Ethnography: Craigslist Queer Forum

By Leonardo Flores

The queer forum on Craiglist is a public space where users, from all over the world, join in different conversations regarding queer topics. These topics are highly political, sexualized, and personal. The space is completely free for entrance but the only restriction for participating is registration; one must have a handle name and account in order to post or start a thread. The threads consist of titles that are no longer than 12 characters long and a body that cannot exceed 2400 characters (without space). Users can rate each other’s posts, attach links to the body, and manipulate the location of the post. Anonymity is assumed through the use of the handle name and because of distance. The ethnography will report the findings of observations made on the Craigslist queer forum. First, it will delve into the positionality of the observer and its affects on the research. Second, the different conversation topics found in the forum will be expored. Third, the modes of conversing are examined. Lastly, an assessment of the space as feminist and anti-racist will be presented. Thus, through observation the queer forum will be assessed on its ability and capability to be feminist safe space and anti-racist space.

While considering a space to inhabit and observe I accounted for my positionality and how it would affect my research. I am a gay male feminist of color who set out on a semester long journey to observe and understand the queer forum that is part of Craigslist. My feminist values have influenced this project. These are: I see feminism as a project that bridges differences, builds community, and is socially aware of individual and institutional prejudices, oppression, and inequality. With this epistemology, I entered the site with the expectation of finding conversations that built community, spoke about sexuality and identity, and were not concerned with race. Even so, I did not limit myself to this vantage point but allowed exploration to guide my research project. The environment naturally created themes and concepts that were referenced to theory studied in Gender and Feminist, Media Studies, and Queer theory courses.

I chose to observe the queer forum because the title captivated me. As a queer body and an academic with knowledge on queerness (e.g., its linguistic use, its societal use, and its psychological use) I gravitated toward this topic. In addition, I found a connectedness to this space for personal reasons. Given this I understand that a lot of my data is subjective due to the introspective quality of my methods. Specifically, the method used for analysis was Critical Discourse Analysis. Over the course of three days I scrutinized multiple pages, threads, and conversations. The underlying research question that guided my observation was: How do threads become dialogues of attack? I wanted to explore the composition of a thread: how it started out, what the body looked like, and how did the conversation shift into aggressive and attacking dialogues. During my observation I paid attention to the topic of the starting thread, its progression, and how the conversation shifted into a back and forth of personal attacks. Specifically, I scrutinized all threads that were posted within a 96-hour time frame. I paid particular attention to the language being used, the rating that was given to each thread, and the shift in conversations.

The topics that are present within the forum range from looking for no strings attached (NSA) sexual hookups to saying hello. Even though a broad spectrum of conversations exists a majority revolve around sexuality. Within the topic of sexuality there are two sub-topics.

The first subtopic is the exploration of sexuality. For example, <draz19100> initiated a thread titled “Regret”. His original post states, “Ok, so I know I am gay I am a 18yo boy. Every time I fuck a guy even one that I cared about after I cum I feel regret. Is this normal? Is there something wrong with me?” Draz19100 is exploring his sexuality but finds that feelings of “regret” rule sentiments towards his homosexual sexual acts. By posting on the forum, draz19100 is looking for advice—some other voice than can shed light on the topic or serve as a reference. As the thread continues individuals provide strengthening advice that diverts the issue from an avenue of persecution and homophobia. Instead of battering draz19100, users provide him with advice that stems from personal stories and experiences. A significant person in the dialogue was, gaybottom45. He provided insight on sentiments of shame and regret as primary experiences felt by those homosexuals who have not yet accepted themselves and have internalized their oppression. Other advice was biological reasoning. Many suggested that these feelings developed because of the release of endorphins after sex, which is then followed by a down time where the individual can feel depressed; equated as shame for draz19100. The quality of the advice is a subjective perception, but providing advice to someone who feels lost can give some guidance to helping or transforming the original poster. The illusion of ambiguity created by the reality of distance between virtual users has created a space where people can discuss the exploration of sexuality, to some degree, with freedom and without prejudice.

