Online Queer &Transgender Vlog Communities and the Commercial Implications of YouTube’s “Don’t Be Evil” Policies

by Catherine McGowan
The New School
M.A. Media Studies Program
Understanding Media Studies
Prof. Shannon Mattern
TA Todd Kesselman

Bloggers, video bloggers, and “user co-creators” and the communities they represent have only recently been examined ethnographically, qualitatively, and empirically (Lange 2007; Regan and Revels 2007; Lenhart and Fox 2006; Faulkner and Melican, 2007). Video blogging ( “vlogging”) is a relatively nascent phenomenon of social networking and blogging where little scholarship exists – sometimes only as a sidenote. Nevertheless, scholarship about blogs, popular subcultures, and Internet communities are part of a larger interdisciplinary discourse. This discourse is complicated by the ever-changing nature of the Internet, its accessibility, and development of new platforms at an ever-increasing pace.  Even so, the rapidity of change and the flux at which the Internet operates should not discourage or inhibit research, because of the very nature and content the Internet provides, specifically when it involves identities and communities on the fringes. Arguably, digital ethnography, as examined by Murthy, engages feminist and critical theories of dialogic and discursive methods that make the examination of video blogs essential to feminist (or postfeminist) and critical scholarship (2008: 846).

This literature review attempts to understand what previous scholarship has contributed to video blogging studies and where there is room for more inquiry, within the context of YouTube vloggers identified as queer and transgendered (“trans”), although these identifiers are not one in the same.  By focusing on a politically and socially marginalized community (communities), we can examine ways in which the structure of YouTube inhibits and/or promotes community, identity, and resistance to homophobia among trans-youth vloggers.

Additionally, this review begins to explore further questions:  How are power dynamics between textual reader (viewers), writers (vloggers), and institutional owners (YouTube) complicated when it involves trans-identified youth producing content?    In what ways are vloggers in control of their own content and in what ways are they exploited?  How can these trans-vloggers regain agency and resist “haters” via new modes of creation or possibly new institutions of exchange (Lange 2007: 41)?


Currently, there are over 50 million blogs, with 100 million videos being uploaded on YouTube daily, over 13 hours a minute (Faulkner and Melican 2007: 51; Rosen 2008: 52).  According to the Pew Internet and American Life Project (PIP), 15% of the respondent bloggers video blogged (Lenhart and Fox 15).  If the research holds true today, two years later, then there are approximately 7.5 million vloggers, roughly the population of the entire city of London. Nevertheless – this estimate remains a questionable guess.

Even in two years since the PIP studied bloggers, a lot of the data seems irrelevant and not reflective of current trends in video blogging.  For example, in 2006 LiveJournal was rated the most popular blogging tool of those surveyed, however, new networks for video bloggers, like YouTube or WordPress did not make it on the list (Lenhart and Fox 14).

Theoretical Approach: Researching Online Vlogs – Theories, Questions, and Implications

Henry Jenkins argues in Fans, Bloggers, and Gamers that “theory production is simply one subcultural or institutional practice among many” (2006: 13).  He asks whether an academic approach to studying fan culture, popular culture, and subcultures can adequately understand and describe these groups in an affective way (2006: 27).   Applied to vlogging, communities are in constant communication, of exchanging ideas, and engaging in dialogues.  These dialogues are in their nature participatory and invite often a dialogue among insular or largely exposed groups.

Jenkins’ studies employ dialogic methodologies that engage and incorporate fans’ responses into his work(2006: 31). He talks about “intervention analysis” approaches to research, where academics can act as amplifiers to a communities problem/issue and provide an intermediary function between institutions not in current communication with the other (2006: 33). The potential for video diaries or blogs to exchange the anthropological method of “reflexivity” with “reflection” through video narratives acting as “prosthetic extensions” of ourselves further challenges an entrenched dichotomy between researcher and “subject” and provides a mirror tool into our own desires and the imagined desire of the narrators ( Holliday 2004: 50, 52 – 5).

Vaidhyanathan points to a “dearth of cross-disciplinary scholarly work that might expose each side of campus to the most interesting minds on the other” and stresses, that within an interdisciplinary framework of Critical Information Studies (see attached Mind-Map), scholars can reach a wide audience and begin a larger conversation about the issue at hand via ‘code-switching’ (jargon light prose) (2006: 301).

