KOSTA: Hello everyone. Welcome to Undesign. I’m your host, Kosta Lucas. Thank you so much for joining me on this mammoth task to untangle the world’s wicked problems and redesign new futures. I know firsthand that we all have so much we can bring to these challenges, so listen in. See where you fit in as we undesign the topic of digital health and safety for LGBT+ youth.
In the age of social media, we are consistently challenged to think about social norms that occur in digital society. We celebrate the opportunities that social media provide, how they bring people from different places together, especially in the era of the pandemic. On the other hand, we often find ourselves baffled by the explicitly harmful comments that we encounter on social media, how much harm cyber bullying actually causes especially towards marginalized groups.
In this episode, we explore the risks and opportunities that social media brings towards LGBT+ communities. And even take a peek into the future to see what a platform would look like if we designed it from scratch with these safety considerations in mind. Helping us untangle this wicked problem are our latest special guests, Dr. Ben Hanckel and Dr. Shiva Chandra.
Ben is senior research fellow in the Institute for Culture and Society at Western Sydney University and his research examines youth health and wellbeing, social inequalities in his health and social change. His work has examined the design of digital technologies for health and the use of digital technologies for all being with a particular focus on the lived experiences of young people, including sexuality and gender diverse youth. He’s led research projects across Australia, East and Southeast Asia, as well as the United Kingdom.
Shiva is also a researcher at the Institute for Culture and Society at Western Sydney. He uses creative and innovative methods to explore subjectivity and how individuals relate to their social worlds. Shiva is interested in exploring how scholarship can sit at the intersection of academia and community development. His interests include the sociology of personal life, sexuality, gender, race and decolonization.
To begin with, Ben and Shiva eloquently bring us insights from their research on the importance of embedding policy solutions into social media platform design. We talk about what safety means in a digitized world and how it can be codified into these platforms to create safer, more ethical community for all, especially young people from marginalized groups. Ultimately throughout our conversation, we keep interrogating this question of whether feelings of safety can be adequately retrofitted into current social media, or do we really need to start from scratch?
KOSTA: All right, Ben and Shiva, welcome. How are we both today?
BEN: Great. Thanks for having us, Kosta, on the show.
KOSTA: My absolute pleasure. Where are you joining us from today?
SHIVA: I’m joining you from Sydney.
BEN: Yes, me as well. Not so sunny in Sydney today.
KOSTA: Again, really appreciative of both of you taking the time to talk to me and our audience around this idea of creating safe online spaces, particularly for marginalized youth. So I figured a place to start really would be to talk about some of the research both of you started or launched, I should say, earlier this year. There was the report that you released in may social media insights from sexuality and gender diverse young people during COVID-19. Can I just open the floor to both of you to take me through that research? What did you find from that? Actually, why did you do that piece of research to begin with? Where did the need come from?
BEN: Yeah, thanks, Kosta. I guess for us just to firstly say that what we did was we spoke to 65 LGBT+ young people from around Australia who identified as sexuality and gender diverse, I guess over the last few years, my [inaudible 00:04:21] of work have both been looking at gender and sexuality diverse people within Australia and their experiences. My own work is very much focused on digital technologies and how young people have been going online, I guess, because of a lot of the homophobia, the transphobia, the stigma that exists in the local places like the school amongst their friends and families. They often go online to find information.
BEN: What we realized was actually during COVID-19, as we all experienced was that during lockdown, we were suddenly back at home. For all of us, we are locked down often with families for a lot of young people. We wanted to know what these young people were doing in these contexts online when that was one of the only access options they had to the outside world, what they were doing in relation to that and where they were going, what they were doing, trying to make sense of those online experiences. That was the need we identified. Right, Shiva?
SHIVA: I think so. Yeah.
KOSTA: What are some of the main things you found from that study?
BEN: In terms of some of the main things, I think one of the big findings was that young people were going online to look for similar others. They were looking to find information about gender and sexuality information in relation to their identity or what they think could be their identity. They wanted to find out more information. Online spaces like Facebook, TikTok, Instagram provided safe spaces where they could look for information because they would make their profiles private for instance, or where they would block certain people from being able to see things. They could explore in very safe and careful ways to be able to do that work.
I think what was exciting for them was that they were able to find relatable people online who shared similar interests. What was not so exciting was also seeing the homophobia and transphobia that continues into these online spaces as well.
SHIVA: Going off of what Ben’s saying, I think one thing that we thought was quite an interesting finding was at the beginning of the pandemic, a lot of service providers within the community who were quite concerned about how COVID would have a negative impact on people, and also a few stories coming out about people having to move in with homophobic family members, for example. Obviously, those were quite real concerns which were warranted and those were also quite real experiences for certain people.
