During 2020, I found myself becoming a bit of a meme lord and working to raise emergency funds for low-income artists in NYC—done entirely virtually. For queer, working-class people like myself, the Internet plays a major role in how we are seen, how we make money, how we spread our work, and how we take care of one another. When the systems that govern the internet, both formally and de-facto (i.e. censorship by proxy), do not work in our favor—or worse, reflect and sustain anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric—our culture and livelihood is impacted. It is because of this that we must move forward with a deep sense of ethics and clear understanding of the cultural significance of the Internet beyond its capacity for capital.
As an artist and organizer, the Internet is at the center of what I do. That’s kind of cool for someone who once thought the Internet was just a CD that made loud noises. Like most Millennials, I have spent a majority of my life on the Internet. As a kid, I remember the AOL dial-up CDs mailed to my home, the haunting screeches of connectivity, and the “what the fuck is this?” that permeated its early days in the average American home. “I don’t think this is going to last,” my parents said. Now my mother can effectively communicate in emojis.
The Internet quickly became a place where knowledge and connection were possible in ways I had never imagined. I discovered chat rooms, the innocent splendor of HampsterDance, the jarring and far too accessible dregs of rotten.com (IYKYK, unfortunately), and ultimately found an understanding of myself that did not exist IRL. I learned how to look for things I desired and erase them without a trace. I was able to connect to people I couldn’t reach in my day to day life, building the foundations of queer connection that remain to this day.
I grew up at the height of MySpace (LocoMofo009 tyvm), LiveJournal, and AIM—finding many of the online subcultures that led to me discovering my sexuality and my artistic roots. As a queer Texan hitting puberty in the early 2000s, the Internet was a lifejacket in a sea of vile queerphobic, transphobic and homophobic rhetoric. Situating this essay in 2023, not a lot has changed.
Today, and then, LGBTQ+ communities tend to find each other on the Internet. I came out to someone I met on LiveJournal, I met my first boyfriend on MySpace, and one of my oldest gay friends came about from the early days of Facebook. As someone who grew up hidden (only kissing guys under the cover of darkness; using code words online), the Internet allowed me—and people like me—to build connections where IRL community was harder to come by. What seemed like endless ramblings online were the beginnings of networks and digital languages that many in my generation would carry into the future.
The Internet allowed me—and people like me—to build connections where IRL community was harder to come by.
At its outset and for someone in my position, the Internet seemed ripe for boundless opportunity. The Internet was an attempt at egalitarianism: a place where knowledge, communication, and connection could largely transcend borders, abilities, class, and race. It was not perfect, but for Millennials and younger Gen X-ers it was a formative social tool.
The Internet has continued to be a rallying place for community organizing and connection amongst LGBTQ+ artists—especially since the height of the Covid-19 pandemic and uprisings for racial justice in the United States. Today we share mutual aid, ways to buy our art, gatherings and meet-up groups, and resources for medical care (since that’s the state of things in the U.S.). We share niche memes and sub-Tweets, and sometimes the online “discourses” become real life movements: from fundraising initiatives like G.L.I.T.S., to pandemic mutual aid, to mass gatherings pushing for deep, systemic change.
It is also a place where we are censored—and, arguably, not for lack of ability to mobilize across digital landscapes. In The Anatomy of Neoliberal Internet Governance: A Queer Critical Political Economy Perspective, Monika Zalnieriute suggests that a liberatory conception of the internet—one similar to my nostalgia induced memories—helps fuel the United States’ “Internet Freedom” agenda: a saccharine facade of inclusivity that guilds underlying and systemic censorship, especially amongst marginalized communities.
As a naive, young El Pasoan, I didn’t know of the military tech origins of the web, or what degrees of surveillance and censorship would arise from its capital-centric global expansion. I knew of chat rooms and the rise of influencers, but never imagined that this place that granted me freedom in ways I had never been given would evolve into one that worked against my communities. That’s what we call naivety, honey. Censorship is so extreme that some countries issue the death sentence for those accessing LGBTQ+ materials. And while censorship might feel like a concept limited to authoritarian dictatorships, the filtering out of queer content and the restriction of LGBTQ+ resources is a process that exists in both dictatorships and democratic governments across the globe.
In 2011, the ACLU launched the Don’t Censor Me campaign to push against the flagging and blocking of vital, non-sexual LGBTQ+ resources in public schools. According to their report, “many of the most commonly used web filtering software packages include a special category for websites that contain information about LGBT issues and organizations, even though the websites are not sexually explicit in any way.” If an isolated queer kid is looking for resources on how to protect themselves, they might not find them or face punishment for searching for them. This software, and web filtering software and algorithms like it, systemically disadvantages queer communities based on a sheer lack of nuance to evolving language and culture–at best. At worst, it is reflective of a latent queerphobia that is not deemed important enough to dismantle. And this lack of nuance is something we see in the modern realm of social media censorship and vague community guidelines.
This software, and web filtering software and algorithms like it, systemically disadvantages queer communities based on a sheer lack of nuance to evolving language and culture.