Postfeminist theorists also struggle with creating a theoretical framework or canon, due to its own historically ambiguous and contradictory works (Gerhard 2005:39). Rather than being an obstacle, McRobbie sees these contradictions as opportunities where feminism “must face up to the consequences of its own claims to representation and power and not be so surprised when young women students decline the invitation to identify as a ‘we’ with their feminist teachers and scholars (2007: 30). Projansky calls this moment a “both/and” approach to postfeminism as opposed to an “us/them”, where within postfeminism exists inherent contradictions, “simultaneously feminist and antifeminist, liberating and repressive, productive and obstructive of progressive social change” (2007: 68).

Similarly then, an analysis of trans-identified youth vloggers on YouTube cannot claim a universality for multiple reasons. If one were to do so, such research would fall into the second-wave feminist concept of “collectivity”, where racially, ethnically, and sexually divergent voices are trivialized for a political purpose called “sisterhood” (Sanders 2007: 84).  Second, a claim of universal meaning runs the risk of objectifying the vlogger’s text as a written object subject to voyeurism and exhibitionism (Gurak and Antonijevik 2008: 64).  Third, Murthy warns against the ethical ambiguities of conducting online research, and more so of marginalized groups (2008: 841).    Such complications, again, should attempt to be resolved (or not resolved but examined), so these communities are not further marginalized by institutional agendas, but resolved in a sometimes contradictory or at least temporal way, or what Vaidhyanathan calls “multiple complimentary methodologies” (2006: 293).

Some Implications of Queer Video Blogging on YouTube/Google

During a recent “Intelligence Squared” debate over whether Google violates it’s “Don’t Be Evil” motto, Critical Information Studies scholar Siva Vaidhyanathan pointed out the “Seven Deadly Sins” of Google, including the “sloth” sin, where, he states,
Google makes money off of our work. We blog, we put our … cats on skateboards and record them for videos. We do all of this work, and then Google harvests our work, runs all of this content through its computers, spits it back out at us, with almost no actual value added and what they end up getting is a tremendous amount of money, based on free-riding (Donovan 25).

What are the implications of Google using queer content for financial gain, and what are these examples?  One example would be Michael Buckley’s Entertainment Show, “What the Buck?!”, on YouTube.  Michael Buckley is part of YouTube’s relatively new Partnership Program, where famous “Tubers” get financial compensation for adsharing (Buckley 2008). Sponsored YouTubers become active leaders in the YouTube community, often performing acceptable forms of constructed identity. Michael Buckley’s weekly videos are recaps of that week’s celebrity and TV gossip, news, and parodies, compliments of the flamboyant and never serious, stereotypically affluent gay white male – a result of what Gerhard calls “queer visibility” where there is an “increasing recognition of lesbians and gay men as recognizable comedic and dramatic ‘types’ (2005: 42).  Whereas, another YouTube celebrity, Chris Crocker of “Leave Britney Alone!” fame, who self-identifies as transgendered, claims he was not invited into the Partnership program (Crocker 2008).  Such complicated narratives of internet rivalries and discrimination are unclear and subjective, however, the decision of YouTube to favor one queer voice over another brings to fore an important question about Google’s policies – is Google favoring more normative, non-confrontational, socially acceptable, and financially advantageous queer identities over ones which are less so?

Esther Dyson would think not.   Described by Murthy as  a “utopian ‘cyber-guru’”, Dyson argued in a more Internet “techofundamentalist” rhetoric at the Intelligence Squared debate, describing Google as a means to “erode the power of institutions over people, while giving to individuals the power to run their own lives” (Murthy 841; Donovan 20).  But, when a company like Google controls over 63% of global Internet searches in addition to owning multiple formats of online social networks including YouTube, Blogger, Picasa, and Orkut (Rosen 2008: 52), it bears to continue asking this question.
Other theorists would warn against the proliferation of Google’s content control.  Clay Shirky in his July 2008 TED Talk, reminds us to be aware of the institutional aspects of social networks, and their socio-economic effects.  By providing an institution meant to share, collect, and distribute content, social networks (like Flickr and YouTube) are creating hierarchically managed institutions – complete with management, legal counsel, and us, the content producers, where we (the public) are relegated at the bottom rungs of decisions and agency (Shirky 2005). In the context of the trans-queer community and what The Advocate coined the “Homophobosphere” – “haters”, homophobes, and intolerance will exist as long as free speech does (Lange 2007: 43;Doig 2008: 7 ¶ 7).  But what’s missing yet is a discussion on how Google’s willingness to “bring its own open culture to foreign countries while still taking into account local laws, customs and attitudes” (Rosen 2008: 53).  What is the implication of  Google’s censorship on young transgendered Tubers based on homophobic governmental institutions, as was the case in Turkey (Rosen 2008: 51)?  By censoring some material that is unacceptable to certain states, while financially rewarding others, what message does that send to vloggers?

