Oh, What Do You Do To Me? the City says to Tinder

Happy new year! 2020 opens with something fun, because we all know academia hurts the brain coming so soon after a winter break spent mostly horizontal.

London Skyline Sam Miles

I was recently invited by The {Urban Political} podcast to give an interview on dating apps and urban geographies. The {Urban Political} produces podcasts on ‘contemporary urban issues with activists, scholars and policy-makers’ that aim to advance our understanding of urban environments and how we might make them more democratic. They wanted to discuss my research on the relations between online dating apps and the production of urban space, especially with regards to sex and sexualities. I said yes because I was so intrigued by the questions presenter Dr Markus Kip posed:

Do apps like Grindr and Tinder make the city a more loving place? Do they make dating more safe for women or trans people? And do they cohere greater acceptance of queer cultures, or the opposite?

These are important questions. When put to you by someone not in your head, as it were, they have the helpful effect of sharpening focus on what is really at stake when it comes to the reality (and future) of digital technology and the welfare of sexual minorities.

People’s lived experiences are important. Thinking about the consequences of changing physical environments through the use of dating and hook-up apps beyond simplistic readings of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ offers us a real opportunity to think critically about what these platforms mean not just for individual users, but more widely for society, community and geopolitics.

urban politicalThat’s not all: in the podcast we also discuss what app companies do with the data that users provide (whether willingly or unknowingly), and what ethical boundaries are being tested in this kind of data sharing – as well as the ethics of app use itself. I’ve argued before that locative media technologies have grown at such a rapid pace that mutually-agreed social codes for use are yet to catch up with the development of these sophisticated platforms, which can lead to clashing expectations between users. I believe these (perfectly valid) tensions will be replicated and amplified across a wide range of social networks and ‘smart’ technologies in the near future as digital technologies become progressively more integrated into our daily lives.

As for the question ‘what needs to happen at an individual, collective or technological level to make online dating more useful or pleasant?’, there are any number of answers, and for me none of them are definitive. It’s become clear over recent years that dating apps are not an alternative utopian world, free from the ugliness of ‘real'(!!) life – numerous reports of racism (special mention for #KindrGrindr), femmephobia and fat-shaming on just Grindr alone exemplify exactly that. But maybe there is space for a future of sociality, solidarity and support (#SSS?) for sexual minorities who network online. We already see these kinds of networks in action in queer organising, online communities, and support groups at various scales and in various guises. There is no reason why dating and hook-up apps cannot similarly be collectively co-opted to embrace more ‘promiscuous’ socialisation to combat loneliness, more political solidarity with a range of queer identities and livelihoods, and more support for sexual rights agendas, whether they be PrEP provision or sexual & reproductive health rights. We can make it a 2020 resolution, can’t we?

You can listen to the podcast here, and check out other Urban Political podcasts here. There’s plenty to choose from, from the Hong Kong protests to heritage vs. gentrification. Thank you Urban Political for inviting me to be a part of the movement!

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Not My Type? Queer male practice-based identities online

I was invited last year by Andrew Gorman-Murray and Catherine J. Nash to write a chapter for their new book, The Geographies of Digital Sexuality.

geogsI thought for a long time about what to write about. My work has been moving over time from queer male technologies and fieldwork ethics to sexual behaviour, and from there to sex and sexuality more generally, as our new ACCESS project at London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine develops. I’m still fascinated by technology, sex and relationships, but looking globally at some of these relationships in very different contexts – marginalised populations, challenging settings, and complex geopolitical environments in the global South. I’m well aware that gay and bisexual men in Europe and north America are a comparatively privileged sexual minority, and that the lives and experiences of a wider range of people need further amplification – especially given common misunderstandings about technology use in socioeconomically disadvantaged settings. People are often surprised to hear that smartphones are used almost everywhere in the world. This includes within seriously deprived settings, where it may be the single most important object for a family’s livelihood or income. That does not mean it is not also used for communicating, partner-seeking, or pornography in any number of these settings.

Nevertheless, one of the things that people still ask me a lot about when they hear about my PhD and its research into smartphone dating apps is about people’s behaviour online: things that people complain about seeing again and again. It’s as if there are a list of the ‘usual suspects’ to be wary of when using dating or hook-up apps, from the ubiquitous time-waster (‘talk, talk, talk, and yet never agrees on concrete plans to meet up) to the catfish (‘Amazingly good looking but interested in me!’, or ‘keen to meet but there’s something weird about the photos’).

Image result for carrie bradshaw it got me to thinking

In the words of Carrie Bradshaw (sorry): It got me to thinking… Could we sketch out different ‘types’ of dating app user? Would those ‘types’ translate between queer and heterosexual? Do different apps host different types?

