You may be interested to know what my task is for this week. Actually it is about digging deep into an online community which I am not familiar with before and doing ethnographical investigation. Following my own interest, I chose one of the many forums about GID and did observations.
What is GID?
GID stands for Gender Identity Disorder, a formal diagnosis to describe people who experience significant discontent with the sex they were assigned at birth and/or the gender roles associated with that sex. This is not a mental illness according to international classification.  There’s one saying that “Sex is between the legs. Gender is between the ears.” That means, from the biological perspective, sex depends on one’s genital, while psychological gender determined by one’s brain. Some people identify themselves as the opposite gender by their self-consciousness, while they have clear awareness of their born sex.
The Forum Rules
I started my online ethnography observation by reading the forum rules. It says that the website has administrators and for each forum in the site, they have moderators. All of these people are volunteers and should be active users. You need to register in before you publish a post, but it is free for anonymous browsing. Moderators will not edit or delete posts but have the right to remind of offensive words, so please consider carefully before actually posting it. Especially for new members, their first few posts need approval by the moderator before they are published. I think the rules well control the published content in the forum.
I found that most of the posts were written by people who are uncertain or confused about their gender identify and sexual orientation, especially by some young teenagers, asking for help or advice. I want to point out that most help seekers never told their stories to anyone before, whereas they wrote post in the forum. Some posts start by sentence like “I have not told anyone about this, please help me…” I just pick out some posts and outline them as follows:
– User A, a boy aged 18, said that he wanted to be a girl from his childhood and he always wanted to wear women clothes. He posted here because he did not know what should do and ask for advice.
– User B is also a teenaged boy in his 17, telling a really long story that he puzzled on whether he was a gay or straight or bisexual in the beginning, then he realized his inner desire was to be a woman. He did not think he was a transgender, “but it felt strange”.
– User C craved a feminine body but still wanted to be masculine looking a bit. But anyway, he felt he has a feminine mind stuck in his body.
– User D is biologically a female, but all she liked were boy things from her childhood. She did not feel comfortable being neither a female nor a male.
Although this forum is not a big one with hundreds of users, fortunately, I found that every post has several replies with substantial content but not gossip only. Moreover, the replies are all positive suggestions and encouragement, sometimes even based on the responders’ own experiences, which will make the advice more helpful for the help seeker. Some examples:
– “If you like women’s clothes, just enjoy it”
– “How we show by clothes is not the matter, it is what gender we feel like”
Particularly, the moderator appears as an experienced and nice person who replies to almost every post and gives constructive advice. For example,
– “Only you can know how it is you feel about this. I think contacting a counsellor is a good first step, so you have someone to talk about this in real life as well. Wish you the best.”
Some users are also willing to talk with the help seeker by private messages. Besides, they often advise the help seeker to get offline help from local help lines, queer and transsexual groups, psychologists and professional services.
Does it really help?
One user (as a boy, he believed his inner was a girl) mentioned that he heard of this forum from a friend who said it saved his life. Hence, although he “did not know where to start”, he thought this was a good place to tell his story. This case makes me believe this kind of site has actual positive meanings for the related people and benefits them.
Asking Relevant Questions and Discussing
The posts are not only written by people who need help, but also by people who have gender related questions. Some users made very long replies (more than 1000 words) to such questions, and they discussed together around the question. Sometimes it felt like they were writing a thesis, but it was quite interesting to read. For instance, a user asked about what gender is exactly. Among the replies I found an impressive one saying that it is a more fluid thing within a range rather than a dualistic concept. This opinion was shared by many members on the forum.
In brief, I gained a lot from this observation experience. I saw some real stories, their confusions, and different opinions related to gender identity. Furthermore, it was good to see that the community members were helping each other, and experience the positive atmosphere on the forum. From an ethnographical perspective, people like to find unique information and contribute more when they find it . In my opinion, this forum is one that attracts members due to feeling different, and they participate actively du to their similarity with each other.
 Wikipedia. Gender Identity Disorder.
 Pamela J. Ludford, Dan Cosley, Dan Frankowski, Loren Terveen. Think different: increasing online community participation using uniqueness and group dissimilarity. Proceedings of the SIGCHI conference on Human factors in computing systems. ACM, 2004.