A Profile of the Online Closet
The internet allows people to share information more immediately and more publicly than they can offline.
By Max Henke
Its high-speed format, and the short attention spans of its users, means that it wants to reduce us into categories, to repackage us as highwire data that can be readily passed along to others.
Nowhere is this clearer than on Facebook. Today, all one has to do to learn the essentials of a person is to log onto Facebook and check the “About Me” section of the profile, a small box where users indicate such personal information as their birthday, hometown, religious views, sex and their “Interested In.”
The assumption in this last section, in which the Facebook user indicates an “interest in” men, women or both, is sexual orientation. Men interested in men are gay, men interested in women are straight, women interested in men and women are bi, and so on. In this way, Facebook necessarily implicates queer users in a new, online way of coming out.
For someone in the closet, “Interested In” offers three choices, all of which are undesirable: (1) come out, by indicating they are interested in a person of the same sex; (2) assert a false heterosexuality, by indicating
they are interested in a person of the opposite sex; or (3) leave the section blank.
The third option is the most problematic. By not indicating an “Interested In” on Facebook, closeted individuals indicate they want to keep private that part of their identity. Their silence, rather than allowing them to escape the pressures of coming out, reinforces them. For silence does not function outside of discourse. To use Foucault’s words, “Silence itself — the things one declines to say…is less the absolute limit of discourse, the other side from which it is separated by a strict boundary, than an element that functions alongside the things said, with them and in relation to them within over-all strategies.” In other words, the silence is the proclamation. The omission is the avowal. By not writing anything in “Interested In,” the Facebook user says, in almost all cases, “I’m gay.”
Some might argue that this is reading too far into the omission. Surely, there are people who unintentionally leave the “Interested In” section blank. But such claims are naïve; the “About Me” section is far too important an online representation of oneself for such an oversight. Moreover the stigma attached to homosexuality compels an answer from straight Facebook users. If they have nothing to hide, why wouldn’t they indicate opposite gender attraction? Such are the powers of the online closet.
It is important to note that the same problem associated with “Interested In” holds for sex and gender. Facebook allows little flexibility outside of the categories of male and female for gender nonconforming users. Though these individuals can opt out of displaying their sex on their profile pages, if they do so, they suggest — like those who did not indicate an “Interested In” — that they want to conceal that part of their identity.
In facing this dilemma, queer people must be cautious in their online choices: they might choose not to accept friend requests from relatives or classmates to whom they are not yet ready to come out because doing so would grant them access to full view of their profiles. Facebook’s default privacy settings make the “About Me” section public to everyone on the site unless one goes in and deactivates it, in which case, it is only visible to friends.
So how do we address the problem? In an ideal world, Facebook would reorganize the “About Me” section to allow us a freer-form presentation of the facts, one not limited to essential categories like “Sex” and “Interested In.” By removing all categories in the “About Me” section, users could indicate they were interested in “Men,” “Women,” both, or anything else they saw fit. It would allow them to describe themselves, without defining themselves. And in such a way, it would destabilize those forces that make essential omissions in the current “About Me” so telling.
While Facebook would most likely ignore any entreaty to transform the “About Me” section into a blank box, to a chaotic white space of random personal information reserved for lesser sites like MySpace, a reasonable compromise would be for it to offer open-ended options to the essential questions of “Sex” and “Interested In,” as it does for “Political Views” and “Religious Views.”
Ultimately, it is unlikely Facebook will make any dramatic changes to its formula. Facebook is a business driven by the number of unique users that visit the site and the targeted ads they read, which are localized by every search they make, every wall post they write, every group they join and every box they check. And it is a social network meant to link people together with speed and efficiency. Both of its fundamental purposes as an ad-driven business and a high-speed social networking site function on reduction and categorization. When it comes to presenting themselves accurately and freely on Facebook, queer people are pretty much out of luck