Words by Jessica Lipman
I remember the earlier days of the internet. It was a time when AOL ruled the virtual sphere (for the most part) and cast virtual interpersonal communication into the mainstream. I was addicted to AOL chat rooms, spending hours in front of my Gateway computer talking to strangers and swapping fake photos. Don’t judge; you were doing it, too. Unless, of course, you were born in the 90s, and were subsequently too young for the sketchy days of online intimacy. My chat rooms of choice included a teen chat, where preteens and 50 year old men pretending to be preteens would exchange a/s/l (age/sex/location) and talk about trivial stuff (the contents of which I cannot for the life of me remember). My other favorite chat room was a Pagan witch craft chat where I, 13/f/NJ would congregate with middle aged lesbians, learn about witchcraft, and pray to some god(s) that I wasn’t a lesbian (emergent symptoms of my internal homophobia linked with my early teen years). Whatever; I was obsessed with the 1996 supernatural teen horror film The Craft, and wanted to figure out how to invoke Fairuza Balk’s deranged character. Kids will be kids.
AOL helped me explore my identity, and people (a claim which I need to consider more deeply). It was not a mechanism that allowed or encouraged me to blend my physical reality or even my identity in the physical real in any significant way with my virtual identity or social experience. For me, the internet in the late 90s was a space for toying with authenticity and identity. It was a space where relationships would start and end in an Instant Message window, marked by a random pixilated dick shot that was emailed for authenticating purposes; a space where you knew that whoever you thought you were speaking to, was a mere fallacy or a robot. It was a space that did not promise to bridge the virtual with the real in some live encounter. And, it was a space where the stakes remained dismally low and inconsequential, and where all of that was okay and expected.
This particular paradigm of online interactions is no longer the norm, though. The 90s have been wholly cleaved, making space for the mainstream desire for expressing and finding authentic selves on the internet. YouTube stands by the ‘express yourself’ slogan, which serves as the centerpiece for contemporary online intimacy and self expression. Now, the virtual space and the physical real have become intertwined in ways that inform how people navigate the world, perceive each other, and perceive themselves. Intimacy is very much a part of the virtual sphere, with the popularity and mainstreaming of online dating and social networking sites that provide people with new and alternate ways of encountering one another not only in the Instant Message box or email chain, but moreso in real life. Almost all of my friends are now using online dating sites to find intimate partners, casual sex, friends, and activity partners. Not only is there no longer a taboo associated with online dating, but I actually find myself confused by people who don’t use the virtual sphere for socializing.
With these new modes of intimacy and community cultivation, though, comes a whole new set of concerns and inquiries. With the late 90s, the authenticity of people one engaged in chat rooms was certainly in question. Now, we need to remain vigilant and critical of new issues which I argue are medium-specific and that deal with identity representation in the virtual sphere. There are specific tools – including contemporary database logic and language – that enable our new multi-platform encounters and subsequently set the parameters for how we each express and receive our identities in the virtual public sphere. These tools are not, and never were, ideologically neutral. Therefore, we must keep them in check. And if we do not, then what we will see (and what is already heavily traceable) is the marginalization of people based on race, class, gender, ethnicity and sexual orientation.
As a queer-identifying user of the online dating site OKCupid, I’m interested in interrogating the site’s positioning of me and other queer users. The site includes and invites users of multiple sexual identities and orientations, positing a mainstream appeal and certainly a gesture at queer-friendliness. This deviation from segregating people based on a particular identity tenet – like sexual orientation – is productive and inclusive. Let’s all occupy the same virtual space. I call this queer-friendliness a ‘gesture’, though, due to the site’s marginalizing and ‘Othering’ effect upon queer users as well as when considered within a queer logic. By looking at the site’s logic, and realizing that the site caters to heteronormative patterns that only serve as echos of other historical and contemporary cultural and societal institutions (i.e. marriage, education, military), we can learn a lot about how virtual intimacy falls prey to the same backwards systems of American culture that benefit some and alienate others.