According to Lange, it becomes advantageous for vloggers to create content that is institutionally preferential in order to gain attention and financial compensation for their work. She goes onto ask about the participatory complications of monetizing sociality and whether that should be or is the purpose of content providers (2007: 45).  If YouTubers are getting paid for preferred airtime, suddenly we run the risk of creating socialized financial incentives that encourage a particular type of behavior. Because users are provided preferred airtime on YouTube, the site no longer becomes a ‘semiotic democracy’ (Vaidhyanathan 305), but rather preferential.

So what?  That’s capitalism, some would argue. Such lack of visibility or preferential treatment has been a common practice among major record labels that decide who gets airtime – often financially and culturally dominating independently produced and distributed music and ideas (Feigenbaum 2007: 140).  When talking about the implications of  social networks, Surowecki says that the “more tightly linked we are, the harder it is to remain independent,” which becomes further complicated by how these networks are controlled, how they socialize, and whose voices they favor (2008).  As a “postfeminist” – and I would argue queer discourse – it is important to look at the implications of corporate preferential treatment of social content that is removed for its queer (meta)textuality.

Jenkins would argue that media’s future relies on an “uneasy truce” between commercial interests and “grassroots intermediaries, where a message gains visibility only if it is deemed relevant”.  He encourages people to continue blogging because the sheer numbers will help “redefine the public perception of new media and to expand their influence” (2006: 180-1).  Additionally, more positivist thoughts would argue that the invitation to participate in video blogs, and by creating shows which demand an audience, vloggers demonstrate their relationship and identification with a larger community, where fans can be active participants in the community (Faulkner and Melican 2007: 62).

But, positivist thinking about community building and engagement comes with a price, says Lange (2007: 47).  When Faulkner and Melican conclude that vloggers are “more than simply interesting…they represent a potential market” it seems the price is a way to commodify a potentially politically and transformative community into a consumer community (2007: 63).

Such commodification of content is not new to independent content producers like vloggers. Feigenbaum quotes zine writer Stacy Thompson who wonders if there’s a political potential to “feminist punk agendas” when producing within corporate venues (2007:146). By creating products of political discourses within the context of corporate owned media, specifically social networks and YouTube, Feigenbaum rightly asks whether real transformative political work can be accomplished.   By providing the example of Le Tigre’s (former band leader of Bikini Kill and riot grrl matriarch Kathleen Hannah) major label record deal, Feigenbaum states that “the band’s corporate backing forces those who consume and engage with its punk feminism to renegotiate the linkages between economic production and political articulations” (2007:148).  Nevertheless, Feigenbaum points to the continuing ingenuity of young feminists interested in building community “without signing corporate labels or selling shampoo” (2007:148).

Identity and Community Formation (or Destruction) Among Trans-Identified Vloggers: A Postfeminist Analysis

“While growing up transgender can still be a very isolating experience, the world seems a bit smaller to trans kids thanks to the vlogs” – “TransTube” The Advocate (2007)

Blogs are a way to understand human desire, community, and places in time.  With the Internet’s relative new and quickly developing medium, comes loaded with nonverbal behavior, community development, and a breakdown of social and geographic barriers.    Blogs begin to represent a new medium where massive amounts of personal information are being shared publicly, shifting and ambiguously redefining boundaries of personal and private, where singular and group identities are formed (Gurak and Antonijevik 2008: 62 – 64).

