The purpose of this paper is to examine how and why LGBTQIA+ youth use online platforms to create communities. It argues that social media platforms, such as Tik Tok and YouTube facilitate communication and connection between teens so they are able to find support when they are unable to through other means (families, friends etc.). Without the platforms, LGBTQIA+ may not be able to express their identities or be provided with education about their sexualities from likeminded communities. This will be proven with evidence from recent scholarly journal articles on queer youth social media use and virtual third place communities, as well as analysis of articles from reputable queer publications and the platforms used by teens.
The idea of community has changed as people and technology evolve, however no matter the form it takes, they are vital for every person. They provide a sense of belonging where people can share ideas and feel secure in their place in society (Delanty, 2018). Social media platforms provide an important means for people to connect and become a community. They help form online communities which are personalised, lifestyle-oriented and enable communication with a greater number of people with similar interests (Delanty, 2018). A community of this description is referred to as a third place. “’Third place’is a term coined by sociologist Ray Oldenburg and refers to places where people spend time between home (‘first’ place) and work (‘second’ place)” (Reilly, 2019, para.1). Traditionally these have included coffee shops, churches, libraries etc. however, now the virtual world has been thought of as a third place. The younger generations are especially drawn to online communities, this includes the LGBTQIA+ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Intersex, Asexual, and others) who can face discrimination and ostracization, so they are turning to social media to communicate and connect to others like themselves (Hawkins & Watson, 2017). The scope of the paper is to examine how and why these teens are utilising social media to create communities. It argues that LGBTQIA+ youth use online platforms such as Tik Tok and Instagram as a third place to connect to each other when they are unable to find support in offline communities.
The Online Third Place
Online platforms provide a third place for people to be able to express themselves and feel secure in their identity.“‘Third place’ is a term coined by sociologist Ray Oldenburg and refers to places where people spend time between home (‘first’ place) and work (‘second’ place). They are locations where people exchange ideas, have a good time, and build relationships” (Reilly, 2019, para.1). They give a sense of belonging, where they can find comfort. Places are part of a person’s identity and are “humanised space” where a safe point and perception of social reality can be created (Markiewicz, 2020). The characteristics of Oldenburg’s theory indicate how people benefit from third places. They are defined as where people are on neutral ground, where playful conversation with people like themselves is easily accessible outside of the home (Markiewicz, 2020). In the past, it was believed that these had to be physical places, like coffee shops and libraries, however virtual or online communities are also becoming part of the theory. Virtual reality “refers to spaces, objects and phenomena created by means of computers” and virtual community is “typically used to refer to groups of Internet users” (Markiewicz, 2020, p.13). Because online communities are places one can visit in-person, it was thought they could not be part of the third place, but this is changing as more people connect virtually. Both virtual and offline communities are social spaces where people unite to share common interests and communicate, and the only difference between the two is online people do not meet in person (Markiewicz, 2020). Younger people who have been exposed to the Internet their whole lives are more likely to connect online. Gen Z are used to the mobile accessibility and speed of the Internet, so they turn to social media to build relationships and squash loneliness (O’Reilly, 2019). Because of this, it is easy to see why sites such as Tik Tok and Instagram have become so popular. As technology becomes part of our everyday lives, online platforms will continue to be a means to create third places where people can connect and communicate.