But it was really interesting because what Ben and I found was that along with those things, there were actually some really interesting stories that probably had a more positive dimension. For example, some of the people we spoke to said that actually COVID-19 provided a time in which they could step back from society and actually think about their gender and sexuality. Because the social forces weren’t around them all the time in the way they are when you are out and about, they felt that they could really take that time to think through some of those things. The way Ben and I have been phrasing it when we’ve been speaking about it is that for some people, queerness actually flourished during COVID-19.
KOSTA: Wow. That’s interesting. Because I hope that’s not too pessimistic or simplistic, but it’s not something you would assume would happen. I guess it’s just something COVID, if anything, from just talking in about it in other spaces seem to have this very polarizing effect even within certain spaces. I almost would’ve imagined that you would find the extremes of both the positive and negative experiences, but from what I’m understanding, it’s probably a bit more complicated than that in this particular context.
SHIVA: I think so. A lot of the young people we spoke to were already doing a lot of curating their profiles in particular ways. They were already engaging with things before COVID and they kept going on during COVID as well.
KOSTA: In terms of just honoring the diversity of experiences within the LGBT+ community, some people I guess ask the question of whether it’s helpful to talk about a community experience as a whole. Do you have thoughts on whether it’s useful to speak of an LGBT+ community as a whole? And why or why not?
SHIVA: Do you want me to take this one, Ben?
BEN: You can take this one, Shiva.
KOSTA: Go for it.
SHIVA: I have actually looked at the idea of community in my work. I think community is a complicated concept, especially as it relates to queer people. Often when we think about queer community, we assume that people will feel a sense of belonging with others like them. It’s this idea that being queer is enough to create a sense of belonging with others like you, based on the queer aspect of who you are.
Then certainly in our study, we had many respondents who spoke about finding queer people like them in online spaces. They would use words like like-mindedness, understanding, acceptance, friendship, relatability, comfort, empathy, support, safety and feeling protected to describe this sense of community. In practice, we saw this in things like talking and building relationships with people on platforms, moderating discord service, contributing to Facebook groups or creating content on TikTok and Instagram.
Then we had some people who spoke about actually not engaging with queer community directly. They just watch the posts or simply look in the background and just watch what’s going on. But it was really interesting because that actually wasn’t really meaningful to them. Just the mere act of watching people like you created a sense of belonging and a sense of community connection.
I’ll go all scholarly and put my iron power hat on. There is this scholar called Benedict Anderson who talks about this idea of an imagined community. So very simply it’s this idea that you might not know everyone in a nation, but you feel a sense of solidarity with them as you imagine yourself as part of this big group. You could say that in a similar manner for these young people who were just watching maybe for example, other queer people, that actually allowed them to imagine belonging to this sense of community.
But I guess, in saying all of that, I think sometimes this is a conversation that we don’t have is that community is complex. For example, we know that racism exists in queer spaces. There is literature that has said that. But we also know that transphobia exists in queer spaces. So in relation to the study Ben and I did, we did hear of negative experiences in queer spaces online.
I actually have a quote from one of our respondents that I think illustrates this really nicely. This person was talking about witnessing transphobia. They said to us, “I’m not trans, but witnessing transphobia within the community, it breaks my heart. One of my really good friends is trans. It just breaks my heart that that exists in this community, that praises itself for being so inclusive.”
I think that’s a nice illustration of how community’s complex and we can’t talk about it as implying solidarity necessarily at that big level. Going back to the question you initially asked, I think that thinking of queer communities maybe in the plural is actually a helpful way to think about what community means to people. And also acknowledges the fact that not all queer people will feel belonging by just because of their queerness.
But I think these examples and these complexities also caution us not to romanticize ideas of community based on this sense of togetherness. Because I think what can happen is sometimes that can mask aspects of community or what we call community that aren’t so great where people who are marginalized do things to each other that might not actually be that nice.
KOSTA: Yes. I love that. Oh, I don’t love the nuance. But I really appreciate the nuance there in terms of the idea of community as a unifier in terms of people with shared experiences, might find affinity with one another and then that differentiation between community as people that choose to be together because of more like personal affinity or whatever it is. It feels like it’s somewhere in the middle where like seeing yourself reflected in something like social media has that ability to bridge you to other members in those broader communities. But at the same time, it doesn’t flatten your experience and make the affinity really strong straight away. It’s not just because you’re queer that you’re going to identify with other queer people per se. It’s just more like a gap is being filled somewhat and complexity exists within those gaps too.
Just like any community. Even in the culturally linguistically diverse space, some people find that to be a very flattening label. It absolutely is in times, but it speaks to an experience based on an identity or an attribute that is being treated by society in a particular way. I guess is that the reality we acknowledge when we talk about communities or LGBT+ communities, that there is an experience that most people in those communities would share that we are not reacting to, but just have to live with. We all deal with that in our different ways. Does that make sense?
