f you’re a queer user of Instagram or TikTok, you might find yourself stumbling upon accounts, hashtags, or digital spaces with which you feel an affinity. Perhaps it’s a video or meme that a friend sent your way — maybe it’s a user whose post you stumbled upon by chance that has now become your favorite humor or history account. Or perhaps you constantly return to the same hashtag, knowing that it will provide you with a diverse but always entertaining flow of new content catered to your niche interests and your personal experiences. As you scroll and go about these two social media platforms, queer exchange occurs constantly and on different scales, from macro to micro and in different forms. From heavy interaction to view-only engagement, queer exchange also happens in spheres ranging from private to public arenas, and everything in between.
Theories from the sociology of science can assist with exploring these commonplace yet complex phenomena as they exist in our digital worlds. As developed by sociologists Susan Leigh Star and James R. Griesemer (1989), “boundary objects” are objects or concepts shared by intersecting social worlds that are reshaped and repurposed by each community but allow for communication and understanding between disparate groups. To navigate the embodiment of their identity/-ies in the absence of shared communal spaces in the physical world, queer and trans BIPOC are crafting new boundary objects in the digital world. Alongside boundary objects, two other related concepts begin to help describe interlocking parts of the queer digital world: “trading zones” and “boundary publics.” Trading zones, as proposed by Peter Galison (1997), are spaces in which groups with different ways of understanding the world can come together and interact locally in a commensurable way. Boundary publics, as proposed by Mary L. Gray (2007), are often ephemeral spaces that engage in the making of queer meaning in what could be constituted as a public arena.
Amidst distance and isolation, the pandemic has required the creation and emergence of new forms of boundary objects in our lives — as well as refinements of old ones. TikTok and Instagram are popular social media platforms that act as boundary publics in which queer communities are made accessible yet still removed from mainstream content. Queer creators and consumers can explore and share without ever leaving the public arena, but closer experiences of belonging and shared identity are also created. Thus, “Lesbian TikTok” and “Gay Instagram,” for instance, are born. Within these spaces, there are sub-spaces that serve as trading zones: Instagram’s comments section and TikTok’s “For You” page (FYP). Here, users engage with a wide variety of posts and other users. This allows them to combine and exchange ideas, opinions, and experiences which makes sense of a large set of content in their own unique ways. Finally, Tiktok’s hashtags and Instagram’s memes act as the boundary objects of each platform — easily recognizable elements that have different meanings for different users and communities but allow for connection and mutual understanding.
These objects, zones, and publics are not merely the artifacts or concepts in and of themselves. They are also the systems and practices that surround them, the ideologies and ways of thinking that they espouse, and the networks and relationships they form between individuals who interact with them.
If you’ve found yourself tumbling down the rabbit hole of #queerantine or #lesbihonest — or recognize five ways in which a photo of Sarah Paulson has been made into a queer meme, you know you’ve found yourself involved in a digital queer exchange.
As boundary publics, TikTok and Instagram are fleetingly queered or can act as separate queer spaces, such as a private account or queer content account with the option to remain anonymous or made separate from another personal account. Instagram accounts like @hotmessbian, @homosmodernlife, @lgbt_history, @lesbianherstoryarchives, and @godimsuchadyke have tens or hundreds of thousands of followers and span content from humor to history, but also from educational content to popular entertainment. These accounts offer a devoted space for queer amalgamation in a public arena while still allowing users to select how much information they want to share about themselves.
The creation of these queer social media spaces allows for self-exploration and identity validation through that self-guided exploration. This is all made available with only an Internet connection and a digital web-enabled device. The experience is co-created between the singular user and a multitude of account holders, allowing for different forms of engagement based on the user’s desired level of public-facing interaction. Furthermore, these queer spaces appropriate platforms that are not conventionally intended to foster the identities of queer people of color due to both algorithmic bias and innate platform intention. For instance, both TikTok and Instagram have been known for shadowbanning queer content, but creators find inventive ways to circumvent these bans. As such, creators are able to utilize both platforms as boundary publics to make queerness visible in a public space while simultaneously remaining engaging and relatable.
Both TikTok and Instagram have their own versions of the comments section and the FYP (known as the “Explore” Page on Instagram), but they act as trading zones in similar ways. While neither is strictly a queer space, per se, the way in which shared concepts of queerness are created, transmitted, and perpetuated is frequently through one of these two zones. Furthermore, the comments section and the FYP act as trading zones specifically for queer people of color because of their popularity and opportunity for trading, while other communities may more openly trade in places such as forums or offline spaces because of societal acceptability. The functions of comment sections and FYPs as trading zones also commonly work in tandem, with meaning and connections established in the comments and then later propagated through FYPs.
The FYP is where the cross-community connection between queer creators and consumers is made possible. In this space, users are introduced to new content that algorithmically reflects previous content with which they’ve engaged. This allows consumers to discover new creators and revisit old ones based on their established digital interests. The FYP is unique in that the automated curation of content acts as a moderator from queer creator to queer media consumer, creating a connection vastly different from a searching or browsing experience. With the FYP, new content is constantly loaded and reloaded, creating a consistently tailored stream of consumption and engagement between the creator and consumer where interaction with one post breeds the next while a variety of different creators interface without ever meeting. For instance, a user could encounter a content creator’s queer humor videos next to a video about new primetime television. Together, a user’s interaction with the two types of content creates a specific engagement such that new posts about queer television emerge. The FYP thus becomes a trading zone via each user where vastly different types of content come together in a commensurable way: as the collective interests and experiences of the user. Here, connections are formed, the user is exposed to new creators and types of content, and overlap between communities and identities is discovered.