My qualitative fieldwork suggested that male-male apps contained ‘types’ that were far more specifically defined, and more commonly recognised by a whole range of users, than anything I was reading about being theorised elsewhere, so I looked into it further and developed three ‘types’ of user: the Embracer, the Timewaster, and the Minimalist. Whilst the vignettes I write in the chapter are fictional, they are amalgamated from a range of real-life users I spoke to, augmented by the profiles of other users that my participants discussed repeatedly (and usually in strongly positive or strongly critical ways). These profiles build an interesting picture of different modes of use for a market-dominant app like Grindr or Tinder. These profiles, and the strong feelings they provoke in others, also speaks to an argument I bang on about a lot: that the social codes of these GPS-enabled apps have yet to catch up to their digital sophistication. The result is user enthusiasm for what these platforms can offer in meeting new people – especially important for sexual minorities – tempered by real frustrations about other people not taking the app seriously, or taking it too seriously, or just not reflecting the user’s desired path to encounter.

Even more fascinating perhaps is the finding that the Timewaster – an app user who is keen to chat, seemingly reciprocates interest, and yet keeps postponing a date or other physical meeting, seemingly content to exist only in cyberspace – is almost universally criticised by users. Yet many of these same users sometimes exhibit precisely this behaviour themselves. This paradox serves to emphasise that we must not think of ‘types’ or user typologies as somehow fixed, but instead flexible categorisations that users might adopt, consciously or not, at different times in their app use over time. You may not see yourself as a time-waster because it’s not a trait you think is very attractive, but that doesn’t mean that sometimes you’re not that person to another frustrated user.

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Feeling a bit seen right now? Don’t worry, everyone seems to fit some of these behaviours some of the time, and that’s no bad thing. But thinking more about what these categories mean and how social and/or sexual connection happens (or doesn’t happen) online can help us to think about larger questions far beyond the scope of dating apps like who we are when we’re online, and why that still feels ‘removed’ or disembodied from what should by now be a more taken-for-granted, ‘smoother’ hybridised digital-physical reality.

Still feeling seen? The chapter is called ‘Going the Distance: Locative Dating Technology and Queer Male Practice-Based Identities’ and you can read it here, or view the full book listing here.

Let’s talk about sex

Unpredictable outcomes

Motelism, 2014

I was invited by the journal Area to write a blog for their outreach website Geography Directions, based on my recent (open access) article ‘“I’ve never told anyone this before”: Co‐constructing intimacy in sex and sexualities research’. I’m reblogging what I wrote here, in case readers find it interesting. In it, I discuss how researchers go about interviewing people about sex and sexualities, and question the extent to which we should share our own experiences as researchers. Think of it as a guide to some of the ethics of fieldwork in sex and sexualities research for the uninitiated. It’s something I get asked about a LOT!

The (in)famous male-male dating and hook-up app Grindr recently celebrated its 10th birthday. To mark the anniversary, a whole range of articles have cropped up variously celebrating and lamenting Grindr’s influence across the world (by which I mean literally across the world – it counts nearly 4 million active users across 234 different countries (Grindr, 2019)). What makes this generation of mobile phone matchmakers different from the online platforms that went before them, for example Gaydar, match.com, Yahoo chatrooms? Apps such as Grindr are GPS-enabled, which enables users to ‘rank’ other users of the app by proximity, ensuring that potential matches can be discovered and introduced in real-time across physical space.

Reflecting on Grindr’s first decade, The BBC identifies a ‘rocky relationship’, whilst VICE magazine explores Grindr’s relationship with identity fraud and drug-based ‘chemsex’; meanwhile, Gay Times reports that 56% of Grindr users believe they can find true love on the app. Whatever your opinion on it – and there are many – there is no doubt that this mobile phone matchmaker, along with its competitors Hornet, Scruff & Jack’d, has had a profound impact on gay and bisexual communities. These apps have also opened up new avenues for men seeking sex with men (MSM) who for whatever reason – familial, cultural, or religious – do not identify as gay or bisexual.

Grindr example

Grindr stock image

The bigger question raised by these recent articles seems to be: how do dating and hook-up apps impact on same-sex and queer relationships today? This question cannot be answered by quantitative usage data alone. After all, we know that high usage does not necessarily mean high popularity. We need to explore peoples’ real life experiences in order to more fully understand the impact of dating and hook-up apps on same-sex and queer relationships.

I decided that the best way to get a detailed understanding of how these apps influence sexual and social behaviours would be to interview users about their experiences online, offline, and in the ‘hybrid’ space bridging the two, where virtual introductions result in real-life encounters. My doctoral research revealed some important findings: (1) that dating and hook-up apps play a significant role in how men now meet other men, especially within wider debates about the ‘death of the gay bar’, and (2) that the relationship between mobile phone dating app users and the people they meet can be awkward, with social cues yet to catch up to the sophistication of the technologies in use.

The sensitive nature of the research topic meant that there was an array of ethical and practical challenges for me to grapple with during my doctoral fieldwork. In my recent Area paper, I reflect on some of these challenges and explore how researchers and participants can work together to create a meaningful space that not only enables data collection, but facilitates honest and valuable conversation. I consider what the researcher’s responsibility should be for a participant’s safety in this discursive space. I also reflect on how ‘involved’ I should be as a researcher. I’m a person, not a robot, and several decades of feminist research has already explored the strengths and issues bound up in bringing ‘yourself’ into the research field (for example, see Bain & Nash (2006) and Smith (2016)). But the opposite extreme of the objective, positivist robot researcher is the inappropriately involved one, a role which would be both institutionally unethical and personally unacceptable. I therefore identified my own boundaries as well as the participants’s boundaries. The result was a co-constructed discursive space that we worked together to construct, perhaps surprisingly, in totally public venues and in one-off, hour-long interviews rather than more private or longer-term meetings. These were not ‘intimate’ spaces in a traditional sense, but nevertheless the space-within-a-space that we constructed invited app users to speak about highly personal experiences, some for the first time ever.