BEN: Yeah, I think it does definitely. I think there is a sense that there’s broader participation in this broader LGBT+ community, like what Shiva was talking about. But also that sense of being connected to something. I was just thinking as we were talking then, one thing that came up in the research was that young people would talk about being part of communities in these social media spaces. They actually spoke about it as Venn diagrams. It’d be kind of like this overlapping sense of like, “Yes, I’ve got my LGBT+ people or community, but then also on top of that, it might be overlaid with my gaming community, the people who bake or the artists,” whatever it kind of was, there’d be other overlapping communities that they just saw themselves as part of.
Sometimes they’d go in to the gaming community first and they happened to just find other trans or gender diverse and sexuality diverse young people there. It’d be almost like a value ad of being there. But these communities were really interesting in the sense that they were overlapping. They cross platforms sometimes. To me, that’s another important point is that as Shiva and I were doing this work, we actually realized that young people were engaging across social media platform. It wasn’t just happening on one platform. It often happened on multiple.
This is probably not surprising when we think about our own social media practices, but academics call this the polymedia practices where you engage across social media platforms to make sense of things. I think young people were really aware of others who they could relate to. But they also were aware of the absences as well.
I think this is what Shiva was getting at also, around what was there and what wasn’t there. We had some young people talking about, they’d see people who were very similar for I would say some young, white sexuality and gender diverse young people. They often see a lot of similar people to themselves and representations online. But when you start to look at what the algorithm is giving you, it’s not necessarily coming up with diverse content for instance.
Some young people are really conscious of this. We’re kind of thinking, “Why don’t we see ourselves for those young people who might be people of color, might have disabilities? Where are they in these representations that are coming up? What we heard from young people was they were often trying to engage at times in some actions, I guess, online that were trying to disrupt some of that that was coming through as well.
So we had one young person and Shiva will remember this as well, they were trying to create more diversity in their feed. They’d go out looking for people with characteristics that they didn’t necessarily have as part of their identity. From memory, I think they identified as a white, cis, lesbian. They were looking for characteristics. Shiva’s shaking his head. So I’ve got their identity label incorrect, but in terms of, they were looking for diversity outside of their characteristics of that person.
When they’d have what they would call it, Diversify Your Feed Tuesday where they’d try and encourage their friends and their networks as well to then diversify their feeds to talk back to algorithms, which they saw as marginalizing and [inaudible 00:17:18] creating the space for other people to be seen and heard as well.
KOSTA: That’s interesting. That was going to be my next line of questioning just around like some of the challenges or those absences, what they were and what you, at least in this initial research attribute them to? Is it the actual structure of the social media themselves, like as platforms? Or is it more about the people using them and all these sorts of things? Where did you land on where these challenges stem from, I guess, or these absences or barriers?
SHIVA: Do you mean like lack of representation, Kosta?
KOSTA: Yeah. I guess all of the above in that, yeah, is it lack of representation? That was an issue because for example, just by virtue of algorithms, favoring particular types of creators? Or is it more about in the representation of creators that exist in a pool? Only so many of them are actually from a queer, LGBT+ community. Did you form any preliminary understanding or conclusions on those sorts of gaps?
SHIVA: I guess you can cut the question many ways. I’m sure it probably has many answers. Because often a neat, simplistic answer isn’t true. I wonder, to what extent a sense of coloniality or whiteness has a role to do with it, tracing that historically? We know that various societies did have different ways of doing gender, for example. And that we know that when colonization happened, it wasn’t like the colonizer were like, “This is great. That wasn’t actually the case.”
Those things, I guess, got marginalized in those processes. Like different ways of doing gender that would’ve existed in colonized spaces. Of course, with historically thinking, colonization also brought with it to the dominance of a sense of whiteness and Europeanness. It wouldn’t be surprising if that’s getting reproduced again in digital spaces, because digital isn’t not real life. It is real life and-
KOSTA: Yeah. That’s right.
SHIVA: … going online are the same. It would or wouldn’t surprise me if the normativity of whiteness that began with a colonial project is what we are seeing reflected in social media spaces, even in the contemporary context.
KOSTA: Yeah. I see. Yeah. That’s great. Because the question I probably should have asked, which was did you have a view on whether it’s like policies and standards on existing social media that are letting these things perpetuate? Or is it more a matter of platform design? Are they designed to favor certain groups by virtue of just the origins from which they came from?
If we’re talking about designing for everyone everywhere and we talk about building accessible or inclusive technology in so many contexts, it’s like when cis white guys design social media, the defaults get built into it or certain defaults get built into it. I guess I’m trying to flesh out a bit more whether that’s something that’s replicated here as well.
BEN: I’m just thinking as you’re talking then as well that social media platforms, one of the big things about a social media platform is that it valorizes or affords visibility. So being able to be visible and share statuses, share images across networks is a big core part, I guess, of the business in the sense that it connects people and shares that information. Through the processes about sharing, I guess, like in our everyday worlds, there’s certain things that are acceptable to share and things that are not acceptable. That means those things, I guess, that are outside the norm.