While the potential positive nature of bringing the personal to the public sphere, as many argue is the case for trans-youth finding community via the web, not all people agree that “Web-mediated feminist activism” is a positive thing, stating that web interaction reduces activism to the bedroom site of cultural production and collective action is proportionately reduced as bedroom production increases (Eliscu, 96; Kennedy 2007; Feigenbaum 145).  In fact, it can become potentially damaging or unproductive when the community has no outlet outside of the web environment (MacDougal 2005: 579).
Faulkner and Melican examine concepts of the imagined self in relation to the content producers audience by interviewing vloggers internationally (2007: 52). Despite the 2006 PIP’s findings that over 50% of bloggers produced content for personal reasons, Faulkner and Melican assert evidence of “increasing amounts of online content posted with the express intent of advancing the poster’s entrepreneurial interests and/or their careers in creative fields” – otherwise known as “proteurs” (2007: 53). Proteurs see online videos as a way to build an audience often thinking self-consciously about their produced material, what Ong calls a “secondary orality” where we are “group-minded self-consciously and programmatically” (1982: 66).   Such group oriented affects on community need to be examined to better understand the dialogue between vloggers and their perceived audiences.

Room for Growth and Research Analysis

Many important works were left out of the literature review, due to lack of time and practice.  More attention to important queer and gender theories is needed, including Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble, Michael Foucault’s History of Sexuality,  would help better define identity theory and politics of queers within the framework of media.
Attached is a Mind Map as suggested by Shannon Mattern in “Literature Review Tips”.  This Mind Map traces the important works cited in Vaidhyanathan’s comprehensive bibliography of important works in Critical Information Studies, which is where I would like to further explore some key concepts.


Doig, W. (2008). “Homo•phobo•sphere”. Advocate, (1002), 28-31.
Eliscu, J. (2007). “Kids coming out on YouTube”. Rolling Stone, (1037; 1037), 96-96.
Faulkner, S., & J Melican. (2007). “Getting Noticed, Showing-Off, Being Overheard: Amateurs, Authors and Artists Inventing and Reinventing Themselves in Online Communities”. AnthroSource, Ethnographic Praxis in Industry Conference Proceedings, Retreived on November 15, 2008 from, 51-65.
Gerhad, J. (2005) “Sex and the City: Carrie Bradshaw’s queer postfeminisms”. Feminist Media Studies, Vol. 5, No. 1. Routeledge.
Holliday, R. (2004) “Reflecting the Self” Picturing the Social Landscape: Visual Methods and the Sociological Imagination. Knowles, K. and P. Sweetman (Eds.). London: Routelege.
Gurak, L. J., & S. Antonijevic. (2008 September). “The psychology of blogging: You, me, and everyone in between”. American Behavioral Scientist (vol. 52, no. 1), 60 – 68.
Jenkins, H. (2006). Fans, bloggers, and gamers : Exploring participatory culture. New York: New York University Press.
Kennedy, S., (2007). “TransTube”, The Advocate.
LANGE, P. G. (2007). “Searching for the ‘You’ in ‘YouTube’: An analysis of online response ability” Ethnographic Praxis in Industry Conference Proceedings, Retreived on November 15, 2008 from
Lenhart, A., & S. Fox. (2006) Bloggers: A portrait of the Internet’s new storytellers. July 19, 2006. Pew Internet & American Life Project
Macdougall, R. (2005 December). “Identity, electronic ethos, and blogs: A technologic analysis of symbolic exchange on the new news medium”, American Behavioural Scientist, v. 49(4).
McRobbie, A. (2007) “Postfeminism and Popular Culture: Bridget Jones and the New Gender Regime”. Interrogating postfeminism : Gender and the politics of popular culture(2007). Tasker Y., Negra D. (Eds.), . Durham: Duke University Press, 27 – 39.
Murthy, D. (2008). “Digital ethnography: An examination of the use of new technologies for social research” Sociology vol. 42(5), 837 – 855.
Ong, W. (1982) “Orality, Literacy, and Modern Media”, Orality and literacy: the technologizing of the word. New York: Methuen.
Projansky, S. (2007) Mass Magazine Cover Girls: Some Reflections on Postfeminist Girls and Postfeminism’s Daughters. Interrogating postfeminism : Gender and the politics of popular culture. In Tasker Y., Negra D. (Eds.), . Durham: Duke University Press, 40 – 71.
Rosen, J. (2008, November 30). “Google’s Gatekeepers: Nicole Wong and her colleagues decide what the world can see on YouTube.  Are they also determining the limits of free speech?” New York Times Magazine.
Vaidhyanathan, S. (2006). Afterword: Critical information studies. Cultural Studies, 20(2), 292-315.