I also make the case for the using public places for staging sensitive conversations. The assumption that private matters cannot be discussed in public requires a rethink. Public spaces like libraries or cafes enfold within them more private spaces – not just actual booths or nooks, although these can contribute – but I’m thinking here about more conceptual spaces. These are built simply via one-to-one, in-person conversation in a space where a hubbub of background talking, or the hiss of coffee machines brewing, provides a backdrop to conversation that can be very productive.

Finally, when it comes to dating and hook-up apps in particular, I suggest that people are particularly keen to share their views because the social norms of dating app use are so complex and still so poorly understood. For lots of people online dating remains taboo. In this context, the chance to share their thoughts, feelings and experiences when it came to the digitally-introduced, physically-involved relationships these platforms offer may have been liberating.

Love dating apps or hate them (or both), what I hope the article communicates is that we need to talk more with users about the ways in which technologies impact on our personal lives, in order to think about the social codes developing from their use that will inform a whole range of wider contexts.

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References:

Bain, A., & Nash, C. (2006) Undressing the researcher: Feminism, embodiment and sexuality at a queer bathhouse event. Area, 38, 99–106. https://rgs-ibg.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/pdf/10.1111/j.1475-4762.2006.00663.x

Damshenas, S. (2019) 56% of Grindr users believe they can find love on the app, study finds. Gay Times. Retrieved from: https://www.gaytimes.co.uk/community/119691/56-of-grindr-users-believe-they-can-find-love-on-the-app-study-finds/

Fox, L. (2019) 10 years of Grindr: A rocky relationship. BBC News. Retrieved from: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-47668951

Grindr. (2019) Grindr.com. Retrieved from: https://www.grindr.com/

Miles, S. (2017) Sex in the digital city: location-based dating apps and queer urban life. Gender, Place & Culture, 24, 1595-1610: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/0966369X.2017.1340874?tab=permissions&scroll=top

Miles, S. (2018) Still getting it on online: Thirty years of queer male spaces brokered through digital technologies. Geography Compass. e12407. ISSN 1749-8198 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1111/gec3.12407

Miles, S. (2019) “I’ve never told anyone this before”: Co‐constructing intimacy in sex and sexualities research. AREA. https://rgs-ibg.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/area.12550

Smith, S. (2016) Intimacy and angst in the field. Gender, Place & Culture, 23, 134–146.

Staples, L. (2019) Grindr Users Talk Highs and Lows After Ten Years of the App. VICE Magazine. Retrieved from: https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/59x83d/grindr-users-talks-highs-and-lows-after-ten-years-of-the-app-1

Still getting it on online: queerness & technology

Cupid

Cupid’s arrow, lovestruck…you get the picture. (Motelism, 2015)

This latest blog post is adapted from a piece I wrote this week for the DEPTH research group at London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine. In it, I discuss the publication of my new academic article ‘Still getting it on online: Thirty years of queer male spaces brokered through digital technologies’ in the journal Geography Compass. If you’re interested in geographies of sexualities, queer theory or space, think of this post as a sort of primer to introduce you to some of the wordier(!) themes explored in the article itself. 

 

By way of introduction, I thought I’d borrow from my latest article to give you a snapshot of what I’ll be talking about in this blog post:

I call on contemporary scholarship to demonstrate how [mobile phone] platforms offer a way into answering larger cultural questions about cruising, queer social life, and space. I conclude that these locative digital media occupy a distinctive position in the history of queer technologies and signal a shift in how gay male online spaces are both conceptualised and experienced.

In the social sciences, theories of sex and sexuality have long been tied up in ideas of space and place. There are any number of examples we can think of, from the spaces of sex work and how these spaces are regulated or policed, to the rise (and more recently, fall) of the commercialised ‘gay village’ in the global north, which is often discussed in terms of its relations with economics and gentrification.

Trying to better understand the relationship between sex and sexuality and space is important because beyond theoretical ideas, it has an impact on how a location might influence sexual identity, practices or safety. For example, healthcare interventions for sex workers might depend on a safe space accessible from their working space. Civil rights demonstrations or an LGBTQ pride parade in a repressive political environment can be read as a temporary ‘queering’ of the orthodoxy or regime by making space for sexual difference in streets normally controlled by the mainstream. For a real-life example of this, you check out an old blog post of mine on the Pulse nightclub shooting in Florida and why sexuality and space are important concepts.

My own research has focused on digital technology and sexual practices (you can read previous blog posts on it this work here and here). I have been interviewing ‘MSM’ (men who have sex with men, including but not limited to gay and bisexual men) to learn more about how recent developments in technology mean that queer male space is not just physical, but virtual too.