Creating LGBTQI+ Online Communities
LGBTQIA+ youth are careful about what online platforms they turn to create communities because they are aware of finding spaces that are supportive of them and not perpetuating stereotypes. Many spaces online are run by cis-gendered people who push heteronormative beliefs, so trans or queer representations are usually negative or erased (Jenzen, 2017). This has caused teens to ignore sites like Facebook, and instead turn to Tik Tok, YouTube, and Instagram. Ohlheiser (2020) states sites like Tik Tok give LGBTQIA+ users a place to share their real, uncensored feelings and, “Although TikTok is public…the videos in that space are supportive and sometimes surprisingly confessional.” The sites give teens a place to use their voices to express their identities and lives, while feeling comfortable knowing they can connect to others who are like them. They also help promote safety online by being able to be anonymous. LGBTQIA+ youth often need to guard their identities for fear of being “outed” before they are ready. It is argued that “cyberspaces are platforms for youth to be more open about their sexuality through the usage of avatars or other types of alternate personalities; these domains are important because – unlike their heterosexual peers who typically do not need to create alternate personalities” (Hawkins & Watson, 2016, p.123). The ability to communicate to each other while safely keeping their identity a secret, if they need to, is something that they may not be able to do in offline communities. The platforms chosen by the teens promotes a safe place for them to create a third place, where their voices are heard and recognised by others without censorship.
Online platforms provide tools, such as hashtags, comments and algorithms, for its users, and the LGBTQIA+ teens utilise them to attract and connect to other likeminded teens. The tools are vital in bringing people together by showing others they are part of the same community. Hashtags such as “#Trans and #nonbinary Tik Tok is a booming place for teens to connect, talk about serious issues like gender dysphoria and unsupportive parents, and have a laugh” (Lopez, 2020, para.17). It is not only Tik Tok who utilises this tool. Recently, Instagram has been celebrating pride by changing the appearance of some of the most popular queer hashtags. Hashtags such as #gay #pride #lesbian, have a rainbow gradient uploaded over them to show and promote queer expression (Parson & Lau, 2019). The hashtags make it easier for teens to identify others who are like themselves so they can feel comfortable communicating. Along with the hashtags, being able to like or comment on posts also helps in building a community. Based on a person’s online activity, an algorithm creates a suggestion list of similar content it believes you may also like to view (Matsakis, 2020). That means, with every click of the like button or comment and each view of a queer video, the site will suggest more profiles similar for the person to follow, which creates more connections and makes the community to grow. The tools have become an important part of being able to connect with each other, and without them the teens would not be able to build strong communities online.
Finding Support Online
The main reason teens head to online spaces is to find support and education when they cannot access it offline. LGBTQIA+ teens can experience a lot of discrimination and information can be difficult to find in some circumstances, but online platforms can help combat this. Support groups such as the Trevor project and GLSEN (Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network) state that young queer people who do not have support or access to a safe space among their peers or family, often feel lost and suicidal, so online communities are incredibly important places for helping teens (Lopez, 2020). There are places offline to that offer safe spaces to connect, such as PFLAG and The Freedom Centre, however this is not always an option. For those who live in hostile or isolated spaces, online communities offer a place to explore their identities, contribute to community resources, find support and connect to others in a similar situation (Dym et al., 2019). Online communities also provide support through another means: calling out homophobia and “haters” so a narrative of positive support is displayed instead of perpetuating animosity. In 2020, a hate group called the Proud Boys began posting using the hashtag #proudboys to spread anti-gay and racist messages, however, the LBGTQIA+ community started to share images of gay pride with the same hashtag to flood social media with their content instead of homophobia (ABC news, 2020). This type of protest illustrates that there is support and protection online for those who are seeking it. Online spaces are a vital resource for LGBTQIA+ teens; they aid in being able to find support and not feel alone when they have no other place to turn.