The second form of discussing sexuality is through its categorization and normalization. While observing the forum, many threads initiated with questions about sexual acts. These include: is being a total top a genetic disposition? Do gay men like feminine men? Do gay men sleep with transvestites? As the latter topic questions evidence, there is ambiguity toward what are “normal” sexual practices. Threads that question the normality of sexual acts, as they pertain to different sexual identities, pose a problem. These forms of post can be problematic because they attempt to essentialize and normalize sexual identity into rigid frameworks. Those who identify as gay must follow certain sexual acts such as blowing, rimming, and bottoming. An example is a thread discussing the genetic predisposition of total tops.

Total tops are gay males who’s only role during sexual intercourse is the inserter. This male never gets penetrated nor does he reciprocate pleasure. The issue raised by gaybottom45 is whether or not total tops are genetically predisposed or if the act is pure selfishness. With the introduction of this post, gaybottom45 is questioning individual sexual practices. He questions whether or not these men are truly gay, or if they are selfish narcissist “lovers” who use bottoms as tools of pleasure instead of subjects of passion. As the thread progresses other chime in and are either in agreement or disagreement with the post. Iddli_eater goes on to state, “Neither. He does what works for him. If you do not like it, don’t have sex with him. I think you’re talking about an extremely small number of men. Most self-described ‘total tops’ are just referring to rectal intercourse, and either lick ass or suck dick, if not with the guys they fuck, then with other guys.” This post exemplifies the plethora of sexual activity within a given population. The bipolar response to the concept of total tops exposes the spectrum on which sexuality exists; there is not a normative practice of homosexuality. Posts that raise such questions can be problematic but they also open different avenues of discussion. They allow for individuals to explore sexual routes, open their minds, and discuss important issues.

The fact that Craiglists’ queer forum allows for a semi-free conversation regarding sexuality and sexual acts exposes its ability to form communities and bridge differences. Even though this space incubates feminist topics and values, the modes of conversing on the site comprise its feminist integrity. Throughout the course of threads and dialogues many modes of conversing expose themselves. I focused on three. These are: personal replies, general replies, advice, and attacks. Personal replies are post directed to a specific user. These forms of replies were commonly seen when the topic of the thread is “good morning”. For example, every morning a different user starts a new steam of post with a good morning and another statement, usually about the weather or some political topic. Frequently other users would reply with a personal “hello” and an addition to the conversation starter. These replies were limited to threads with topics that were remedial.

A second mode of conversing was through general replies. These are post that are concerning the topic of the thread and add to the conversation. For example, when discussing the topic of gay marriage during the presidential election users would reply with a general comment adding to the conversation. Trevor92 states that gay marriage is a constitutional right and the prevention of it was a barrier toward pursuing happiness and liberty. The post adds to the conversation by expressing opinions and connecting personal experience with social issues. General post can be personal, a single post, or a series of post that adds substance to the conversation.

Aside from post being personal or general, a majority of the post conveyed a sense of help; they provided advice. Advice can be given through both general and personal post, but it is the contents of the message that distinguish it.  Advice is text that provides those who seek it with information that provides clarity or facilitates troubles and hardships. For example, draz19100 initiates a thread looking for advice on how to approach someone who he thinks is gay. At first he is reminded that femininity in men does not equate to homosexuality. This clarification, as provided by ImNotCrazy, digresses into an insult underlined by age and lack of experience. Even with the presence of an insult within the thread, the conversation continues into a mentoring session with gaybottom45.

Gaybottom45 identifies himself as a graduate student, gay, and someone who has vast experience with homosexual interactions. The advice that gaybottom45 is giving draz19100 is that he should attempt to get to know his crush more rather than pursuing him, potentially resulting in “outing” the other individual. As the thread progresses, the advice that is being given by gaybottom45 is removed from public visibility and into a private inbox conversation—a post explicitly marked the shift between mediums of communication. The latter is an example of a personal form of advice giving.

Advice is also given through a general singular post. In the case of draz19100, he not only received personal advice from gaybottom45 but also general advice from others. The general advice was a singular post that offered insight of homosexual experiences related to personal experiences.

