An Internet Like a Drag Show

Lil Miss Hot Mess

I want an Internet that’s like a drag show.
Fierce, fabulous, and always in formation.
Magical, mysterious, and maybe a little bit messy.
Seductive, sacrilegious, and sickening… but also, dare I say, sincere?

I’m serious, mostly. This isn’t just a thought experiment—like all good drag, it demands that we dedicate thoughtful attention to that which isn’t generally given its due, while not falling into the trap of taking ourselves too seriously, either. So let’s get real: what might the Internet look like if it weren’t designed by and for a bunch of bros in hoodies, but rather queens, kings, and other creatures of the night in our over-the-top sparkly finest?

The images you see in this article were created using OpenAI's DALL-E, a tool that uses artificial intelligence (AI) to generate images based on textual descriptions. While I am critical of many uses and impacts of AI applications (including dubious ethics in sourcing training data without consent, and problematic outputs resulting from deeply-biased inputs, among others), as with many emerging tech toys, I have remained cruelly optimistic that there may be some uses that might be playfully queer and perhaps even resistant. For years, following my work on drag's confounding of facial recognition algorithms, I have wanted to experiment with AI-generated portraits of drag performers to understand how machines might "see" and visually interpret this art form. And in recent months—in which drag has come under heightened political attack from both white supremacist militias and mainstream politicians—I have been particularly interested in the political possibilities of creating photorealistic fantasy images of performers who could provoke a sense of realness without the reality of violence. Here, I have generated these images using relatively simple prompts, such as “photo of a drag queen putting on her makeup in front of a mirror in a nightclub” and “drag queen outside of a nightclub smoking a cigarette with a group of shirtless male friends.” I have been truly surprised by how much these images provoked a deep sense of recognition of, and occasionally nostalgia for, the embodied and affective spaces of queer nightlife—many of which no longer exist due to gentrification, the pandemic, and other factors. I am especially moved by the glitchiness of many of the images, which to me, reflect the creative messiness of my community of performers. I also cannot help but think about the relations between drag and AI image generation, both of which appropriate and remix existing elements of culture, often creating treasures of someone else's trash. Still, I believe that drag also shows the limitations of AI: like many technologies, it can only get us so far, as it is our own imaginations and interpretations that not only bring these images to life, but truly give us life as well.

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I want an Internet that’s a space for experimentation, artistry, and play. Where you show up again and again because you have no idea what to expect, but know you’re going to gag, darling. Where every entree offers something new to behold, and where even the most tired tropes are given new life through creative acts of brilliant interpretation and catalyzing performance. Where “innovation” and “iteration” are more than buzzwords; where they actually reflect new ways of being, of connecting, of trying and failing and picking ourselves up again. Where flawlessness is not a measure of success, but a state of mind; where failure isn’t another step on the path to dominance, but an opportunity for real reflection. Where we adorn ourselves in artifice, but our intelligence is always embodied and emotional, our own neurons flashing like a strobe and lighting up the room with our collective genius. Where the skills to create new worlds and aesthetics are taught as tricks of the trade by our drag mothers, in whispered encouragement and reprimand, in the intimacy of lending a hand, in imitation as the pinnacle of flattery. Where we know that sometimes many stories can all be true at the same time, because it’s all about context and perspective, babe. Where we know that sometimes a slight embellishment or a gentle dose of fiction helps us get closer to the truth, but that’s a far cry from the deceitful dangers of disinformation. Where you’re only limited by your imagination, by your ability to turn fantasy into reality.

I want an Internet that’s local and communal. Where our networks are visceral but also social: not necessarily a place where everyone knows your name, but where we can quickly figure out our relations and organically map out a who’s-who. Where we trust each other not because some stranger gave five stars, but because we know we’re not actually strangers (and that we’re actually all stars)—and if we do something shady, it will get back to so-and-so, and we actually did come here to make friends and lovers, not enemies. Where we go to see and be seen, reveling in the joy of being out and about, without fear that we’re being watched. Where we have our own vernaculars and in-jokes, but they’re easy to learn and no one is ever left out—as long as they’re paying attention and willing to laugh-with rather than laugh-at. Where there is no true royalty or celebrity, but we make our own superstars out of those who show up and give back to our community. Where clout is earned not by having the loudest voice or the most ridiculous thing to say (though we like ridiculousness in appropriate doses), but respect is ultimately earned through sincere leadership and sharing the mic. Where there are no leaderboards, and our archives are a bit ephemeral, but we all remember those moments that are truly legendary.