OKCupid certainly resides within the popular imaginary in terms of digital dating and social networking sites, as Time magazine ranked the site in its “Top 10 Dating Sites” article in 2007 with over 3 million active users today. The site prides itself on its data-driven and math-driven logic in terms of matching users, as particularly expressed within the OKTrends blog component of OKCupid, which is a collection of observations and statistics gleaned from the multifaceted activities of the site’s users. Considering the site’s database design, linguistic parameters, and the particular ways users across various sexual orientations are invited to (and are in fact required to) assert their correlative identities, the notion of the site’s queer-friendliness becomes problematized and its capacity to engage a queer logic is potentially foreclosed. We must remember that queer-friendly database gestures within a heteronormative logic are distinctly different from queer logic within database. A central question that we need to ask is this: Is it really enough that the LGBT community is included in this space? As part of this inclusion, shouldn’t LGBT community members have access to a technological landscape equipped with suitable tools? Why are we still engaging a logic that privileges the white, middle-class, heterosexual norm that historically constitutes heteronormativity, and that subsequently works to marginalize and alienate those who do not fit that particular mold? Is technology tainted by a deeply embedded aesthetics of marginalization?
So, how exactly does OKCupid construct its parameters of identity formation and expression, and how does its heteronormative constitutions work to marginalize the queer user? For one, the site expresses and endorses essentialism associated with sexual orientation and identity. Right from the opening page of the dating site, the future-OKCupid user is prompted to select one option from three different pull-down tabs. ‘Gender’: ‘I’m Female’or ‘I’m Male’. ‘Orientation: ‘I’m straight’ or ‘I’m gay’ or ‘I’m bisexual’. Status: I’m single’. ‘I’m seeing someone / here for friends’. ‘I’m married / here for friends.’ Within this particular technological design and set of linguistic choices, one can trace the essentialist way ‘queer’ resides within the popular imaginary while occupying a particularly political historical context. After all, gay rights and even the words associated with homosexuality (i.e. bisexual, lesbian, gay) were coined not by the LGBT community, but rather by doctors within the medical institution. Historically, sexual identity/orientation became conflated with pathology, marking the linguistic violence associated with this process of naming. To then be forced to name oneself within the violent, essentialist linguistic sphere of OKCupid is to force the queer user (i.e. the non-heternormative user) into an experience of misrecognition and self-alienation.
In order to rectify this misrecognition, I as well as many queer users take up the open-ended section of the online profile. In this way, the queer user is literally confessing that they are excluded from the logic of the database while also identifying themselves as the ‘Other’. The idea that the user is rectifying a ‘mistake’ or ‘discrepancy’ again works to echo the historical context of homosexuality as both an identity category and pathology, something that needed to be confessed ceaselessly within the environment of the clinic and the psychiatrist’s office as both an identity and an activity. Queer people were being forced to talk about their sexual activities and identity in the same utterance. And, what’s significant with OKCupid is that the heteronormative logic and the marginalizing consequences that hold historical currency are displaced from the database onto the user in this problematic act of self-naming, emulating Judith Butler’s notion of ‘performative contradiction’. Central to this paradigm is the notion that LGBT people cannot assume a subjective positionality within an exclusively heterosexual linguistic system. OKCupid provides language and technological tools that ultimately exclude the queer user, instating false subjectivity as a detrimental consequence while wholly denying the queer user the opportunity to express an authentic self for which they, like any other online occupant of the 21st century, long.
We must remember that technology is not ideologically neutral. In her latest book Alone Together, Sherry Turkle urges us to consider that “we make our technologies, and they, in turn, shape us.” We have the opportunity and responsibility to design online experiences and databases in more ethical ways. Not only that, but we have the responsibility to hold accountable those who design these spaces on our behalf. Moreover, we must consider whether or not it is possible to institute inclusion based on the grounds of race, class, gender, ethnicity, and sexual orientation without marginalizing effects. As posed earlier, is it enough to include the queer community within a heteronormative database? Queer theorist Shaka McGlotten provides invaluable insight in terms of understanding the visibility of queer people not only in the virtual sphere of online dating, but in any societal institution.
“I belong here. I know I exist when you see me. Which is the same fallacy that haunts identity politics of recognition — recognition, your seeing me, does not itself empower me or all the other Others to act; it only means we have been grasped by power’s gaze.”
I, for one, will continue to interrogate and remain mindful of OKCupid and other heteronormative online dating sites’ terms of including the queer community. Let’s keep the politics of identity, and the historical, cultural, and social frameworks of such, active within the evolving paradigm of new media. A lot of good has resulted and can emerge from mindful database design. Sure, we’ve come a long way from the faux dick pix of 1996 AOL. But, we have a long way to go. ◥