Why do academics keep recruiting from AVEN?

In academic research that involves surveys or interviews, you’ll notice that a lot of asexuality studies do their recruiting through AVEN. I have a theory about what makes AVEN so convenient for research, and I also have some observations about the resulting impact and why that matters, leading into a broader discussion of citational politics. So really, the question posed in the title of this post is less a primary focus and more of a jumping-off point. Recruiting from the AVEN forums is one thing, but why is it that even when researchers aren’t constrained by recruitment-based methods, they sometimes seem hesitant to closely examine or engage with other ace communities?

[Crossposted to Pillowfort. Preview image by Bailey Rae Weaver, licensed under CC BY 2.0.]

Why Academics Keep Recruiting From AVEN

Since joining the Ace Journal Club, one of my go-to things to look for (besides any mention of gray-asexuality) has become the recruitment of participants through the AVEN forums. Sometimes the article’s method doesn’t involve participant recruitment, but when it does, AVEN is one of those names that comes up a lot (see for instance Scherrer, 2008; Brotto et al., 2008; Yule et al., 2013; Foster & Scherrer, 2014; Van Houdenhove et al., 2015; Dawson et al., 2016; Robbins et al., 2016; Bulmer & Izuma, 2018; Gupta, 2017a; Gupta, 2017b; Antonsen, 2020).

Some of these researchers have also recruited from places besides AVEN, and good for them (truly), but the point is that AVEN remains prominent. Why? The obvious answers would be “because AVEN is big” or “because AVEN is important.” However, since there are other ace communities that are big and important too, I think it’s worth unpacking at least three other factors: SEO, centralization, and viewability.

1. SEO (Search Engine Optimization)

SEO is a property of how much a website caters to or is catered to by search engines. How easy is your website to find with a simple web search? If you type a relevant keyword into Google or DuckDuckGo, what comes up? If a website or page has strategized well to get noticed and is listed high among the results, then that’s what you call good SEO.

That’s point number one in why academics would keep recruiting on AVEN: it has good SEO. It is really, really easy to find. Even if you know next to nothing about the topic of asexuality, all it takes is a single web search on “asexuality” and AVEN comes up at the top of the list. Conversely, even if you know that other asexual communities are out there, AVEN is still the easiest to pull up at a moment’s notice if you haven’t memorized a url.

If, hypothetically, you were interested in catching the attention of these researchers, then the first thing to do would be to learn more about how to boost your SEO. Bear in mind though that for recruitment, researchers aren’t just looking for an informational site, like Asexual Outreach, Asexuality Archive, or Aces & Aros — they’re also looking for someplace they can post a call for participants.

2. Centralization

In addition to SEO, the other thing that makes AVEN extremely convenient for recruitment is that it’s a forum. It is a dedicated ace community hub site. There are many other online asexual communities, such as those on Facebook, Twitter, and WordPress, but those aren’t ace-specific sites — they’re general platforms that happen to have pockets of ace activity. Even more importantly, the forum structure of AVEN is perfect for strangers showing up out of the blue and looking to reach a whole bunch of aces at once. There’s no need to amass a follower count first or ask other people to share your stuff on your behalf. After you get permission to do research on AVEN, you just make a post to the right subforum, and there you go. That alone puts your call for participants in front any members who frequent that part of the forum.

3. Viewability

This factor is something it occurs to me to highlight specifically in contrast to Discord servers: the AVEN forums have parts that are publicly viewable and can be browsed as a guest. Interested readers can check it out and explore in advance before signing up and becoming a member of the forum. This viewability is appealing because it means researchers can quickly form a first impression of whether the AVEN forums might be worth their time, instead of having to commit to joining in advance.

None of these things are inherently good or bad, of course. They just are what they are. With that said, if they lead to researchers focusing on AVEN more than any other site, I do think that can have undesirable consequences in aggregate.