 Geography Compass invited me to write an article for them reviewing the history of queer male online space. I think this topic is particularly fascinating is because the social sciences have long tracked physical queer spaces, and this research is widely known; less is known about how online platforms contribute to producing or re-making queer spaces. What I specialise in is locative media – by which I mean GPS enabled mobile phone apps – that are now very popular amongst MSM to network and meet others for social and/or sexual connection. These locative apps include Tinder, Grindr and Hornet, and have a huge user base around the world. Grindr alone counts nearly 4 million users per day.

I argue that the development of mobile internet over the past decade, and the GPS abilities that are now built into even basic smartphones, strongly influence how men meet other men for relationships and sex. This in turn has an impact on ‘offline’ LGBTQ venues such as gay bars or cruising sites, as well as traditional understandings of ‘queer community’ and what that might mean. As I write in the article:

Male–male locative media can strengthen and extend social‐sexual networks, facilitating meetings with like‐minded men across a borough, district, or city. This is especially true among the users for whom a queer community is out of reach because of their isolation, whether familial, social, or geographical.

Of course, being connected to other sexual minorities through an app does not automatically constitute a community, but some users do report a sense of like-mindedness, even if this does not match up with the more established ways in which we define community.

Beyond MSM populations specifically, this idea of technology redefining community, whether for better or worse (or indeed both!) is crucial to how we understand how technology mediates human behaviour. In a public health context, technology needs to be harnessed in ways which are alert to local conditions, whether that is in terms of unequal access to technology, or an affinity (or restriction) to certain kinds of communication device. At the same time, the widespread adoption of mobile phone technology – 5 billion people worldwide now have access to mobile phones – shows that digital technology ‘on the go’ will become ever more central to daily life. The job now is to extend research carried out on mobile digital technologies and sexualities to different populations to help us understand more about how these platforms will impact on social and sexual practices in the near and distant future.

You can read the full article here and follow my Twitter updates on it (and unrelated rants about Brexit, Trump and the tabloid press hereas well as Twitter updates from the DEPTH research hub for you social scientists and public health fans out there.

No decision about me, without me: Public involvement in health

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London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine serving 1920s Atonement vibes.

One of the interesting things in my post-doctoral research fellowship at London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine has been researching the social science of public health.

A priority in the delivery of health services by the NHS for some years now has been patient and public involvement in healthcare. One example of this direction in healthcare that you might have heard about is the NHS initiative ‘No decision about me, without me’ (2012 – ongoing), which seeks to put the patient at the centre of the care that they receive, with the aim of better involving them in their own healthcare when ill.

In this free, open access article that me and my colleagues recently published for the Journal of Health Design, we look at this idea of patient/public involvement via ‘co-production’ – the idea that the public gets involved in shaping their care by working together with doctors and other healthcare staff to grant all parties the best possible results. For the patients, this is good health and a feeling of being included, and for the staff, this means good relationships with those they care for and healthy, happy outcomes.

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It’s an interesting idea but not without its detractors (including for example: “Why should patients be considered ‘experts’ when that’s what doctors spend 6 years in medical school for?” “Why is the NHS so reliant on buzzwords like ‘co-production’?” “Is this kind of involvement vocabulary just another fad?”) but there is a lot that I like about the ongoing shift to think more laterally about public involvement in healthcare. As well as being a good idea in terms of hearing from less-heard voices in the healthcare system, who have historically been marginalised and as a result suffered from poorer health, the consensus from the bodies that make up the NHS and NIHR (National Institute for Health Research) is broadly that these co-production approaches make a lot of sense in the modern hospital system. As well as improving patient-clinician relationships, patients feel empowered in having a say in the care they receive, and some outcomes also point to cost efficiencies. This is, of course, vitally important in a political climate which has sadly seen the NHS increasingly positioned as the albatross around the government’s neck, no matter the lip service they pay it when they’re put on the spot. Plus ça change…

Either way, as a research field this kind of public involvement work is interesting for a whole range of audiences, and though the case study we use is our own ongoing research on young people with sickle cell disease (you can read more about ‘This Sickle Cell Life‘ here), the idea of ‘slow’ co-production, which emphasises quality, qualitative fieldwork that gets space to ‘breathe’, can be extrapolated to any number of different research activities that involve the public. And by involvement we’re talking here not just about the public as what has been seen traditionally as the passive research subject, something to be examined to aid in building our knowledge of social life; but in more meaningful terms as active collaborators in thinking about their care. Indeed, why not? Anything that can deepen people’s engagement with health and how they access and receive care has to be a good thing, right?

The article is free, open access and – rare indeed! – really quite short. Check it out if you fancy, here. Whilst I’m talking about public health, you might have seen that the NHS is turning 70! You can read about some of its amazing work over the past 7 decades here and here, plus check out the debate on Twitter here with the hashtag #NHS70LSHTM.

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Early Career Researchers & the academic brand

Just a short post this week to draw your attention to this interesting blog post about academic ‘selves’ in the modern university.

