Faculty Spotlight: Alexander Monea publishes book The Digital Closet

Faculty Spotlight: Alexander Monea publishes book The Digital Closet

On April 12th, our very own Dr. Alex Monea will be releasing his newest book, The Digital Closet: How the Internet Became Straight, which the publisher describes as "An exploration of how heteronormative bias is deeply embedded in the internet, hidden in algorithms, keywords, content moderation, and more." In his own words, Dr. Monea describes The Digital Closet as tracing "a trend in internet culture towards the censorship and erasure of LGBTQIA+ people online, ranging in content from artistic representation, sex education materials, community organizing, and political activism, to pornographic content that is censored at a higher rate when it is queer." In describing this phenomenon of internet culture, The Digital Closet challenges what Dr. Monea calls a "mythology that the internet is uncensored and unpoliced; that libertarianism, as a founding ideal, reigns supreme on the internet, which is not really the case, especially for queer people."

Dr. Monea describes the book as a project that largely happened by accident. When Dr. Monea first joined George Mason University's faculty, he was studying computer vision algorithms when he discovered that "over and over again there were instances of these algorithms performing poorly when it came to differentiating between art and pornography, when it came to censoring queer pornography more heavily than straight pornography, and when it came to cisnormative decisions about what body parts could be shown in what context." More interestingly, it quickly became apparent how unexamined this issue was in scholarly work. While online queer communities had felt the effects of these biased algorithms and have been attempting to speak out about it for many years now, they were frequently told these were fringe cases rather than a systemic issue. "Basically," Dr. Monea says, "it's under-analyzed, not only in academic discourse, but no one was keeping track of all these instances of content takedowns and shadowbans; there was no central repository of it." Because of this, Dr. Monea hopes this book will not only start a more robust scholarly conversation, but also serve as a resource for activists and online content creators to lend validity to their claims.

With this goal in mind, The Digital Closet is intended to be accessible to academics as well as the general public and the communities most harshly affected by these biased algorithms. Dr. Monea draws extensively from articles written by members of online queer communities attempting to bring attention to this issue. Perhaps most notable of these authors is Violet Blue, a journalist who wrote a long running sex column for the San Francisco Chronicle as well as the forward to The Digital Closet, and whose work Dr. Monea describes as "invaluable in starting to stitch together what had been happening over the past decade."

The Digital Closet ends with a discussion of what possible steps may be taken to resolve the issue. His suggestions run the gamut from simple and immediately achievable to long-term and revolutionary. On one end of the spectrum, the book advocates for "asking companies to commit to anti-censorship and privacy initiatives" as well as "cleaning up the datasets a lot of these algorithms are trained on." Dr. Monea describes the latter as being especially important as once algorithms learn bias from problematic datasets, the only solution is creating exceptions, a solution Dr. Monea says is a mere band-aid. On the other end of the spectrum, Dr. Monea discusses revolutionary ideals of the internet and social media as public utilities and advancing stronger anti-censorship regulations; ideas that Dr. Monea acknowledges as seemingly impossible, but that should be guiding ideals in our activism.

The Digital Closet: How the Internet Became Straight releases on April 12th from MIT Press and is currently available for pre-order in both hardcover and ebook editions.