One of the things I’m aiming for in the Changing Spaces project is to achieve an account of how the internet is participating in changing forms of gay sociability that grasps what is happening now but avoids getting trapped in the ‘decline of gay life’ thesis that has become such a familiar lament in both everyday and academic discussions. You know the one: “once upon a time we had gay community, but then the internet destroyed all that/ Once we were public, communal, sharing caring types of people, now we are individual and isolated consumers/ Once we knew how to socialize and flirt and have fun, now the only offshoot of cruising is RSI”. Not that there aren’t elements of truth to claims like these, and of course the alternative position – ‘nothing’s changed’ – is just as unsatisfying. But I want to think more carefully about what is, or could be, emerging in relation to online phenomena and the relays and subtle interferences with more established practices and venues of social life.
Here, I’m encouraged by internet scholars’ Daniel Miller and Donald Slater’s refusal of the ‘merely virtual’ account of the internet (i.e. the idea that the internet is another world completely divorced from real life). They propose to treat online phenomena as ‘embedded in and continuous with’ other social spaces, and the move makes a lot of sense. You only need think about the way details of people’s online profiles enter into everyday conversation to recognise this point. Use of sexual media is threaded through urban gay sexual culture – supporting, extending and reconfiguring existing venues of sexual socializing – often in quite funny ways – while also drawing from many of its practices and conventions.
One thing I’ve been thinking about recently is how the existence of online cruising profiles adds a whole new sphere of information to public discussion. Just as Facebook allows the transmission of a whole lot of recent details without face to face contact, such that we often know someone’s intimate news well before catching up for coffee, sexual media allows some types of information to circulate that may make for a different sort of sex public, to borrow a term from Berlant and Warner’s dynamite essay. (Incidentally, Berlant and Warner don’t seem enthusiastic about the possibilities of online sociability in “Sex in Public’. They `refer to ‘cathecting the privatized virtual public of the internet’ as though it were some sort of sad alternative to the ‘real thing’. I share their frustration at the apparent loss of certain sexual spaces, of course, but the essay stops short of thinking about how the internet is actually done and carried over into other spaces and practices)
This new sphere of information consists of statements – usually pretty graphic statements – of sexual interests, sexual self-presentation, the ubiquitous cock-pic, etc. – once considered intrinsically private, but which now become par for the course in face-to-face chat and discussion. ‘’Check out what he says on his profile!” “Didn’t you know? That’s Sydneypig!” Who would have thought 15 years ago you would know more about someone’s bits or preferred sexual activities before having a conversation with them or even knowing their name? Usually this public discussion is conducted in the mode of gossip, rumour, scandal, intrigue, hearsay etc. But unlike earlier instances of gossip and the like, what is different is that these details can now be substantiated, in principle, with reference to a relatively accessible, public archive. It’s a whole new reference point and source of intimate speculation.
Typically this observation would raise the standard privacy concerns – some things just shouldn’t be aired in public. But I guess I’m more favourably disposed to the fun and momentum of sexual community, which has always relied, after all, on teasing at the distinctions between public and private so that new forms of experience can be shared. I like that this has become a new dynamic that is giving rise to playful new sorts of exchanges between people (which is not to say these exchanges are always comfortable or without risk). The most interesting question, I reckon – though I don’t have an answer to it yet and hope people can help me think about it – is how this new articulation between ‘private details’ and ‘public banter’ is playing out in practical terms? What is it affording, what’s distinctive about it, what is it producing and what can be made of it?