Gillian Rose always writes such interesting pieces about gender, labour and careers, and this is no different. Lots of readers have focused on Rose’s paragraph on the ‘personal brand’, and I agree that that’s a fascinating idea.

In a media-oriented stage for public outreach, having a kind of academic brand seems to me to be crucial (even if thinking about how to self-define as such can be a headache):

1. figure out your ‘brand’. Ok, so it’s a horrible term to use, ‘brand’, but it’s a question I once heard a colleague ask of candidates at a job interview and I think if you do figure yours out, it’s a very useful way to simplify lots of decisions you’ll face. Your brand summarises the kind of geographer/academic that you are or you aspire to be. What’s your key research area and how does it contribute to the wider (sub)discipline? What sort of teaching do you want to be superb at? What sort of administrator or manager are you, or would you like to be? What are you most committed to? What fires you up, what do you loathe? But also, what sort of colleague are you? Are you a loner, a collaborator, a leader? Work those things out and you have some priorities to focus on.

All these thoughts/provocations/considerations are doubly important for us early career researchers. We have to think about networking, teamwork and fostering new partnerships, all whilst competing with the rest of the ‘pack’ of fellow starting-out academics. At the same time we are encouraged (and of course want to!) forge and promote a spirit of collaboration with our early-career-researcher counterparts, who are our friends as well as colleagues and in a strange way, sometimes competitors too.

You can read the rest here, and it’s got some great advice. At Exeter, Sam Kinsley’s blog also has some good reflections on the topic, which you can read here.

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Ph.Done

Im done Motelism for Sam Miles Blog sexuality and the city.jpg

I’m Done (2014), Motelism

Good news – on Friday I passed my PhD viva, making me Dr. S.Miles!

A viva is kind of an oral test, held over several hours, with an examiner from your university and an external examiner chosen because of their expertise in the subject. There’s a lot of mythology surrounding the viva, which is the stuff of nightmares, but in reality the aim of a viva is to prove that you did the work yourself, you are capable of the complex thinking of doctoral-level academia, and that you can defend methodological/theoretical/empirical choices you made over the months and years you conducted the project.

I think some of the mythology of the viva comes from the fact that no two exams are the same, and when pushed for advice on how to succeed in the room, there’s really nothing more helpful to suggest than knowing your work, finding it interesting, and being interested in what the experts want to feed back about it. My examiners are academic heroes of mine but nevertheless they left no stone unturned and asked some really difficult questions. This was no bad thing: it offers kind of a rare opportunity to think about all the big picture stuff that you don’t get to do much in the rest of your life. All the same, I reckon I lost more fluids than a water cooler over the course of the morning. Worth it though!

The result: I’m able to show how dating apps are significant cultural objects that can say a lot about sex and relationships, technology and urban life. Here is a condensed thesis abstract, to show what I researched:

Whilst the introduction of the internet has made it possible to experience life across great distances, the smartphone allows internet on the move. This project offers a new understanding of how locative media technology specifically impacts queer social and sexual encounters and queer spaces. Popular GPS-enabled smartphone apps including Tinder and Grindr play a valuable role in multiplying social and sexual networks for men seeking other men, but also provoke questions about their impact on space, embodiment and connectivity.

This thesis applies the concept of hybridisation to male-male locative apps to develop a new approach to research bridging technology and sexuality. A qualitative approach utilising semi-structured interviews with 36 male-male app users living and working in London, UK, reveals how locative media impact on 1) technological hybridisation, 2) social and sexual encounter, and 3) queer public and private spaces. I shift debates regarding online self-presentation into more embodied scenarios that explore daily practice for the hyperconnected user in a digitally enhanced but demonstrably physical context. Developments in technology mean that we are more ‘plugged-in’ than ever before, but this project contends that the benefits of locative media in expediting physical encounter are complicated by more ambiguous outcomes. The efficacy of geospatial partner scoping is often inhibited by extensive labour for the user, tendencies to addictive app use, and clashes in digital-physical hybridisation. Users express uncertainty regarding online social codes and difficulties in aligning motives with others for physical encounter. Locative apps also domesticate encounter into the private space of home, compounding the wider economic deconcentration of queer public venues. These ambivalences show that whilst sociotechnical hybridisation is ostensibly enriching, the journey to embodied encounter in the contemporary city is far from seamless.

Apps will come and go, but this thesis goes beyond the products themselves to argue that there are some important, very ‘human’ qualities to the now-commonplace hybridisation of digital (computers) and physical (‘real’ life) space. Humans have come to rely on technology to offer them something distinctive, and there are real benefits – but also some provocative caveats – to this sophisticated offering in how we live our lives.

I couldn’t have done it without my colleagues at Queen Mary University of London, my friends and my family – and most of all, the participants who gave up their time to let me interview them in great depth about their lives. Here is a screenshot of my acknowledgments – this time without the typo that I found after posting it on Facebook!

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For those participants who are reading, I’m in the process of developing an information summary of the project for you and I’m really excited to share with you some of the interesting trends that the work brought together in terms of what was commonly (or conversely, rarely expressed) amongst the larger group.

