The Digital Closet
How the Internet Became Straight
- Next Big Idea Club nominee
280 pp., 6 x 9 in, 11 figures
- Published: April 12, 2022
- Published: May 2, 2023
- Published: April 12, 2022
An exploration of how heteronormative bias is deeply embedded in the internet, hidden in algorithms, keywords, content moderation, and more. A Next Big Idea Club nominee.
In The Digital Closet, Alexander Monea argues provocatively that the internet became straight by suppressing everything that is not, forcing LGBTQIA+ content into increasingly narrow channels—rendering it invisible through opaque algorithms, automated and human content moderation, warped keywords, and other strategies of digital overreach. Monea explains how the United States' thirty-year “war on porn” has brought about the over-regulation of sexual content, which, in turn, has resulted in the censorship of much nonpornographic content—including material on sex education and LGBTQ+ activism. In this wide-ranging, enlightening account, Monea examines the cultural, technological, and political conditions that put LGBTQ+ content into the closet.
Monea looks at the anti-porn activism of the alt-right, Christian conservatives, and anti-porn feminists, who became strange bedfellows in the politics of pornography; investigates the coders, code, and moderators whose work serves to reify heteronormativity; and explores the collateral damage in the ongoing war on porn—the censorship of LGBTQIA+ community resources, sex education materials, art, literature, and other content that engages with sexuality but would rarely be categorized as pornography by today's community standards. Finally, he examines the internet architectures responsible for the heteronormalization of porn: Google Safe Search and the data structures of tube sites and other porn platforms.
Monea reveals the porn industry's deepest, darkest secret: porn is boring. Mainstream porn is stuck in a heteronormative filter bubble, limited to the same heteronormative tropes, tagged by the same heteronormative keywords. This heteronormativity is mirrored by the algorithms meant to filter pornographic content, increasingly filtering out all LGBTQIA+ content. Everyone suffers from this forced heteronormativity of the internet—suffering, Monea suggests, that could be alleviated by queering straightness and introducing feminism to dissipate the misogyny.
“This page-turner takes its place alongside books by Mar Hicks, Safiya Noble, Ruha Benjamin, and other leading scholars who endeavor to tell a more honest story of how computing has not delivered on its liberatory promise—at least not for women, people of color, or gay, trans, and queer people. So just who is left that this internet is for?”
Sarah T. Roberts, University of California, Los Angeles; author of Behind the Screen: Content Moderation in the Shadows of Social Media
“Alexander Monea's The Digital Closet powerfully dissects technolibertarian hypocrisy, revealing the heteronormative biases built into our supposedly neutral information tools and platforms that police sexuality and marginalize LGBTQIA+ users.”
Mar Hicks, Illinois Institute of Technology; author of Programmed Inequality: How Britain Discarded Women Technologists and Lost Its Edge in Computing
“Richly sourced and accessible, The Digital Closet is an exercise in pornoliteracy, offering a compelling reading of the internet as structurally heteronormative.”
Shaka McGlotten, Purchase College–SUNY; author of Virtual Intimacies: Media, Affect, and Queer Sociality
“Monea shows how the governance of porn online reveals an even more powerful internet than we might have imagined—one that does damaging work to straighten the orientation of our days and the political and economic structures of our lives.”
Sarah Sharma, University of Toronto; author of In the Meantime: Temporality and Cultural Politics
“The Digital Closet offers a transformative reframing of digital media studies and shows how online platforms police speech and stifle LGBTQIA+ expression. A fascinating and necessary intervention.”
Jacob Gaboury, University of California, Berkeley; author of Image Objects: An Archaeology of Computer Graphics
"In this enlightening account, Alexander Monea argues that the internet is riddled with heterosexual bias, effectively forcing LGBTQIA+ content back into the closet through opaque algorithms, warped keywords and other strategies of digital overreach."
"[The Digital Closet's] comprehensive examination of exclusion and discrimination towards the queer community online, situated in a web of conservative policy and heteronormative pornography, reminds us that digital infrastructure not only reinforces bias but can also establish a harmful online world order with physical repercussions."
AIGA Eye on Design
"Thorough and insightful.... Through his account of a new, algorithmic heteronormativity, Monea contributes to the field of communication with novel approaches to theory and method that provide needed insight for studying social media platforms 'beyond the black box.'"
International Journal of Communication
"[The Digital Closet] details the policing of online spaces focused on the LGBTQ+ community.... Monea's work is an example of the growing field of research that focuses on how LGBTQ+ people, including youth, sex workers and other internet users, experience the internet in a different way than heterosexual people."
Funding provided by: MIT Libraries