Monday, 19 November 2012

Book Review: "Gaydar Culture - Gay Men,Technology and Embodiment in the Digital Age", by Sharif Mowlabocus

The phenomenon of the online gay world featured on this blog a few months ago and, perhaps to my surprise since it was written with no real aim in mind, my comments turned out to be one of the more widely read posts on the blog. I received a fair few  responses, mainly by email and in person, one of which recommended to me Dr Sharif Mowlabocus's 2010 book, Gaydar Culture. Having now read it, I thought I would share some thoughts.

The first thing to say is that while Mowlabocus manages to retain a reasonably light tone through the book, this is undoubtedly an academic work. No criticism there, but anyone not used to reading academic books might find it a little hard going in places. The continual referencing and links back to theory, important for academic credibility and interesting if you know anything about them, also serve to make the book less easily accessible for a general audience. That does not detract from the interesting content of the book though, and I have enjoyed reading it and learned a lot.

The book starts with some history, contextualising the discussion. It is said, with cause, that one cannot really understand the gay man's use of the online world unless one understands the pre-internet history of homosexuality in its social, legal and cultural senses. In particular, Mowlabocus charts gay political groups, the gay press, and the gay community's response to HIV/AIDS, as well as the state's interaction with homosexuality in various forms. Then comes a chapter on 'cybercarnality'. Although posited as one of the central tenets of the books, I confess to having found it rather hard going and, having read the rest of the book after only skimming this chapter, I didn't feel disadvantaged.

Then we come to the core of the book - four chapters on different online existences of gay men. The first, which interested me most, is about; the second is about a more local site which Mowlabocus refers to by the pseudonym 'Uni_cock' to protect its identity. Third, there is discussion of online 'barebacking' sites (discussion and porn sites about unprotected gay sex), and finally a chapter on mobile internet sites like grindr. (Gaydar and Grindr both featured on my earlier post.)

Regarding Gaydar, Mowlabocus notes that '[w]hile there is undoubtedly a level of fatigue generated around using such websites ... dating/sex websites continue to pervade the everyday lives of many gay men' (p 84). That fatigue was, I suppose, the cause of my own posting about Gaydar a few months ago, and it was a little disappointing for me, coming from that position, that this issue was left rather unexplored in the book. What we find instead is a fascinating account of the construction of the 'self' by users on their gaydar profiles. As Mowlabocus says, the profile allows the user to construct a particular version of himself, but 'how people translate their offline subjectivity into their online identity through their profile reveals more about that person than a profile could possibly contain' (p 92). A good example comes later in the chapter, when we learn about a user whose macho, military-style portrait photo contains cutesy fridge magnets in the background which 'contradict - though in no way consciously - the machismo that the image foregrounds' (p 109).

The section of this chapter which comes closest to discussing my own 'Gaydar fatigue' is the discussion of 'face-pics' (pp 103-106). Mowlabocus talks here about the economic value of photos, the 'trade' that goes on between users exchanging these commodities - my photo for yours -  and the consequent trust that is involved. Where I wanted the discussion to go was about the effect of the very common occurrence, which is that this trust is broken. Two users agree to swap photos, but one fails to live up to the bargain. Many Gaydar users will complain openly about this practice, and then do the same thing within minutes and refuse to engage in further conversation. These social aspects of the world of Gaydar are fascinating (and depressing) to me, but are acknowledged only in passing in Gaydar Culture. It may be in part because of the book's name that I find this to be disappointing - the substance of the book is great, but it's claim to be addressing issues of culture perhaps created an expectation in me that was not really met.

