Centre for Internet & Society

Questions of identity and citizenship have been an important aspect of understanding the digital realm, and what it means to be ‘human’ in this space. While one may still mull over the separation of the real and the virtual, the digital as a condition of existence has engendered new notions of the public sphere, and sought to redefine the methods of traditional humanistic enquiry. In this guest post, Ditilekha Sharma shares some reflections on her research on the queer community and the politics of identity on the Internet, within the perspective of the Digital Humanities.

At the initial stage of this research I had no idea what the Digital Humanities entailed, not like I do so much now, but I have learnt that the beauty of doing interdisciplinary research is that I get to conceptualise the research in my own terms to a very large extent. However, today I feel doing Digital Humanities is not the same as doing Humanities. The digital has a character of its own which required me to engage with it in a more nuanced way.

The research thus began with a very vague idea of me wanting to understand how youth from the queer community negotiate their identity and engaged in politics in the online space. Coming from a social sciences discipline my ideas of the online space were very uni-dimensional at the beginning of the research. I looked at the online space as being separate from lives of individuals. I viewed it as a space people could get in and out of at will, very much like any other public space. Hence I conceptualised my research in similar terms. I understood online spaces as being outside of the individuals who used it. Having been born a digital native, the digital sphere I believed became an inevitable part of individuals where access or non access to it became a matter of externalities around the individual. With some of these assumptions in mind my research went about asking questions of exclusion, marginalisation, access, online activism, online safety to name a few. All this while since my research framework saw the virtual space as a non real space in a very unquestioning, uncomplicated way, that is how my research also emerged, separating the two domains. Very interestingly during the same time the Supreme Court Verdict of the IPC Section 377 bought the issues of the queer community of India into the online space in a major way. It was very interesting to observe these developments.

In the initial drafts of the research since my understanding of the digital was of it being unreal I saw the experience of individuals in the online space as being disembodied experience. Thus the Digital Humanities workshop became an eye opener for me. The workshop for the first time made me imagine what it would be like to put digital at the centre and understand life in it. It pushed me to read more and understand the historical emergence of the digital space. I was pushed to look at both queer politics and politics in the online space differently from what I had seen it before. What was it that made the online space a place where queer politics could emerge and be played out? I came to reflect and question the very ideas of ‘virtual’ and ‘real’ and started seeing them as something not very separate after all. This gave a new meaning to embodiment and the experiences of individuals in the online space. Especially it helped me in understanding the experiences of individuals who identify as queer and engage in the queer politics. For a digital novice like me, reading up on MUDs and digital avatars was extremely exciting. I realised that we never reflect on how the online space while giving us limited less space to ‘perform’ our identities, nevertheless also does operate within certain constrains especially in the case of social media as a public sphere. One of my respondents helped me reflect on the difference between presence and existence and how the two of them can hold very different meanings and get played out differently, especially in the digital space. Crime in digital space took a very different meaning to me after having read A Rape in Cyberspace by Julian Dibbell. I especially realised how the digital space is not so neutral after all. It is gendered, in several ways and at several levels.

A change in framework also meant that I had to rethink my research methods. Even though I stuck to my original methodology of conducting an online survey, in-depth interviews and observing online spaces used by the youth from the queer community; I had to ask different questions and read the answers differently. What especially changed was my observation of the online spaces. I tried to look at how the queer community used the cyber space differently from other people and how they negotiated and played out their identities within it. I tried to look at it by putting the digital world at the centre rather than the physical world. I tried to understand that the digital self is an entity in itself. Hence the end product of the research was that I no longer looked at the digital self as a disembodied entity. As a result I did not just look at how the individuals ‘used’ the digital space to do queer politics but tried to explore how the queerness of the digital space enables individuals to do politics itself.

Several questions still remain unanswered. There are several questions I would still like to explore more deeply; the idea of embodiment in the digital space being one of them.

As a person identifying queer, I started looking at my own existence and negotiations in the cyberspace in a more complicated manner. Things I did unconsciously became a conscious and reflective process which I engaged in more actively. If our everyday life and existence is a performance, the digital can take this performance to another level all together. My experience of working on digital humanities made me rethink queer politics differently all together.

This short research study has indeed been one of the most intensive and thought provoking exercises. It has certainly redefined my idea of queer politics. And having gotten hooked to the field, as I reflect more on the process, new questions and new ways of thinking keep emerging. Bringing the world of the digital and the humanities together could perhaps even help us envisage the society we live in, in a very different way.

Ditilekha Sharma is an M.Phil Scholar at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai. This research study was part of a series of projects commissioned by HEIRA-CSCS, Bangalore as part of a collaborative exercise on mapping the Digital Humanities in India. See here for more on this initiative.

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