Why Recruitment Choices Matter

Frequently recruiting from AVEN means that the perspectives and demographics of AVEN forum members end up overrepresented in asexuality studies, which has implications for how ace communities are portrayed and understood. This is something that has been pointed out before in the literature itself — for instance, Karen Cuthbert (2019) highlighted it as a rationale for deliberately avoiding AVEN, although we disagree a bit on the particulars. As Siggy noted in the Journal Club recap, and as far as I understand it, the AVEN forums actually have more age diversity overall than other ace communities. So if older participants were recruited, it doesn’t necessarily make sense to credit that to avoiding AVEN.

The consequences I’d point to instead are more political in nature. For example, in an article about asexuality and health, Kristina Gupta reported that “many asexually identified individuals believe in the usefulness of maintaining low sexual desire as a diagnostic category and support medical and mental health professionals in their efforts to develop treatments for sexual desire disorders” (Gupta, 2017b, p. 2). As Siggy acknowledged in the Journal Club recap, I suspect that these conclusions may have been influenced by recruiting from AVEN. The AVEN forums are a landing pad for a lot of people who are newer to the community, and overall they have a reputation for tolerating more conservative politics. There are parts of the ace community that are much more critical of HSDD, so if Gupta had made different recruitment choices, I expect this part of the study could have had very different results.

This study has its valuable aspects, of course; my point is just to highlight that the political variation across ace communities is something to think about in relation to recruitment.

So as I said, recruitment choices matter. Ace communities are not homogeneous or demographically equivalent, and the AVEN forums are not entirely representative. And if asexual researchers are disproportionately going to AVEN, should we really be surprised that asexual research tends to paint ace communities as more conservative than they really are?

The Citational Politics of Asexuality Studies & Opportunities for Innovation

…Actually, yes. Despite my leading question there, I don’t think the portrayal of ace communities in asexual research comes down exclusively to recruitment. Since the methods of asexuality studies include more than just interviews and surveys, I also think it makes sense to talk more broadly here about the politics of citation.

Aceadmiral discusses a negative example of this here, regarding a scholarly argument that is ostensibly about ace community discourse:

There is acknowledgment that Academia wrongly dismisses online spaces as invalid sources (18), but no online sources are cited and only one blog (The Asexual Agenda) is mentioned in a footnote (34) in a way that makes it clear the author is unfamiliar with it. In fact, the author creates an impression of being either so averse to community-created knowledge or so ill-informed that they decided to cite works from 2007 and 2012 to portray the demographics of the asexual community (21) instead of the highly regarded, often cited Ace Community Survey.

–Aceadmiral, “Why is no one talking about the tip of the spear?: An reading of the asexual academy through Skopos Theory” (2021)

Not every study on asexuality needs to deal with online ace communities, but if online ace communities are what you choose to study, then it makes sense to actually foreground our online discourse, critiques, and theorizing. Frankly I can’t tell you how strange it is that even when academics are explicitly discussing online ace communities, such as those on Tumblr… they may seem curiously reticent to actually deal with Tumblr. One such article by Bryce J. Renninger (2014) has been discussed by the Ace Journal Club, and I remember I was surprised at just how little it quotes or discusses specific examples of ace blogging on Tumblr, despite taking ace blogging on Tumblr as its object of study.

This one’s for the researchers out there: if you’re doing sociological, ethnographic, or rhetorical research on a community for whom the internet provides major discursive hubs in the community… you can cite some internet posts. And I don’t mean news articles, I don’t mean the sleight of hand that Thorpe & Arbeau (2020) pulled in citing a Medium post — I mean slumming it down here with those of us who write under obvious internet aliases. You can deal with vernacular discourse (Ono & Sloop, 2009). You can cite blogposts. Look:

Effectively, any post someone reshares [on Tumblr] automatically experiences context collapse, at the same time as the author loses any control over them. ‘Coyote’ notes that these problems are substantially worsened since it is not possible to turn off reshares and since no corrections made by the author will appear in reshared versions. As a result, there is no ability to correct mistakes, which combined with the inevitability of context collapse produces a deeply unforgiving spaces for users.

–Kevin Veale, Gaming The Dynamics Of Online Harassment (2020), p. 94

This is an academic book citing ideas from a blogpost, with an internet pseudonym and everything.

