thus to approach “deconstruction” as something not magical but as a particular method, as a practice, a process — not a thing but a doing, inspired by whichever complexities have the floor of the moment be these difference, intersections, dialogics, assemblages, materialisms to create a now that is no longer anchored by putative modernity hailing a post-modern moment but actually an allowance to go beyond via our methodological and ethical stances.

In our current post-9/11, post-Great-Recession, living-through-Trump environment, the moment is multivalent, inciting us to articulate our methods and to take a stand about our ethics — even and especially within the academy. Any critical deconstructionist method leaves an open field available for new imaginings, areas of innovative political intervention, the allowance of a multivocality in regards to who’s life and experiences count as human, worthy. What I am saying is that the queer road leads directly to questions of political stance and an ethical praxis.

Jasmine: Yeah. And that queer research has in its very best enactments accounted for one’s own deep embeddedness in our objects of study. That’s something queer Internet research might be losing, and that ethnographers have always prioritized, but in a slightly different way, of course.

While I’m concerned about the extractive digital research methods of data mining, scraping and exposing, my work with TL has also been preoccupied with the online-ing of materials that were never designed to be online, never meant for the Internet and such massive and random audiences. Academic institutions are quite central to this phenomenon — academics are putting things online but also activist librarians and archivists working with university collections. We think, “wow, we have this incredible collection of mid-20th century trans history, or lesbian porn, all these photos and journals etc. Let’s digitize them and put them up online.” And some folks have been doing that. And some folks aren’t. But obviously, many of us share the idea that we’re caring for trans, lesbian, feminist, queer lives. We’re trying to maintain the possibility of trans lesbian feminist queer presents and futures by providing greater access to these pasts. So many activists, archivists and academics have really good reason to put the materials online. And then, academics and sometimes journalists or bloggers have really good reason to engage with those archives. But the question of how easily this stuff circulates now gets us into an area of risk assessment and risk management and risk awareness which is the history of minoritized subjects engaging in public forever. Feminists have been concerned with risk and care and the unequal vulnerabilities of being in public for a really long time. These are some of the ethical considerations that haven’t yet really entered into the exciting and excited rush towards online-ing trans feminist queer digital materials. We don’t yet seem to have ethical guidelines or formalized protocols for doing research on minoritized cultures — which includes making searchable archives of minoritized cultural production and intimacies — in an online environment.

Michelle: That’s it. That’s it. That’s the right way to say it. That’s right. This reminds me of Ahmed’s piece in Davis and Craven’s book which ends her part on citational politics by saying, “We are not just talking about citation within academic contexts. We are talking about what I think of as screening techniques: how certain bodies take up spaces by screening out the existence of others. If you are screened out (by virtue of the body you have) then you simply do not even appear or register to others. You might even have to become insistent, wave your arms, even shout, just to appear. And then of course how you appear (as being insistent) means you still tend not to be heard” [12]. That segment is talking about the things that researchers do when writing but is easily read onto the things that brought you both to want to have this conversation with me: Internet researchers are disappearing their bodies/existence in their research as a result of minimal consent guidance and in so doing get to screen in and out certain other bodies and positionalities while eliding their own. This is also Seidman’s critique of queer theorists and has been a problematic that feminist ethnographers have grappled with for decades (see Davis and Craven, 2016).

This leaves researchers who do not want to partake in such screenings, elisions, erasures frantically waving our arms, being insistent — shouting in pieces like this one to open the dialogue about this topic and to integrate methodological learnings from others who have explicitly grappled with these ethical quandaries like feminists, ethnographers and anthropologists — and now even (queer) Internet researchers.

Jasmine: I feel like these conversations we’re having are useful for thinking about, not rules, but a set of habits, questions, concerns and practices that can inform any kind of Internet research.

