What Media Literacy Educators Need to Know About Fair Use…

Some time ago, this blog ran an interview with Pat Aufderheide (Center for Social Media) and Peter Jaszi (The Program on Informational Justice and Intellectual Property) about the work they have been doing developing Codes of Best Practices for Fair Use for a variety of different communities, including documentary producers and the DIY media world.

Last week, the team, working with long time media literacy veteran upstart Renee Hobbes Renee Hobbs (The Media Education Lab), released a new report, The Code of Best Practices in Fair Use for Media Literacy Education. It is a follow up to an earlier report which described “The Cost of Copyright Confusion for Media Literacy.” The report comes with the endorsement of many key Media Literacy organizations including Action Coalition for Media Education, Media Education Foundation, National Association for Media Literacy Education, National Council for Teachers of English, and the Visual Communications Studies Division of the International Communications Association.

I’ve been watching this initiative develop over time, sharing the team’s belief that copyright law (and confusion about fair use) represents one of the biggest obstacles for the development of meaningful resources for supporting media literacy education. We hosted a brainstorm with media educators at the last Media in Transition conference. I am particularly pleased to see that the report moves beyond the issue of what individual teachers do in their own classroom to address how and when we might share curricular materials with each other, an issue I’ve been pushing hard in my conversations with the authors.

In our own work, we regularly encounter teachers who are anxious about introducing any copyrighted works in their classroom and I’ve had at least one project shut down by university attorneys who were convinced we were exceeding our Fair Use rights in quoting from films and other existing media texts. We have been struggling through the work we are doing on New Media Literacies to get enough room to be able to show short segments from the media we are discussing. To date, we’ve been developing our materials using the best practices statement for documentary filmmakers and we are excited to see further clarification of what these principles mean in the specific context of media literacy education. As you will see if you look at the materials we are producing, we rely on Creative Commons content where-ever possible and where it is not possible, we are creating very strong markers of attribution. I know that many media educators read this blog, so I wanted to flag this new report for you.

Thanks to the work of Hobbes, Aufderheide, and Jaszi, many of us can walk into our classrooms with greater confidence that what we are doing falls squarely within current understandings of intellectual property law.

“Hanging Out, Messing Around, Geeking Out”: A Conversation with the Digital Youth Project (Part Three)

In his recent book, The Dumbest Generation, Mark Bauerlein writes, “In an average young person’s online experience, the senses may be stimulated and the ego touched, but vocabulary doesn’t expand, memory doesn’t improve, analytic talents don’t develop, and erudition doesn’t ensue.” What kinds of evidence did you find which might support or challenge this assertion?

Becky Herr: I don’t think that Bauerlein’s claim (as quoted here) is completely off the mark. For many young people, including some of those who we interviewed and observed in the Digital Youth Project, the Internet is a “vast wasteland” of flash games shrouded by banner ads, websites full of inaccurate information, and corporations looking to make money off young eyeballs. However, unlike Bauerlein, I don’t think this is the fault of the kids. I think it’s our fault as adults–particularly adults who are parents, educators, and media makers–for not making an effort to understand the Internet from a kid’s point of view and for preventing kids from having the time and space to mess around in ways that encourage them to learn to evaluate what they come across online.

I think what’s important to unpack with respect to Bauerlein’s claim is that his criticism is rooted in specific, class-based assumptions about media and about childhood. These are not new assumptions, nor are they new criticisms. Similar issues of media damaging young people’s hearts and minds have been levied in relation to earlier forms of media. In talking with parents and teachers about our research, I hear echoes of Bauerlein’s concerns in their complaints about students writing essays in “IM speak” or eschewing activities parents prefer (for reasons of nostalgia or cultural capital) in favor of playing video games or surfing YouTube.

Mimi Ito: It is tempting to blame the media or a new technology for social or cultural problems. But research has shown that things are much more complex than that, and using media as a scapegoat obscures some of the important underlying issues. A new technology grows out of our existing norms and practices. The fact that many youth are not part of the kind of culture that Bauerlein describes is not a problem caused just by the technology, but is much more deeply embedded in, as Becky notes, existing social and cultural distinctions. If kids are doing things online that seem unproductive or problematic, we don’t feel that the answer is to ban the media. Instead we think that it is important to look at and try to shape the underlying social issues. That may be the commercialization of online spaces, lack of connection between kids and teachers, or the fact that academic knowledge seems irrelevant to many kids. It is rarely something that is being driven by the technology alone.

We share a concern about the “participation gap” and how that may create inequalities in experience and knowledge. What obstacles did you discover that might block some young people from exploiting the full opportunities offered by these new media? What role do class differences play in shaping the way young people experience these new platforms?

Lisa Tripp: While increasingly young people of all social classes in the U.S. have opportunities to go online and use new media, the nature and quality of access still varies greatly. A lot of poor and working class youth still rely on schools, for example, as their primary source for access to the Internet and digital media production tools. Whereas interest-driven and friendship-driven genres of participation are fundamentally “kid-driven” in terms of growing out of youth interests and motivations, schools typically incorporate media into instruction in ways that are “teacher-driven” and heavily constrained by institutional and adult concerns. This can be seen in many “technology-integrated” assignments that address the standard curriculum without engaging students’ interest or curiosity. It can also be seen in school policies and rules that aim to keep out participatory media, such as by blocking social network and video sharing sites, instant messaging, etc. While young people find creative ways to use media at school towards their own interests and goals, those who rely on schools for access to new media are at a disadvantage from other kids. For them it can be a challenge to find the time, space, and resources to experiment with media in more open-ended ways, and to engage in the media practices that youth tend to find the most meaningful.

In the cases where we interviewed parents, we also saw class disparities in how parents approached computers and the Internet. For the middle class families in our study (who were also very tech savvy), parents provided significant scaffolding and encouragement of their children’s friendship and interest-driven practices with new media. In contrast, for many of the poor families in our study, the parents had little or no experience with computers (and often learned what they did know from the kids in the family). While in both cases there were opportunities for intergenerational collaboration around the computer, in the case of the middle class families young people had access to a great deal more support to pursue their own interests online. In the case of the poor families we interviewed, parents wanted their children to focus on using the computer for homework. Many had heard scare stories on the news about MySpace and were hesitant to let their children go online unsupervised. Some parents even took the modem or cable with them when they left their children home alone. This represented a well-intentioned effort to protect children from perceived online risks, but it also made it harder for the young people in these families to mobilize online opportunities. I think these examples speak to the ways that young peoples’ access to new media is determined not just by economic factors, but also social and cultural factors.

danah boyd: In my fieldwork, during the 2006-2007 school year, I started witnessing a divide in social network site usage between MySpace and Facebook. While this divide was extremely complex, it can be understood through the lens of Penny Eckert’s “jocks and burnouts.” These two social network sites became digital turf and usage reflected social categories. While many teens opted to use both sites, the division that did occur took place along lines of race and class. This may not look like a traditional participation gap as both groups were participating, but divisions in usage that reinforce dynamics like race and class require us to pause. Consider for a moment that Facebook is the “preferred” tool on most college campuses. What does it mean that some teens are already engaged with the normative collegiate tools while others are not? How does high school nonparticipation shape early collegiate life?

Your writing is sympathetic to the various ways young people “work around” constraints imposed by adults on their ability to access online social networks. How would you address the concerns of adults who imposed those restrictions in the first place?

CJ Pascoe: What I tended to see as I studied kids in urban and suburban public schools was that teens constantly tried to work around the constraints the school administration placed on their internet use. Schools blocked the students’ access to Facebook, MySpace, certain search terms and instant messaging programs. In response teens developed a sort of knowledge network in which everyone knew which kid could find the proxy servers that would allow them access to these sites (though of course none of them knew the name for proxy servers). Interestingly many of the teachers at these schools found these rules too stringent. One teacher listed off several students who were the proxy server “experts” when one of her students needed to access a forbidden site. Similarly when one of his students was writing a paper on breast cancer a teacher let the student conduct research on the teacher’s computer because the word “breast” was blocked from the network to which the students had access. In light of these restrictions it seems that adults are not an undifferentiated mass, that some find certain restrictions of teens Internet use problematic. It seems that what the more restrictive adults are afraid of is teens access to information and ability to process that sort of information as well as the fear that teens might not concentrate on the task at hand – school – if they could be hanging out on MySpace. To those adults I would say that banning information or certain sites does not prevent teen access. Instead it creates a community of mistrust. Thus adults should be working with teens on issues of media literacy, how to process the sort of information that appears on the banned sites, rather than forbidding teens to visit them.