Meanwhile, I have a new article out in the Journal of Arts Management, Law & Society about my 2014 digital internship at the London International Festival of Theatre (LIFT). In the article I discuss the popularity of arts festivals in the UK and digital ‘staging’ as a way to enhance audience involvement with what they’re watching. The article is open access so anyone can view it, here. I loved my time at LIFT and applications are open for the next round of placements if you’re interested.

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Since PhD submission I’ve also got a job, as a research fellow in Social Science at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine. This a super-powered, research intensive university that I’ve always admired for its work on Ebola and Zika virus. I work in the Department of Social and Environmental Health, in which I’m learning all the time but finding – surprisingly – more crossover than I’d expected with human geography and technology. Lots of interesting work in the future on young-adult sexual health and family planning – and the opportunity for blogging some of our research, too. Watch this space (and this meme).

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Submission Day

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Fabulous! Motelism 2015 (to make up for not featuring as the PhD thesis cover)

I’ve been away for a while now, prioritising putting the finishing touches to my PhD, but today I bring good news… the thesis is submitted! It’s been a fascinating, mind-expanding and often confusing 4 year journey, but I’ve now contributed 99,000 words on my research project. That’s longer than some of the books on my nightstand (although possibly less suited to summer holiday reading)! Here is the finished product, with all three copies printed:

Sam Miles PhD thesis Sexuality and the city blog.jpg

The PhD journey isn’t yet finished – I have a viva voce still to come in several months, which is my verbal defence of the work I have done, and I am crossing my fingers that the examiners find the work submitted impactful and relevant. I can’t call myself Dr yet, but one of the things I like about academia is that it is not afraid to really test those who are hoping to reach the post-doctoral stage, so I’m putting plans in place already to think about what I need to think about in preparation for the viva in October.

As for the PhD, since several of you have asked: I investigated the role of locative media – that is, GPS-enabled mobile phone dating apps including Grindr and Tinder – on queer urban geographies. The research was based across social sciences – a bit of human geography, some queer theory, and even some technology studies (and I still can’t make excel spreadsheets proficiently, so I can’t vouch entirely for the PhD process). I wanted to analyse how new forms of technology that prioritise physical space rather than virtual connection impact minority populations – in this scenario, non-heterosexual men living and working in London, but equally the findings can be extrapolated to think more widely about how youth seek information online, or how sexual or ethnic minorities consider themselves as part of a community (or not). How do locative media influence interactions with the city, and how do users ‘hybridise’ their digital and physical relationships? What does ‘hyperconnection’ mean, and what do the daily experiences of technology users seeking social or sexual encounter look like?

This research is relevant to academic thinking on how humans think about and adopt mobile technologies into their daily practices. Essentially, I argue that we now integrate this kind of pervasive technology into our lived experience (phenomenology) to an unprecedented extent, and this has good outcomes – for example journey planning on the tube or bus – and more ambiguous outcomes – for example an ‘always on’ culture that leaves people desperate for a digital detox on their holidays. This research also presents interesting impacts for policy initiatives, such as how we communicate information from government, or how people seek sexual health advice online.

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When it comes to the queer theory part, the picture gets even more interesting. For one thing, these apps are bound up in the dissolving of once-popular LGBT venues in a city like London – lots has been written about this shift, but check out this Guardian article for a précis of the changes. However, I found that already-existing social and economic shifts probably play a larger role, certainly in large cities of the global north like London, Manchester and Madrid, to which apps contribute by dint of their popularity in the current dating environment. In the process, apps tend to make the home a concrete space for social or sexual connection, and for app users that has positive and negative repercussions.

The real highlight of this research for me was the volunteer time offered by 36 participants, whom I interviewed over one year. Their willingness to share their (often highly personal) stories with me really was the making of this research. I made sure my acknowledgements page really spoke to that, because I couldn’t have done this project without them. For anyone reading who was involved in the project, thank you again.

It was also really important to me to dedicate the PhD thesis to my friend Chris, who sadly died last year. Chris’s death prompted me to write this piece about the importance of expressing to our friends how much they mean to us, something that I think is vitally important. In the year since Chris’s death, I can testify that making sure your friends know how much they mean to you does nothing but good things. I recommend it to everyone. Show your friends they are loved! Chris is really missed by us all.

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Finally, I’m sure you’re all dying to have a read of the thesis, right?(!) I can’t share the work until the viva is completed, because that dictates what the finished product looks like. From there I am planning to write several academic and mainstream articles from the thesis that I hope will be of interest. Until then, you can read my recently-published article in Gender, Place & Culture if you have a University log-in. If not, email me via the ‘contact‘ tab of this blog and I’ll send you a PDF.

Thanks again to everyone who helped me get the PhD this far over the past 4 years, from institutional level – especially my supervisors Dr Regan Koch and Dr Yasmin Ibrahim at Queen Mary, University of London – to the friends and family (with a special mention to someone who already has Dr in front of her name – Laura, who turns 30 today!)

Sam Miles thesis handin collage

Next stop, examination.

