NSFW as method

by Katrin Tiidenberg

 

I’ve been studying people’s blogging-, selfie sharing-, community building-, and identity practices on NSFW (Not Safe For Work) Tumblr blogs since 2011, yet it took a comment from the perspicacious Annette Markham, for me to start thinking about what the #NSFW label, tag, and concept could do as metaphor for research. “So,” Annette asked, driving a minivan through Stig-Larssonesque Scandinavian landscape: “what is it? A striptease? A tease?”

And I knew what she meant, but I wasn’t sure how to answer that question.

NSFW is an acronym for Not Safe For Work and it is, as Urban Dictionary explains, used to describe content that is generally inappropriate for the typical workplace. It functions as a static label in emailed, chat and forum conversations and as a searchable, hyperlinked hashtag in spaces like Tumblr, Reddit, 9GAG and Imgur. Instagram and Twitter do not allow #NSFW searches (#nsfwart is the closest on Instagram and Twitter obligingly suggests #nsfwvines). Basically then, NSFW marks (mostly visual) content you wouldn’t want to have on your screen, when your colleagues can see over your shoulder. The NSFW tag is also used for automatically blocking sites and content by firewalls and other such control mechanisms. As a label and a hashtag, NSFW is almost entirely used for sexually explicit content (and not, for example, violence, which one might also think should be avoided in a typical workplace).

#NSFW as a metaphor for research

At the very top layer of definition #NSFW thus works as a marker of content you need to be careful about opening. It is meant as a warning that should leave you apprehensive. Is this translatable to research?

Parallels between research and content that goes against the norms of what is acceptable or polite seem to draw themselves. We absolutely can and do use research to make people uncomfortable. In fact, action research and activist research is all about asking uncomfortable questions, making ourselves uncomfortable as researchers, and speaking up for uncomfortable “truths.” While conventionally, we operate with the concept of rapport in qualitative inquiry, and avoid discomforting our research participants; a NSFW approach to data collection would probably question various rules of “strict professionalism”. Is it OK to flirt with your participants? What about your collaborators? How do parameters of professionalism reflect the fact that you’ve seen all of your informants naked? What is the appropriate response to your informants wanting to see you naked? But ethnographers and sexuality researchers have been (quietly) speaking about this for a while (cf. Kulick & Willson, 1995; Boellstorff, Nardi, Pearce & Taylor, 2012; Kendall and responses by Sunden and Campbell, 2008) and in this post I am much less interested in metaphorizing NSFW content than #NSFW as a label.

So what do we get when we translate the social functions of a warning label into research? Is there merit to selectively obscuring or ignoring actions or information during (a) study design (b) collecting and analyzing data or (c) disseminating findings? This sounds like a paradigmatic question. Qualitative inquiry tends to aspire towards holistic interpretations – going back and forth between question formation and data, data creation and analysis – constantly adjusting. Purposefully blotting out parts of the picture seems to go against the grain.

Going a bit deeper into how the #NSFW label functions in the network of Tumblr’s NSFW blogs, we see that the choice to heed to the tag – to obscure or ignore – is temporary. It’s not rejection, but postponement. Warning becomes a promise; apprehension morphs into excitement. I have been warned that this particular piece of content is #NSFW, so I have to wait till my lunch break to check it. It’s #NSFW so I will not open it on my work computer, but will go look at it on my phone in the bathroom. It’s #NSFW so I shouldn’t, but after a quick glance over my shoulder, I will.

Framed like this, it can mean making conscious choices to see something, and choosing an appropriate setting to do so in. How can we extend this to research beyond the fact that our questions are always choices of focusing attention, and we try to be mindful of the settings we collect data in? Do the (cultural, spatial, technological, mental, emotional) situations that our various research activities take place in color what questions we ask and what interpretations we favor? If they do, can we use #NSFW as a metaphorical reminder to build in additional checkpoints for reflexivity? It does seem that an iteration of questions like: “what am I choosing to see here?” and “is this a productive setting for asking / analyzing / writing / stating X in?” could lead to both greater analytical richness and a political awareness of the dialectics of power at play in conducting research and sharing knowledge.

It can also mean acceptance of the tease. And this, I think, is what Annette meant, when she first asked me about NSFW. It can mean tolerance for the gradual unveiling of ‘knowledge’, both in terms of how it comes to us, and how we disseminate it to others. I’m sure every researcher works differently, but for me it’s useful to occasionally veil the ‘moneyshot’ of my argument. It reduces the pressure I put on myself to be profound in the drafts, and saves me from getting too attached to a turn of phrase or an interpretation. It also allows for my ideas to hatch in the warmth of my excitement that there is something there. Looked at this way, it becomes a question of whether we believe our data, when it promises to excite us later. If we can trust ourselves to be able to deliver a jolt of something as our writing progresses. Perhaps that can help us refrain from lunging for the obvious.

As for the reveal itself – we want it to be a beautiful, don’t we? Perhaps a powerful snap of tear-away pants, but definitely not an awkward fumbling of us hopping around on one foot, socks on, pants strapping our ankles. A persuasive (strip)tease sure sounds like it would be an effective form of passing on ‘information’. However, the structure of a typical academic journal article or a conference presentation is not conducive to a (strip)tease. It demands an upskirt in the abstract and once again in the introduction. But those are not our only options, are they? Blogs, Twitter, Snapchat  – there are many spaces and tools that can be and are used for both a bread-crumb trail towards the reveal, or sneak peeks into “behind the scenes” by researchers.