Heather Horst: We saw parents across the socioeconomic spectrum express considerable concern about the threats and vulnerabilities their kids faced in the contemporary media ecology. Parents worried about the type of information that circulated and, given the timing of our research, the ability of sites like MySpace to be used as a way to access and exploit their kids. They also worried about multitasking and ‘wasting time’ online. In addition, because there’s fear of kids hanging out outside of the home, and their lives can often be overscheduled, young people genuinely felt that they had very little face-to-face contact with their friends. The use of Instant Messaging and online sites like MySpace, Facebook and so many others are now a part of kids everyday lives, part of peer culture. In addition, the kids who were doing the most interesting things talked about having (or finding) the time to ‘mess around’ and explore in a way that did not have ‘serious’ implications (e.g. being graded. To deny participation in this space is to fail to acknowledge the importance of sociality in kids’ lives.

danah boyd: I commend parents and teachers for being engaged and concerned, but I worry that their concerns are often based on inaccurate understandings of danger. As is well documented by researchers at the Crimes Against Children Research Center, the mythical image of the online predator is a completely inaccurate portrayal of the actual dangers youth face online. Yet, I found that fear of predators prompted many of the restrictions youth face. When restrictions are driven by fear rather than risk, we do a disservice to our youth. I think that it is very important for parents and other adults to know the data. The findings that we share in our report focus primarily on the positive opportunities for learning and social engagement, but in a different role, I have aggregated all that is known about the risks and dangers youth face. For more information on this, check out this Literature Review, a product of the Research Advisory Board of the Internet Safety Technical Task Force.

Heather Horst: In addition to knowing the data, as danah suggests, we also want to emphasize that the ‘dangers’ of online participation must also be understood within the wider context of kids’ lives. For example (and too channel CJ Pascoe), part of the reason going online is so compelling for GLBT teens is that they lack the opportunities for dating that are available to heterosexual teens in their local communities as well as the social support of other GLBT teens navigating complex relationships. At the same time, the lack of local support from peers, parents and teachers also makes many GLBT teens vulnerable to individuals who might take advantage of them online. Developing an understanding of these problems from a youth perspective may help to bridge the gap in understandings risk and vulnerabilities – blaming the medium merely distracts us from the root of these complex social problems.

A key argument throughout your book is that young people are often using new media to do things that teens historically did off-line such as spend time with friends or dating. Why have so many of these activities moved into the realm of “networked publics?” What kinds of new activities or social relations have emerged as a consequence of the affordances of new media platforms?

Christo Sims: I always feel funny writing as an authority on teenage flirting and dating as it certainly wasn’t what I went into the field intending to find. But, of course, this was a big oversight on my part since flirting and dating is so central to teenage culture in the U.S. I think these practices are a good example of how existing offline practices are moving online. The practices are the same, but being reshaped in some new ways. In terms of flirting and getting to know someone, the primary advantage of doing so online is that the entire process can be simultaneously more controlled and seemingly more casual. The asynchronous exchanges afford more time for composition. Plus there are far less cues to manage when compared to being on the phone or interacting face-to-face: tone-of-voice, posture, and a host of other non-verbal cues don’t have to be managed. Additionally, each round of messaging is, at least initially, quite brief and seemingly low key: a short little message is “no big deal.” I’ve called this “composed casualness” because often quite a bit of effort and time goes into composing that seemingly casual and lightweight message.

Another advantage of flirting online is that it doesn’t have to be done in front of a bunch of peers at school. Boys in particular mentioned how rare it was to be able to talk to a girl at school one-on-one. Girls are in groups and almost any interaction you have is witnessed. While the Internet can amplify this sense of acting in public it also affords more private communications. Messaging features on sites like Facebook and MySpace, and well as SMS on cell phones, allow teens to carry on one-on-one conversations outside earshot of friends and family. Online communications also make rejection easier, or less confrontational, during the flirting stage. Rejection is often signaled by not responding to a message. Such a passive strategy is easier for the one doing the rejection but it also allows the person being rejected to save face since they never “officially” got rejected, the conversation just stopped. In terms of dating, sites like MySpace and Facebook offer a stage for announcing and performing the relationship. My take on this is that most of the negotiations over relationship status are handled more privately, between couples (although these too might be mediated), and when they’ve agreed on an “official” status they announce it to the peer group.

CJ Pascoe: As the other team member focused on teens’ dating, romance and hanging out practices I’d like to build on what Christo is saying. Historically adults, particularly parents, have had a lot of control over teens’ social lives and the scope of the social world from which they could draw friends. New media allows teens to move beyond the institutions in which they have been historically located (schools, churches, sometimes civic groups) to create relationships and friendships of their own choosing. So in many ways making friends or sustaining friendshps in these networked publics allows teens to create friendships independent (or at least less constrained by) the institutions in which they are located because of their age.

danah boyd: Networked publics offer new opportunities for social interaction, but they are also used to replace mobility and freedoms that have been taken away. When I asked teens if they’d prefer to socialize online or offline, face-to-face encounters consistently were preferred. Yet, for many youth, such interactions were often infeasible. The reasons for why are diverse. Some teens lack transportation to meet up with friends or do not have friends who live nearby. Others have no time because their lives are heavily structured with activities or, when they do have time, their friends don’t. Many places in which adults gather do not allow youth to hang out and various laws forbid youth from gathering at certain times and in certain places. Some teens face heavy restrictions because of parental values or cultural norms. Yet, the most pervasive explanation for why youth were unable to get together with friends often came down to adult fears. All told, youth have little opportunity to gather with their friends, let alone their peers. Social network sites and other networked publics enable youth to gather in new ways, asynchronously and in different physical spaces.

Dan Perkel: In some of our case studies on creative production, we’re also seeing interesting dynamics in how kids are extending existing practices in new ways online. Networked publics provide space for people to more easily share and circulate their creations to others. We’ve seen how for both kids and adults, many people are taking existing practices of sharing photos and video and moving them online. A lot of this reflects very familiar kinds of sharing with friends and family. Posting drawings and stories online may be a different story. Here there is the opportunity to find other people who you may not know offline, who are into the same thing you are. This is the difference between friendship-driven and interest-driven kinds of sharing. So if you are creating fan fiction or drawing fan art or making fan-related movies, you may have a few others in your school, or friends you might meet at a local comic book store that share your interests. But online there are many more opportunities to share and discuss this kind of work. Moreover, there may be more opportunity to not just post this work and talk about it, but to improve and learn from others over time. These dynamics point to how the online space can provide new kinds of learning experiences that wouldn’t have otherwise been available to kids.

danah boyd is a doctoral candidate in the School of Information at the University of California, Berkeley and a Fellow at the Harvard University Law School Berkman Center for Internet and Society. Her research focuses on how American youth engage in networked publics such as MySpace, YouTube, Facebook, Xanga, etc. She is interested in how teens formulate a presentation of self and negotiate socialization in mediated contexts with invisible audiences. In addition to her research, danah works with a wide variety of companies and is an active blogger.

Becky Herr-Stephenson is an Associate Specialist at the University of California Humanities Research Institute at UC Irvine. Becky’s research interests include media literacy, teaching and learning with popular culture, and youth media production. Her dissertation, “Kids as Cultural Producers: Consumption, Literacy, and Participation,” investigates issues of access and media literacy through an ethnographic study of media production projects in two mixed-grade (sixth, seventh, and eighth) special education classes. Previously, she was a member of the research team for the Digital Youth Project and a graduate fellow at the Annenberg Center for Communication. Before beginning her graduate studies, Becky worked as a production manager for companies producing original content for the web and multimedia museum exhibits. Her current work with the DMLstudio involves a literature review of institutional efforts related to youth digital media production. Becky recently completed her PhD in Communication at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California.

Heather Horst is an Associate Project Scientist at the University of California, Irvine (UCHRI) who conducted research during the Digital Youth Project as a Postdoctoral Scholar at University of California, Berkeley. Heather is a sociocultural anthropologist by training who is interested in the materiality of place, space, and new information and communication technologies. Before joining the Digital Youth Project in 2005, she carried out research on conceptions of home among Jamaican transnational migrants, as well as issues of digital inequality, as part of a large-scale DFID-funded project titled “Information Society: Emergent Technologies and Development in the South,” which compared the relationship between ICTs and development in Ghana, India, Jamaica, and South Africa. Her coauthored book with Daniel Miller, The Cell Phone: An Anthropology of Communication (Oxford, UK, and New York: Berg, 2006), was the first ethnography of mobile phones in the developing world. Heather’s research in the Digital Youth Project integrates her interest in media and technology in domestic spaces, families in Silicon Valley, and the economic lives of kids on sites such as Neopets.

Mizuko (Mimi) Ito is a cultural anthropologist specializing in media technology use by children and youth. She holds an MA in Anthropology, a PhD in Education and a PhD in Anthropology from Stanford University. Ito has studied a wide range of digitally augmented social practices, including online gaming and social communities, the production and consumption of children’s software, play with children’s new media, mobile phone use in Japan, and an undergraduate multimedia-based curriculum. Her current work focuses on Japanese technoculture, and for the Digital Youth Project she is researching English-language fandoms surrounding Japanese popular culture.

C.J. Pascoe is a sociologist who is interested in sexuality, gender, youth, and new media. Her book on gender in high school, Dude, You’re a Fag: Masculinity and Sexuality in High School, recently received the 2008 Outstanding Book Award from the American Educational Research Association. As a researcher with the Digital Youth Project she researched the role of new media in teens’ dating and romance practices. Her project “Living Digital” examines how teenagers navigate digital technology and how new media have become a central part of contemporary teen culture with a particular focus on teens’ courtship, romance, and intimacy practices. Along with Dr. Natalie Boero she conducted a study titled “No Wannarexics Allowed,” looking at the formation of online pro-anorexia communities and focusing on gender, sexuality, and embodiment online. C.J. is currently an Assistant Professor of Sociology at The Colorado College.