The more time spent on observing modes of conversing, the more frequent attacks became. Attacks, like advice, are both personal and general. For the purposes of the observation, attack was operationalized as a sentence, phrase, or word that detracts from the conversation topic. It is used to cause some form of psychological/emotional harm or to convey negative feelings toward another user. Also, it is usually directed to another person.

A thread does not begin with an insult, instead an insult or attack is interjected into the dialogue. An attack is spurred by several reasons but those most ubiquitous are: to instigate a fight; a snide or witty remark in response to a post the individual does not agree with; “calling out” others; and a resemblance to throwing shade or reading, a practice well known in Drag queen communities. When instigating a fight the attack is most likely to be personal as opposed to general. The attack toward another individual questions the morality of that individual, augments imperfections, and creates hierarchical structures based on educational level. The instigating post can be a snide or witty remark that sets off temperaments and creates a hostile environment. For example, collegesurvey1234 is a student using the queer forum as a pool for a convenient sample to participate in his survey. The survey assess homosexual risky sexual behavior is comparison to heterosexuals. As the thread progresses, people express disdain and distrust in research institutions. One user, fedguy, launches a general attack directed personally to collegesurvey1234. He goes on to state, “Poorly constructed ‘surveys’ like your pre-pubescent attempt at science are statistically invalid but are used to justify the researcher’s opinion. The constant barrage of meaningless unscientific surveys is obnoxious and intrusive. Every semester a dozen lazy students think they will get an easy “A” with another brainless survey.” Fedguy is not only attacking collegesurvey1234, but also expresses distrust toward researchers and contempt toward those whishing to study the online community in the queer forum.

I was also a victim of an attack while participating in the forum. Attempting to produce transparency between forum users and myself, an initial post addressed users explicitly by stating that I was a student who would be a participant observer for a semester. I was met with a singular attack. The attack was personal because it was directed at me but general since it did attacked the practice and institution of research. I was told, “this is not a site where people can be observed like lab rats. Go outside into the real world and do field work. You people are trying to come and invade a space where you aren’t sure if the people occupying it want to be your guinea pigs.” The latter raises questions of ethics and boundaries of research within cyberspace. It also expresses some distrust in research but conveys a sense of territoriality over a space that is x-reality.

Aside from users attacking each other by using insults and instigating fights, participants also attacked each other by “calling out” other users. “Calling out” is a form of attack, and also a form of regulating and moderating the forum It sets out to expose truths (as perceived by other users). Users “call out” each other on lies, contradicting posts, and other inconsistencies arising in the cyber relationship. For example, twisted_m starts a thread inquiring about the existence of lesbians on the queer forum. Coolhead_one immediately responds, initiating a conversation— his/her avatar is assuming the position of an older lesbian. Not even two posts into the thread GreenThisUP_2 retaliates against coolhead_one and calls the user out on his lies. GreenThisUP_2 post, “His other posts seem to indicate he’s a male who is at least 70 and lives near Albuquerque, NM”. In the message GreenThisUp_2 also includes a post coolhead_one posted earlier in the day. In this post coolhead_one introduces himself as, “I am over 70 and looking for FWB (friends with benefits). Am in great shape and would like to open dialogues with men”.  In this instance calling out is being used to regulate and moderate the queer forum. GreenThisUP_2 is exposing coolhead_one as a liar and revealing the identity his avatar assumed once it entered the space. The ability to “call out” inconsistencies also exposes different uses for the database model of organization used to format the queer forum. All post put up by users are stored on the queer forum and are active for peering at any moment. In this case, the database model allowed for easy reference to past post that was used to uncover a lie, expose a troll, and give quality to the conversation by glorifying truth.

“Calling out” people because of inconsistencies or lies were common but the most frequent form of attack was in the fashion of throwing shade or reading. Urban dictionary defines throwing shade as, “to talk trash about a friend or acquaintance, to publicly denounce or disrespect. When throwing shade its immediately obvious to onlookers that the thrower, and not the throwee, is the uncool one”; “To insult or judge someone discreetly or indirectly”; “Picking out ones flaw in a derogatory manner. Also called reading. Used extensively in the gay community and especially in drag queen culture” (urbandictionary.com, 2012). These forms of attack were conveyed with the specific purpose of causing emotional/psychological damage or to convey negative sentiments toward a user.

