“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.