Dan Perkel is a PhD candidate at UC Berkeley’s School of Information. His research explores how young people use the web and other technologies as a part of their everyday media production activities. Dan’s ongoing dissertation research investigates the mutual shaping of young people’s creative practices and the social and technical infrastructure that support them. Prior projects include explorations into the design of a collaborative storytelling environment for fifth-graders, ethnographic inquiry into an after-school media and technology program, and investigations using diary studies to capture everyday technology use. With UC Berkeley artist Greg Niemeyer and colleague Ryan Shaw, Dan helped create an art installation called Organum, which looks at collaborative game play using the human voice (and which was followed up by “Good Morning Flowers”). In a past life, Dan worked as an interface designer, product manager, and implementations director for Hive Group, whose Honeycomb software helps people make decisions through data visualization. He received his BA (2000) in Science, Technology, and Society from Stanford University, graduating Phi Beta Kappa, and his Master’s in Information Management and Systems from UC Berkeley’s School of Information in 2005.

Christo Sims is a PhD student at UC Berkeley’s School of Information. He was a member of the Digital Youth research team from 2005 until 2008. His fieldwork focused on the ways youth use new media in everyday social practices involving friends, family, and intimates. He conducted research at two sites, one in rural Northern California, the other in Brooklyn, New York. His contributions can mostly be found in the report’s chapters on Intimacy, Friendship, and Families. Christo received his Master’s degree from UC Berkeley’s School of Information in the spring of 2007, and his Bachelor’s degree from Bowdoin College in the spring of 2000.

Lisa Tripp is Assistant Professor of School Media and Youth Services, College of Information, Florida State University. Lisa received her PhD in Communication from the University of California, San Diego in 2002 and collaborated with the Digital Youth Project to study youth in Los Angeles-area middle schools and neighborhoods. Her research with the project emphasized classrooms incorporating media arts into instruction and the role of the Internet in the lives of Latino immigrant families. Before coming to FSU, Lisa was Associate Director of the USC Institute for Multimedia Literacy. She has a background in developing media education initiatives and she continues to research new media literacy and digital inclusion.

“Hanging Out, Messing Around, Geeking Out”: A Conversation with the Digital Youth Project (Part Two)

Many writers talk about “digital natives” or describe these young people as “born digital.” What do you see as the strength and limitations of these terms given what you found in your research?

Becky Herr: One potential strength of the term “digital generation” for describing young people and their relationship to technology is its acknowledgement that youth are using media and technology in interesting and important ways. Talking about kids as “digital natives” can be seen as a counterargument to pervasive discourses about kids as deviant users of technology–hackers, cheaters, wasters-of-time–or kids as victims of technology–the “prey” of online predators, for example. This is not to say that the term is used exclusively to describe positive interactions with technology; it also emphasizes the gap between the ways “digital natives” use technology and the ways non-natives (like adults) use technology.

What is worrying about the discourse of digital natives is that talking about young people as a “digital generation” risks romanticizing certain types of youth participation and ignoring important differences in access to media and technology, including barriers to access that are not tied to a lack of hardware–barriers like not reading and writing in English, being a girl and having to compete with boys in a classroom with limited resources, or parental rules borne out of moral panic. Further, the idea of a digital generation marked by shared characteristics (other than the dates of their birth) that outweigh other aspects of identity/subjectivity–race, class, gender, ability, (etc.) is problematic. What we have found in the Digital Youth project is that there is a huge amount of variation in the ways kids are using media and technology in their everyday lives. Yes, the ways in which these practices are enacted vary, often by peer group or by individual kid. We’ve also found that things like class, race, and gender continue to have significant influence in kids’ lives.

In my own research, for example, I worked with kids at the middle school level who were using media production software (iMovie and PowerPoint) for the first time. At home, most of the students I observed and interviewed did not have a computer, Internet access, or any video equipment. However, they had other media and technology that was incredibly important to them and that they used in creative and sophisticated ways to find information, to express themselves, to communicate with friends, and to mess around in order to figure out things like game cheat codes or how to substitute a borrowed digital camera for an mp3 player. Some had vast music or DVD collections, others spent hours each day playing games on a video game console. Were they “digital natives”?

Christo Sims: There are also plenty of folks who weren’t “born digital” who have developed incredible fluency in various forms of online participation. We also met numerous youth who weren’t technically adept or comfortable participating online. By emphasizing a generational break we risk mystifying the factors that structure online participation, and equating competency automatically with age.

danah boyd: Many of those who use these terms often do so with the best of intentions, valorizing youth engagement with digital media to highlight the ways in which youth are not dumb, dependent, or incapable. Yet, by reinforcing distinctions between generations, we reinforce the endemic age segregation that is plaguing our society. Many social and civic ills stem from the ways that we separate people based on age. If we want to curtail bullying and increase political participation, we need to stop segmenting and segregating.

Parents and teachers often want to structure young people’s time online. Yet your research suggests that some of the most productive experiences come when young people are “hanging out” or “messing around” with computers in relatively unstructured ways. Explain.

Mimi Ito: In a lot of our case studies, we saw examples of kids picking up media and technical literacy through social and recreational activity online. When they were given time and space to experiment, they often were able to pick up knowledge and skills through messing around, whether that was learning how to make a MySpace profile, experimenting with video, or figuring out how to use cheat codes in a game. Some kids used this kind of messing around as a jumping off point towards much more sophisticated forms of creative production or engagement with specialized knowledge communities.

Christo Sims: One story that comes to mind is a youth named Zelan who we feature in one of the sidebars in the Work chapter. Zelan comes from a very rural area where most of his peers will end up in working class jobs, doing construction, building roads, working as mechanics. Zelan, who identifies himself as a computer geek, leveraged his technical know-how for economic gain starting in junior high school: fixing electronics, buying and selling gaming and computer gear, and servicing the computers of neighbors and teachers. His passion, though, has been video games. He started as a player but soon became an enthusiast, subscribing to game magazines, following the latest releases, looking for tips online. In addition to becoming a fan he started messing around with broken consoles, taking them apart to see how they worked, trying to fix them so he could play a better console or sell it for a profit. He did all this without seeing it as leading towards a career or success in school. It was only once he started seeing that he his gaming interest was actually valuable to others at school and in the community that he began to imagine how these interests could lead to a life after high school. When I first met him he was a Junior and was thinking of starting a computer service business when he graduated. When I saw him again last summer he was headed to a technical college on scholarship.

Dan Perkel: Another person featured in one of the sidebars is Jacob. Jacob was an African American senior who had moved from the East Bay to Georgia and back again. Jacob, like others we talked to in our studies, joined MySpace when someone else made an account for him. For a while, Jacob didn’t understand how to customize his page–again like other new members to the site–and had other people do it for him. On the friendship-driven side he used MySpace as a way to communicate with people he met and friends he left behind after various moves. However, at some point he made the connection between changing MySpace profiles and the web design classes that he had gotten into at school. He then took the time to better understand how to customize his own profile and consider making and distributing MySpace layouts, something he had seen others do on the site. When I last talked to him, he was considering a career in web design and said he had been offered a job already.

danah boyd: It is important to note that “productive” engagement doesn’t necessarily mean only traditional learning or media and technical literacy. As a society, we’ve never spent much time considering how youth learn to be competent social beings, how they learn to make sense of cultural norms and develop social contracts, or how they learn to read others’ reactions and act accordingly. We expect youth to be polite and tolerant, respect others’ feelings, and behave appropriately in different situations. This is all learned. And it is not simply learned by telling kids to behave. They need to experiment socially, interact with peers, make mistakes and adjust. Stripping social interactions from youth’s lives does not benefit them in any manner. I would argue that even the oft-demeaned social practices that take place online are extremely productive.

You write about “genres of participation.” Explain this concept. What are the most important genres at the present time and why?

Mimi Ito: We use the concept of genre as a way of describing certain social and cultural patterns that are available and recognizable. Friendship-driven and interest-driven practices are based on genres that youth recognize, have particular practices associated with them, as well as certain kinds of identities. For example, interest-driven genres of participation tend to have a more geeky identity associated with them, involve congregating on specialized and often esoteric interests, and reaching beyond given, local school networks of friends. This is a whole package of things that goes together, a recognizable genre for how youth participate in online culture and social life. We also think of hanging out, messing around, and geeking out as genres of participation.

When and how might the borders between friendship-driven and interest-driven forms of engagement start to blur?

Mimi Ito: As with all genres, there are a lot of things that don’t totally fit, and a lot of blurring between genres. When kids engage in friendship-driven practices, they often get involved in messing around with technology, and that can become a jumping off point for more interest driven activities. For example, some kids will begin messing around with video or photos that they take with their friends, and then they get more interested in the creative side of things. Conversely, we find that kids who connect to others around interests will often see these groups become really important friendship networks, and an alternative source of status and identity that is different from the mainstream of what happens in the school lunchroom.