What We Have Won(?): Sexuality, pride, and the gay health gap

 

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Motelism (2014)

[cw: suicide, mental health]

You might have read my recent post about cycling infrastructure in London and how policy campaigns increased cycling here (they really did, and I only hope it continues). I cited an excellent blog then by Michael Hobbes. He is also behind a story that has gone somewhat viral in the Huffington Post called ‘The Epidemic of Loneliness’ (I’m not sponsored to enthuse about him by the way; I’ve never even met him!). I’m linking you all the article because since I first read it this spring, I’ve revisited it a few times and found more things that really made me think. Other people must feel similarly because it’s generated a huge response (including a valid riposte by Slate). It’s an arresting, as well as provocative, piece of writing.

I think it’s an interesting piece for anyone, not just gay people, but be warned: the topics covered get a little intense. One thing Hobbes doesn’t touch on – and this is typical of media more widely in gay reportage – is that some of the riskier sexual practices and drug-taking behaviours (particularly chemsex) described are concerning but not statistically widespread. Even in urban centres like London, only a minority of non-heterosexual men participate in risky practices, but this tends to be over-reported because of the (possibly dubious) interests of writers and readers. My social sciences PhD actually covers that in some depth, so I feel confident in saying that you shouldn’t worry that every gay person you know is permanently drugged and hasn’t slept in 3 weeks. What is more interesting in this article is the larger environment of anxiety despite the supposed equality now enjoyed by gay men.

Hobbes’ argument is that despite all that gay men have won in the past few decades, many still aren’t happy. We know that in North America and Europe (what geographers often call the ‘global north’), drug use is higher than in the heterosexual population and sexual health is often poorer (striated further by different factors like socio-economic background, ethnicity, and access to healthcare), but mental health problems are also higher than straight men, and suicide rates significantly higher. After all:

Being a member of a marginalized group requires extra effort. When you’re the only woman at a business meeting, or the only black guy in your college dorm, you have to think on a level that members of the majority don’t. If you stand up to your boss, or fail to, are you playing into stereotypes of women in the workplace? If you don’t ace a test, will people think it’s because of your race? Even if you don’t experience overt stigma, considering these possibilities takes its toll over time.

 

Given that the London LGBT Pride festival hits town next weekend, I thought it would be interesting to share Hobbes’ article to give us a slightly different view of ‘how far we’ve come’ (I’m thinking here of The World We Have Won by Jeffrey Weeks, 2007). There are ongoing debates amongst queer theorists about the commercialisation vs. political power of pride parades. In short, some argue that the spirit of pride been lost in its creeping corporatisation, and that it is a shadow of its former political protest. Others argue: what’s the point in pride, when equality has now been won?

My (short) answer to both these views is: yes, it is true that to an extent pride has become commodified and commercialised, but such a shift is inevitable given that LGBT legislation has battled for integration into the mainstream. This assimilation comes with its own neoliberal conditions, and a parade needs to get sponsorship to ensure its viability in order to showcase less ‘fund-able’ or comfortable aspects of its queer message (which they do, albeit with mixed conviction – one of the better examples is showcasing small LGBT refugee charities, and supporting their ongoing work). To those who say the event is unnecessary, Pride remains a powerful visibilisation of queerness plus an opportunity to advocate on behalf of other, more marginalised groups including trans individuals, PoC and sexual minorities who are currently enduring more pernicious governmental or political rule elsewhere in the world.

Also, aside from its arguable political impact, Pride shows us that there is room for a global network of fun and enthusiastic social gathering that can claim the city for just a day for its sexual minorities. Politics and pleasure do not have to be mutually exclusive. Pride also helps communication between L,G,B and T individuals who are more often found apart and only occasionally brought together in any sense other than their abbreviating umbrella.

As Hobbes’ article shows, it may be specifically this lack of more regular, integrated socialisation opportunities that sees gay men continue to suffer the burden of poor mental health so disproportionately to the straight population. Hobbes under-interrogates the ethnic and class-based marginalisation operating within both gay and mainstream hierarchies, and only touches on other sexual identities, which is probably all we can expect in one article. But lest we forget, for other sexual minorities some of these mental health problems are multiplied: this week we learnt that over half of all trans school students in the U.K have attempted suicide. As Hobbes notes:

Any discussion of gay mental health has to start with what happens in schools. Despite the progress taking place around them, America’s educational institutions remain dangerous places for kids, filled with aspiring frat boys, indifferent teachers and retrograde policies. Emily Greytak, the director of research for the anti-bullying organization GLSEN, tells me that from 2005 to 2015, the percentage of teenagers who said they were bullied for their sexual orientation didn’t fall at all. Only around 30 percent of school districts in the country have anti-bullying policies that specifically mention LGBTQ kids, and thousands of other districts have policies that prevent teachers from speaking about homosexuality in a positive way.

This piece is by no means a scientific journal article, but it really latches on to some important issues.

I’m reminded of my post last autumn after the death of a friend about ongoing bonding with friends and family, the value of communication, and the importance of platonic intimacy in the face of a world that feels tough sometimes. Do remember to kiss your friends faces more (perhaps metaphorically; we are, after all, British).