As Shiva was talking about these norms that we have exists with these historical trajectories that have led us to this particular point, which then get remediated in online and recirculated in particular ways.
I remember from a previous project that I was doing, looking at other LGBT+ young people in Australia, they would actively talk about not participating in conversations about often the milestones that they were meant to hit at the kind of the quote, using quotation marks here, but the “normal life.” They’re like having children, getting married, doing all those things that might be expected across the life course. If they don’t have those things, they opted out of those conversations already and didn’t make visible their own experiences, which might be a little bit different than that particular narrative. So in some ways, this emphasis on visibility actually creates an invisible space for a lot of these LGBT young people to be part of. It’s an interesting paradox of this focus on visibility.
KOSTA: Yeah. That’s really profound, I guess, just this idea that what you say and what you don’t say can say so much about you to your particular like friendship, ecosystems or wider things. Yeah, some people having the freedom to choose what they share without fear of consequence, whether that’s social, political, legal can boil down to something as personal. That sounds really obvious, but I guess just hearing that play out here and I’m referring to some of the research that you’ve done in Southeast Asia, Ben, around using social media in a context where you’re part of a country that has criminalized homosexuality, for example, and same sex activity and things like that.
Even as something as structural and as abstract feeling as a governance system can feel like, seeing that boil down to social media use and how that affects your ability to engage with it is something that’s really quite profound, I guess. I guess I’m just thinking out loud about, man, that really cuts to the core of just people socializing and connecting with people, whatever the basis of that connection is. If you can’t share some things about your personal life because of fear of reprisal or ostracism, there’s so much less choice for some people than others, I guess.
BEN: Sorry, can I just jump in? I think there’s something interesting there about of fear as well. You talk about fear and this feeling of fear, I guess the opposite side of that spectrum is this feeling of safety as well. When something feels safe to be able to do and participate in conversations, to be able to explore identity. I guess this came out with Shiva and my study as well, in the sense that we were hearing from young people about when they felt it was safe, they were looking for happy spaces and found those happy spaces. Because they were able to make them using the functionalities of social media platforms. They did find those happy and safe spaces.
In a similar way, I guess when I was doing some work in Southeast Asia and looking at digital health interventions and what made them feel safe to LGBT young people, they were also looking for markers of safety. They were looking for things like whether there was a privacy feature, whether they could stay anonymous. They were looking at what the organization was connected to. So for instance, was it connected to the United Nations or recognizable organizations?
All these things work together to create this sense of safety and security. It’s not one thing. This is what my research found as well. It’s not one thing that works in isolation, but it’s all these things that happen at the front end. But also a recognition that actually at the back end, their data is going to be safe if they give it to someone or an organization for instance, that it may not be particularly in Southeast Asia where these things could be criminalized and are problematized by government and legislative infrastructures. That those things are not going to be, like a wall is not put up for them. Or That they’re not going to get criminalized because of their activities online.
I think the sense of safety obviously differs between context. I think this is a really important point. But what it means to have a happy space for these young people is really critical because I think it’s part of that question about, “Okay, we need to actually work with young people here to find out what this means to be able to design for them for the future and make sure all people are accounted for in design processes.”
KOSTA: Yeah. That’s a really great point. This is what I loved about the research you both did is that I feel like it leaves that possibility open. Obviously, we’ll get to some of what platform design looks like with that in mind. Because I guess the research you both did earlier this year was looking at existing platforms.
On that basis, from a more pragmatic view, where did you arrive in terms of what needed to change? Or what you’d like to see more of on existing platforms before we look at this question of, what would it look like to actually design it more sensitively and more co-designed from the beginning? So from where we are now, what do you think needs to happen more to ensure that dual version of safety, the freedom from and the freedom to do stuff is more possible for LGBT folks online?
BEN: Shiva, did you want to go?
SHIVA: You go first, yeah.
BEN: This is in some ways actually are back and forth just then represents how big a problem in some ways this is, but also how complex it is to solve as well.
KOSTA: Yeah, sure. Yeah. I can see that.
SHIVA: Or even that there will be a panacea solution, which is also like…
KOSTA: Of course.
SHIVA: Yeah. Because you’re like, “How can any one thing meet everyone’s needs?” It will do its best to do it, but it is quite difficult to then think about it. I guess in saying that, I think a good platform would have precisely that. It’s an ability to try and meet as many different types of needs possible through the affordances that it has. I think accounting for multiple people, different experiences and lives and what they might want to do on these spaces is probably a good starting point for me.
KOSTA: Oh, sorry, Ben, you go.
BEN: I was just going to add that I think one of the things that came out in our discussions was a lot of young people wanted transparency on platforms. They wanted to know how platforms make decisions. What happens behind the scenes? How does content get moderated? And how do they themselves get caught up in that content moderation? So for them, I think there’s a sense of what Shiva was saying in this sense of like, “Okay, the platform working for them and being able to respond to their needs.”