You note throughout the report a broadening of who gets to “geek out” in today’s youth culture. Explain. What factors are reshaping cultural attitudes towards “geek experiences”? Who gets to “geek out” now who didn’t get to do so in the past?

Mimi Ito: Now that digital media and online networking has become so embedded in kids’ everyday social and recreational lives, there is a certain baseline of technical engagement that is taken for granted. Only certain kids, though, decide to go from there to what we consider more geeked out kinds of practices. Predictably, it tends to be boys who geek out more than girls. Even though girls are often engaging in highly sophisticated forms of technology use and media creation, often they don’t identify with it in a geeky way. What does seem to be changing though, is the overall accessibility that kids have to more geeked out practices because of the growing accessibility of digital media production tools as well as the ability to reach out to interest groups on the Internet. Although our study didn’t really measure this, this may be particularly significant for less advantaged youth who would not otherwise have had access to specialized creative communities or media creation opportunities.

Patricia Lange: Being able to connect with dispersed networked publics enables kids to explore skills and receive mentoring that may be difficult to gain from co-located peers or teachers who do not have the same interests or experiences. For example, in my study of the video-making culture of YouTube, accessing mentors or assistance in a “just-in-time” fashion is inspiring and encouraging, especially given kids’ decreasing ability to connect with other adults and potential mentors in neighborhoods and local communities. One of the things we heard very often was that friends, family, and kids at school often did not understand why young YouTubers wanted to “geek out” making videos. YouTube participants’ school peers did not always have the same familiarity and expertise with how media is put together in ways that kids on YouTube did. Many of the kids we interviewed have already had extensive experiences making media. They often have very sophisticated visual literacies and complex ideologies about what makes a good or bad video, what constitutes appropriate participation in technical groups, and how they think about online safety. Failing to engage with these sites in school means there is no hands-on dialogue between teachers and students that might help shed light on why some kids thrive by geeking out and why others have difficulty.

You are using terms to describe these experiences which are much closer to those which might be used by young people than those deployed by parents and teachers. What are the implications of that shift in the terms of the discussion?

CJ Pascoe: In general we tried to take a Sociology of Youth approach to our findings in this book. In line with this approach we try to let the categories of analysis as well as the descriptive terms arise from the youth themselves, rather than imposing our adult categories on our findings. What this means is that we tried, for the most part to describe a social world from the point of view of its participants, rather than as (more powerful) outsiders. I think foregrounding our participants’ terms, categories and experiences allowed us to challenge some of the common assumptions adults have about youth participation of new media.

Heather Horst: As is common in most ethnographic research, we integrate terms like ‘hanging out’, ‘messing around’ and ‘geeking out’ into our analysis in order to highlight the categories and perspectives that are meaningful to young people themselves. Throughout this project, we felt quite strongly that part of our role and responsibility as researchers as working to navigate the gaps between youth and adult-centered perspectives. While we recognize that this may involve some degree of translation work when talking to different audiences (e.g. educators, policy makers, etc.), if we really want to see changes in discussions about learning and education, youth voices and perspectives need to be brought to the table.

danah boyd is a doctoral candidate in the School of Information at the University of California, Berkeley and a Fellow at the Harvard University Law School Berkman Center for Internet and Society. Her research focuses on how American youth engage in networked publics such as MySpace, YouTube, Facebook, Xanga, etc. She is interested in how teens formulate a presentation of self and negotiate socialization in mediated contexts with invisible audiences. In addition to her research, danah works with a wide variety of companies and is an active blogger.

Becky Herr-Stephenson is an Associate Specialist at the University of California Humanities Research Institute at UC Irvine. Becky’s research interests include media literacy, teaching and learning with popular culture, and youth media production. Her dissertation, “Kids as Cultural Producers: Consumption, Literacy, and Participation,” investigates issues of access and media literacy through an ethnographic study of media production projects in two mixed-grade (sixth, seventh, and eighth) special education classes. Previously, she was a member of the research team for the Digital Youth Project and a graduate fellow at the Annenberg Center for Communication. Before beginning her graduate studies, Becky worked as a production manager for companies producing original content for the web and multimedia museum exhibits. Her current work with the DMLstudio involves a literature review of institutional efforts related to youth digital media production. Becky recently completed her PhD in Communication at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California.

Heather Horst is an Associate Project Scientist at the University of California, Irvine (UCHRI) who conducted research during the Digital Youth Project as a Postdoctoral Scholar at University of California, Berkeley. Heather is a sociocultural anthropologist by training who is interested in the materiality of place, space, and new information and communication technologies. Before joining the Digital Youth Project in 2005, she carried out research on conceptions of home among Jamaican transnational migrants, as well as issues of digital inequality, as part of a large-scale DFID-funded project titled “Information Society: Emergent Technologies and Development in the South,” which compared the relationship between ICTs and development in Ghana, India, Jamaica, and South Africa. Her coauthored book with Daniel Miller, The Cell Phone: An Anthropology of Communication (Oxford, UK, and New York: Berg, 2006), was the first ethnography of mobile phones in the developing world. Heather’s research in the Digital Youth Project integrates her interest in media and technology in domestic spaces, families in Silicon Valley, and the economic lives of kids on sites such as Neopets.

Patricia G. Lange is a Visiting Scholar at the Institute for Multimedia Literacy at the University of Southern California. She received her PhD in Anthropology from the University of Michigan. Her areas of interest for the Digital Youth Project are centered around using theories from anthropology and linguistics to understand the cultural dynamics of video creation, reception, and exchange among kids and youth. She is studying YouTube as well as video blogging groups to gain insight into the cultural aspects of video sharing and how these practices change ideas about the public and private. Lange is exploring how the content and form of videos as well as material video sharing and response practices serve as sites of identity negotiation, emotional expression, and promotion of public discourse in increasingly video-mediated, online milieu. She has recently published articles in a variety of journals including: Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, Discourse Studies, Anthropology of Work Review, First Monday, and The Scholar and Feminist Online.

Mizuko (Mimi) Ito is a cultural anthropologist specializing in media technology use by children and youth. She holds an MA in Anthropology, a PhD in Education and a PhD in Anthropology from Stanford University. Ito has studied a wide range of digitally augmented social practices, including online gaming and social communities, the production and consumption of children’s software, play with children’s new media, mobile phone use in Japan, and an undergraduate multimedia-based curriculum. Her current work focuses on Japanese technoculture, and for the Digital Youth Project she is researching English-language fandoms surrounding Japanese popular culture.

C.J. Pascoe is a sociologist who is interested in sexuality, gender, youth, and new media. Her book on gender in high school, Dude, You’re a Fag: Masculinity and Sexuality in High School, recently received the 2008 Outstanding Book Award from the American Educational Research Association. As a researcher with the Digital Youth Project she researched the role of new media in teens’ dating and romance practices. Her project “Living Digital” examines how teenagers navigate digital technology and how new media have become a central part of contemporary teen culture with a particular focus on teens’ courtship, romance, and intimacy practices. Along with Dr. Natalie Boero she conducted a study titled “No Wannarexics Allowed,” looking at the formation of online pro-anorexia communities and focusing on gender, sexuality, and embodiment online. C.J. is currently an Assistant Professor of Sociology at The Colorado College.

Dan Perkel is a PhD candidate at UC Berkeley’s School of Information. His research explores how young people use the web and other technologies as a part of their everyday media production activities. Dan’s ongoing dissertation research investigates the mutual shaping of young people’s creative practices and the social and technical infrastructure that support them. Prior projects include explorations into the design of a collaborative storytelling environment for fifth-graders, ethnographic inquiry into an after-school media and technology program, and investigations using diary studies to capture everyday technology use. With UC Berkeley artist Greg Niemeyer and colleague Ryan Shaw, Dan helped create an art installation called Organum, which looks at collaborative game play using the human voice (and which was followed up by “Good Morning Flowers”). In a past life, Dan worked as an interface designer, product manager, and implementations director for Hive Group, whose Honeycomb software helps people make decisions through data visualization. He received his BA (2000) in Science, Technology, and Society from Stanford University, graduating Phi Beta Kappa, and his Master’s in Information Management and Systems from UC Berkeley’s School of Information in 2005.

Christo Sims is a PhD student at UC Berkeley’s School of Information. He was a member of the Digital Youth research team from 2005 until 2008. His fieldwork focused on the ways youth use new media in everyday social practices involving friends, family, and intimates. He conducted research at two sites, one in rural Northern California, the other in Brooklyn, New York. His contributions can mostly be found in the report’s chapters on Intimacy, Friendship, and Families. Christo received his Master’s degree from UC Berkeley’s School of Information in the spring of 2007, and his Bachelor’s degree from Bowdoin College in the spring of 2000.