I want an Internet that encourages us to be who we are, but also recognizes that we reserve the right to hold secrets and to change. Where identities, experiences, and bodies matter—but we’re not beholden to them either. Where we can shapeshift and change our names, our pronouns, our faces just as effortlessly as any costume change. Where we decide what to be called, when, and by whom, because the name your sisters call you isn’t always the same as the one your mama gave you. Where we live for a reveal, because, while we like the attention, sometimes it’s best to be selective, to control your own narrative and wait for the right moment to let it all hang out. Where the most prized label isn’t in a database, but who you’re wearing (and DIY always trumps the corporate labels, doll). Where we’re not defined by our browsing history or trackable behaviors, but by how we show up in the moment. Where our predictions are intuitive, fallible, and wrapped up in more than a little woo—because the future can’t be predetermined, but only felt, queerly, on the horizon. Where our digital presence isn’t restricted to a boring old profile; where more is always more, and our pages come alive with animations and music and gimmicks that just might crash the system if we let them (and we do).

I want an Internet that encourages us to be who we are, but also recognizes that we reserve the right to hold secrets and to change.

I want an Internet that’s a safe space, but isn’t sanitized—and that’s even a little sexy. Where trolls only live under the bridges of our imagination, but queens are the realest of the real. Where we can lovingly call ourselves fags and dykes and other reclaimed epithets, but we understand the difference between commiserated comradery and words that are meant to wound. Where we don’t outsource emotional labor to others to moderate our conflicts, and address our hecklers head-on, sassing them back because there’s only one diva and one mic, honey. Where we trust in our community to hold each other and ourselves accountable. Where we punch up, but not down. Where yes means yes, and we not only listen for affirmation but revel in abundance. Where we ask each other what we need, and then improvise to make it happen. Where we can let our freak flags fly, send nudes, and give and get all types of jobs in the darkest of rooms. Where in the same neighborhood or node, kids can attend story hours and teens can search for answers, because we believe the children are the future and deserve their own safety and autonomy—but we don’t let fears about purity or protection legislate our love lives either.

I want an Internet that understands the hustle. Where we know that the ultimate goal is to wrrrk, not to always be working. Where there’s honest pay for honest work, too; where even if we’re all broke, we’ve got each others’ backs. Where we may be serving, but we’re the talent—not the product. Where we set the terms and prices, we own our content, and nobody’s making money off our backbends. Where applause, not clicks or likes, is our love language and greatest reward—but we’ll take your tips too, and tenderly count them out at the end of the night without worrying about transaction fees or not-so-paper trails. Where we throw those same tips at our friends, remembering that what goes around comes around, and that an economy built on generosity raises the bottom line for everyone. Where the working girls are family and we don’t let anyone fuck with them or fuck them over. Where, when you’re a dollar short, you can always flirt your way into a drink. Where “it’s giving” and “you’re serving” aren’t nearly as much about labor as they are a form of love.

I want an Internet that’s like a drag show.
Daring, decentralized, and maybe even a bit delusional.
Open, ostentatious, and overflowing with opulence.
Raunchy, real, and just remotely respectable.

An Internet like a drag show may be a fantasy, but that’s the point. Nothing is a given: not drag, not the Internet, and not the communities and connections that make up both. We make them happen. So cue the track, log in, and let’s get to work. I’ll bring the glitter if you bring the grit. It may not always be perfect or pretty, but it’s certainly going to be glamorous.

Lil Miss Hot Mess is a drag queen, visual artist, and scholar. Known for throwing extravaganzas like her “Bat Mitzvah x2” and roller skating parties, Hot Mess has performed on world-class stages from Saturday Night Live to the Brooklyn Museum, as well as legendary clubs like The Stud, Hard French, Bushwig, Queen Kong, and many many more. She is a board member of Drag Story Hour, and the author of the children's books If You’re a Drag Queen and You Know It (Running Press Kids, 2022) and The Hips on the Drag Queen Go Swish, Swish, Swish (2020). As a queen who loves to play with creative technology, Hot Mess was also a founding organizer of the #MyNameIs campaign that successfully challenged Facebook’s so-called “real names” policy. She has published research and cultural criticism in Curriculum Inquiry as well The Guardian, Wired, and Salon, and her research and creative practice has been supported by grants from Eyebeam and the National Endowment for the Humanities. When not twirling, Lil Miss Hot Mess is a professor of public humanities and media studies at the University of Arizona. More at @LilMissHotMess.