In the comments section, media consumed directly from each platform is reinterpreted and reconstructed by other users, but in a more public version of a trading zone. Users from different communities share in an experience understood collectively, but perhaps in different ways, by engaging with the content and then “trading” in the comments section. Here, new forms of meaning are created through the exchange of knowledge, thoughts, and opinions pertaining to the content shared. For many accounts that reshare or amalgamate content from different social media platforms (such as Reddit, Tumblr, or Twitter), many creators use the caption space to talk about their lives, and users engage further with that content in the comments. The caption may be tangentially related or entirely unrelated to the content in the post, such as sharing a personal story about a date they went on or their opinion on a current event. Users then utilize the comments section to start conversations with the original poster and other users by responding to this, creating long threads of conversation or multiple different opinions about the same content.
As a trading zone, the comments section accommodates both those who are just browsing and those who want to contribute their own thoughts to a broader discourse. Users who frequent certain accounts and use the comments section may also encounter many of the same users, thereby creating the feeling of a shared “location” and even relationality as members of a community.
Queer hashtags — such as #le$bean / #ledolla(r)bean, #studsoftiktok, or #alphabetmafia — exist as boundary objects primarily on TikTok, while hashtags on Instagram typically function as a way of promoting or gaining a wider audience. During Pride Month, the Instagram hashtags #pride, #pridemonth, #pride2021, and other related hashtags are automatically made rainbow-colored and used extensively amongst a sea of hashtags to reach as many users as possible. Typically, the inclusion of Instagram hashtags prioritizes quantity over quality, while on TikTok, creators often use a smaller set of specific, niche hashtags to reach queer networks of choice. Likewise, queer memes as a boundary object exist primarily on Instagram due to the platform’s design for still photos, while TikTok is mainly a video medium.
Queer hashtags of specific forms that have evolved out of queer digital sub-communities act as an interactive tool connecting members of different groups. For instance, using #girlinred typically indicates that the original poster is themselves queer and/or intends their content to reach members of the queer community. This hashtag emerged out of a euphemistic reference to ask if someone was queer (“Do you listen to ‘girl in red’?”), drawing from the popular queer, indie pop artist ‘girl in red.’ It is remarkably similar to gay men asking others if they are a “friend of Dorothy,” a coded expression popularized in the 1950s and 1960s. Likewise, the hashtag #ilovewhenwomen is frequently by queer (and more specifically, wlw) creators to indicate their affinity for women, indicating a creator’s familiarity with queer digital references and thus engagement in the wlw community. Another example is the hashtag #thworp / #thwoorp, which is an onomatopoeic reference to the sound of a fan opening that originated on Trixie Mattel and Katya Zamolodchikova’s YouTube web series UNHhhh. Queer creators, often in conjunction with a video of a fan rapidly unfurling, speak to their personal experiences and use the hashtag to reach fellow queer consumers.
The collection of queer hashtags, collectively created and managed by the queer community writ large and often specialized for sub-communities, allows for a user to immediately create meaning from the hashtag’s application. The choice of video speaks to the creator’s ability to use the hashtag in different ways while still communicating with a wide range of queer users. The hashtag function itself also provides a gateway to more related content by searching or clicking the hashtag to release more results, but the way in which the hashtag creates meaning is vastly different for each user.
On the other hand, queer memes on Instagram, created and aggregated by a wide range of creators, are fiction through their repurposing. Meme pages, such as @xenaworrierprincess, @princessdyke, or @perksofbeingawallbottom repost or create new memes with a wide range of queer references, allowing for cross-pollination and the intersection of disparate communities. The adaptable, template-like nature of memes made into queer content allows users to find a sense of mutuality. Queer memes offer a shared vocabulary that allows for repurposing in different scenarios, such as their reposting to accompany different types of content. As boundary objects, they may be used and understood in different ways, such as validating, exploring, or reinventing identity-based on one’s interaction or experience with the meme. A picture with queer meaning — either drawn from popular culture or specifically involving queer celebrities, featuring queer elements, or queer media (sometimes subtextual) — is reshaped and reused based on the community, but establishes common meaning through its existence as a queer meme.
Examining the queer refashioning of digital media spaces provides a lens through which we imagine new ways of communicating, creating understanding, and finding points of connection to exist and thrive through the online world. The diversity and versatility of queer exchange in digital spaces, especially exchange between queer people of color, becomes clear upon viewing TikTok and Instagram as boundary publics, the comments section and the FYP as trading zones, and hashtags and memes as boundary objects. Queer engagement with these spaces is not merely queer in content; it also constitutes a queering of digital environments that operate within a logic of profit, engagement, and “likes” into one that uplifts learning, sharing, and healing. As you move through these social media apps, consider how you interact with each of these elements — or how you might be able to explore them in new ways.
Galison, Peter. 1999. “Trading Zones: Coordinating Action and Belief.” In The Science Studies Reader, edited by Mario Biagioli, 137-60. New York: Routledge.
Gray, Mary L. 2007. “From Websites to Wal-Mart: Youth, Identity Work, and the Queering of Boundary Publics in Small Town, USA.” American Studies 48, no. 2 (Summer 2007): 5–30.
Star, Susan Leigh, and James R. Griesemer. 1989. “Institutional Ecology, ‘Translations’ and Boundary Objects: Amateurs and Professionals in Berkeley’s Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, 1907-39.” Social Studies of Science 19, no. 3 (August 1989): 387–420.