“Hanging Out, Messing Around, Geeking Out”: A Conversation with the Digital Youth Project (Part One)

On Thursday, the Digital Youth Project, funded by the MacArthur Foundation, released “Hanging Out, Messing Around, Geeking Out,” a report on a massive ethnographic investigation into the place of new communications and media technologies in the lives of American young people. I have had the distinct honor to watch this research take shape over the past few years, to get to know the core researchers on the team, and to attend meetings where they struggled over how to process the sheer volume of data and insights they have gathered. The team is a model for collaborative research with senior faculty and graduate students working side by side across disciplines and universities to make sense of problems which none of them could fully understand on their own. You will get a sense of the dialogic nature of this research in the interview which follows, a conversation which involves nine members of the research team, sharing insights from their own specific research projects as well as expressing the rich synthesis that emerged from their collaboration. The report represents one key outgrowth of the MacArthur Foundation’s Digital Learning and Youth initiative, which also funds our own Project New Media Literacies initiative, along with providing support for such key educational researchers as Sasha Barab, James Paul Gee, Kurt Squire, Howard Gardner, Howard Rheingold, David Buckingham, and Katie Salens, among many others.

“Hanging Out…” is staggering in its scope and in its implications. The researchers take seriously young people, their lives online, their subcultural practices, their identity play, their nascent civic engagement, their dating and social interactions, their involvement with fan production practices, and much much more. What emerges is a complex picture of how they are living through and around emerging technologies, how they are innovative in their use of new tools and platforms, and how they are struggling with the contradictions of their lives. This report is in no simple way a celebration of the digital generation, though it respects the meaningfulness of their involvement with digital and mobile technologies: it raises questions about inequality of access and participation; it points to conflicts between adults and youth around the deployment of new media; it identifies risks and opportunities which sites such as MySpace and YouTube pose for their young participants. Those of us who care about young people and education will be struggling with some of the implications of their research for a long time to come. I am proud to have a chance to offer this interview with some of the key members of the Digital Youth Project team over the next three installments of my blog.

By way of background, here’s how the Digital Youth Project is described on their homepage:

Since the early 1980s, digital media have held out the promise of more engaged, child-centered learning opportunities. The advent of Internet-enabled personal computers and mobile devices has added a new layer of communication and social networking to the interactive digital mix. While this evolving palette of technologies has demonstrated the ability to capture the attention of young people, the innovative learning outcomes that educators had hoped for are more elusive. Although computers are now fixtures in most schools and many homes, there is a growing recognition that kids’ passion for digital media has been ignited more by peer group sociability and play than academic learning. This gap between in-school and out-of-school experience represents a gap in children’s engagement in learning, a gap in our research and understandings, and a missed opportunity to reenergize public education. This project works to address this gap with a targeted set of ethnographic investigations into three emergent modes of informal learning that young people are practicing using new media technologies: communication, learning, and play.

The Principal Investigators on this project are Peter Lyman at the University of California, Berkeley, Mizuko (Mimi) Ito at the University of Southern California, Michael Carter of the Monterey Institute for Technology and Education, and Barrie Thorne of the University of California, Berkeley. At Berkeley, the project is administered by the Institute for the Study of Social Change. With the help of a large number of graduate students and postdocs, a variety of projects are under way in both the Los Angeles and San Francisco Bay areas.

The project has three general objectives. The first objective is to describe kids as active innovators using digital media rather than as passive consumers of popular culture or academic knowledge. The second objective is to think about the implications of kids’ innovative cultures for schools and higher education and to engage in a dialogue with educational planners. The third objective is to advise software designers about how to use kids’ innovative approaches to knowledge and learning in building better software. This project will address these objectives through ethnographic research in both local neighborhoods in Northern and Southern California, and in virtual places and networks such as online games, blogs, messaging, and online interest groups. Our research sites focus on learning and cultural production outside of schools: in homes, neighborhoods, after-school, and in recreational settings.

This project is sponsored by The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

To see the white paper and full report of the Digital Youth Project.

To learn more about the MacArthur Foundation Digital Media and Learning Initiative.

Can you give us some sense of the scope and scale of the project?

Mimi Ito: This was a study that was conducted over three years, with 28 researchers and research collaborators. We interviewed over 800 youth and young adults, and conducted over 5000 hours of online observations. This was done in the form of 22 different case studies of youth new media practices. Some of the studies looked at particular online sites, such as YouTube and social network sites. Other studies looked at interest groups, such as gaming groups and fans of anime and Harry Potter. Other groups also recruited youth from local institutions such as afterschool programs, parent networks, and schools. We believe that this is the most extensive qualitative study of contemporary youth new media practice in the U.S.

What were your goals with this project?

Mimi Ito: Our goal was really to capture youth perspectives and voices to understand what is happening in the online world today. We wanted to look at how young people are incorporating new media into their everyday social and recreational lives, in contexts that they found meaningful and motivating. Our thought was that it was only by looking at these kind of youth-driven contexts that we could get a grasp of what youth were learning through their online participation, and how that activity was changing the shape of our media and communications landscape.

Ethnography often gets praised for its process of discovery. What was the biggest discovery your team made through this process?

Mimi Ito: One of the strengths of the ethnographic process is that it involves listening and learning from people with different perspectives, and having that inform our research frameworks. One of the big things that we learned from doing this with such a large research team, was how it was that different kinds of youth practices and social groups were related to one another, either in a synergistic way or a more antagonistic way. We learned that the main thing that distinguishes different kinds of youth new media practices was the difference between what we call “friendship-driven” and “interest-driven” participation. Friendship-driven participation is what most youth are doing online, and involve the familiar practices of hanging out, flirting, and working out status issues on sites like MySpace and Facebook. Interest-driven participation has to do with more of the geeks and creative types of practices, where youth will connect with others online around specializes interests, such as media fandom, gaming, or creative production. It wasn’t the just usual things like gender and socioeconomic status that necessarily determined the big differences, but it also had a lot to do with categories in youth culture, like is considered “cool,” “popular” or “dorky.”

Heather Horst: In addition to friendship-driven and interest-driven genres of participation, we also identified three genres of participation and learning – hanging out, messing around and geeking out. Hanging out is when kids are using technologies like IM, Facebook or MySpace to hang out socially with their friends. Messing around is when they are looking around online for information, or tinkering with media in relatively casual and experimental ways. Geeking out is when they really dive deep into a specialized area of knowledge or interest.

What is important about this framework is that it’s not about categorizing kids as having a single identity or set of activities. What we are doing is identifying different ways that kids can participate in media culture, and this can be quite fluid. For example, we talk in our chapter on Media Ecologies about a teen named Derrick who participated in Christo Sims’ study of Rural and Urban Youth. He uses Instant Messaging and his mobile phone to coordinate hanging out with his friends. Yet, and like many other teens, Derrick has also earned a reputation for geeking out through his interest in locating and downloading movies through BitTorrent. He also uses the Internet to ‘mess around’, such as the time he did a search on Google until he found tutorials and other information to help him build a computer. The diversity of practices reflect differing motivations, levels of commitment and intensity of use which frame Derrick’s (and other youths’) engagement with new media.

Mimi Ito: These genres of participation were things that we found across the different case studies that we looked at. In addition, each individual case study discovered a wealth of interesting details and findings that were specific to each case. What was unique about this project was that we discovered things that were grounded in the specifics of deep case studies, which is typical of ethnographic work, as well as identifying these broader cross-cutting patterns.

Parents often express concerns that young people are interacting online with people they don’t know while those excited about social network sites talk about the ways they allow us to escape the constraints of local geography. Yet, your report finds that young people often use these tools primarily to interact with people who they already know. What can you tell us about the relationship between the online and off-line lives of teens?

danah boyd: While there are indeed examples of teens meeting others through these sites, it is critical for adults to realize that these sites are primarily about reinforcing pre-existing connections using mediated technologies. Youth’s mobility is heavily curtailed and they desperately want to hang out with their friends from school. These sites have become that gathering space. Just because they can be used by youth to connect to strangers does not mean that they are. By focusing on the possibilities of risk, adults have lost touch with the benefits that these sites afford to youth.

Christo Sims: As danah says, most of our participants used social network sites to complement their offline social relationships rather than to experiment with identity or to make a bunch of new “friends” from around the country or world. With that said, there were instances where youth developed online relationships that extended beyond school, neighborhoods, and local activity groups. Youth that were more marginalized in their local social worlds would often go online for friendship and intimacy. We heard several stories of gay and lesbian youth using internet-based tools in these ways. Similarly, we heard stories of immigrants and ethnic minorities connecting online despite being widely distributed geographically. Then, there’s youth who engaged in interest-driven online participation who often interacted with folks far beyond their local region. When friendships did develop they grew over sustained participation in those interest-driven activities, not out of more friendship or intimacy seeking behavior as you’d find in an online dating site. Finally, we did hear several stories of youth developing pen-pal like relationships with other teens. These interactions tended to be conversational, sharing accounts of what life was like in their respective towns or cities, discussing the challenges and confusions of being a teenager. These sorts of interactions more closely resemble the self-exploration and identity-play that earlier accounts of online participation tended to emphasize – a sense of anonymity, a degree of freedom from the trappings of one’s identity in the family or at school – yet they weren’t anywhere close to the dominant day-to-day uses of these tools.