During the Covid-19 pandemic, online platforms became a main source of support while isolated in lockdown. For some teens, being alone or with family who do not support or understand LGBQTIA+ issues was detrimental to their mental health and sense of belonging. “People in the LGBTQ+ community are three times more likely to struggle with mental health, and 38-65% more likely to struggle with suicidal ideation” (Mars, 2020, para.2). This problem has only increased during the pandemic. Teens have been separated from their support networks and can be in unsympathetic homes, which can exacerbate depression and suicidal thoughts (Lopez, 2020). Because of these issues, it has become more important to be able to be a part of an online community. During the past year, there has been an increasing number of teens seeking out and joining online groups to connect (Lopez, 2020). The Trevor Project and PFLAG (Parents, Friends and Families of Lesbians and Gays) have been championing for safe online spaces for teens as a way for them to fight loneliness and mental health issues by being able to access education and express their identities (Hawkins & Watson, 2017). Identity expression and finding out information is important because it helps shape someone’s personality and build resilience, while also making sure they stay safe by knowing about any serious issues relating to themselves that can arise (Miller, 2017). In times of great hardship, such as Covid-19, it illustrates the need for online third places for LGBTQIA+ teens. They provide an important place for helping with mental health and not feeling isolated from their support networks when they cannot access them in-person. Mental health could decline and worsen if they were unable to go online to communicate with others.
Despite all the positive reasons why social media is beneficial to teens, there is dark side to creating communities online. It is suggested that the virtual world is not a safe space for teens, especially with the prevalence of trolls and misinformation. Predominantly, trolling (people who intentionally want to upset or inflame others online) is a major issue when it comes to providing a safe online space. According to the Stonewall Report (2017), even though in person homophobic slurs have decreased, two in five LGBTQIA+ teens are still being bullied online. Being queer or expressing support for the group can cause the person to become a target for trolls and haters. However, it is becoming common place for a large number of teens to call out the behaviour and protect each other, just like they did with the Proud Boys.
As young people increasingly talk back to “the haters”, this creates opportunities for those targeted by hate speech to form alliances and develop new strategies for dealing with homo and transphobia. Indeed, addressing haters is emerging and evolving as a whole genre of social media activity in itself (Jenzen, 2019, para.14).
Even though there are negative experiences with haters and trolls, the teens are not allowing it to impact their communities or stop them from expressing their identities. Unfortunately, misinformation is harder to combat online than trolls, especially when it involves sexual health. On platforms favourited by LGBTQIA+ teens, false information about how HIV is spread and the popularity of “barebacking” (not using a condom during sexual activities) is widely circulated under the guise of providing education to the community (Hawkins & Watson, 2017). Information such as this can cause major health issues and needs to be addressed quickly. Medical professionals suggest queer sex education in schools and doctor’s clinics, as well as online advertising of GLESN and the Trevor Project could help teens access safe sex literature (Hawkins & Watson, 2017). Despite the occurrences of trolling and misinformation, it is evident that the online communities give protection to those who are been targeted by people who want to cause trouble, and even though ideas about safe sex can spread, there are places online to find the facts. Even with negative issues surrounding teens online, they can provide a safe, protected space.
This paper has argued that online platforms such as Tik Tok and Instagram provide a third place for LGBTQIA+ teens to connect to each other when they are unable to in offline communities. Queer teens can face discrimination and lack of support from families, so Tik Tok and Instagram have become spaces where the teens can freely express their sexualities and gender identities, and offer each other support and education. These are important places to help with mental health and to give a sense of belonging, and even though there are trolls and haters present online, the teens protect each other and call out homophobia. Without online platforms, they could be without support and connection to others like themselves. The limitations of the paper are minor: scholarly journal articles were used as research, but information from online publications were also included. However, they are all reputable sources and provide information relevant for the argument. Further areas of research for this topic would be to investigate what would happen to the teens if they did not have access to online spaces to strengthen the argument about the importance and need for the platforms in the creation of third place communities.
