Entering Doors, Evading Traps

Anthony Pinter
Sep 24, 2020 · 6 min read

This blog post summarizes a paper about how transgender and non-binary people come out and contend with the visibility that accompanies those coming outs in online spaces. It will be presented at the 23rd ACM Conference on Computer-Supported Collaborative Work and Social Computing.

A person standing on a pink hill looks up towards a starry sky.
Illustration credit: S. I. Rosenbaum (Boston Globe)

LGBTQ+ people face tremendous challenges when looking for supportive and safe communities offline. Often, these spaces might be difficult to access because of the constraints of one’s physical location. For example, rural communities might not have the same supportive LGBTQ+ groups that a more urban or populous environment does. Because of constraints like this, LGBTQ+ people often turn to online spaces as avenues for support. Online spaces, like social media sites, remove barriers that might otherwise prevent access to crucial resources as one is coming to their identity.

Of course, identities and beliefs change just as readily online as they do offline. So while social media sites can be wonderful sources of resources and support, they can also present their own challenges when spaces and the people within those spaces change. Research has often positioned online spaces as places to find and be one’s authentic self without fear of stigma or persecution.

However, what happens when the online spaces one finds themself in no longer supports their authentic, lived self?

We conducted an interview study with trans people where we heard about their experiences with coming out online and contending with being visibly trans in online spaces. Participants told us about the ways they used platforms in support of their goals around finding information and support, decisions they made about who and where to come out to, their experiences with the visibility that resulted from those disclosures, and steps they took to proactively manage their audiences to protect themselves from negative experiences.

To interpret and understand our participants’ experiences, we adopt and extend a conceptual lens adopted from the work of transgender theorists Gossett, Stanley, and Burton, who were concerned with the cultural production of transness. Gossett et al. offer the conceptual metaphor of a door as cultural moments during which transgender people can access “visibility and the resources, recognition, and understanding that comes with visibility.” In online spaces, doors can be seen as the moments in which people make known some aspect of their identity to some group of others, whether it is through system features like profile bios, through what they post (e.g., pictures or status updates), or groups they join within the platform (e.g., Facebook Groups).

However, doors are simultaneously traps for some,

“accommodating trans bodies, histories, and culture only insofar as they can be forced to hew to hegemonic modalities.”

For Gossett et al., these cultural moments that lead to visibility benefit some at the expense of others. They acknowledge that the visibility and resultant benefits realized from doors can be good, but only as long as it is accompanied by an understanding of how that door will trap some people in societal expectations that do not mesh with their unique subjectivities (for example, being “trans” is often portrayed as being white, with the resources to undergo transition in a timely fashion; this is not all trans people’s reality).

From our participants, we heard about a variety of ways that doors can appear and turn into traps after being passed through. Doors manifest as people join new social media platforms, or create new accounts within a site that they have previously been on. For example, participants told us about creating specific accounts within sites like Instagram, where they curated their audiences to allow them to post more freely — creating a door that for them was welcoming to their identity.

If doors could be created to specifically support one’s identity, then traps manifested when participants came out in a space that previously was not centered on their trans identity. For example, coming out on Facebook created issues because of the number of connections that were often present on our participants’ Facebooks — these connections had expectations about who that person was and what they might post, and a coming out post could disrupt those expectations, in turn leading to negative reactions.

So what then happens if one is stuck in a trap? If their transness does not conform to the expectations of what trans looks like in a given moment? Gossett et al. consider this problem, and offer trapdoors as a means of escaping a trap. They define trapdoors as,

“those clever contraptions that are not entrances or exits but secret passageways that take you someplace else, often someplace yet unknown.”

Trapdoors are doors, certainly; they offer the opportunity for visibility, resources, and support in the face of a trap. But all doors are traps to some, meaning that a trapdoor that offers a better alternative to one person might not offer that same benefit to another. Conched in the experiences of our participants, we heard conflicting explanations of what spaces are “good” and “bad” — for some, Reddit was a “cesspool” that they wanted nothing to do with, while for others Tumblr was that “cesspool”. The tension here illustrates that for some, Reddit or Tumblr was a door that simultaneously was a trap for others.

In analyzing the experiences of our participants through this conceptual lens, we extend the theory of doors, traps, and trapdoors to social media spaces. Using our participants’ experiences to illustrate our claims, we argue that social media sites offer a myriad of doors that people might enter and become visible. In doing so, they might find that door to in fact be a trap, causing them to search for alternatives that might better support their identities — a trapdoor.

From the experiences of our participants, and our analysis of these experiences through the lens of doors, traps, and trapdoors, we make several suggestions for future work that might benefit from adopting this lens as well as considerations for designers.

  • Doors are often opaque, not allowing one to see what the space looks like beyond until they are passed through. Designers have sought to address this by allowing people to see sample posts or group rules on Facebook before joining a group. However, the ease with which one can join many groups (and are often encouraged to join many groups through curation and recommendation systems) presents challenges when we think about how to prevent people from falling into traps. A possible solution might be to not make suggestions so readily or encourage people to join groups within the News Feed interface, instead leaving it incumbent on users to search for new groups themselves.
  • We see traps manifesting at both a platform (i.e., Reddit, Tumblr, Facebook) level as well as a space level (i.e., specific to an account within a platform or within a specific group on a platform). Thus, designers might consider directing users towards more supportive spaces given the information they provide about themselves via recommendations, or conversely directing them away from spaces that are less supportive of them via warning alerts (like those already in place for violent content on Facebook and Twitter).
  • In the wake of falling into a trap, one might look for new spaces to join (a trapdoor). Designers could consider leveraging available data about member migration from group to group to help direct an individual to a new door and subsequent space that is not a trap.

Ultimately, our participants’ experiences and the analysis we provide through this lens highlights that there is not a single solution, a single door that isn’t a trap. Designers are often focused on limiting negative experiences.

Our work here demonstrates that an alternative might to instead acknowledge it is impossible to design something that doesn’t negatively impact someone, and instead consider building and designing systems that enable recovery and resilience when one inevitably stumbles into a trap… or in other words, provide individuals the passageways to someplace new, someplace that might be more welcoming of their unique identity and experiences.

Citation:

Anthony T. Pinter, Morgan Klaus Scheuerman, Jed R. Brubaker. 2020. Entering Doors, Evading Traps: Benefits and Risks of Visibility During Transgender Coming Outs. Proc. ACM Hum.-Comput. Interact. TBD, CSCW, Article TBD (October 2020), 27 pages.

Link to the full paper here

If you have questions or comments about this research, please email Anthony Pinter at anthony.pinter@colorado.edu.

CUInfoScience

research and musings from the Information Science department at CU Boulder

CUInfoScience

The Information Science department at CU Boulder is powered by interdisciplinary research and teaching that allows us not only to imagine what today’s technology makes possible, but to invent what society will do with technology next.

Anthony Pinter

Written by

CUInfoScience

The Information Science department at CU Boulder is powered by interdisciplinary research and teaching that allows us not only to imagine what today’s technology makes possible, but to invent what society will do with technology next.