Privacy in Public: Visualizing the Lives of Trans Youth through Tumblr Posts

By Jen Jack Gieseking

Scholars have long assumed that holding up the voices and stories of the marginalized allows them to be heard and recognized, although other scholars have made clear that such research efforts could also place these groups in danger. While the methods of digital humanities afford new readings of texts, histories, artworks, and performances, less attended to are the ethical dimensions of digital humanities methods and analytics, particularly when applied to already marginalized groups. Affording significant insight into power, ethics, and future directions for digital humanities, my current project, built on a collection of trans youth’s sharing of personal information on social media, extends the ethical framework of digital humanities methods and analytics. The examination of data of the oppressed requires careful analysis of the ethical implications of digital humanities methods when applied to their stories, geographies, and networks. It is time to examine and open up the ethical dimensions of particular digital humanities data visualization analytic tools, such as textual topic modelling, geographic mapping, social network analysis, in order to advance the growth of humanities as a whole.

Social Network Analysis of #FtM (Female-to-Male) Transgender Tumblr Data (July 2016)
Social network analysis of 13,150 Tumblr users who included the #ftm (female-to-male) hashtag in their data, July 2016. Based on 24,374 “likes” of other accounts’ posts, an average of 5 degrees of separation was revealed, with just fifteen accounts totaling for over half of those likes. CC-BY-NC Jack Gieseking 2019

My research into trans youth’s sharing of personal information of social media examines the ethics of digital humanities methods and analytics across data visualization tools, as each of these analytics and their software have come to be core to digital humanities. Transgender, gender non-conforming, and gender non-binary youth have long relied on social media platforms like Tumblr, Instagram, and YouTube to share personal stories, medical information, and define cultural mores, often enacting a form of privacy in public. Under a range of shared hashtags, the insights of these accumulated posts are data that offers profound insights into medical humanities, and language and cultural formation of a highly marginalized group. Social media affords a rich textual and visual archive of transgender knowledge production. Importantly, the stories of pre-transitioning youth are rarely captured in trans studies, which has primarily relied on transgender adults’ memoir, performance, and art as they reflect on their transition some years previous or live an adult trans life. 

As a humanistic social scientist, cultural and digital geographer, and American studies scholar who has long employed and taught digital humanities methods of mapping across analytic platforms, I embraced a research plan to map the insights of this data across data visualization platforms: geographic information systems (GIS) maps, statistical graphs, network graphs, and textual topic models. My effort to work both within and across platforms allows me to read the data for its multiple insights, and place these visualizations in conversation with one another. However, my research to date has been limited because it soon became apparent that studying patterns of text without being aware of the context of trans youths’ experiences lead to the misinterpretation of their experiences and arguments. When confronted with a dataset of living individuals whose experiences are so rarely discussed, caution and expertise are imperative in order to not overly define the meanings within these data, particularly when these conversations and stories could easily be narrowed or even reduced by data visualizations and analysis. My future participatory action research project will involve trans youth offering insights and feedback on these in-process data visualizations, with the goal of creating a systematic series of ethical guidelines (per and across data visualization platforms/approaches) in order to strengthen digital humanities research on behalf of social justice.



Jen Jack Gieseking is an urban cultural geographer, feminist and queer theorist, and environmental psychologist. They are engaged in research on co-productions of space and identity in digital and material environments. His work pays special attention to how such productions support or inhibit social, spatial, and economic justice in regard to gender and sexuality. Jack’s second book project, A Queer New York: Geographies of Lesbians, Dykes, and Queers, 1983-2008, is forthcoming with NYU Press. They are also conducting research on trans people’s use of Tumblr as a site of cultural production, and a hub for co-produced medical knowledge. He is Assistant Professor of Geography at the University of Kentucky, where they teach courses on digital, feminist, and queer geographies and critical cartography and mapping. Jack can be found at or @jgieseking.