A recent Saint Rose graduate had the opportunity to present his undergraduate research at the 70th Annual International Communication Association (ICA) Conference, an international forum for communications scholars, which took place May 20 through May 27. Of those who submitted entries, only 44% were accepted into the conference. Kyle Humphreys ‘20, a communications major with a concentration in critical media studies, had not planned to attend the event, which was originally planned to take place in the Gold Coast, Australia: The cost of airfare and hotel accommodations, coupled with the conference registration fee, was too much for the College student.
But when the conference pivoted to a virtual platform due to the COVID-19 pandemic — and the Economic Impact Payment stimulus check hit Humphreys’ bank account — he was able to cover the cost of the registration fee and attend the conference (virtually) to share his work with this prestigious academic community.
“The circumstances we are living in are unfortunate and scary, to say the least, but I’m glad this could be one of the better things to come out of it,” Humphreys said.
Humphreys’ work focuses on a topic that he is passionate about communicating to the world, hoping to broaden peoples’ perspectives of the transgender community. His research is titled “Transgender Micro-Celebrities as Minority Activists: How Broadcasting the Self Is Political.”
As a transgender man, Humphreys said his identity has a profound impact on the type of content he consumes, and points to a lack of representation in mainstream media as harmful to transgender progress. After witnessing transgender figures leverage new media to garner an audience and disseminate ideas, Humphreys wondered if their digital presence was widely influential. He began to develop the foundation for his research in Professor Jin Kim’s Research in Communications course, and his instructor encouraged him to submit his work to the ICA conference. Today, Humphreys is hoping to publish his paper in a research journal and continue research at the graduate level.
Learn more about Humphreys’ research in this Q&A:
Q: Your research focuses on transgender micro-celebrities and the role they play in political activism. What drew you to this topic, and why?
A: There aren’t a lot of prominent transgender figures in media. A lot of people know Jazz Jennings, Laverne Cox, and Caitlyn Jenner. But these figures don’t represent the diversity of the transgender community in the slightest. The subjects of my study, while also transgender women, sort of represent different facets of the transgender community. There isn’t a lot of transgender research out there, and major research conducted in Germany on transgender and homosexual identities was destroyed by Nazis before World War II. People are acting like being transgender is such a new thing, when it’s very normal and predates all of the discussion that policymakers and talkshow hosts have been having about whether transgender people deserve privileges that cisgender people take for granted. I wanted to conduct some research that shows how new media plays an important role in an underrepresented community and what kind of messages they share in doing this. I was already an avid watcher of Natalie Wynn’s YouTube channel ContraPoints, and was able to see how her videos impacted the transgender community, for better or worse, and how they impacted the minds of people who were not as open-minded about transgender identities.
Q: In your research, you focus on two transgender micro-celebrities, Blaire White and Natalie Wynn, who sit on opposite sides of the political spectrum. What frameworks were used to examine their influence as political activists?
A: I referenced work by Effrat Daskal on digital-rights activists and how they are able to engage their followers and garner support for their social movement. Daskal found that digital-rights activists engage in cultural information framing, personal activism, and branding of activism. I looked at their content and interactions with their fan base after applying Tobias Raun’s framework for microcelebrities for these qualities and determined how effective they were at doing so. It is hard to measure the people who have been influenced by their videos, so this seemed to make the most sense. I had a lot more examples for personal activism and branding of activism, but Blaire White deleted a mass of her tweets, and I had to move around the timeframe of tweets I analyzed to accommodate for that in the later edition of this paper. It was very frustrating. But, I think my research still proves how garnering these audiences and disseminating information in the manner that they do is a form of activism, even if it is not typical.
Q: How did you conduct your research — what processes did you use?
A: I always start by looking for other academic papers. If something is under researched, I don’t have a lot to build off of. So, this is my way of determining if I am onto something. I gathered a lot of articles using the All-Knight Search and put them into one folder labeled so that I knew what they were about. After vetting anything I couldn’t use, I started to read them and highlight segments I could use. Eventually I’d come across a framework that would work well for my method of analysis and I’d familiarize myself with it so that when performing my qualitative analysis, I could use the frameworks as a lens. Then I started writing.
I’m a free writer, so I’ll write with my knowledge after reading the papers and go back and include quotes and citations later. I get a lot done this way. As I arrive at qualitative analysis segments, I’ll start taking my notes and collecting tweets and videos I want to cite specifically.
Q: What were your findings, and did they surprise you in any way?
A: My findings were that the ways in which they communicate, present themselves, and what they communicate all serve as a form of activism for an underrepresented community. Approximately 1.4 million adults in the United States identify as transgender, and it’s safe to assume this number doesn’t represent people who have to hide their identity, people who have transitioned fully and do not consider themselves transgender anymore, or the numerous young adults/adolescents that identify as transgender. So, for transgender people to take their representation into their own hands, using new media, is honestly really awesome. It never struck me just how influential they were until I really got my hands dirty and watched their YouTube videos, not as a consumer, but a researcher.