But it was also understanding how the platform works and what’s not acceptable and what’s acceptable and how decisions are made particularly around things like censorship. Because the censorship was one thing that came up in every single discussion we had with young people. But it was quite a complicated discussion in some ways. Because censorship was seen as something that was useful on occasion when there was malice or harmful content involved. But when it wasn’t necessarily there, young people were more open to not having censorship take place and rather having more of an approach that, we were talking about as an educated approach, where young people were wanting to educate, make sure other people got educated and informed about things rather than being shut down.
Because they also feared their own processes of the system shutting them down for having opinions as well. This is space of like, “Yes, we want to be able to have collective discussions about some of these important issues, but how do we do this in safe, collective, educative ways moving forward rather than just censoring or moderating content?” So it can’t be seen. I think that was the thing that came up then.
I think that points to the types of spaces that young people want as well. Acknowledge the complexity of some of these issues, but also the need to also talk and work with people to move through the problems that might be in the logic of their arguments as well. It’s not necessarily just about… Sorry, I took us down the rabbit hole there, but I think it’s an important point.
KOSTA: No. We were talking about the work you do occurring through a particular lens. You are working with LGBT+ young people. Hearing you say all that stuff reminds me of my work in the extremism space where it’s like, “It’s a pretty similar concept where there’s thresholds of what is acceptable and what’s not. There’s thresholds of good faith and not so good faith in terms of what actions come as a result.”
What I’m hearing is that there’s an acknowledgement within communities that people have complex relationships with the languages and the words that we use online too. That there are moments to seize to be educative and to build community using some of those gray area type content, I guess we will call it, and not just having an all or nothing arbitrary approach, where you shut it down no matter the context, just because a particular AI mechanism went off. It’s more looking out around content, intent, prior behavior, impact on audiences and things like that. I’m just hearing a lot of parallels there. Have I understood that right?
SHIVA: I think so. Yeah. I think so. I think you’re right. I think it is highly contextualized. It was really interesting because there was also a pragmatism as well, in the sense it was like, “If you’re going to shut someone down for being, I don’t know, racist, they’re just going to create another account. What is that goal to achieve?” An educative approach at least tries to do something to make change, but shutting down, where’s that going to get anyone? That’s not going to transform anything. I guess which means that platforms should really think about the transformative capacities they can have. But also it means really thinking about what are the platform’s ethics and what kind of society they want to create. Because fundamentally, you are involved in the creation of a particular reality.
I think it means that you need to think about what that is and how you are getting there. But to not think that you are creating the world. Literally, it’s world making, you’re literally creating the world. But not to think of it in that way that you’re creating. If you don’t think of it that way, then you’re not going to feel responsibility. But if you think of it actually creating reality, then it means that you will think carefully about what happens to produce that reality. And what reality do you want people to live in?
KOSTA: Yeah. And like you said Shiva before, it’s digital, but it’s real. This is still real life and words, images, digital content has impact on us in the real world. We react and we act and behave and exist online in conjunction with our worlds offline too. These are symbiotic. Some people treat them to varying degrees of separateness, but we’re not disconnected. Our online worlds are not completely disconnected. They’re either reactions to or they are as a result of or in combination with. So that’s just what comes to mind as you say that there.
SHIVA: Yeah, totally. I guess you cry when you watch movies.
KOSTA: Yeah. That’s true.
SHIVA: Why would this be any different?
KOSTA: Why would it be any different? That’s right. I feel like this is actually a really good segue now into this idea of, if we think about designing platforms from the beginning to balance these ideas of safety, how that would look and what is the basis for doing some of that. Have you started looking at that already? What has come next as a result or a continuation of the work that you both started?
BEN: This was built into the project to some degree. Because in our conversations with young people, we incorporated this component, which would really be co-design, prototyping solutions for the future and what that look like. I guess through that process and like Shiva was talking about a moment ago, these queer, young people who we spoke to were really engaged in this like, “What would I do if I was running a platform? What would it mean to do some of this world making work on different social media platforms?”
I think there were a couple of things that really came out in the discussions. I think one was definitely around that sense of like, what is content moderation? How does content get moderated? We need to be more transparent with the guidelines. That needs to be clearer. At least as the users of the platform they were that I think a lot of LGBT+ young people really want to know why their content might be moderated or might be censored. It needs to be very clear why that is the case and where the line is.
I think that the other thing that came out for me was about how platforms can enhance certain types of content. If we go back to what I was talking about before, about diversifying feeds and algorithms, there’s real opportunity here. I think young people spoke to this about the opportunity to make sure there is more diversity across the platform about enhancing certain types of content. But with that also comes the responsibility of platforms to make sure that those people’s content, which is enhanced, are supported when that goes up. It maybe goes across groups. It may end up with greater amounts of transphobia, homophobia that come up in the comments, for instance. So it comes back to this point.
