Swiping Right: Self-Representation on Social Media

Today, almost everyone has a handful of social media accounts – Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Vine and more. There’s an app for everything, making it easier to find restaurants, catch up with friends and remind you where you parked your car. Even hooking up has become a convenient digital interaction, with apps like Tinder and Grindr reducing the time it takes to find a ‘match’. 

Different people use Tinder for different reasons. There’s the empowered serial dater; the consistent delete and downloader that swipes through people between Netflix shows; and even the gamer that uses statistics and formulas to increase their odds.

So when people using apps are aware of this reflexive left swipe, how do they pick a photo of themselves that’s going to stop the thumb of their potential hook up? How do they represent themselves when there is so much at stake?

Canadian researcher, Stefanie Duguay, is interested in the impact of this self-representation for same-sex attracted women who express their sexual identity across social media platforms.  She’s specifically interested in Vine, Instagram and Tinder, three of the most popular apps available.

In an interview with No Walls, Duguay explained how this landscape, or “ecology of platforms”, is consistently changing and providing multiple features, or affordances, for self-representation.

She spoke with us about her PhD research, her internship at Microsoft Research and what it’s like being part of QUT’s Digital Media Research Centre.

Representing sexual identity across platforms

Duguay is in her third year of a PhD, in digital media studies, at QUT’s Digital Media Research Centre (DMRC).

Her PhD project looks at how women who are attracted to women (who identify as lesbian, bi-sexual and gay), present their sexual identity on social media and how social media affects the way they represent their sexual identity.


Duguay is in her third year of a PhD at QUT’s Digital Media Research Centre

This is a particularly significant research topic considering that “heteronormativity” is automatically programmed into much of our social media technology. This means that technology is often designed with the assumption that users are heterosexual and identify with gender binaries like male and female.

As a response, Duguay studied how same-sex attracted women use some features of social media platforms to represent their gender and sexual identity while also finding ways to represent themselves that were not anticipated in a platform’s design.

For example, some of her interview participants discussed using hashtags on Vine and Instagram (e.g. #lesbian, #lesbehonest, #stud, #femme) to define their gender and sexuality. Others did not feel hashtags were necessary or adequate and linked to profiles on other social media with different features for self-representation.

“It’s been quite interesting to see what sorts of things people use when they either draw on stereotypes to build their identity or they say, ‘Oh, no I don’t need stereotypes’.”

Duguay has been investigating this tension between same-sex attracted women feeling the need to identify their sexuality, but who do not want to be stereotyped.

“It’s been quite interesting to see what sorts of things people use when they either draw on stereotypes to build their identity or they say, ‘Oh, no I don’t need stereotypes’.”

Many of Duguay’s interview participants talked about how different ways of representing sexual identity affected their self-image, relationships with others, and how they present themselves to the world more broadly.

Ultimately, same-sex attracted women comprise a community who do not have significant mainstream media visibility. Social media can be used as “a tool [allowing] diverse people, who are not granted visibility in mainstream media to have that visibility, and more importantly validation.”

Duguay believes there is still a lot that can be done for lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, and queer (LGBTQ) rights in Australia and for equality worldwide. While her research identifies how social media can constrain self-representations, it also indicates that having access to an ecology of social media platforms can have positive impacts for diverse and under-represented communities.

The research doesn’t stop there…

Duguay giving a presentation on her PhD research at QUT

Duguay giving a presentation on her PhD research at QUT

Recently, Duguay was selected for a PhD internship with Microsoft Research New England’s Social Media Collective. Duguay is one of four applicants working with the Social Media Collective to complete a three-month project developing new research and approaches to digital media.

Over the three months, Duguay will work with a mentor to produce a research output that people can engage with, which is separate to her PhD project.

“So I’m really excited about it, not just because it’s not my PhD”, she joked.

Researching ‘off-label’ use

Duguay is reviewing media articles that have come out about dating apps to help determine her future research.

“I’ve realised that there’s a lot of stuff happening that doesn’t have anything to do with their actual purpose… this is what we’ve been calling off-label use,” she explained.

Duguay is interested in researching the economies of off-label use that function through mobile apps. This involves companies or people using mobile apps for profit despite the app itself not being designed for or anticipating these forms of commerce.

What’s interesting is how app features facilitate or limit this activity and how the app company reacts to off-label use. Developments like this have inspired Duguay to look further into mobile app economies and she is looking forward to developing her project with the Microsoft Research mentors.

The Digital Media Research Centre at QUT

Duguay in her space at QUT's Digital Media Research Centre

Duguay in her space at QUT’s Digital Media Research Centre

Duguay is based at QUT’s Digital Media Research Centre. Prior to landing at QUT, Duguay completed a Bachelor of Arts and Science in sociology and psychology from the University of Lethbridge in Canada, and then went on to study at the University of Oxford, a Masters of Science, in Social Science of the Internet.

While researching universities for her future PhD, Duguay came across QUT. She says, it “just looked like the perfect fit… the best place with the most leading research in the area I was interested in.”

The DMRC, directed by Professor Jean Burgess, aims to conduct leading research that helps society understand and adapt to the broader impacts of digital media technology.  Duguay described her experience as being very interdisciplinary.

“I’ve had the chance to supplement my sociology and psychology, and social science background, with media studies and cultural studies and a lot of other critical thinking from science and technology studies,” she said.

Duguay has published several articles in international, peer-reviewed journals. Most recently, she has written a paper titled Dressing up Tinderella: Interrogating authenticity claims on the mobile dating app Tinder on how Tinder frames authenticity for users’ self-presentations, which can be found in the journal Information, Communications & Society.

Her work has also been featured in a recent special issue on selfies in the journal Social Media + Society. She has written a paper called Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans, and Queer Visibility through selfies: Comparing platform mediators across Ruby Rose’s Instagram and Vine presence about how Instagram and Vine shape users’ self-presentations to align with their expected use.

These and her other research outputs can be found through QUT ePrints and on her website.