Exploring Gender Transition and Disclosure in Social Technology

In this episode of Michigan Minds, Oliver Haimson, PhD, assistant professor at the U-M School of Information, discusses his work to understand how marginalized individuals and communities, including LGBTQ+ communities, use social media platforms. Haimson is especially interested in gender transition and disclosure in social technology. 

“I’ve always been really interested in these periods of change in people’s lives. I think when you’re thinking about how technology is designed, like social media sites, it’s often designed for more static identities. So people come to the site with one identity and that persists over time, but as we all know, that’s really not how things happen in real life,” he says. 

Haimson explains that people are often on multiple platforms and often present their identity differently on different social media sites. 

“I found that a lot of transgender people were using the site Tumblr. It’s not really that prominent anymore, but a few years ago it was a really important space for trans people. Most people also use Facebook. I was finding that people were presenting identity very, very differently and sharing different aspects of themselves on these sites….They were going to Tumblr to do more of an identity experimentation and exploration,” he says. 

“It was only after being in those separate spaces for a period of time that people would generally go back to Facebook and do more of a mass disclosure.” 

He notes that some of his research takes an approach of “participatory design” where a group of diverse individuals comes together to envision what they would want technology to look like and how it can help address some of the challenges that they face. 

“We come up with creative and innovative possibilities for what technology could look like that are very different from what you see on the existing platforms. I really think involving marginalized groups helps to move away from designing for an ‘average user’ which doesn’t really exist. Everybody has certain aspects of themselves that are marginalized in some way, and I think hearing from people directly is so important.”

Haimson says that transgender identity disclosure is a necessary area of emphasis because while there has been an increase in visibility of the transgender community, there has also been an increase in violence. 

“There is a lot of potential legislation right now that’s trying to limit the rights of transgender people. I think social media platforms and technology is a really important place where trans people can choose to be visible in the ways that they want to be, or they can also choose to not be visible. It’s really important that platforms give people both of those options,” he says. 

Haimson hopes that everyone walks away from listening to the podcast interview and recognizes that everyone’s experience on social media is very different. 

“People always talk about representing yourself authentically on social media and that’s something that a lot of people strive for. But when you are in the midst of a major identity change, it can be really difficult to meet those goals of authenticity when maybe you have transitioned in some spaces and not others and some people in your network know and some don’t. I don’t think it’s actually inauthentic to present multiple identities and that’s something that I wish more people would realize.”