But I don’t want to stop here, because the tease of something pleasurable, the promise of excitement, only scratches the surface of what the #NFW label does in the NSFW selfie community on Tumblr. Moving further into how the label works means acknowledging that despite of the claims that today’s culture is pornified (McNair, 2002) our personal sex continues to be hidden. Anthony Giddens has said, that “sexuality’, in the modern sense, was invented when sexual behavior ‘went behind the scenes’” (1991, p. 164), and Kristian Daneback (2006) elaborates that: “feelings of guilt and anxiety are closely related to sexuality” (p. 10) and as a result, “sexual behaviors are often surrounded by silence and executed in privacy” (p. 10). But we also know that digital spaces can – by providing a gap between thinking, doing, and being – offer an intermediate step between fantasy and behavior (Ross, 2005), allowing people to explore, experiment, and transgress (Waskul & Martin, 2010) widely accepted norms. Sexual blogs, in particular, have been shown to offer a safe space for discussing desire (Muise, 2011), reducing shame, and giving people back control over sexual information (Wood, 2008). My own research has found that constant exposure to sexual scripts different from one’s own combined with pleasurable interactions that increase the internalization of this new information lead to a widening repertoire of desires, practices and acceptance.

I like how one of my research participants explains the uniqueness of the NSFW Tumblr space in the following interview excerpt:

I feel like our commonality is that we’re reaching out. So many of us have interests that are taboo or at least considered private, things you might not share with all of your friends or colleagues. Tumblr for me has provided a way to really feel like I’m not alone. To assure me that there are many others out there, who are interested in the things that I thought made me abnormal or strange. I feel this sense of community for something that is difficult for many of us (because of lifestyles or geography) to have a community for. We are all looking for a connection, for reassurance that we’re okay and we’re not alone. Companionship in our oddness. Validation! (Katie, interview 2013)

Not Safe For Work thus becomes Not For Social Convergence. The label that had moved from a warning to a promise, now moves from a promise to a secret handshake. It opens a door to a space where you can show parts of yourself that you would not show other mothers, other sisters, other daughters, other nurses, other professors. What does this interpretation of the #NSFW label afford as a metaphor for research? If #NSFW becomes a delineator of a culture of tolerance; an allowance of vulnerability and respect; a promise of certain conversations, then how could we translate that to our research procedure?

Some of the possible comparisons are, again, fairly obvious; but perhaps good as reminders. First of all, like with most things communal, none of this can be expected or assumed, it has to be earned. Superimposing this to a research situation may mean asking myself how I earn an interview? How do I earn people’s time, care and trust? How do I earn the right to look, then paint over what I saw with my interpretations? How do I earn the right to speak for someone? How do I earn a place among my colleagues and how do I, with my contributions and attitudes, shift this culture towards something that subverts and rejects centuries worth of status quo?

It could also mean, that our findings, outputs or ‘deliverables’ reveal MORE. It could mean taking the risk of showing things that we wouldn’t, because this is where trust and social change are born. Instead of just teasingly, appealingly and affectively revealing information about and interpretations of specific slices of the world (the classical scientific ethos of knowledge for knowledge’s sake) could we try to reveal alternative futures?

References

Boellstorff, T; Nardi, B; Pearce, C; Taylor, T. L. (2012). Ethnography and Virtual Worlds: A Handbook of Method. Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.

Campbell, J.E. (2009). Response to Lori Kendall. In A.N. Markham & N. K. Baym(Eds.), Internet Inquiry: Conversations about Method. London: Sage.

Daneback, K. (2006). Love and sexuality on the internet. A qualitative approach. Report from the Department of Social Work at Gothenburg University.

Giddens, A. (1991). Modernity and Self-Identity: Self and Society in the Late Modern Age. Cambridge: Polity.

Kendall, L. (2009). How do issues of gender and sexuality influence the structures and processes of qualitative internet research? In A.N. Markham & N. K. Baym(Eds.), Internet Inquiry: Conversations about Method. London: Sage.

Kulick, D. & Willson, M. (1995). Taboo: Sex, identity and erotic subjectivity in anthropological fieldwork, New York: Routledge.

Muise, A. (2011). Women’s sex blogs: challenging dominant discourses of heterosexual desire. Feminism & Psychology 21(3): 411–419.

Ross, M.W. (2005) Typing, doing and being: Sexuality and the Internet, Journal of Sex Research, 42 (4): 342–352.

Sunden, J. (2009). Response to Lori Kendall. In A.N. Markham & N. K. Baym(Eds.), Internet Inquiry: Conversations about Method. London: Sage.

Waskul, D.D. & Martin, J.A. (2010). Now the orgy is over, Symbolic Interaction, 33 (2): 297–318. West A, Lewis J, & Currie P (2008) Students’ Facebook ‘friends’: Public and private spheres, Journal of Youth Studies, 12 (6): 615–627

Wood, E. A. (2008). Consciousness-raising 2.0: Sex blogging and the creation of a feminist sex commons. Feminism & Psychology, 18, 480-87