I think Shiva even made that really good point before about like, “Platforms are responsible here and how are they participants in this process of platform design for inclusivity? And what does that look like?” I think they’re two of the big things that came out for me. Shiva, were there other things there that I’m sure that I’ve missed?
SHIVA: No, I think you’re right. I think they are probably two of the big things that definitely came out when we were talking about what a good platform would look like. Yeah.
KOSTA: One thing I actually wanted to touch on as well, was this idea of affect-based design. Because it is just something I’d see in reference to some of the work. Can you expound on that, about what that actually is? And why it’s imported in a context like this one?
BEN: If we think about affective design, my go-to always, when I think about this is to think about gaming. If you play video games, they’re designed so you will have particular affects, sensations or emotions as you’re playing the game. I think in a similar way, and this holds for all designers of all platforms of all technologies, there’s an opportunity to engage with people’s emotions and sensations as you are designing these spaces.
For me, when it comes to LGBT+ young people and marginalized young people more generally, if I go back to this idea about the affect or feeling of safety, security and I guess that sense of personal safety in spaces, I think there’s a real question here about how do we make sure that spaces are designed for these young people for the future or that they can enable that design of those spaces?
At the moment, sometimes there’s things that come up that weren’t built for that originally, but enable it. So for instance, there’s Instagram allows you to have multiple profiles that comes out of providing businesses with the opportunity to have multiple profiles. But young people can have multiple profiles, which enables them to have multiple accounts where they can create safer spaces to have conversations, to engage with friends in those different spaces. This is one thing we found was a lot of young people actually are using firstly Instagram, but secondly, that they were creating these second profiles to find other LGBTQIA+ young people have those conversations in these. Or at least follow them and see what they’re doing, learn from-
KOSTA: It makes sense, yeah.
BEN: …those experiences.
BEN: I guess what I’m saying is if we are thinking about creating safer and happy spaces, then this is the type of thing that we have to be directed towards to thinking, “Okay, what does safety feel like?” Like I was saying before, it’s not just one safety feature. It’s actually multiple that work together. These multiple affective experiences that come together and accumulate so that people can go, “Oh, I feel safe here.” I can talk about something I might be experiencing, some anxiety about being sexuality and gender diverse. They might be able to talk about and learn about a variety of issues that young LGBT people face.
I think that’s a critical part of the design of these spaces is getting this right. And finding out with young people, what actually makes those feelings of safety present and how can we do this in a legitimate and responsible way, which also should be embedded in data collection processes as well. So young people feel they can participate without being too worried about not having their voices heard, I guess, is what I’m trying to say.
KOSTA: Yeah, sure.
SHIVA: I think the other thing is to also remember that things will go wrong and that things will not work right. There will be safe spaces, but inevitably something could go wrong, which is a part of the vicissitudes of existence. That things go wrong.
KOSTA: Yeah, absolutely.
SHIVA: I think as much as it is important to think about creating safe spaces, I think a part of that is also thinking about what will we do if things don’t work? What will we do if things go wrong? I think that’s really important because this idea that you can design something that will be risk-free and will completely work flawlessly is quite naive, I think. I think it’s a disservice not to think that, “Okay, it still might go wrong, but what are we going to do about it?”
KOSTA: I guess the options available to you will be really informed by how you design these platforms to begin with. As in you create something that is robust enough to respond and to adapt in the face of new information, whereas I feel like with social media companies, sometimes it’s a bit of an understatement maybe. It could be quite rigid to make meaningful change that actually there has to be a certain threshold of harm, I feel, for something to significantly change, which is not necessarily the orientation we want to have when it comes to social media. We want more proactive, preventative mindsets. But also, yeah, this idea that it’s not completely foolproof and that everyone has a responsibility in making it safe.
You just brought to mind a little metaphor I use when I talk about social media with classes. I’m like, “Think of your social media profile as your house on a street. If we’ve all got profiles in the same ecosystem, our little patch is the part we look after. And together we make a neighborhood.” When I’m scrolling through my newsfeed, I’m having a look at what’s on your front lawn. Together that creates a picture too. So, what world are we building together? You can’t control necessarily what other people do. You can control what you see, but you can think about like, “What does that look like as a collective picture? Is that a world you want to inhabit?”
Just, yeah, reminded of that as you were talking about that before, Shiva, about like, “This is something we create together. And it’s very real.”
SHIVA: The other point, I guess, Ben and I made this point right at the end of our report. So it’s weird because it’s right at the end, but it’s actually, I think a really important point. The point is social media is not just what happens on social media. It’s also what happens in society. If you have governments, schools and religious organizations that do actually engage in queer phobia, then you are going to get queer phobia up on digital spaces. So the thing is, even if you are not on a digital space and you are still propagating those ideas, you are having an impact on a digital space because these things are literally embedded together. Like we’re saying that offline, online divide doesn’t really work.