Dan Perkel: Just to follow up on a point that Christo alludes to, there are in-between categories of people that might be overlooked in the split between “people you do already know” and “strangers.” For example, there are people who are friends of friends, or friends of cousins, who you may not know, but go to neighboring schools, or live in the same area of town. We heard from participants in San Francisco, the East Bay, and I believe in Brooklyn as well, stories of people meeting up and getting to know people who they knew through others but only “met” using MySpace or another site. We also heard stories or in some cases watched people play out situations where they had met someone offline, and gotten their MySpace username so that they could contact them later. This was one way of facilitating dating (like asking someone for a phone number). In this case, this is someone that they have met, but is not necessarily someone they “know” or at least have any other contact with before back and forth conversations using social network sites. The point is that we learned how confusing it can be to even categorize who is a stranger versus a known person. How some of the participants use online media happens in the space inbetween.

danah boyd is a doctoral candidate in the School of Information at the University of California, Berkeley and a Fellow at the Harvard University Law School Berkman Center for Internet and Society. Her research focuses on how American youth engage in networked publics such as MySpace, YouTube, Facebook, Xanga, etc. She is interested in how teens formulate a presentation of self and negotiate socialization in mediated contexts with invisible audiences. In addition to her research, danah works with a wide variety of companies and is an active blogger.

Heather Horst is an Associate Project Scientist at the University of California, Irvine (UCHRI) who conducted research during the Digital Youth Project as a Postdoctoral Scholar at University of California, Berkeley. Heather is a sociocultural anthropologist by training who is interested in the materiality of place, space, and new information and communication technologies. Before joining the Digital Youth Project in 2005, she carried out research on conceptions of home among Jamaican transnational migrants, as well as issues of digital inequality, as part of a large-scale DFID-funded project titled “Information Society: Emergent Technologies and Development in the South,” which compared the relationship between ICTs and development in Ghana, India, Jamaica, and South Africa. Her coauthored book with Daniel Miller, The Cell Phone: An Anthropology of Communication (Oxford, UK, and New York: Berg, 2006), was the first ethnography of mobile phones in the developing world. Heather’s research in the Digital Youth Project integrates her interest in media and technology in domestic spaces, families in Silicon Valley, and the economic lives of kids on sites such as Neopets.

Mizuko (Mimi) Ito is a cultural anthropologist specializing in media technology use by children and youth. She holds an MA in Anthropology, a PhD in Education and a PhD in Anthropology from Stanford University. Ito has studied a wide range of digitally augmented social practices, including online gaming and social communities, the production and consumption of children’s software, play with children’s new media, mobile phone use in Japan, and an undergraduate multimedia-based curriculum. Her current work focuses on Japanese technoculture, and for the Digital Youth Project she is researching English-language fandoms surrounding Japanese popular culture.

Dan Perkel is a PhD candidate at UC Berkeley’s School of Information. His research explores how young people use the web and other technologies as a part of their everyday media production activities. Dan’s ongoing dissertation research investigates the mutual shaping of young people’s creative practices and the social and technical infrastructure that support them. Prior projects include explorations into the design of a collaborative storytelling environment for fifth-graders, ethnographic inquiry into an after-school media and technology program, and investigations using diary studies to capture everyday technology use. With UC Berkeley artist Greg Niemeyer and colleague Ryan Shaw, Dan helped create an art installation called Organum, which looks at collaborative game play using the human voice (and which was followed up by “Good Morning Flowers”). In a past life, Dan worked as an interface designer, product manager, and implementations director for Hive Group, whose Honeycomb software helps people make decisions through data visualization. He received his BA (2000) in Science, Technology, and Society from Stanford University, graduating Phi Beta Kappa, and his Master’s in Information Management and Systems from UC Berkeley’s School of Information in 2005.

Christo Sims is a PhD student at UC Berkeley’s School of Information. He was a member of the Digital Youth research team from 2005 until 2008. His fieldwork focused on the ways youth use new media in everyday social practices involving friends, family, and intimates. He conducted research at two sites, one in rural Northern California, the other in Brooklyn, New York. His contributions can mostly be found in the report’s chapters on Intimacy, Friendship, and Families. Christo received his Master’s degree from UC Berkeley’s School of Information in the spring of 2007, and his Bachelor’s degree from Bowdoin College in the spring of 2000.

The New Media Literacies: An Introduction

Over the next several weeks, I plan to be showcasing some of the work we are doing through Project New Media Literacies, an initiative funded by the MacArthur Foundation as part of their Digital Learning and Youth program. Many regular readers of this blog will already be familiar with some of the work which we do. If you have not read the White Paper we wrote several years ago on the educational implications of participatory culture, check it out.

Members of our team of graduate students and researchers have been working on creating new curricular models which reflect many of the implications of this white paper. Some of them are being tested through schools and after school programs as we speak. Many of them are going to be released to the public in the course of this academic year. So, you can expect to hear more about these initiatives on this blog in the weeks and months ahead.

This video was put together by our team to explain in the most general terms what we mean by the New Media Literacies and why we think they are important. It is our collective statement about the principles which govern and motivate our work. The exciting thing about our team is that it brings together those of us who have media production backgrounds, who have expertise in media studies, and who have been trained in educational research. We are all learning from each other as we put these ideas into practice.

One respondent to the YouTube posting of this video questions our use of the term, “literacies.” This is a question that crops up often. A growing body of academic research over the past few decades has increasingly realized that literacy is not simply one thing but rather a range of interconnected skills and practices. We are scarcely the first to talk about “multi-literacies.” These skills are unevenly distributed across the population. Some of them may receive a high degree of prestige while others are often debased and dismissed. There is almost always a struggle over what counts as literacy.

Increasingly, the word, literacy, has moved from reference to the specific practices associated with text to a more generalized capacity to decipher the signs and symbols of our culture. The Media Literacy movement has a long history of extending the concept to refer to our capacity to intreprete and communicate through audio-visual media.

We see these earlier forms of literacy as absolutely foundational for what we are trying to promote. If you can’t read and write, you may not be able to meaningfully participate in this new media landscape. At the same time, participatory culture practices — such as fan fiction — provide strong incentives and support for acquiring traditional literacy skills, for growing as readers and writers, while other sites — such as those around gaming or YouTube — may provide the infrastructure to help people acquire the skills they need to meaningfully participate.

We fear, however, that most schools are locking out what is most valuable about these participatory cultures, often by limiting or banning access to social software, blogging tools, Youtube, and other key tools and platforms. This has been true even for some of the schools we are working with to test our materials, an issue I hope to address in more detail in future installments of this blog. The New Media Literacies (definitely plural rather than singular) refer to skills which will support young people in their future roles as learners, creators, workers, and citizens. Watch the video and you will have a better sense of what we mean, but there’s no substitute for reading the white paper.

Professor Jenkins Goes to Hollywood

On Monday, I announced to the members of the Comparative Media Studies Community –our graduate and undergraduate students, staff, researchers, faculty, and alums — that I will be leaving MIT at the end of the current academic year to accept a new position at the University of Southern California. I have decided that the phrase “bitter-sweet” is inadequate for such a moment, prefering to adopt the phrase, “Brutal-Sublime” to capture the extreme highs and lows I feel at what is for me a significant transitional moment in my life. This turned out to be one of the most agonizing decisions I’ve ever had to make.

On the one hand, accepting the USC position means leaving a school which has been my intellectual home for almost two decades. MIT was willing to give me my first academic position, just out of graduate school, and it has provided me with an intellectual context for doing my work. It’s a safe bet that none of my digital work would have taken place if I had not landed in Cambridge in time to experience some of the early years of the Media Lab or to live among the ultimate community of early tech adapters or to have a chance to meet with the digerati as they passed through campus. I’ve learned so much from MIT students — those in my classes and those who live in Senior House, the dorm where I have been housemaster for 14 some odd, some very odd years — and from my MIT colleagues. I have taken great pride in making the case for humanists as being every bit as geeky as any other sector of the Institute and I have been inspired by a long history of media research done in various sectors of the Institute. Moreover, I have helped to build something here which I will always cherish — a deeply collaborative and creative community which has been free to explore our current moment of media change from many disciplinary perspectives, which has been committed to the goal of translating our insights as media and cultural scholars into a language which can speak to a larger public and to apply them to the development of projects which have real world implications. Through this program, we have formed a powerful network of alums and affiliates which stretches around the globe and straddles between many different sectors where media change is having an impact. I’ve had the chance to form an intense intellectual partnership with my co-Director William Uricchio which has been the most rewarding collaboration of my life. Collectively, we’ve done paradigm-shifting research and we’ve helped launch many careers. I love CMS.

But I have also struggled with the reality that we do not have the level of faculty commitment from MIT to allow us to sustain this kind of activity long term. Despite a decade of arguments, we still have only two dedicated faculty members on whose back all of the activity you’ve been reading about here has rested. I’m often asked how I manage to do everything I do and now you know the sad answer: I can’t — at least not year after year. Even Green Lantern needs to recharge his ring now and again. When I began this process, I had the body of a 37 year old. I woke up one morning and discovered that aliens has swapped it out for the body of a 50 year old. We had enjoyed dramatic expansion over the past few years, but with it has come dramatic increases in my responsibilities, until I reached a point where it was not humanly possible to continue to work at the pace I have been working.