Throwing shade within the queer forum is strictly relegated to the personal realm and usually arises due to ideological differences. As defined by Urbandictionary and exemplified in the documentary, Paris is Burning, shade is when a person picks out a flaw, augments it, and then uses the imperfection as a basis for attack or insult. When throwing shade, a drag queen may focus on lousy make-up or a cheap dress and critique it with sarcasm, irony, or blatant insults.

On the queer forum appearance is substituted by presentation. Instead of users critiquing you on personal imperfections, they scrutinize your post—diction, grammar, syntax, etc. For example, when discussing the presidential election users who commented on the thread showed support for the candidate they voted for. Even though Trevor92 was part of the majority who voted for Obama, he was still attacked. The assault was launched by Mister-Pickle who pointed out that Trevor92 had misspelled Barrack. Mister-Pickle purposively pointed out the misspelling, augmented it, and then used it as the basis for an attack. He posted, “Who is ‘Barak’ Obama, Dear? Pity you flunked out of the 8th grade, dear!” Mister-Pickle is dishing out shade or reading Trevor92 by pointing out flaws in his presentation of information. By questioning the educational level of Trevor92, Mister-Pickle is positioning him/herself as more competent, resulting in the creation of a hierarchy. The hierarchy created is not based on glamour or appearance, but ability to present information correctly and defend it. Since shade is thrown in relation to typographical errors educational level becomes a variable that mediates the struggle for power and territoriality within this space. Throwing shade to another, as a form of attack, allows for oppressive tyranny to ensue. A single individual doesn’t always dispense shade, as the case of Trevor92 illustrates. While Mister-Pickles insults continue others join the attack and gang up on Trevor92. So, even though the attack was personal, between Trevor92 and Mister-Pickles, it became a general assault on Trevor92 due to the introduction of other users. To add gas onto the flame, SF_Pervect_Man and Minchi_Misacki join in on the assault. Each contributes a single post whose contents resemble throwing shade. Not only do they exacerbate the misspelling and use it as the foundation of their attack, they scrutinize Trevor92’s post for additional information. When Trevor92 replies with, “So sorry, I used the Arabic spelling”, both SF_Pervert_Man and Minchi_Misacki attack the user by pointing out another flaw in his post. The users note to Trevor92 that the spelling he used was in fact Hebrew and not Arabic. The latter comments gave more gun power to Mister_Pickles who continues an onslaught of post that degrade Trevor92 and solidify a cyber image of the user as an incompetent, uneducated, ill informed consumer of information.

Even with varying modes of conversation existing, attacks were observed to be the norm. Attacks served to create difference between users and also augmented violence and made it a technology. In the real world a conversation is mediated by power struggles—those more comfortable within the space dominate. But here on the forum, power was negotiated through a series of attacks. A user is able to assume power over a thread by attacking another users post. The attack serves as a way of solidifying ones positionality as more intellectual or educated based on the throwing of shade, which exacerbates faults within the text.

By examining topics of conversation and modes of conversing I came to the conclusion that the forum was not a feminist safe space. The conversation topics talked about on the forum represent feminist topics. Many of the conversations I have had in my Queer Theory and Gender and Feminist studies courses are replicated on the forum. Even so, the modes of conversing, mainly attacks, conflict with continuing feminist conversations. The modes of conversing made the space anti-feminist and not safe because of prolific attacks. Although people were able to post up personal stories and seek advice from those who share a perceived similar life experience, conversations did not allow differences to emerge. In order to not get attacked one cannot disagree with other users. Ideological differences cannot be apparent. This site does not provide an environment where people are able to build community and bridge differences. Instead differences and imperfections are augmented and violence becomes a technology.

One Comment on “Ethnography: Craigslist Queer Forum”

  1. Leo, This is a powerful study rendered with a great deal of nuance and care. Your operating question, “How do threads become dialogues of attack?” is illustrated and then theorized to help us to understand how attacks work as technologies of power to regulate and silence more than to produce content or community. Could you remake this space? If not, what kind of queer forum would you like to see?

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