Here’s another one, this time from asexuality studies:

A prominent asexually-identified male blogger has offered a number of hypotheses to explain why such as small percentage of the online asexual community identifies as male. His first hypothesis is similar to that offered by Przybylo. His other hypotheses, however, have not been raised by scholars and are worthy of investigation. These include the following: many men (including sexually disinterested men) have erections and masturbate, and they may think that these characteristics are not compatible with an asexual identity. Alternatively, because men are less likely to be approached by women to have sex, there may be less of a need for men to think about their asexuality. Finally, asexually-identified men may simply not be as active in online communities, either because they feel less of a need for the community or because they experience problems within the community (Siggy, n.d.).

–Kristina Gupta, “Gendering asexuality and asexualizing gender: A qualitative study exploring the intersections between gender and asexuality” (2019), p. 1199

My point here is that it can be done. I’m not saying you won’t get pushback, or that there aren’t additional considerations to take into account, or that you should do it at every opportunity. I’m saying it can be done. And as Aceadmiral and Siggy have noted, sometimes the omissions are… conspicuous.

To explain those conspicuous omissions, though, maybe it’s worth naming another factor: citing online discourse directly may feel dicey and uncouth in relation to the norms of academic discourse. It’s one thing to quote remarks from an interview or survey where the researcher sets the agenda, but citing someone’s published, written work is a way of recognizing someone as a fellow theorist — treating that author as worth acknowledging or paying attention to, and in a sense, as a professional peer. That’s why in academia people use the term “citational politics” to talk about the political dimensions of who gets cited and who gets slighted.

Using the term “citational politics” here may seem unduly harsh, considering how much of this is par for the course. Ignoring non-academic theorizing (or engaging non-academics only as objects of study, not fellow theorists) is still overwhelmingly the norm in much of the humanities, even at its most avant-garde and innovative. So to clarify, I don’t think asexuality studies as a whole has been any worse about this than average. My reason for focusing on asexuality studies in this way is quite simply because I’m ace and this is an ace blog, but I also think there’s something else at hand here:

Studying the culture, rhetoric, or discourse of a demographic that disproportionately builds online communities and engages in extensive public theorizing represents a unique opportunity for pushing the envelope with research methodology. If asexuality studies is to make a name for itself in the humanities, it needs to justify its continued existence beyond “hey look, asexuals exist.” One way to do that would be with bold, evolving arguments; another way to do that would be with bold methodological choices, such as citing theoretical work outside the academy — even if that means sullying your citations with a nontraditional name.

If that kind of trailblazing sounds too ambitious to you, or if it seems unworkable in many cases, well, I understand. I’m just saying that it’s worth thinking about.

In A Nutshell

Recruiting from AVEN has its place, but does it deserve as much of a place as it has? For those of us who know AVEN’s reputation and particular place in the community, it can be awkward or even frustrating to see scholarship on “the asexual community” focus disproportionately on AVEN. However, it’s important to understand the logistics at play. Recruiting from AVEN is convenient for researchers because it has strong SEO, it offers an easy centralized spot to reach a lot of eyes at once, and it’s more inviting to the average researcher than more hidden spaces. That means it makes a lot of sense to turn there for recruitment.

We should care about these things because even though recruiting from AVEN is not inherently bad, it does run the risk of affecting a study’s results. At scale, a trend of disproportionately recruiting from AVEN may also result in privileging AVEN forum member perspectives in the field as a whole, which matters for (mis)representing the politics of ace communities.

Even in studies employing completely different methods, there are some odd patterns at play with regard to other ace communities. I think it makes sense to evaluate these choices as a form of citational politics — which, while not unique, also represents an opportunity for more innovative choices.


