'The Online Stage' – Gender Practices and Secual Subjectivities in Networked Publics. A Multi-Method Look at Flemish Youngsters of Social Network Sites
Contemporary youth cultures in Western societies are lived in offline as well as online media spaces, allowing communication, representation and participation. Popular media platforms in Flanders such as Facebook and Netlog organize young people in (semi-)public spaces and connected networks. Redundant digital stories are told in these publics, using numerous semiotic practices such as photos, text, applications and videos. Earlier research into social network sites (SNSs) and young people describes how it is primarily stories about relationships that are represented. Although a large share deal with friendships, intimate stories, by which I mean all erotically significant aspects of social life, are also present. Most studies, however, neglect these representations and negotiations of sexuality, particularly from a critical perspective, by which I mean questioning power and difference. Therefore, the ‘Online Stage’ project questions how gender practices and sexualities thrive on SNSs, using social theory and combined critical theories on gender/sexuality, technology and participation. In particular I will ask (1) how gender practices and sexualities are regulated by heteronormativity in communications, representations and participations, and (2) how this particular mediated practice contributes to a social change and further transforms intimacy in late modernity. The project situates itself at the intersection of media cultural studies, queer theory and youth studies. It thus focuses mostly on social, cultural and political struggles over identities, practices and institutions in everyday life and its mediated representations. ‘The Online Stage’ project wishes not merely to describe, but also to contribute to a wider democratic project of social change as generally envisioned in the field of media cultural studies. Building on social theories of changes in late modern times, the self is understood as a reflective acting subject that creates its own biographies within the defined limits of heteronormativity. The popular mediated practice of communication, representation and participation is seen as an emerging public sphere, creating possibilities for alternative and resistant experiments to radiate. This project looks for significant re-significations within widely used networked publics in youth cultures. Practically, this research inquires into how Flemish youngsters aged between 13 and 18 years old represent intimacy, gender and sexuality, how the subject is networked and negotiates in public environments, and how new media platforms are themselves shaping these representations, communications and participations. The popular SNS Netlog is the case used for qualitative and quantitative content analysis of the textual and visual. Further, publics themselves are consulted in different focus groups to gain insights into how these young people negotiate the boundaries of heteronormativity when interacting on SNSs.