The Conspicuous Trap of Desire in the Social Media Era

The Internet has made it increasingly complicated and exciting to talk about desire. Sexual and romantic identities exist to describe many of the ways human beings engage each other. However, how QTPOC digitally engage dating and sex has not caught up with queer cultural strides. E. Patrick Johnson scratches the surface of digital desire in the introduction to No Tea, No Shade where he points out the speed and ease of apps for connecting people. Johnson juxtaposes the past (written ad or chat room) with the present (apps with GPS like Grindr). He encourages readers to contemplate the culture shift involved in leaving behind the slow anticipation of correspondence for the instant gratification of location based hookups.

Exponential social-digital growth hasn’t erased the racialized social profiling found in non-virtual spaces. Apps leave behind people whose identities don’t easily fit within the format of form data. Parallel, sites like Xtube and Pornhub, where QTPOC can upload content, have created greater access to pornographic content to those who can't afford to rent or buy it [1]. Social media like Twitter and Tumblr (and sometimes Facebook and Instagram despite rules against nudity) have added to the many places QTPOC can take agency over desire. Social technologies have impacted queer desire by leveling the cybersphere. The internet allows QTPOC to push back against the image of desire being only white and/or middle/upper class [2]. To unpack this further, it is necessary that we study and critique the most popular apps focused on gay, male/masc, and/or assigned male at birth queer experience.

 

App-solute: Packaging Desire

There is no shortage of apps to find everything from friends to fucks. Across them seems to be a common pitfall: herded homogeneity in the form of form-data and data-analytic (marketing demographic) profiles. Each of our phones represents our own universe, allegedly built to our own specifications. Each app downloaded tends to follow similar expectations: distill who you are into easily consumable blurbs. To zone in, apps like Grindr, Growlr, Scruff, and even website-turned-app Adam4Adam, ask you to itemize your body and personality by height, weight, ethnicity and community (bears, twinks, conservative, poz, muscle bear, otter etc), among many other things.

The developers for a number of these apps have attempted to expand their dropdown menus to create more inclusive spaces, but the organizational basis is problematic from the beginning. As argued by D. Travers Scott, its inherent structure is both isolating and exclusionary: "A dropdown menu is but one element of a user interface, but it is also one that is typically, traditionally masculine: it organizes and categorizes, and through this asserts identity, knowledge, and understanding... it puts you into a box... The dropdown menu doesn't do nuance"[3]. Instead of deciding on a methodology that allows more users flexibility, the forms try to mold each user to the archetypes of the apps. This is why the same users’ profiles can vary so much from app to app while remaining relatively unchanged in the field of acceptability. From the form options, to the amount of free space, developers tell users what to prioritize about their identities.   

Self-actualization is the key element missing from the apps. Bodies that don't fit within the confines of the app developers’ limited social imagination are often cast aside. In a 2017 episode of Podcast of Color, host John Cagandahan talks about how changing their ethnicity from Asian to Mixed on an app opened up a completely different grid of potential dates. While there were a few POC, most of these new men were white.  Cagandahan recalls an interaction with one user whose profile read "no Asians": "They'd be like 'oh like what ethnicity are you, you're like so different looking’ and I'm like ‘well, I'm actually Filipino, and um, I notice that your thing says no Asians so…’ and they'd be like ‘Well I've never actually talked to/you’re pretty cute for an Asian'" [4]. Granted, this highlights an issue that transcends apps, but the practice of excluding along the lines of dropdown categories affirms and reflects what is now so common as to be a norm.

Lumping multiple cultures and ethnic groups into one group is a hallmark of American culture, as we see with the commonly reductive use of “Asians.” This fails to capture the nuance and diversity of diaspora. The apps ask Afro-Latinx people, for example, to choose between Black or Latino, which continues to be an ongoing structural and social issue. By only allowing users to chose one ethnicity, the apps force them to make decisions that are easier for advertisers to understand, but complicates their personal identity. Why should a person be forced to choose “Other” as an identity when their fullness encompases multiple ethnicities. Users have to make a decision how to identify within slim, ever shifting, margins of desirability.

The apps present the ability to custom order a person with the same ease one might order Grubhub. However, that accessibility doesn't mean we should treat preferences for human beings similarly, especially without critical examination of those preferences. A year later, Cagandahan talks about how the attention on apps affects their self-esteem. They find themselves focusing on what they can do to keep getting attention from other people on the app [5]. The apps force users to carve away important parts of their identity until only the desirable parts are left. As a community fraught with body image issues, we should be encouraging the opposite.  

 

Mask4Mask: Building Digital Selves

One way to think about how we engage the Internet is to imagine our digital personas as masks. All of the apps we use have a template for the masks we build. Sites with porn content often have fewer limitations for our masks. Dating/hookup apps have much more rigid structure to draw from. Shaka McGlotten uses the metaphor of masks to talk about decoding the ways black queers exist as digital data and how they use digital forums. To McGlotten, masks provide us with space to breathe in a culture of control and constant surveillance [6]. Unfortunately many apps end up controlling how we construct our masks.

