Thesis Focus: Visibility of the Lesbian Identity on TikTok

Written by Dunja Nešović

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the importance of my research focus in (new) media studies became unmistakably evident, given that digital media became the necessary tools (to those who had the privilege of accessing them) for keeping societal structures moving (to some extent). Connecting, getting information, being creative, doing your job and attending school were all activities only possible in the forms which were mediated and conditioned by digital technologies. Even though doing a research master in these conditions became quite draining and heavily marked by what we now call ‘zoom fatigue’, ironically, the pandemic-amplified digital cultures were what kept me academically occupied and inspired.

What will later become my MA thesis, first started as an idle way to pass the time during the 2020 lockdown and a layperson fascination for the emerging world of TikTok. The paradigmatic shifts in social networking this platform instituted, pertain to the excess of performativity in its user-generated content and aggressive algorithmic mediation that had the users addicted to finding out how the ‘TikTok algorithm’ sees them. Moreover, it became one of the most prominent queer digital spaces that enabled LGBTQIA+ users to perform, ponder and discuss their non-normative sexual and gender identities, as well as to connect and create communities and affective relationships. 

As an avid lurker on the lesbian side of TikTok, the intuitive, and somehow obvious, questions of lesbian representation and visibility emerged, ultimately leading me on a theoretical exploration that would take up the majority of my second year of MA studies. The starting point of the thesis project “Ways of Being Visible: Visibility of the Lesbian Identity on TikTok” was inspecting how the social media phenomenon of ‘Lesbian TikTok’ instilled itself into a historical continuum of the relationship between the lesbian identity and visibility. Utilizing findings from lesbian and queer studies, and even more so from new media studies, this inquiry strived to identify the contemporary iterations of both visibility and identity, as manifested in the TikTok environment.

Overall, the aim of this research was to reconceptualize the multifaceted notion of visibility that oscillates between being a purely representative aim of identity politics and a tool of power that organizes our online (and offline) experiences, subjectivities and materialities. This type of approach opened up the avenues of understanding the intricate commonalities, as well as the specificities of these notions in the respective theoretical fields that utilize them; as well as their enacted uses, meanings and purposes that arise in this particular interaction between the platform and users. I felt especially fortunate to be a part of such an MA program that enabled me to take up extensively studying a topic that might seem frivolous at first sight, but which had the potential to effectively reflect on contemporary social media dynamics, marked by (commodified) cyborgian identities, games of surveillance and exposure, as well as the empowerment entailed in making oneself visible in the digital environment.

Completing such a lengthy research project and graduating with it was gratifying in itself, however, learning that my thesis was shortlisted for the Faculty of Humanities MA Thesis Award came as a delightful surprise and post-scriptum to this undertaking. Doing academic research, even though it has its intellectual rewards, can be quite isolating and lonesome process at times. On top of that, doing it during a pandemic, makes one feel like they are creating something in a very narrow bubble that raises all sorts of insecurities and questionings about the worth and purpose of that work. This nomination helped retroactively elevate these feelings, as it provided recognition for the put-in hours, days and months. Moreover, it brought about the sense of an academic community by bringing all the nominees together to the award ceremony and enabling us to get an insight into the novel research currents the students are creating in the faculty. 

I quite enjoyed the ceremony and the presentations of the other nominees, given that they all represented thoroughly thought-out and carefully conducted research projects which I would enjoy hearing more about! The academic level of other theses was quite outstanding, so I can imagine that the jury’s decision wasn’t an easy one. That being said, winning this award truly represents an honour for me, since it provides acknowledgment for all the hard work I put into this research, as well as an affirmation of the relevance of the topic and the interdisciplinary approach I undertook to adequately examine the phenomenon at hand. Although I believe research shouldn’t be a competition, this practice does enable the students to showcase their work and be appreciated for it, making it a ‘cherry on top’ of an already rewarding academic journey.

You can read the condensed version of the thesis on this link.

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