Harlow Figa ’16 had been a longtime follower of several transgender video creators on YouTube, watching their video blogs (or vlogs) since 2007. But by 2014, Figa’s interest in those videos had become much more personal. While studying abroad at the University of Edinburgh, they—Figa’s preferred personal pronouns are they/them/their—came out as trans and genderqueer to themselves and to others. So when it came time for Figa to choose a topic for an anthropology thesis, they returned to these videos as a source of study, turning an almost-decade-long interest into an academic pursuit.
“My primary interests [in] this project are expanding trans academia, pushing anthropology further into digital field sites, exploring embodiment, questioning gender constructs, dismantling and analyzing structural forms of oppression, and amplifying the voices of transpeople,” says Figa, who also minored in health studies with a concentration in gender and sexuality studies.
Their thesis, “Finding Identity Within Online Community: A Cyberethnography of FTM YouTubers,” examines the relationships between these transgender content creators, their internet platforms, their bodies, mass media, and each other. Figa not only researched the content uploaded by these female-to-male (FTM) vloggers, but also interviewed three of them—Liam Rutz, Chase Ross, and Charles Thomy. Because accessible websites and the involvement of interview subjects were so pivotal to the thesis project, Figa created a digital, interactive version of the thesis—and its external resources—to live on an easily findable, interactive website.
“It became very important to me to pay homage to these vloggers and to make my work accessible to them,” says Figa. “I want to break the illusion that academic/personal analysis can only exist within academia or with academic experience.”
What did you learn from your thesis?
I learned quite a lot—that I will probably understand more deeply one day in the future—about the power of digital media, the often frustrating traditional societal and pedagogical frameworks, modes of embodiment, perceptions of gender, and expectations of gendered bodies. Despite the jargon of the previous sentence, however, one of the most impactful takeaways from the process of creating this thesis project is that everyone is truly their own expert when it comes to their own identity, and that many of the keys for unlocking many questions and analyses of identity politics sit outside the pillars of academia. Furthermore, many of these keys exist online, and are accessible to any curious mind with a connection to the internet.
What are the implications of your research?
I’m biased, but I believe the implications of my thesis research are many and varied, and may not be understood by me or others for many years. My research took place entirely online, which is a fieldsite—home to billions of other fieldsites—that is rarely explored in the field of anthropology. I believe that the future of anthropology includes the integration of online fieldsites and cyberethnographic methods, and I, therefore, feel that my thesis joins the small and growing pool of cyberethnographies that hopefully stand at the forefront of the future of anthropological method.
This work—adding to [the field of] trans studies—brings new insight to conversations of both gendered and cyber-influenced embodiment. Secondly, it exposes the nuances of trans narratives and experiences, increasing the heterogeneity of trans experiences in academic texts. Thirdly, my identity as a trans, genderqueer student, reflexively exploring and analyzing aspects of my own identity, embodiment, and experience, gives a louder voice to trans scholars as a heterogeneous collective.
“What They Learned” is a blog series exploring the thesis work of recent graduates.