Conflating the culture and materials of the queer community with pornography (nothing wrong with porn tbh though) is one tactic used to fuel anti-LGBTQ+ legislation and rhetoric. It is one I would argue also helps sustain a society that is fearful, misinformed, and puritanical (deragotory). Reflective of this censorship (much of which is bred online these days), American Libraries Magazine reports that 5 out of 10 of the most banned books for 2021 were due to complaints about LGBTQ+ content. This is also seen in the passing of measures and rhetoric from the Don’t Say Gay Bill, to the stripping of Trans healthcare for recipients of Medicaid in Florida, to violent threats to Trans healthcare and Trans youth in places like Texas and Arkansas.
If the Internet is already built, in many ways, to prevent LGBTQ+ people from finding basic resources for their vital needs, the presence of queer art on the Internet makes things a bit murkier. Art on the internet already opens up a tricky discussion of value—how do we value that which is free? Are NFTs the only way forward? And will the commodification of digital work only serve to perpetuate the toxicity of the art and tech worlds?
I think a lot on Hito Steyerl’s Duty Free Art: Art in the Age of Global Civil War as a manifesto against the corrupt machine that is the Art Market. The parallels of how big tech feeds off of these practices (tax loopholes, skewed algorithms benefitting the elite, profit over ethics)—and the rapid speed of technological and social media advances—show us that we must ensure that questions of ethics inform every step of the way forward. Can an algorithm and SFW (suitable for work) software be the sole arbiter of what is “appropriate” for the Internet? Would the same filters hold up in a museum? What are the ethics of big tech companies’ processes for filtering out “unsanitary” content, and who is this protecting?
To that point, it has been clear that social media platforms, like Meta, have often placed profit over ethics. For queer artists using platforms like Instagram to share, promote, and sell their work, it is alarming to see a lack of consistent ethics across the social media landscape. When billionaires profit off of the digital labor of LGBTQ+ artists (many of whom obviously intersect other marginalized communities) without accountability, it is hard to remain silent. Trends of continued support for white-supremacists groups and ads remain well into 2023, begging the question: how does this fit into a community guideline when a gay nipple or drawing of a vulva gets flagged, or whole accounts documenting moments in queer history are removed wholesale?Here’s a bit more on that from a Washington Post article shared in early August 2022: A new report from the Tech Transparency Project, a nonprofit tech watchdog, found 119 Facebook pages and 20 Facebook groups associated with white supremacy organizations. Of 226 groups identified as white-supremacist organizations by the Anti-Defamation League, the Southern Poverty Law Center, and a leaked version of Facebook’s dangerous organizations and individuals list, more than a third have a presence on the platform, according to the study.
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While white-supremacists have a solid platform, LGBTQ+ people are flagged for drawings of penises. Alarming! I have a microinfluencer following on Instragram, to which I put out a question on my Instagram Story asking: what does censorship look like for queer people on here? Some responses I got included: Trans women having their whole accounts removed for no clear reason, gay painters having their posts removed despite them complying with the stated community guidelines, and queer Black artists regularly getting “Zucked” by the algorithm more so than their white counterparts. There has even been censoring of information (removal, flagging, etc.) about monkeypox in NYC by artists and activists attempting to share vital information. I am not an academic or a scientist, so to that I will just say: what the fuck?
The thing about art is it doesn’t have to be entertaining, and it doesn’t have to be a commercial success for it to be valid and important to a larger cultural understanding of the present moment. It can be bad. It can be jarring. But it can still be important. Online culture is a movement (which the pandemic only magnified). Memes are an artistic movement. And digital art, beyond the NFT scene, can promote the egalitarianism many of us once thought the Internet could sustain.
When there is a monopoly on the platforms where we get to show our work, when these platforms make money off of those—people, politics and ideologies—that repress us, where do we stand? The decentralization of the Internet is promising, but the question remains: who, then, becomes the gatekeeper? And where is the space for the abolition of gatekeeping? When do we treat our digital galleries with the same value as the museums that came before them?
The decentralization of the Internet is promising, but the question remains: who, then, becomes the gatekeeper?
And now with Elon’s version of Twitter preparing for potential disastrous consequences for the rise (again) of anti-LGBTQ+ talking piece, it seems like those “pioneering” these new frontiers do not have our best interests at heart, to put it lightly.
While I understand there is plenty of room for nuance (yes, LGBTQ+ people can be white-supremacists and/or unethical billionaire scum), to erase queer people’s art/voices/opinions on the Internet is akin to erasing a part of our culture. Meme pages, resource pages, photos from rallies and events—all of these deserve to be seen by as wide an audience as anything else on these platforms. And if it is a mere technicality of a bug in the software (I remember my emergency fund getting flagged for spam during the pandemic) or a lack of culturally aware technology, then who is ensuring this gets fixed?
Our data is already being mined, and my bank account is not growing because of these platforms—but my communities are. If there is going to be a community standard we aspire to, then bring the community into the conversation. If social media is going to be a money making venture, then give this [redacted] f-slur blurred nipple pic flagged painting of a penis a bit of the cut.
Shawn Escarciga is a multidisciplinary artist bridging performance, digital collage/memes, language, comedy, and community. Shawn’s work uses humor to critique and serve as an access point for engaging people in critical thinking, coming together IRL and URL, laughing at the absurdity of the world, and processing their place in late stage capitalism. They make what they know, and are greatly informed by their queerness, their working-class background, their disabilities, and their profound ability to get away with being a smart ass in a multitude of places and situations. Shawn’s work has been seen across galleries, museums, basements, sex parties, and online, across NYC, the U.S., and internationally. More at @missladysalad and shawnescarciga.com.