One particularly interesting aspect of this chapter on Gydar profiles is Mowlabocus's analysis of the connection between (gay) pornography and user profiles. The options available and the identities adopted are, he says, modelled on and filtered by porn images of the gay male body, leaving many men whose physicality does not fit within the established taxonomies (twink, bear, cub, etc) struggling to fit into the online world:

'This connection between pornography and the gay identity pre-dates the user profile, but it is through the profile that such a relationship reaches its zenith, as the bodies we produce online (digital bodies through which we are rendered visible, intelligible and knowable) are formed from, filtered through and recognised by the codes of pornography, codes which permeate gay male subculture at every level.' (p 116)

As I read this, what I thought was: I wonder how many of my gay friends would accept the truth of that claim. That thought - in short, that the claim implied a universality that I was unsure about - was reinforced at the start of the next chapter, on the next page, when the author himself notes that his earlier analysis 'tacitly relied upon a specific paradigm of homosexuality, namely the metropolitan model' (p 117). Similarly, in the conclusions, the author cautions that 'phrases like "LGBT community" and "gay community" must be used carefully, not least because they run the risk of collapsing otherwise distinct identities into one homogenous grouping' (p 211).

The chapter on the 'Uni_cock' website was quite a fun read, but I felt like an outsider being introduced to this issue and had no personal knowledge of similar sites. The gist of it the site is that it is a closed, private messaging service used to arrange (more or less) immediate hook-ups which then take place in semi-public spaces (public toilets, parks, etc). There is an interesting discussion here about the extent to which this behaviour is or is not a political act. For example, there is a suggestion that this adoption of modern-day cottaging (the practice being discussed is called 'cybercottaging') is a positive rejection of assimilationism, where 'good gays' behave in every way like heterosexuals (eg by forming monogamous, long-term, state-recognised couple relationships). The converse view, that cybercottaging is an inherently apolitical activity, is expressed in my favourite sentence of the entire book:

'Regardless of the fact that, in some ways, cottaging represents a radical appropriation of gendered and heteronormative spaces, its covert nature, lack of engagement with politics and historical reputation has ensured that while "kissing strangers in public may be a political act", "sucking them off [remains] bad public relations"." (p 136)

My final comments are on the chapter about 'digital cruising', which is the use of mobile technology to cruise on the move. The technology relies either on bluetooth to identify someone in the immediate proximity, or the internet plus GPS to feed live information about the location of oneself and others. One thing that particularly caught my eye, because of its link to conversations that I've had with more than one of my friends, was where Mowlabocus observes that this digital cruising is often 'conceived of as "something to do while waiting", or "something that killed time"' (p 186, and similarly p 203). Again, this was something that I wanted to explore more, but the book's focus doesn't really go in that direction. The author's interest is in the way that technology is used by gay men, and that's fair enough.

It would not a fair criticism to say that I wanted to know about the relationship between that use of technology and people's actual behaviours, both online and off, when that isn't what the book sets out to do. But the thought came back to me a few pages later, when Mowlabocus (to my mind slightly optimistically) says that '[t]he ... shallowness of content and ephemeral nature of digital cruising means that these fleeting communications [involved in digital cruising] often resulted in nothing more than the equivalent of a wink, a smile, or a (knowing) look' (p 197). To me, this presentation of the outcomes belies the equally common experiences of rejection, anger and (sometimes) disgust - rejection by someone that you wanted to chat to or hook up with, anger at that rejection or at things connected to it, or disgust that someone you consider unpalatable seems to be (cyber) flirting with or (cyber) stalking you. Again, the book isn't about that, but those passing remarks that are included implied to me more questions and more levels to the world of 'gaydar culture' than the author was able to let into the discussion. In short, those are questions for a sociologist, and the fact that they are my interest here does not imply that either the questions asked or the answers offered in this books are uninteresting or unimportant. They are both, and the big sociological questions which I am left with having read it are not the questions that the author set out to answer.

Gaydar Culture is an academic book, and a fine one at that. It's positioning within the book market and its price will combine to mean that relatively few non-scholars will read it, and that is a shame. It contains a fascinating insight into aspects of the online worlds that (some) gay men inhabit and, while it raised a lot of questions for me and left me wanting to know more about the connections between the book's analysis and bigger issues of (gay, online) culture, it definitely gave me food for thought, and I would happily recommend it.

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