Q: Why is it important for you to focus your research on the transgender community?
A: As I’ve mentioned, it’s a really under-researched area. People think that being transgender is a mental illness, and this language existed so long in medical texts that some transgender people genuinely believe they’re mentally ill for being the way they are. It’s not an empowering narrative and it’s not accurate. The World Health Organization declared that transgender identity is not a mental illness last year, finally catching up with what some of us already knew. But there is still so much vitriol for people who just don’t identify with what doctors assigned to them when they came into this world. So many transgender people, especially black trans women, are killed for living their authentic lives. I want people to understand this isn’t a fad, we aren’t just going to be erased, and we are resilient. In a world where we constantly have to justify our decisions to people unaffected by what we do with our bodies, new media provides a space where we can shape our narrative, live our truth, experiment with our presentation, and educate people about transgender identities.
Q: Do you plan on expanding this research in the future (grad school, etc.)?
A: I would like to get this published this year or early next. I may use Instagram instead of Twitter as a supplement to the analysis of YouTube videos, as they have deleted so many videos, and Instagram can better exemplify the emotional labors that go into microcelebrity branding. Graduate school is definitely something I am interested in, but I think I will pursue another topic when that happens.
Q: What role did Professor Jin Kim play in your research process?
A: Jin Kim not only approved of the topic but was very encouraging in my pursuit. He recognized the value of this research, and it is very encouraging for me as an undergraduate student to hear a professor recognize the merit of my research. He provided me with guidance, proofreading, and suggestions for things I should improve upon or expand. His enthusiasm and encouragement was definitely the most influential force in this research.
Q: How did you apply the knowledge that you gained throughout your communications coursework toward your research/writing/presentation processes?
A: I took Media Criticism at the same time I was taking Communications Theory, so some of what we were learning about in theory also helped me in media criticism. While Research in Communications course is a lot more in depth, learning some of those theories and what communications research is like, or can be like, definitely helped me get my footing in this research and envision what I could do.
Q: Congratulations on coming in first place at the Saint Rose Undergraduate Research Symposium in April! What was this research about? And, was this experience good practice for the ICA?
A: My research titled “At Your Discretion: Content Warnings on Mastodon” was about the utilization of a built-in content-warning feature on the social media platform Mastodon. Mastodon differs from Twitter in that the communities of Mastodon are self moderated and decentralized. I experienced and observed how important these content warnings were to creating these healthy spaces first hand, and wanted to get it down on paper. So many people disregard content warnings and see them as educational barriers, but they are really valuable for people with trauma, serious mental illness, or toxic stress. Sure, they are sometimes used in ways that prevent people from being exposed to new ideas, but that is not the only way they are used, and this research demonstrates that. Almost all of the respondents had a positive or very positive view on the use of content warnings on the platform. Preparing the poster and such got me thinking about how I wanted to put together my presentation for the ICA, but the real anxiety-inducing part about the ICA is that people I don’t even know are going to watch it! It’s very new and kind of scary to have students and scholars alike listening to my work and reading it without me being present.
Q: Why is the ICA an important platform to share your research? Ideally, what do you hope people take away from it? What do you hope to take away from it?
A: The International Communications Association is a serious organization. My paper was one of 44.27% of accepted submissions, which is really affirming for me. You don’t join the ICA and listen to these other scholars because you’re bored or passively interested in the topics — you’re invested in the field and its development. I hope people that listen in on it gain a better understanding of transgender identity, the capability of social media to maintain and grow social movements, and how garnering an audience can be used for activism.
Q: For students who want to submit their work to the ICA in the future, what advice would you give to them? Is it important to pick a subject that they are passionate about?
Definitely pick something you are passionate about or at least want to know more about. Something observable that you want to measure, a connection you’ve made on some level as a consumer, any of these things could give you some ideas. If it’s for the ICA, a final paper, or the undergraduate symposium, I cannot stress how important it is to research something you are interested in — because, if you don’t, every minute you sit down to work on it will be agonizing and you won’t be as engaged in the research process. When you really care about something, you want to know everything about it. And start today. Don’t wait until the last minute because even if it’s done on time, it won’t be work you can be proud of. Even if you think nobody can tell that it’s rushed, you’re not producing your best work. Give yourself time to proofread, bulk your theory sections, and think of what future researchers could do with your research.
Q: What are your future plans?
A: Ideally, I’d like to stay in the Albany area and work for a company that’s putting some good into this world, but the bottom line is to have a source of income and become independent. Once I’m situated, I’d like to pursue graduate school to get my master’s degree and a doctorate in communications so that I can become a professor of communications and inspire students the way my professors have inspired me. If that doesn’t happen though, I’ll be okay with being healthy and financially secure, as long as I have a dog.
Click here to watch Humphreys’ presentation for the ICA Conference!