‘Ti: A Queer Social Network’ is a research and design project that focuses on the interplay of identity, queerness, and social networking. Social networks have the power to affect self-identity, and play a significant role in the identity construction of the queer people who use them. My user research revealed some stark disconnects between the activity of LGBTQ+ people on social networks and the platforms and wider environment that exist to serve them.

Ti was designed as a response: a social media offering that is better aligned with the people using it, and addresses larger infrastructural queer-specific needs such as platform moderation and data protection.

Role
Qualitative Research
Autoethnography
User Interviews
Visual Design
Wireframing
Interactive Prototyping
User Testing
Year
2020-2021
Explore and discover with an open algorithm.
Collect content that resonates with you using ties.
Share your story with others.
Explore and discover with an open algorithm.
Collect content that resonates with you using ties.
Share your story with others.

1. Background

My research question throughout this project was: what role do social networking sites play in the formation and maintenance of queer identity? Lacking the traditional interpersonal and institutional relationships that usually assist in forming a sense of self, queer people must actively seek out and construct identity and community, which increasingly happens on social networking sites. Using this finding as an anchor point, I spoke to people to get specific examples of this happening in everyday life, and to identify design opportunities around this phenomenon.

What I found was that despite widespread use of social networking sites, there were some pretty stark disconnects between what the platforms afforded and the activity happening on them. For example, young people were using dating apps as the first space where they talked to other queer people and learnt what it meant to be queer. People also spent a lot of time actively seeking out more realistic representations of themselves online that just don’t exist in mainstream media. And nearly everyone I interviewed spoke about the need for a community-based queer social network, with lots of people relying on dating apps to find that sense of community. The LGBTQ+ social networks that exist at the moment are fragmented and really offer a limited range of expression. 

My response to this was Ti, a queer social network that’s centred around building and communicating identity. It acts a hub for queer content, and offers a space that people can use to explore and share both their interests and aspects of their identity. My design is also a critical response to existing social networking platforms that offer constrained forms of interaction and are closed off in terms of how you can explore content and how the algorithm behind the platform works. As well, Ti attempts to include larger infrastructural queer-specific needs in the design narrative.

Ti is a work in progress and I'm hopeful that I will be able to realise it as an application. Its exact form will likely change, but I believe that a social network whose core function is one of understanding yourself and communicating that is both new and needed.

2. Research

A. Qualitative Research

My research began with a critical review of theory and research in the field of identity, identity online, identity and social networking sites, and queer identity and social networking sites, with each section forming a foundation for the next.

Non-essentialism sees identity as multiple and continuously shaped, co-produced, and reaffirmed through participation in social practices and contexts. The literature suggests the experience of identity online is just as powerful offline, and to which a non-essentialist perspective is just as applicable.

Social networks afford the construction and performance of identity, and play an active role in the formation of people’s identities and their understanding of themselves. And because of this, we need to consider the constraints within social networks, and the types of identity and degree of exploration and expression that they allow or facilitate.

This is especially true for queer people, who, in the absence of formal institutions – family, friends, school, social organisations – that usually assist in enculturation, frequently rely on social networks to construct identity and community. This activity happens in various ways – experimental behaviour, enacting the identities of others, learning to negotiate queer life – all exploring the boundaries of identity and sexuality.
B. User Research

I used semi-structured interviews as a form of exploration into design possibilities and to discover more personal narratives of queer experience on SNSs, guided by my research question

The first part of the interview was concerned with gathering information on people’s relationship between their queer identity and the social networks they use or have used. We used a list of these platforms as a talking point and I framed their identity in key periods if they were having trouble recalling or talking about it – ‘discovery’, ‘formation’, ‘evolving’, and ‘learning’. The next part covered non-social network elements that relate to participants’ queer identity. I gave the participant a mapping exercise to identify these and asked them to talk me through the diagram, prompting a deeper exploration into each. Finally, I asked the participants to draw on the first two sections and consider what is missing from current offerings that would help in supporting any aspect of their queer identity.

To analyse the interviews I first highlighted any quotes relevant to queer identity, annotating them with a description and overarching theme. I then grouped the themes and corresponding quotes into broader categorisations of experience.

3. Design

The research revealed a lot, so as much as possible, I concentrated on the most compelling findings, determining five guiding principles in the context of a social network:

A.
A social network for young LGBTQ+ people to discover and explore their identity and sexuality in a space designed with this in mind.

B.
...that strives for fuller and more realistic representations of the people using it versus the current norm.

C.
...that facilitates connection for queer people on- and offline.
D.
...that creates a sense of community for the person using it, with the hope that they will form/expand strong offline communities.

E.
Content-monitoring by queer people to manage harassment, hate-speech, and potential abuse. And queer-sensitive data architecture around the app itself.
I wanted to create a space where you can talk to friends, post selfies, and access articles on transfeminism all in the one place. I was starting to realise that relying on people to create this content directly on the platform itself would be unrealistic. Instead, it would embrace the fact that many social networks act as publications, and would curate using external links to build a wide network of content that people can explore and interact with.

I was also attempting to redefine what it means to be ‘successful’ on a social network. Rather than a perfect image or reproducing codes of behaviour, success here is centred around building a compelling narrative of the self. The game is linking together what you have found helpful or instructive in building your identity and sharing it with others so that they might do the same. The winners are the people who are best at sharing their identity and expressing themselves.

I had been struggling to come up with a name that covered the interconnectedness of the information as well as the ability to use this information to relate back to your own personal identity. Giving my project a brand identity – Ti – really helped in consolidating the whole thing. I worked out from the name, and questioned what it was and who it was for, how it would make people feel, and how it differentiated itself from what’s available.
Wireframes
Version 1
Version 2

4. Testing

I wanted to test the perceived meaning of Ti, as well as more practical elements like the usability of the app and its place in the life of the participant. I used a task-based approach to achieve this, choosing to test three key areas. The tests were done remotely and asynchronously, allowing me to gather feedback from more people and guaranteed I wouldn’t bias the results through prompting answers or otherwise.

The first task shows the user a promo-style video of my design. The questions target users’ understanding of new concepts that Ti introduces and determines if the overall purpose and meaning is clear. The second task focuses on the onboarding process, using an interactive prototype to test the usefulness of each step as well as the inclusivity of language and options. The third task is the largest and uses both a walkthrough video and interactive prototype to test the navigation, understanding of key features, responses to design elements, overall feel of the app, as well as the positioning of the social network against existing SNSs in participants’ lives.
The feedback from user testing fell under four broad categorisations: validations are affirmations of the intended design; insights are new findings that are in line the purpose of Ti; confusion arose when there was a disconnect between the intended design and participant’s reaction, and; suggestions are just that.