Talk Amongst Yourselves: Conceptions of “Community” in Transgender Counterpublic Discourse Online, 1990-2014

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Since the mid-1990s, digital technologies have played a key role in major political actions and social movement organizations in the US and elsewhere. Newly widespread public internet access mitigated issues related to geographic limitations or cost-prohibitive print media, allowing otherwise-disparate groups to more quickly and easily communicate and organize. Transgender individuals were particularly well-positioned to benefit from the growth in digital technologies, which supported an active and growing transgender social movement throughout the 1990s. Both recent scholarship and popular media have focused on digital technologies as key sites of visibility, social support, and political organizing for transgender individuals.

However, few scholars have also focused on the specific technological infrastructures that underlie these discussions. This dissertation remedies this gap through an analysis of digital communications’ impact on transgender social movement organizing from 1990 to the contemporary moment. Using critical and multi-modal discourse analysis, I analyze how users past and present develop their understanding of what “transgender community” should be, and the ways different platform-specific affordances shape these understandings. My approach is grounded in platform studies: focused on the interrelationships between platforms, platform design, and the discourse produced on these platforms, while also paying close attention to the social and cultural factors that influenced a platform’s design. I take a case study approach, with each chapter focused on a different platform or dataset, from 1990s transgender periodicals, archival data from Usenet newsgroups, ethnographic interviews, informational websites, to social media platform Tumblr. Throughout each of these chapters, I draw attention to how platform affordances inform users’ emergent understanding of “transgender community” as a homogenous entity—obscuring key differences, disconnects, and inequalities amongst users and within the identity category itself. Ultimately, I find that the possibilities for online political organizing are constrained by the digital platform’s modes of circulation and its encoded social norms, as power is channeled away from those who need it most.