This summer, I went around the country visiting academic programs, trying to figure out if any of them might represent a different kind of home for me. In the end, I lost my heart to USC.

I was profoundly inspired by Ernest Wilson, the charismatic and visionary new Dean of the Annenberg School. I found that I already had a wide array of friends there who were ready to greet me with open arms. USC offered me a truly interdisciplinary position, one which straddles the Communications and Cinema Schools and which is designed to encourage collaboration and conversation between their diverse faculty. What I discovered is that between the two schools, USC is already doing exciting work along many of the axises which has defined my own research interests — media literacy, civic media, games, creative industries, and fan culture/audience research. Moving there allows me to at last have a chance to work with PhD students. And it’s hard for anyone who works on media to resist the attractions of being so close to the heart of the American entertainment industry.

Once I had a chance to spend time with their faculty, I knew in my heart of hearts that I had found a new home, one which would allow me to explore some new directions in my work and one which would allow me to reclaim aspects of my intellectual interests that had been abandoned during nearly a decade and a half struggle to get CMS launched.

So, what does this mean for CMS? There’s a lot we are still trying to sort through. I will be making further announcements here soon.

We have developed plans for all of the research centers we’ve created — some of them will gradually move towards the west coast with me while others are deeply rooted at MIT and will continue to operate under different leadership. My own deepest commitment right now is to Project NML. I plan to devote more of my time working on the intersections between participatory culture and education.

For the next year or so, I will be in transition, continuing to commute back and forth between LA and Boston to make good on my commitments to our first year students, many of whom came to MIT specifically study under me, and we will be keeping all of the research groups in action next year so as not to compromise the quality of their education.

We are still making decisions about what to do about admissions next year and beyond that, what decisions will be made about the future of the CMS program. If you are interested in the CMS program, you should definitely still apply. There’s some chance we will freeze admissions for next year but also some chance that this is not going to happen. We’ve checked and MIT will refund application fees for anyone who chooses to apply if the program later decides not to accept new students. But you should also keep in mind other alternative programs, including fine programs at Georgia Tech, Carnegie Mellon, Queensland University of Technology, and, oh, yes, USC, programs we’ve long considered important sister programs to our own.

I’ve seen some speculations from local folks that this might mean the end of the lecture series which we host: the CMS colloquium series and its podcasts should continue for at least one more year; the MIT Communications Forum is under the leadership of David Thorburn and will not be effected by my absence, though I will obviously not be moderating events anymore.

I wanted to share this news — both the good and the bad — with those of you who are regular readers of this blog. I’ve appreciated your support through the years and look forward to sharing with you the new chapter of my life’s adventures.

Next year, we will celebrate the graduation of the tenth class of Master’s Students from our program. We will have a homecoming celebration, have some laughs, and toast our many successes. What happens after that is any one’s guess.

Fan Fiction Someone Needs to Write…

ari_canes.jpg

250px-Bradley_Whitford.jpg

From the Wikipedia entry on Rahm Emanuel, Obama’s new chief of staff:

His brother Ari Emanuel is a talent agent in Los Angeles who inspired Jeremy Piven’s character Ari Gold on the HBO series Entourage. Emanuel himself is the inspiration for the character Josh Lyman on The West Wing.

To my eye, this has the potential to be an entire new genre of fan fiction, given the popularity of both of these characters among fans of their respective programs. You can even see a family resemblance — especially around the mouth and chin — in these two photographs, though maybe that’s my imagination. :-)

It’s been a while since I’ve read a really good crossover story so I wanted to issue a challenge:

I am promising a signed copy of Convergence Culture to the first fan writer to produce a decent story (decent in quality, not necessarily in moral character) involving these two fictional characters. Extra credit if you can work Obama into the mix.

Round-Up: More Spreadable Media From Campaign 2008

My post here several weeks ago, “How We Help Spread Political Messages,” opened the floodgates and readers, friends, and colleagues have been sharing with me a much broader array of short videos dealing with the election. I fear that people are already getting sick of reading articles about “How Obama Did It” or “The Role of New Media in Campaign 2008″, but in the interest of the historical record and in the hopes of spreading this content to some of the international readers of this blog who weren’t on the ground here for the final onslaught, I figured I would throw some more examples your way with limited commentary.

This video starts by telling us Azeroth from World of Warcraft would be, based on its population of users, the 8th largest state in the country, located between Michigan and Georgia. Given the electoral votes at stake there, we can imagine that McCain and Obama would have spent a good deal of time in what the moderator of this piece calls “an actual battleground state.” So, would Azeroth be a red state or a blue state? The Machinest tried to find out both by interviewing players, in avatar, about their political preferences and by doing a survey which breaks voters down by race and guild. Not surprisingly, Republicans and Democrats have different kinds of fantasies which they play out when they enter World of Warcraft, so there are significant differences, say, in the political preferences of dwarfs and Elves, Mages and Warriors.

Analogies between the presidential campaign and reality television have been inescapable. I’ve read several op-ed pieces which compare Obama and/or Palin to American Idol contestants, suggesting that they were pushed out on stage sooner than would be traditional in American politics and that the public got to watch them rise or fall depending on their ability to quickly adopt to changing circumstances. In my class on new media literacies and civic engagement, I assigned a recent essay by John Hartley on “Reality and the Plebisite,” (from his recent book, Television Truths) which argues that the decision-making mechanisms on a range of reality television programs — from the juries on Survivor to the collective voting of American Idol or Big Brother in most other parts of the world to the autocracy of The Apprentice — allow us to play out different understandings of the political process. The always Puckish Hartley turns around common arguments about civic engagement, suggesting that clearly the public takes an active pleasure in voting, so it must be some other aspect of the political process — perhaps the language and imagery — which leaves so many of us feeling cold and uninterested.

Four years ago, one of the best videos about the election used The Apprentice as a metaphor for talking about the failures of the Bush administration. This time, someone mashed up footage of So You Think You Can Dance and the Presidential Debates to offer a double-edged satire — one which skewers the candidates for their pandering to voters and skewers the news media for its preoccupation with issues of performance. This video goes on a little too long but it is interesting in the ways that it avoids pure partisanship based on parties and candidates and yet uses remixing to signal its stance on particular issues — notably concerning energy, the environment, and the military.

This video is much more playful. It’s not clear that it has a political stance it wants to promote so much as it wants to tap our interest in the candidates and demonstrate the creator’s technical virtuosity. But it’s a lot of fun.

While we are on the theme of politics and dance, here’s a third late entry — this one maps the final days of the Obama campaign onto a key moment from the long-running Broadway musical, Les Mizerables, with delightful results. While the others achieve their results through remix, this one depends on the performance skills of an Improv group.

Leave it to The Onion to create a video which captures the anxiety surrounding voting machines and uses it as a starting point to spoof the media’s coverage of election results. I don’t want to say much more less I spoil some of the punchlines here.

Special thanks go out to Ceila Pierce, Jonathon Stack, Erin Reilly, and Chris Csikszentmihalyi for sending me the links used in this post.

Obama: The Candidate For All Platforms

Whew! I am still trying to collect my thoughts after the Obama victory last week, which has come during a particularly hectic period of the term for me. I haven’t been able to keep pace with the journalists and professional pundits who have already written much of what I might have had to say, but I did promise you folks a few reflections.

I’ve been traveling around the country in recent weeks, giving talks on the relationships between politics and participatory culture. A key theme of the talks has been that political campaigns, much like wars, pushing existing technologies to their breaking points and often give rise to innovations and experimentations which have a lasting impact on our mediascape. This has certainly been the case this go around where Obama has been the man for all platforms — a campaign which was as comfortable on YouTube or Second Life as it was on network television (think about that final informercial, for example) and more importantly, understood the political process through a lens of media convergence, seeing old and new media, grassroots and corporate media working hand in hand to shape his public image and the campaign messages. The Obama campaign broke so much new ground (in the use of user-generated content, social networks, mobile technologies, and game-based advertising, in particular) and set new records (in the use of the web to raise money or track supporters). Digital media were absolutely central to his much praised “get out the vote” efforts and critical to his ability to court younger voters. By contrast, the McCain candidacy failed across all platforms — not exploiting fully the potentials of new media and often, getting hurt by its mismanagement of traditional media (Think about Sarah Palin and Katie Couric).