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Youth, politics and the internet

Disastrous decisions Motelism Sam Miles blog
There’s so much news, all day, every day, it almost makes you wonder where you can start to make headway on it. Spare a thought for the journalists racing from crisis to crisis trying to get it covered.

I wanted to write this post – a treat to myself in the final writing up of my PhD – to share just one short video relevant to tomorrow’s UK General Election. Cassetteboy has previous good form when it comes to well-timed, thoughtful and ‘yoof’-friendly campaign videos – take your pick from David Cameron’s Eminem-style rap or a neat lapoon of Jeremy Hunt’s attitude to NHS strikes – but this is the best I can remember seeing. With 5 million Facebook views in just 24 hours, it seems that a lot of you share that view. For those of you without Facebook (they exist!) you can see a version here.

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This 2-and-a-half-minute précis of Theresa May’s failed initiatives, morally bankrupt policies and disdain for British public services gets right to the heart of the issue in an election where the Conservative campaign has been more about smearing the opponent than putting forward their own tenable ideas for social, political, or even – in a post-Brexit, post-austerity age, both managed under Conservative leadership! – economic change.

I say ‘they’, but clearly the Tories have seen the inexplicable (but perhaps waning) popularity of Theresa May in the leadership role and as a result telescoped most of the campaign to her and her alone. I’d be hard-pressed to think of Tory names in the running for her future cabinet, and the guest appearances from Home Secretary Amber Rudd and Culture Secretary Karen Bradley have done little to suggest that bringing other Tory figures into the running would finesse the campaign approach. If you’re expressing confusion about Karen Bradley, rest assured that I hadn’t heard of her either. It says a lot about the Tory attitude to culture and the arts in Brexit Britain that the Tory manifesto barely covers some of these themes, even in relation to education (which is its own unique disaster, evidenced by the school on my street having to cut the length of its school day). Bradley deserves some sympathy for having to rationalise cuts to police numbers – hardly her expertise – on live TV in the suspicious absence of May. Rudd meanwhile buried her father 48 hours before appearing in the BBC General Election debate, making May’s insistence on stand-ins all the more laughable.

Leadership involves, you know, presenting your ideas to the public: inviting feedback and listening to concerns. Whereas Corbyn’s team seem to have finally coached themselves on speeches, outreach and debate – and improved dramatically as a result, albeit not across the board – May is more leaden than ever, seemingly comfortable only when attacking the opposition or boosted by bigger personalities. Her terrible negotiating skills and singularly uncharismatic sociability should ring alarm bells for her capabilities in negotiating Brexit, and yet so many members of the voting public seem willing to run that risk. Is a bad Brexit better than no Brexit?

It also says a lot about this election that it was announced just 7 weeks ago (rather contradicting May’s argument that a general election is not in the best interests of the British people) already feels like it’s gone on for years. This is because it has been engineered by a ruling party uninterested in the transformative power of politics. An election campaign that does nothing to offer its own roadmap for an imagined future is no campaign at all. If the Tories win tomorrow’s election it will be in spite of, rather than because of, their work, and younger voters in particular will have a hard time aligning the politics they saw happen and the opportunities for change left untaken.

Crisis after crisis has piled on in recent weeks, and yet May’s response as the leader of the country has been repeatedly found lacking. The gall of the Prime Minister complaining this week about extremism in the UK after 5 years as Home Secretary tasked with tackling exactly those issues says it all. How exactly does her promise to tear up the Human Rights Act really tackle the root causes of homegrown terrorism, and why aren’t more people pointing out that the Hillsborough Disaster inquiry has this exact legislation to thank for the overdue investigation into the police and government cover-up? Why does May consistently fail to speak out against Donald Trump’s increasingly damaging geopolitical fiascos, including the Paris Climate Agreement, and why has she not more convincingly defended the hard work of Sadiq Khan after Trump’s repeated criticisms?

This year has felt like the end of days sometimes when it comes to the global stage, and it is youth who will suffer from the egotistical machinations of older leaders and voters. At least the age group most involved in ubiquitous technology are those best placed to act on what they learn through online content when it comes to the ballot box. Bouyed by the age-divide in Brexit voting, my only hope is that today’s young voters will maintain their tolerance and their thoughtful outlook on the issues affecting our society not just in our current political climate, but as they age over the years to come.

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I wanted to end this post with a note to say how saddened I was to learn that Martyn Hett was a victim of the Manchester terror attack, one of the funniest people you could possibly follow on social media and a some-time writer for Huffington Post and Attitude magazine. Even the Telegraph (the Telegraph! no lover of tattoos, Buzzfeed or gay culture) gave a nod to his infectious humour. You can read one of Martyn’s own articles, on internal homophobia here, and his Buzzfeed tribute to his mum’s craft work, which has since gone very very viral, here. My friend Alistair Bealby, a fellow blogger, has just published a fantastic Guardian piece on the impact of Martyn’s death and his mission to #BeMoreMartyn here. Finally, I have Martyn to thank for the Mariah Carey meme that my blog sported exactly a year ago in the run-up to the EU membership referendum. Here it is again for you to enjoy:

EU