So in that sense, I’d argue that actually governments, schools, organizations of various sorts, the values they have are social media practices, even if they never engage on them. Because what they say and the impact it has on people and what it allows them to feel is okay to say has an impact on what they do online. I think it’s important to remember that because it really responsibilizes social media practices as a thing that everyone is engaged in, even if you don’t realize it.
KOSTA: Yeah. That actually just brings to mind question then regarding the different context. Do the principles of good platform design change depending on the context? Say you’re talking about a queer phobic, political context versus a not as queer phobic political context. Do the design principles change? Particularly if it’s coming from a grassroots community orientation, how can we ensure that people can design spaces like this in contexts that are more oppressive, I guess and phobic?
BEN: I think it’s a great question. It’s a big question as well. I think in terms of this, platforms and technology designers more generally have an ethical obligation to design across context. And a part of the reason for that now is that I guess if you create a technological platform with information of any kind on it, whether that’s video, text, whatever that looks like, it’s foreseeable that it could travel around the world. Most countries, most people can access that.
What does that mean when it reaches a space? What does that look like? I think this is where design thinking and design principles should really take into account who these potential users are. These potential users are transnational. It was something that I guess when I was looking at a digital transnational intervention in Southeast Asia had to be considered quite substantially. Even to the point where, I guess it got things like whether it was a dot.com URL or if it had a .my for instance for Malaysia, even those things were considered. Because the way that it was regulated would then be regulated according to the media laws within each country.
I think it’s taking into account all the different elements of the platform in designing and thinking about who’s the user who’s going to come into contact with the space? What are the implications for that user of seeing this information? I think even asking that question and thinking about the context in which it’s going into, will the user themselves have private access to a device that allows them to see this content when they go or if they happen to come into contact with it? All of these things I think come together to go, “Okay, we need to be thinking about all of these things.”
But it’s not just thinking about the potential users. I think this is where Shiva and I got to, with some of our thinking in this report. It’s actually embedding users in the design of the space as well. I think this is where we need LGBTQIA+, all across the alphabet soup involved in these processes in discussing and talking about what design works, in what context, what design might not work? How can that actually influence then the design considerations that go into platform making? And even the algorithms that make decisions about what types of content we would want to see on a daily basis.
SHIVA: I know that Ben and I have spoken about consulting with LGBT+ people. Going back to what I said earlier about the idea that there isn’t a monolithic thing, I do not profess to have the answers for this, but the thing is, I guess the underpinning assumption also in this idea that you’ll work with the community is the idea that the community will want the one thing. What will happen, will happen when the community doesn’t want the one thing. How do we negotiate around that?
I think that’s a really interesting question. I don’t know the answer, but I think it is something to entertain that idea that communities are not monolithic. Like I said right at the start, that there will be complexities, which means that the queer community, all inverted commas by the way, will have different needs than ones, which will then need to be brought about at that level as well, I guess.
KOSTA: Also, they’re probably point in time assessments too, so it’s like, “What will work at one stage might not work in the future,” because of changing context, changing needs, changing people. Do you think maybe the answer or one of the solution lies in this idea of thinking of the design process as an ongoing conversation as well, that is subject to further input for a re-evaluation and all that sort of stuff?
SHIVA: I think so, yeah.
KOSTA: Because when you were thinking about even moderation practices, they’re very point in time kind of judgements a lot of the time. Like you said, you take something down, people find new ways to express it. Whether that’s creating a new profile, whether it’s using coded language, if you just use the same moderation practice you did in 2020, it might not hold up in 2021. Because things just move so fast.
There’s the classic examples of how people use brackets to use it for antisemitic commentary as well. Those sorts of things that require ongoing conversation to moderate against and potentially design against, I would think. I imagine something similar would exist in this context too, right?
BEN: Definitely. I think it’s about having, yes, definitely consulting, talking with communities at different points in time. It should be an ongoing conversation. I agree about that. But also it’s just thinking when you were just talking about some of the laying the tools that get used, excluding devices online, then I think you’d also need people with that knowledge. They’re in knowledge, I guess, around that information and how that gets used in particular ways to make sense of that, but also to respond to it in ways that suit the people who it’s used against as well.
SHIVA: I think Ben’s just asking for a job. He’s just like, “I’m creating a job for my myself. If you need someone who knows that stuff, hit me up. Hit me up.”
KOSTA: If I find out, Ben, I’ll tell you. No problem. I think that we could probably use more things like that in those spaces, which is great.
SHIVA: But I think it’s been interesting because while Ben’s been talking about what makes good design, it actually seems to be less about the actual, this XYYZ needs to happen, but about having a good set of questions and trying to understand things in their context. It actually seems to be the questions you ask, how you think about the platform and all those things. It’s about having those things in place that seems to be good design. Good design is actually asking the right things and thinking about the right things as opposed to creating the right checkbox.
