Digital Data 2019, Week 08

Week 08: Researching the Trans Community with Reddit

Two recent articles have analyzed Reddit discussion forums to investigate issues specific to the transgender community. Farber (2017) investigates how transgender men create and recreate their gender through fitness, conceptualizing fitness as a technology or a tool to be used towards an end, rather than simply a state of being. To do this, Farber uses mixed methods, first scraping data from a relevant forum on Reddit (aka a subreddit) devoted to transgender men’s issues broadly speaking, using grounded theory to develop a general outline of recurring themes, and then performing additional automated searches to more fully flesh out her data. Farber also conducts digitally-mediated interviews of seven participants from a smaller subreddit on a more focused topic, specifically transgender men’s fitness.

Aydian Dowling is one of the transgender men interviewed in Farber’s research.

Meanwhile, Darwin focuses on the experience of non-binary people, asking three questions: “(1) how do people attempt to ‘do nonbinary gender’; (2) under what circumstances does nonbinary gender ‘succeed’ in interactionist terms; and (3) does the doing of nonbinary gender contribute toward the redoing or undoing of (binary) gender?” (2017:318). Darwin also scrapes a subreddit, one focused on issues within the genderqueer community, analyzing 500 discussion threads in a three-step open coding process. In addition to performing a discourse analysis of the text, Darwin performs a content analysis of several images upload by forum users.

Both of these studies investigate communities who are usually not the focus of, or even represented within, gender research; they use automated methods to collect data; and the coding processes are inductive and grounded in the collected data, not forced into categories determined ahead of time. As a result of these similarities, these projects face many of the same challenges. Reddit’s structure encourages anonymity, which makes it hard to follow up with individual participants. Both of these researchers had to consider the ethical implications of collecting and using data that, while publicly accessible, in some cases was very personal and the use of which they hadn’t been granted permission. Also, neither of these authors appear to be a part of the community undergoing study, so their understanding of the data, and therefore their ability to fully code and organize it, would have been limited.

That said, these challenges also create some important opportunities. The anonymity that makes it hard to track down individual authors may also provide participants with a sense of safety that allows them to be more honest and open than they would otherwise be, leading to richer data. This anonymity also helps resolve some (although not all) of the ethical conundrums involved with using personal stories and perspectives without consent, as it somewhat reduces the likelihood of the subjects being harmed by the research process. And, the inherent distance of an outsider’s perspective might enable a researcher to pick up on and investigate patterns that members of the community take for granted, the way our socialization makes all of us take things for granted. Overall, these two studies provide an excellent view into how Reddit forums might be used for research purposes.

Darwin, Helana. 2017. “Doing Gender Beyond the Binary: A Virtual Ethnography.” Symbolic Interaction; Hoboken 40(3):317–34.

Farber, Rebecca. 2017. “‘Transing’ Fitness and Remapping Transgender Male Masculinity in Online Message Boards.” Journal of Gender Studies; Abingdon 26(3):254–68.

TheEllenShow. 2015. The Astounding Aydian Dowling. Retrieved March 16, 2019 (