ABC News. (2020, October 5). Twitter flooded with gay pride images using the hashtag
#proudboys. ABC News. https://www.abc.net.au/news/2020-10-05/twitter-flooded-with-gay-pride-images-using-proudboys/12731894
Delanty, G. (2018). Community (3rd Ed). Routledge. https://doi-
Dym, B, Brubaker, J, Fiesler, C, & Semaan, B. (2019). Coming out okay: Community
Narratives for LGBTQ identity recovery work. Proceedings of the ACM on the Human-Computer interactions, 154, 1-28. https://doi-org.dbgw.lis.curtin.edu.au/10.1145/3359256
Jenzen, O. (2017). Trans youth and social media: moving between counterpublics and the
wider web. Gender, place and culture, 21 (11), 1626-1641, https://doi.org/10.1080/0966369X.2017.1396204
Jenzen, O. (2019, February 1). LGBTQ teenagers are creating new online subculture to
combat oppression. The conversation. https://theconversation.com/lgbtq-teenagers-are-creating-new-online-subcultures-to-combat-oppression-110848
Hawkins, B, & Watson, R. (2016). LGBT cyberspaces: a need for holistic investigation.
Children’s Geographies, 15 (1), 122-128. https://doi.org/10.1080/14733285.2016.1216877
Lopez, C (2020). How LGBT teens are cut off from support networks in quanantine, so
they’re building community online instead. Insider. https://www.insider.com/lgbtq-teens-are-building-community-online-while-quarantined-2020-4
Markiewics, E. (2020). Third places in the era of virtual communities. Studia Periegetica, 4
(28) 9-12. DOI: 10.26349/st.per.0028.01
Mars (2020). Queer in quarantine: connecting to online queer communities. Public health
Matsakis, L. (2020, June 18). Tik Tok finally explains how the for you algorithm works.
Ohlheiser, A. (2020, January 28). Tik Tok has become the soul of LGBTQ internet. The
Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/technology/2020/01/28/tiktok-has-become-soul-lgbtq-internet/
O’Reilly, C. (2019, December 19). A virtual world and a “Third Place” may just save your
health. Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/sites/colleenreilly/2019/12/19/a-virtual-world-and-a-third-place-may-just-save-your-health/?sh=4f0541b37dfe
Parson, C, & Lau, J. (2019, May 6). Celebrating LGBTQ Pride with new features, hashtags
and tools. Instagram. https://about.instagram.com/blog/announcements/celebrating-lgbtq-pride-with-new-features-and-tools
Stonewall (2017). Stonewall school report 2017. Stonewall.
12 thoughts on “Social Media Provides a Third Place for LGBT Youth”
I loved reading about the importance of online platforms to create LGBTQIA+ communities. I also touch on this in my paper where I talk about TikTok facilitating the formation of activist communities supporting gender equality. TikTok allows for self-expression and connects likeminded users to formulate safe communities within the platform. From my personal experiences on TikTok and coming across videos from these communities on my ‘For You’ page, I have found that content from these communities are very educational for both members and non-members of the LGBTQIA+ community. I was saddened by your statistic stating that “two in five LGBTQIA+ teens are still being bullied online.” However, the formation of these online communities and the confidence it gives users to call out bad behaviour and protect each other is really uplifting. Do you think TikTok is doing enough to protect its LGBTQIA+ users? Or could they do more?
Let me know your thoughts.
I really enjoyed reading your paper and absolutely agree in regards to Tiktok in particular being a great place for the LGBTQA+ community. Another platform for consideration as well could be Twitch, there has been a large influx of LGBTQA+ streamers on Twitch and the platform also uses hashtags (of a sort) and can flag their streams as LGBTQA+ this can also be used for allies as well. This tag makes it much easier for people to find people with similar interests or other LGBTQA+ streamers etc..
I have also found the Twitch to community itself to be incredibly supportive and intolerant of bullying or hate speech of any kind and they also have moderation in place and can ban users on the spot from their channels putting the control back in the creators hand instead of waiting for the app to remove them which i think is a great idea!~
Hi Tiffany! Very interesting and engaging topic, and I feel you wrote about it well!
As a member of the LGBT youth who frequents TikTok, this post really resonated with me. I agree with everything you brought up, and it’s both well researched and drawing off of personal experience (based off what you said in your response to Jasmine’s comment).
I’m wondering what you think on the effectiveness of the rainbow-coloured instagram hashtags that you brought up. Do you feel that singling out these hashtags to be rainbow coloured does much to support LGBT causes and awareness? Are there any downsides to doing this?