Apps with specific demographics, like Scruff or Growlr, reinforce ideas about what their target demographic looks like in how they advertise and the events they sponsor. Deviation from the norm is met with reprimands or flat out ignorance. The apps often blame users for their behavior, but users are often a symptom of deeply ingrained structural issues. Desire and beauty standards aren't created in a vacuum; hookup platforms  recreate opportunities for exclusion while carelessly ignoring the diversity found within smaller communities.

In another part of the digital sphere people are creating masks for themselves out of the cracks left in social media. Users of apps like Snapchat are able to present themselves however they choose. Photos and videos can be shared on an individual level or in groups. The connections with users can be one-sided or mutual. While most people aren't using Snapchat or Twitter exclusively to find sex or dates, the ability to present oneself however one sees fit is alluring. How a user decides to self-disclose their race, sexual orientation, etc. is in their control. As users scrape up against the sides of boxes they've been placed into, they reduce their identities to fit what each app tells them is required for a date, a fuck, or friendship. While all social media establishes unique rules and etiquette, spaces with less form data tend to leave more room for our complexities.

 

Auto-Erotic Digitization: Autonomy & Desire

Spaces that allow users self-identification through whatever means they choose are helpful because they allow for a stretching and growth of self. Form data, while changeable, is not so malleable. Both Tinder and Grindr have added the ability to input gender and pronouns, creating space for better representation for users. It remains to be seen if these steps toward a more inclusive “appsphere” have been successful. Admittedly, the developers of these apps aren't necessarily to blame for which form data they implement.  The current structure of most of these apps however leaves much to be desired. Reducing users to their bodies (height, race, weight), or sexual roles, does little more than encourage objectification. Imagine, however, if apps were able to better encompass the fullness of each user. Where social media gives the illusion of each user being the center of their own universe, most apps make users another fish in the sea.

Being able to self-identify seems to be the crux of critique regarding these sites. One would think the solution to using dating/hookup apps would be for users to buck the form data; however, the unfortunate side effect is the loss of agency. There are assumptions people place on you when you decide not to post a photo, not to identify within a community, etc. Adjacent to this is the false self-identification or misunderstanding of form data which can attract unwanted or misdirected attention. The form data should make meeting people easier. Instead, users are streamlined so everyone becomes a similar product.

On platforms with more freedom, users can upload content without the precursor of dating/hookup, with some opting solely for exhibitionism. The agency lies in the ability to build a following around user intent. Broadly, the amount of attention one gets on Twitter, Snapchat, or Tumblr is often related to the desires of those who follow you. The tastes of those looking toward the content you create starts to shape the type of content you might produce. For example: many who use Snapchat for porn content are disinterested in users who merge daily life with porn content (unless that was established from the beginning). This same energy leading to the popularization of sites like OnlyFans.com erasing a lot of the pretense found in the aforementioned spaces. There is certainly pushback about how those popular on OnlyFans.com embody and reinforce traditional beauty; however, the platform remains popular for those wanting to monetize the desire they're already cultivating on sites like Instagram or Twitter. Such desire isn't only directed at those considered traditionally attractive.

Users are informing the ways social apps are used as much as the developers are herding them into pre-defined boxes. Interestingly enough, apps like Grindr have banned certain language on profiles (I tried to use the word "hole," for example, and was swiftly reprimanded), but other derogatory uses of language are still fair game (no blacks, no fats, no femmes, no Asians etc).

The online version of Adam4Adam allows users to upload a number of nude photos (no explicit sex acts) however on the mobile app primary photos must be “PG.” While phone apps tend to allow the chopping and splicing of body parts, those parts must comply with certain standards. Certain bodies are allowed to push the envelope while others are more strictly policed. There may be advantages to being able to filter certain people (QTPOC who aren't interested in white people, bottoms not interested in other bottoms, etc.), but ownership of the broken system of app culture should be placed on the developers. With different apps taking up different media ventures one can only guess how they will change in the future. Due to the increasing desire for personal experiences, app developers will have to figure out how to keep up or be left behind by a radically changing social sphere.

 


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Works cited:

[1] Johnson, E. Patrick. "Introduction." No Tea, No Shade: New Writings in Black Queer Studies, edited by Patrick E. Johnson, Durham: Duke UP, 2016. Print. pp. 1-26.

[2] ibid.

[3] Scott, D. Travers. "Fierce.net: Imagining A Faggotty Web". Why Are Faggots So Afraid of Faggots?:

Flaming Challenges to Masculinity, Objectification, and the Desire to Conform, edited by Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore. AK Press. Kindle Edition.

[4] Cagandahan, John, Rakeem Cunningham, Rene Hernandez, Baize White, hosts. "You Lookin'?."

Podcast of Color, episode 22. 29 August 2017

[5] Cagandahan, John, Rakeem Cunningham, Rene Hernandez, Baize White, hosts. "The Category Is...." Podcast of Color, episode 64, Revry. 17 July 2018

[6] McGlotten, Shaka. "Black Data." No Tea, No Shade: New Writings in Black Queer Studies, edited by

Patrick E. Johnson, Durham: Duke UP, 2016. Print. pp. 262-286.