How is heteronormative bias deeply embedded in the internet, hidden in algorithms, keywords, content moderation, and more?
“Women, LGBTQIA+ people, and sexualized BIPOC demographics exist online in a culture of fear,” Alexander Monea writes in the introduction to The Digital Closet: How the Internet Became Straight. “Not just from online trolls, but also from right-wing conservative groups and digital platforms.”
In this wide-ranging, enlightening account, Monea examines the cultural, technological, and political conditions that put LGBTQIA+ content back into the closet online. According to Monea, 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. “We would come out of the closet to find community on one platform, and would be forced off platforms and back into closets,” he argues. “Repeatedly.”
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 United States’ ongoing thirty year “war on porn”—collateral that includes the censorship of nonpornographic 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.
“The Digital Closet offers a transformative reframing of digital media studies and shows how online platforms police speech and stifle LGBTQIA+ expression,” said Jacob Gaboury, author of Image Objects. “A fascinating and necessary intervention.”
“For all its connectedness,” Monea writes, “the internet has fractured us. For all its fiefdoms offering community and the equalizing opportunities of open communication, the platforms most everyone regards as ‘the internet’ are steered and architected by those who have utterly failed to understand that communication is centered not on bytes and bits, nor on blind profit, but on humanity—all of humanity. Not just the parts of it most profitable to advertisers, appeasing to misogynistic evangelicals, or palatable to far-right, conservative tech executives.”
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. The Digital Closet begs the question: Whose community is being protected when so-called community-safety policies regarding human sexuality are imposed onto online platforms?
The Digital Closet in the media:
- Aesthetica reviewed the book, calling it “an extensive investigation of how heteronormativity prevails, and shapes what we see online.”
- Engineering and Technology wrote that The Digital Closet is an “enlightening account,” “transparent,” and “hard-hitting.”
Book review: The Digital Closet by Alexander Monea
- The Digital Closet was nominated for season 18 of the Next Big Idea Club.
The Next Big Idea Club’s season 18 nominees
- Monea was interviewed for the Skylight Books’ Skylit Podcast.
SKYLIT: Alexander Monea, The Digital Closet
- The Digital Closet was mentioned in an article for The Face discussing how we might achieve a non-toxic digital world.
How could we make a better internet?
- The MIT Press Reader featured a conversation between author Alexander Monea and Press publicity associate Zoe Kopp-Weber.
How the internet became straight
- Monea was interviewed for the Radical AI podcast, discussing digital pornography and the censorship of LGBTQIA+ content.
Let’s Talk About Sex: Digital Pornography and LGBTQIA+ Censorship with Alex Monea
- “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