Thank you for the comment. I am very happy it resonated with you. As possibly a slightly older member of the LGBT, I didn’t have access to online platforms for connection or support so I am glad there is a place for younger (and older) people. I wish they were around when I was a kid.
Honestly, I think the rainbow gradient on Instagram is more of a marketing idea for the platform, though I hope it gives some comfort to people to feel less alone. I saw a post of social media where a guy said something along the lines of, “while companies adding a rainbow flag to products is more for marketing, if her had seen that as a kid it would have given him validation and know he was seen.”
I don’t think it does much for the cause in a larger sense. It probably only helps an individual who wants to see themself represented outside of their community.
That’s a very interesting perspective, and I have to say I do agree with it! I do find it very confusing however in that Instagram seems to stop there when it comes to “special” hashtags. I personally find a lot of “rainbow activism” by corporations to be senseless cash-grabs, and I’m not sure if this is any different. If you have a chance, have a read of the Vox article I will link below. It goes into how Pride month has transformed into a “commercial holiday” and I found it quite interesting.
I do see what you mean about people feeling represented when they do see the rainbow marketing. However, I find it quite odd that Instagram has then decided to stop at just Queer representation. There is a large volume of activism which occurs on Instagram, how come there is no special treatment of the #blacklivesmatter tag? Or the #97% tag. Both of these have easily-imagined colour schemes (BLM – red, yellow, black. Feminism/#97% – pink). The lack of support in other advocacy leads to feel as if Instagram is also only doing it for a profit.
Abad-Santos, A. (2018). How LGBTQ Pride Month became a branded holiday. Retrieved 10 May 2021, from https://www.vox.com/2018/6/25/17476850/pride-month-lgbtq-corporate-explained
The article is incredibly interesting, especially when put in the context of contrasting how Pride and Stonewall started as a fight for rights and end to violence, but today Pride is a marketing strategy. Will I do like to see rainbow flags everywhere, it would be more beneficial if the businesses did more to support us. Sometimes it is just lip-service to sell more products.
You are right about Instagram not doing more for other groups. I hadn’t thought about it until you brought it to my attention. I guess pride and pretty rainbows is easy to market, but BLM or women’s rights don’t sell. Instagram and other platforms leave it up to individuals to protest. They could be doing more through specialised hashtags and making statements in support of them, and kicking off people in hate groups.
This was such a great paper and very interesting I just wanted to keep reading! There were some amazing points in this article and while it does make sense, I was still surprised to hear the social media became the main source of support during the pandemic. I did notice this back last year on platforms such as Tiktok when most of my newsfeed was people ranting and creating content to cope with what was going on in the world around them.
I also found it interesting to see how over the years, preferred platforms have also changed with Facebook being considered quite outdated now and Tiktok being the most popular app for people around our age. I loved how towards the end of your article you talked about sexual health and how this online space has started impacting real life and real situations. It is scary to think of how much control strangers seem to hold in peoples lives and how misinformation is hard to control.
I do have a few questions relating to this article. Do you think we will ever see a decline in the hate and negativity that is spread among these platforms and towards certain communities? And would you consider these platforms to have been a good coping mechanism throughout the pandemic?
Thank you for reading it and commenting. I think it is always important to write about marginalized groups and know what they need in terms of support. I was once a teen in the LGBTQIA+ group over 15 years ago and the change in that time is significant. There was no places online, you had to physically go to a support group which was difficult if you lived in an isolated place, so knowing that today they can go online and find a community so easily makes me happy.
That is a really hard question. I do hope there will be a decline as more people call out the hater or platforms do more to ban hate speech, but I think it will be always be part of platforms.
I also think that the platforms are a good coping mechanism. Covid isolated people even more than they might have previously been, so connecting online gave them access to their community and hopefully helped take their minds of their problems for awhile. Especially on Tik Tok where people do silly dances and fun activities, it can make people feel good.