References

Aceadmiral (2021, October 31). Why is no one talking about the tip of the spear?: An reading of the asexual academy through Skopos Theory. A Hand-Painted China Plate at a Barbeque. https://aceadmiral.wordpress.com/2021/10/31/why-is-no-one-talking-about-the-tip-of-the-spear-an-reading-of-asexual-academy-through-skopos-theory/

Antonsen, A. N., Zdaniuk, B., Yule, M., & Brotto, L. A. (2020). Ace and Aro: Understanding Differences in Romantic Attractions Among Persons Identifying as Asexual. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 49(5), 1615–1630. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10508-019-01600-1

Brotto, L. A., Knudson, G., Inskip, J., Rhodes, K., & Erskine, Y. (2008). Asexuality: A Mixed-Methods Approach. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 39(3), 599–618. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10508-008-9434-x

Bulmer, M., & Izuma, K. (2018). Implicit and Explicit Attitudes Toward Sex and Romance in Asexuals. The Journal of Sex Research, 55(8), 962–974. https://doi.org/10.1080/00224499.2017.1303438

Cuthbert, K. (2019). “When We Talk about Gender We Talk about Sex”: (A)sexuality and (A)gendered Subjectivities. Gender & Society, 33(6), 841–864. https://doi.org/10.1177/0891243219867916

Dawson, M., McDonnell, L., & Scott, S. (2016). Negotiating the Boundaries of Intimacy: The Personal Lives of Asexual People. The Sociological Review (Keele), 64(2), 349–365. https://doi.org/10.1111/1467-954X.12362

Foster, A. B., & Scherrer, K. S. (2014). Asexual-Identified Clients in Clinical Settings: Implications for Culturally Competent Practice. Psychology of Sexual Orientation and Gender Diversity, 1(4), 422–430. https://doi.org/10.1037/sgd0000058

Gupta, K. (2017a). “And Now I’m Just Different, but There’s Nothing Actually Wrong With Me”: Asexual Marginalization and Resistance. Journal of Homosexuality, 64(8), 991–1013. https://doi.org/10.1080/00918369.2016.1236590

Gupta, K. (2017b). What Does Asexuality Teach Us About Sexual Disinterest? Recommendations for Health Professionals Based on a Qualitative Study With Asexually Identified People. Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy, 43(1), 1–14. https://doi.org/10.1080/0092623X.2015.1113593

Gupta, K. (2019). Gendering asexuality and asexualizing gender: A qualitative study exploring the intersections between gender and asexuality. Sexualities, 22(7–8), 1197–1216. https://doi.org/10.1177/1363460718790890

Ono, K. A., & Sloop, J. M. (1995). The critique of vernacular discourse. Communication Monographs, 62(1), 19–46. https://doi.org/10.1080/03637759509376346

Renninger, B. J. (2015). “Where I can be myself … where I can speak my mind” : Networked counterpublics in a polymedia environment. New Media & Society, 17(9), 1513–1529. https://doi.org/10.1177/1461444814530095

Robbins, N. K., Low, K. G., & Query, A. N. (2015). A Qualitative Exploration of the “Coming Out” Process for Asexual Individuals. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 45(3), 751–760. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10508-015-0561-x

Scherrer, K. S. (2008). Coming to an Asexual Identity: Negotiating Identity, Negotiating Desire. Sexualities, 11(5), 621–641. https://doi.org/10.1177/1363460708094269

Siggy (2020, December 26). Journal Club: Asexuality and Sexual Disinterest. The Asexual Agenda. https://asexualagenda.wordpress.com/2020/12/26/journal-club-asexuality-and-sexual-disinterest/

Siggy (2021, June 24). Journal Club: Asexual counterpublics on Tumblr. The Asexual Agenda. https://asexualagenda.wordpress.com/2021/06/24/journal-club-asexual-counterpublics-on-tumblr/

Siggy (2021, July 22). Journal Club: Asexual and Agender Subjectivities. The Asexual Agenda. https://asexualagenda.wordpress.com/2021/07/22/journal-club-asexual-and-agender-subjectivities/

Thorpe, C., & Arbeau, K. (2020). Judging an absence: Factors influencing attitudes towards asexuality. The Canadian Journal of Human Sexuality, 29(3), 307–313. https://doi.org/10.3138/cjhs.2020-0003

Van Houdenhove, E., Gijs, L., T’Sjoen, G., & Enzlin, P. (2015). Stories About Asexuality: A Qualitative Study on Asexual Women. Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy, 41(3), 262–281. https://doi.org/10.1080/0092623X.2014.889053

Veale, K. (2020). Gaming the dynamics of online harassment. Springer International Publishing.