TL: I keep thinking about queer method through a dyke, anti-oppression, anti-violence framework. And that I think that this kind of anti-violence activism has always been part of dyke political life, and also dyke erotic life. I want us to continue to be able to think about the ethics of the ways we find each other, how we share responsibilities for safety, and that safety and privacy are not always the same thing. What are the infrastructures already in place and how do we programme these into the ways we work in online contexts? It seems like a lot of people are having these conversations, especially informed by the ways that “conditions of harassment and abuse on social networking sites systematically affect women and people of color” [13]. As Anna Lauren Hoffmann and Anne Jonas write, because of these conditions of harassment and abuse, “these groups shoulder a greater share of the social, political, and emotional burden of online participation — the very thing that generates the sorts of data that support the efforts of industry researchers” [14]. Lisa Nakamura (2015) has framed a version of this situation as “the unwanted labor of call-out culture” performed by women of color on social media and importantly considers the ways that targeted users are called upon to do the work of community management to produce better protocols and cultural norms within these spaces — to make them less toxic. In thinking about what is ethical about queer Internet studies now, I want to be attentive to ways that the people involved in the scenes, communities and conversations that we study practice safety or how they manage risk and that it is up to us, not only to ask, “Can I study you?,” but also to think about how the Internet provides access to scenes and conversations that we would not otherwise have access to, so we have to be prepared to hear “no,” which isn’t something that humanities scholars are generally trained to hear. We might also consider the various ways that we approach research situations online, and experiment with hybrid methods that engage relational, embodied, embedded and textual practices that require even closer, queerer readings than we have done before.End of article


About the authors

Michelle A. Marzullo, Ph.D., is a practicing anthropologist and academic who serves as chair of the Ph.D. program in human sexuality studies at the California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco, California. Dr. Marzullo holds a Ph.D. in anthropology from American University in Washington, D.C. and a Master’s degree in human sexuality studies from San Francisco State University. Her work currently engages sexuality policy and economic issues in the United States as well as issues of workplace diversity and inclusion. Over her 17-year career, she has worked to advocate for LGBTQ issues in the U.S. and on a wide range of policy, programmatic, public health, organizational effectiveness and marketing projects with academic, governmental and corporate groups.

Jasmine Rault is an assistant professor at the Institute of Communication, Culture, Information & Technology and Department of Sociology at University Toronto Mississauga. Rault hold a Ph.D. from McGill in art history and communication studies. Dr. Rault works on themes of feminist and queer architecture and design, digital cultures and economies, arts and social movements. Rault’s first book is Eileen Gray and the design of Sapphic modernity: Staying in, and their most recent essays are published in S&F online (2018) and Feminist media studies (2017).

T. L. Cowan is an assistant professor of media studies (digital media cultures) in the Department of Arts, Culture and Media (UTSC) and the Faculty of Information (iSchool) at the University of Toronto. Cowan holds a Ph.D. in English literature from the University of Alberta. Her research focuses on cultural and intellectual economies and networks of minoritized digital media and performance practices. Dr. Cowan’s scholarly practice moves between page, stage and screen; recent notable commissions for her creative-critical work include the PlugIn Institute of Contemporary Art in Winnipeg, Queens Museum in New York City, and Nuit Blanche in Toronto.
E-mail: tl [dot] cowan [at] utoronto [dot] ca

Together, Rault and Cowan are currently developing the Digital Ethics Research Collaboratory (DREC, and the Cabaret commons: An online archive, exhibition and publication space for trans- feminist & queer artists, activists, audiences and researchers. Watch for both coming in 2018. Their recent collaborative work can be found in MOOCs and their afterlives: Experiments in scale and access in higher education (University of Chicago Press, 2017 edited by Elizabeth Losh); ephemera: Theory and politics in organization (2014) (; and Ada: Gender, new media, and technology (2014) (



With thanks to Elysia Guzik, for her lightning-fast transcriptions of our conversations, without whose assistance this piece would not exist.



1. Davis and Craven, 2016, p. 10..

2. Gal and Irvine, 1995, p. 971.

3. Marcus and Fisher, 1986, pp. ix–x.

4. Marcus and Fisher, 1986, pp. xviii–xix.

5. See

6. Ahmed, 2004, cited in Tsika, 2016, p. 114.

7. Tsika, 2016, pp. 114–115.

8. Spargo, 1999, pp. 8–9.

9. Eng, et al., 2005, p. 84.

10. Puar, 2011, paragraph 12.

11. Puar, 2011, paragraph 15.

12. Davis and Craven, 2016, p. 68.

13. Hoffmann and Jonas, 2017, p. 3.

14. Ibid.



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Editorial history

Received 1 June 2018; accepted 5 June 2018.

Copyright © 2018, Michelle Marzullo, Jasmine Rault, and T. L. Cowan.

“Can I study you?” Cross-disciplinary conversations in queer Internet studies
by Michelle Marzullo, Jasmine Rault, and T. L. Cowan.
First Monday, Volume 23, Number 7 - 2 July 2018