KOSTA: Yeah. That’s such a good point. Just looking to the future now, what is next for this research that you’re both involved with right now? Is there anything you can talk to us about that you’re working on that might move this conversation along?
BEN: I guess for both Shiva and I, we’re both working on various projects with LGBT+ people across Australia. We’re the digital interfaces with their lives and the implications for that. I guess, as you were saying before, if it’s about an ongoing conversation in design processes, this is also about an ongoing research work that needs to keep taking place as well to make sense of these experiences as they change over time. So we’re headed in that direction to keep making sense of these things with communities as they arise. And as new platforms like we’ve seen TikTok take off over the last two years, as new platforms emerge, what does that mean for these communities? Is it helping young people? In what ways? What ways are challenging? And how can we work with them to shift some of the things that are more challenging for them?
KOSTA: Great. And Shiva, how about yourself?
SHIVA: Me? Yeah. I’ll go with what Ben said.
KOSTA: That works too.
SHIVA: I think one thing that I just find so interesting about all of this is the agency that people are able to exercise creativity. I’ve always thought that one of the most amazing things is creativity in our existence. That creativity is a thing that happens. I just think it’s so interesting how people can use it to be creative, to either do bad things and propagate hate and work around systems. But I think it’s also amazing that people are creative and energetic to use systems in ways that meet their needs, in ways that are positive as well. I think that’s a really nice thing.
I know we were speaking about people not being able to express themselves on certain platforms, which obviously isn’t great, but it’s also interesting to see when people do have barriers, they’re not me victims. They’re actually people that would do and use things in really clever ways in order to still get their needs and desires. And obviously there’s a positive and obviously there can be quite negative too. There’s two sides of that.
KOSTA: Of course, absolutely.
SHIVA: But I guess thinking about queer people, it’s amazing to see some of the ways that the young people were able to navigate these in ways that were really helpful for them and rich for them.
KOSTA: Yeah. That’s a really beautiful sentiment to end on too.
BEN: Kosta, can I say one more thing?
KOSTA: Yeah. Ben, please. Go for it.
BEN: Just to add to that. I think one of the things that comes out of that too, is by actually talking with young people and doing this research, we’ve actually uncovered the ways they’re using the current functionality on platforms that wasn’t designed for that intentionally. I think that’s exciting. The second thing I want to say, I did say I was only going to say one thing, but I’m going to say two now.
KOSTA: No, go for it. All good.
BEN: Just about with what Shiva I guess was saying, we’re seeing how young people are finding spaces, fulfilling their needs. There’s the immediate needs. We saw that definitely within the research we were doing. But we also saw the long term needs and wants of these young people as well. Shiva and I have been talking about how this is a representative of these spaces, this world that they want to live in as well. So they’re invested in this world through social media platforms and doing things and actions and using functionality that enable this world to come into existence. So they’re as much involved in the world making as platforms should be as well. It’s a collective effort that we all should be able to strive for. That’s where I guess we’re going in terms of thinking with some of this data moving forward.
KOSTA: Yeah. Awesome. That all sounds incredible. Look, I think we’ll wrap up here. I could probably keep asking you silly questions for a long time, but for anyone that wants to keep up with either of your work, where’s the best place for them to go?
BEN: I think it’s probably a Google search on the Western Sydney website. If you did want to find out some more particularly about this project, it’s available on the Western Sydney website as a report. We can potentially link to that maybe.
KOSTA: Yeah. We’ll put that in the show notes, for sure. Shiva, anything from you? Resources-wise, social media links, plugs…
SHIVA: Yeah. I think I’m with Ben. I’m really bad at promoting myself, actually.
KOSTA: That’s all good.
SHIVA: I think I should come up if you search me at Western Sydney University. I think that probably would be it. But I can always pass you my Twitter or something, if you like in the podcast.
KOSTA: Yeah. We’ll put all those links for sure. You guys are too humble. Because you’re too busy doing the work, which is amazing. But it’s been a really delight and really thought provoking, lots food for thoughts. I really appreciate both of your time.
SHIVA: Yeah. Thank you for having us.
KOSTA: Keep doing amazing work.
BEN: Thanks for having us.
KOSTA: Thanks so much for joining me. All right.
You have been listening to Undesign, a series of conversations about the big issues that matter to all of us. Undesign is made possible by the wonderful team at DrawHistory. If you want to learn more about each guest or each topic, we have curated a suite of resources and reflections for you on our Undesign page at www.drawhistory.com.
Thank you to the talented Jimmie Linville for editing and mixing our audio. Special thank you to our guest for joining us and showing us how important we all are in redesigning our world’s futures. And last but not least, a huge thank you to you, our dear listeners, for joining us on this journey of discovery and hope. The future needs you. Make sure you stay on the journey with us by subscribing to Undesign on Apple, Spotify and wherever else podcasts are available.
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