Yule, M. A., Brotto, L. A., & Gorzalka, B. B. (2013). Mental health and interpersonal functioning in self-identified asexual men and women. Psychology and Sexuality, 4(2), 136–151. https://doi.org/10.1080/19419899.2013.774162


15 responses to “Why do academics keep recruiting from AVEN?

  • Siggy

    Another related issue, is how AVEN has a vetting process in place, protecting its community members from shoddy research, or like, randos with a survey. That doesn’t really argue for or against your point, but is a reminder that there’s a whole other dimension here. Including other communities in your research would benefit the research, but does it necessarily benefit the communities under study?

    • Coyote

      That’s true. We could also speculate about whether that vetting process helps researchers figure that research there is expected and that AVEN is the “appropriate” place for it.

  • Anonymous

    I know someone who recently started a survey on asexuality definitions and conceptualizations. They’ve first posted it on AVEN, and so far have encouraged people sharing it to others. At first, there was an issue of whether the AVEN community could represent the entire ace community or not, and so your point regarding representation reminded me of that.

    Do you think there would be a way to solve this type of issue? I’m thinking of places like Pillowfort which are somewhat closed off unless you have an account on there, which is a shame considering some of the interesting ace stuff I’ve read on that platform. Perhaps that’s just me, but AVEN really feels insular in comparison to other ace communities sometimes, so having a survey which contains opinions from various other places sound appealing.

    Would you be interested if I gave you a link to the survey?

    • Coyote

      There’s a lot of stuff on PF that’s publicly visible, but I think one of the main issues with PF is that it’s very small and not many people know it even exists, so it’s not remotely prominent in that way.

      As far as solving this issue… I don’t know. I think if someone wanted to promote a particular site as a good recruitment platform, they’d need to think about SEO and viewability, and then if they promoted it enough, it might attract the attention of at least some researchers. But if it wanted to rival AVEN for their attention, it might have to rival AVEN for the image of a “centralized” ace community hub, and that… sounds like a tough battle, I’m afraid. I just hope we can see increasingly diverse recruitment choices from here on, with AVEN in addition to other places.

      And, sure, I’d be interested in the link. I could also help share that survey around on PF and give it to Siggy for the Asexual Agenda linkspam, if he doesn’t have it already.

  • KaeS

    I think a big issue with using convenience samples from web sites is that web sites develop a local culture, and minority groups within that kind of space tend to respond to aggression (micro or macro) by dropping out. People who study online communities as communities have noted all the way back to the listserv days asking “why are half the subscribers women but a supermajority of the posts from men?”

    It is easier and perhaps healthier to just ignore AVEN or lurk than to try discussing certain ideas about sexuality there.

  • Linkspam: December 3rd, 2021 | The Asexual Agenda

    […] Coyote discussed why academics keep on recruiting participants from AVEN. […]

  • Journal Club: Bi/Pan Identity Pathways | The Asexual Agenda

    […] Nitpicking – When discussing the Ace Community Survey, this paper uses “asexual respondents”, and we think this is intended to refer to asexual spectrum respondents. This was particularly confusing when it said asexual respondents with bi/pan histories were more likely to be “gray-asexual, demisexual, or elsewhere along the asexual spectrum.” – The paper uses “post-structuralist” to describe younger generations’ approach to gender and sexual identity, and that seems like the wrong term. – AVEN is lauded as a source of a lot of academic knowledge on asexuality, but we put forth that this is actually a bad thing, because it limits the perspectives represented. […]

  • Journal Club: Asexuality and healthcare practitioners | The Asexual Agenda

    […] LGBT resources. We don’t know the proportions of each, but it’s good to see them going outside of AVEN. – The study didn’t collect demographic information, to make the survey feel more […]

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