The New York Time‘s David Carr and Brian Selter ran an especially strong article about “campaigns in a web 2.0 world” in the final days of the campaign, which perfectly describes the interplay of media platforms which shaped this election cycle. Here’s a few highlights:

  • “We should be careful of these zero-sum games where the new media drives out the old,” said Andrew Heyward, a former president of CBS News who consults for the Monitor Group. “I think what we see is growing sophistication about making the channels work together effectively.”
  • “What is striking here is not the dominance of any one medium, but the integration of various channels,” said Lee Rainie, the director of the Pew Internet & American Life Project.
  • “I think that this time around, campaigns got used to the fact that anything that they put out there could be pirated, remixed, mashed-up and recirculated,” said Henry Jenkins, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “It is a much more rapid environment.”
  • “At a time when almost anyone can check voter turnout in certain neighborhoods in Cuyahoga County, I don’t think everyone is going to sit there and wait to be spoon-fed the election results in the order Brian Williams thinks is appropriate,” said Joan Walsh, the editor of Salon, referring to a closely watched county in Ohio.
  • This last comment seems especially cogent. I was struck watching the election returns on CNN by how little the networks recognize that they no longer have a monopoly on information. Again and again, they were showing state-wide returns which were relatively meaningless without drilling down to explain what districts were reporting and what their previous voting patterns have been. One consequence of the Democrats having run in all fifty states during the primaries was that the news has already educated many of us about the local specifics of many of these districts and we know to be skeptical if the returns reflect a particularly skewed sample of the state. There was for example a moment when Texas was running something like 51 McCain- 49 Obama and it is clear in hindsight that this must have been heavily skewed towards returns from Austin and San Antonio, yet the newscasters were giving us no way of knowing what we were looking at. Anyone who was watching simultaneously with a wireless laptop in their hands could find very sophisticated data on a precinct by precinct level emerging in real time, making some of the information delivery functions of cable news more or less obsolete.

    But it’s not clear the anchors really understand how porous the information environment was. At one moment, CNN had just announced the results from Ohio, which produced wild cheers from Grant Park, where the Obama supporters were gathered, and the newscasters were asking whether the people there understood what this meant. (Of course, the newscasters themselves were being coy about the full implications of this moment, since they did not want to declare Obama the victor before voting closed on the west coast, and so they were hinting but not saying that Ohio was the end of any hope for McCain’s candidacy.) But, in a year where people have had unprecidented access to state by state, day by day polling, and where there have been countless news stories about every “battleground” state, it’s hard to imagine anyone in Grant Park didn’t know exactly what the Ohio outcome meant for their guy.

    At another moment, they suggested that the televisions were turned off at McCain’s headquarters so no information was getting through. Come on! Has anyone at CNN heard about cell phones, blackberries, and wireless internet connections? The point is that the networks are going to need to start thinking about what their function is in a world where a growing number of people are processing election returns through multiple platforms rather than one where the only information they are receiving is streaming through cables into their televisions.

    Then, there were all of the new devices the networks were using to display their results. Some of them — like the manipulable maps we’ve been learning how to use all year — have started to develop their own rhetoric and serve specific functions. Though much parodied on places like The Daily Show and Saturday Night Live, I love the ways the news has created new ways to visualize contingencies and hypotheticals, running through different game plans. This device was at its strongest when they were trying to show — but not state directly — that McCain had lost the election even before returns came in from California and the Pacific Northwest.

    The much publicized use of “holographic technology” by CNN, on the other hand, seemed like a display device with no clear function: what new information value was conveyed by having the ability to look at remote reporters from every possible angle? So far, we don’t know. Isn’t the point of having the reporter be on the ground that we can see the context where the events is ocurring? So what happens when we send them into a tent, cut them off from the crowd, and “beam” them back to CNN? Isn’t the point of the use of holography for distanced communication that it allows participants to feel a stronger sense of telepresence? But then what happens when the anchor and the reporter are both still staring at a monitor and the 3d effect is layered in for the audience only?

    And of course the newscasters couldn’t decide which metaphor was operating. Early in the evening, when it was first displayed, I said to my wife, “Obama-Wan, You are Our Only Hope!” and no sooner were the words out of my mouth then the announcers was making her own Princess Leia jokes. And that metaphor really did capture the texture of this new device which was still more than a little patchy. But later, they started cracking jokes about the transporter in Star Trek, which seemed to this fan boy to be particularly bad news. Any time a transporter signal has been this broken up, it’s been early warning of an impending red shirt death, their atoms scattered rather than collected by the technology.

    Late in the evening, though, we saw television do what television did best. It was an extraordinarily powerful moment when the news anchors called the election for Obama and we cut to the faces of the people in Grant Park — including tears streaming down Jesse Jackson’s face, Oprah’s joy, the wild excitement of his young and minority supporters — or when we saw Martin Luther King’s daughter struggling to be heard over the background noise of the choir at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta. What television communicated so well was the immediacy of the experience, the social connection we felt with people across the country and around the world, and all of the emotions which surrounded this moment of political transformation. People who only followed the data on line missed the intensity of that experience. In my discussions at the Center for Future Civic Media, we often have debated whether civic engagement is a structure of information or a structure of feeling. CNN seemed to lose the battle to the internet in terms of providing meaningful access to information but it won the war in terms of offering us a shared emotional experience which may be vital to connecting the nation together in the wake of hard-waged campaign.

    Ellen Hume has shared with me a particularly rich site which gathers together the front pages from newspapers from around the country and across the globe the morning after Obama’s victory. It’s a great resource for teaching, since it allows you to see how the same news gets a different spin depending on the headline and imagery used.

    So what happens next? Will Obama deploy the convergence between old and new media as effectively to govern the country as he did to campaign for office? More and more, we see presidents in continuous campaign mode, trying to build public support behind their policies and preserve their public approval ratings between election cycles. Will we see Obama tap his social network of supporters to organize collectively when Congress balks at his legislative agenda? Will he use the web to gather collective intelligence about public policy issues and to conduct “national conversations” about core challenges confronting the country? Some hints may be seen at the Change.gov site which the Obama transition team put up the day after the election. “The story of the campaign and this historic moment has been your story,” the website states. “Share your story and your ideas, and be part of bringing positive lasting change to this country.”

    If this is the first step in the process, it already suggests a desire for real input from diverse groups and a commitment to transparency which will be a breath of fresh air after the secrecy culture and executive privilege claimed by the Bush administration.

    Is Obama now America’s most powerful fan boy? Early returns suggest that it may just be the case: there are so many stories now about the Obama family voting on American Idol and reading the Harry Potter books together. The President-Elect is rumored to know how to give a Vulcan salute (to Leonard Nimoy no less), to drop casual references to Star Trek and other science fiction and comics texts into conversation. He’s even alleged to have attended San Diego Comic Con one year. Of course, some of his street cred as a fan was damaged by a story in Newsweek during which he was qouted as comparing Michelle’s belt buckle to “Lithium Crystals.” Any Star Trek fan worth their salt monster knows that should be “Dilithium Crystals.” We can only hope that the reporter misunderstood what he said but if so, he should demand an apology for the slander it poses to his fannish reputation. Let the fun begin!

    Be sure to check out the new blog and website for the Center for Future Civic Media.

The Future of Entertainment Is In Your Hands…

I’m focusing much of my energy this week on pulling things together for the Futures of Entertainment conference, which is coming up at MIT on Friday, Nov. 21, and Saturday, Nov. 22.

Futures of Entertainment 3, an event sponsored by the MIT Convergence Culture Consortium is the third annual conference bringing together media industries professionals and media studies academics to discuss the current state and ongoing trends in media. I’m going to be kept busy this year: opening the conference by laying out some of the core concepts which are animating the Consortium’s current research agenda, including Spreadable Media, The Gift Economy, and the Moral Economy; moderating what promises to be a high flying discussion of “value” and “worth” in the new media landscape; trying to hold my own in a conversation with Yochai Benkler; and helping to shape a discussion which uses The Watchman as a case study of the intersection between comics and convergence culture.

Other topics this year will include a strong focus on social media, globalization, franchising, audience building, and the intersection between academia and industry.

If you’ve attended our other events you know that we bring together cutting edge thinkers from both academia and industry for intense exchanges about trends which will influence the entertainment sector in the coming years. This year’s mix is our most diverse yet.

Speakers at the conference include Kim Moses, executive producer of The Ghost Whisperer; Alex McDowell, production designer for Watchmen; Gregg Hale, producer of The Blair Witch Project and Seventh Moon; Lance Weiler, director of The Last Broadcast and Head Trauma; and Tom Casiello, Daytime Emmy award-winning former writer for soap operas including As the World Turns, One Life to Live, Days of Our Lives, and The Young and the Restless; brand guru Anne White, who consulted on the design of advertising for Minority Report; CrunchyRoll’s Vu Nguyen; New Content’s Mauricio Mota who will share with us news from Brazil’s film and music industries; as well as representatives from HBO Online, World Wrestling Entertainment, and other innovative media companies and projects.

The conference will also feature academics such as Yochai Benkler (Harvard Law School, author of The Wealth of Networks), John Caldwell (UCLA, author of Production Culture), Anita Elberse (Harvard Business School, author of “Should You Invest in the Long Tail?”), Nancy Baym (University of Kansas, Personal Connections in a Digital Age), Amanda Lotz (University of Michigan, The Television Will be Revolutionized), Sharon Ross (Columbia College Chicago, Beyond the Box: Television and the Internet) and Grant McCracken (author of Transformations).

Many of these names you will recognize from previous entries on this blog. You won’t want to miss these conversations.

More information on the conference, including the program and registration, is available

here.