I enjoyed reading your paper, you discuss a very relevant topic in today’s world. Your paper caught my eye as I also did a paper discussing the third place but in regard to deaf individuals and it interested me to see how our papers were the same and different when discussing these minorities using social media.
I thought you raised an interesting point about the LGBTQIA+ community being selective of the platforms they choose to become third places. This to me feels as if the shadow of history, such as the Stonewall Riots and the stigma held especially by the older generations, plays a part in the caution taken by these community members when creating their third place on social media. The advances in technology really have made the algorithms extremely good at curating content and people for you to follow, especially Tik Tok creating a further sense of community.
It is really encouraging to see the support between members of these minority groups on social media. We can see parallels in both our papers where members of these communities have reached out in their third places to bond over shared interests and proved to themselves and the world that they are proud of who they are. I discuss in my paper how these third places also facilitate a means for its members to potentially meet offline, and while this may not always be the case for members of the LGBTQIA+ community, I believe this further offline connection is possible for many LGBTQIA+ individuals as well as deaf individuals.
It is great to see the topic of COVID-19 touched on as I did not get to it in my paper. You explain really well how social media has helped LGBTQIA+ individuals to support one another in difficult and socially distanced times. It is so sad and heartbreaking to hear the percentage of LGBTQIA+ community members with mental health struggles which are further added to be the stresses of COVID-19. These third places on social media platforms show the characteristic defined by Oldenburg as being wholesome, warm and supportive socialising, which would benefit the LGBTQIA+ community members and take a step in the right direction to decrease these percentages.
These characteristics of third places including accommodating LGBTQIA+ members and allowing them to be equal to one another, thus not feeling beneath “the haters” is a great benefit of social media platforms which encourages community support systems.
Heres a link to my paper if you’re interested: https://networkconference.netstudies.org/2021/2021/04/26/strengthening-deaf-community-ties-through-social-media-platforms/
Thank you for reading and commenting on my paper. That is really interesting that we were able to write how social media provides a third place, but were able to write from the perspectives of different groups. It is wonderful that there is places for LBGTQIA+ teens and deaf individuals to connect and support one another.
I had never before realised that deaf people would wouldn’t be able to get information in disasters or emergencies. i can see that being part of an online community would be especially important and having access to closed caption videos. I have noticed on Instagram recently that more posts, even from celebrities or lifestyle pages, are using the captions to enable a larger number of people access their content. it is wonderful.
Even though there are negative sides to being online, it is good to know there can be places for people to create supportive communities.
Hi Tiffany, this is Wen. I totally agree with your point of view and what you have addressed is really the online environment that the LGBTQA+ are in. It could be confusing and depressing when the youth found out that they might be a LGBT, but social media has become a place for them during the identity developmental processes, and the “third place” also provides an informal learning environment, so they can have the chance to explore what is inside them as a LGBT youth (Craig et al., 2021). Back in the time when there was not much platforms for LGBT youth to express themselves, and that could be depressing for them since they might find it hard to find someone that could understand and support them. Nowadays, there are more people who are known as social media influencers are supportive and influencing the level of public acceptance of the LGBT community despite they might not know each other, thanks to the “third place”!
Reference: Craig, S. L., Eaton, A. D., McInroy, L. B., Leung, V. W. Y., & Krishnan, S. (2021). Can Social Media Participation Enhance LGBTQ+ Youth Well-Being? Development of the Social Media Benefits Scale. Social Media + Society. https://doi.org/10.1177/2056305121988931
Thank you for the reply and for including a reference. Online places are so important for helping these teens access information and support. I was shocked at the high rates of depression and suicide (listed in the paper) of LGBT teens, but finding connection online helps them know they are not alone.
I myself used to think only of the negatives of being online – trolling and negative imagery etc – but it has a positive that many people need to create communities.