The Conversation Never Ends: Participatory Culture in a Networked Era

Over the next few installments, I am going to celebrate the publication of a new book — Participatory Culture in a Networked Era — which I developed over the past few years in conversation with danah boyd and Mimi Ito, both names that should be familiar to regular readers of this blog. For those of you who don’t know, Mimi Ito is Professor in Residence and MacArthur Foundation chair in Digital Media and Learning, University of California, Irvine and danah boyd is a Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research, the Founder of Data & Society, and a Visiting Professor at New York University. All three of us have been part of the MacArthur Foundation’s Digital Media and Learning initiative over the past decade.

The key word here is conversation. Literally, we started our book with the three of us sitting down in Mimi’s living room and having a several days long conversation about the intersections between our work, reflecting on the past several decades of digital and social change, considering what we know now that we couldn’t have known a decade ago and how this might force us to rethink some earlier claims about participatory culture, connected learning, Web 2.0, the new activism, fandom, and a wealth of other topics we hold near and dear. As we did so, we solicited questions through various social media, and we made sure to address as many of them as we could. And then, we worked through the transcripts, again and again, clarifying our concepts, refining our arguments, shuffling the pieces to insure greater clarity and accessibility. And the result is a book, which is being released this month by Polity Press.

danah and Mimi were ideal thinking and writing partners for this ride. It wasn’t easy since we are probably three of the busiest people we know and so coordinating time to make this work was challenging, and there were many points along the way when we almost pulled the plug. I am so glad we didn’t because I am very proud of what we produced in the end.

Here’s what danah had to say about the process of writing the book on her blog:

I couldn’t think of anything more awesome than spending time with two of my mentors and teasing out the various strands of our interconnected research. I knew that there were places where we were aligned and places where we disagreed or, at least, where our emphases provided different perspectives. We’d all been running so fast in our own lives that we hadn’t had time to get to that level of nuance and this crazy project would be the perfect opportunity to do precisely that…Truth be told, I never wanted it to end. Throughout our conversations, I kept flashing back to my years at MIT when Henry opened my eyes to fan culture and a way of understanding media that seeped deep inside my soul. I kept remembering my trips to LA where I’d crash in Mimi’s guest room, talking research late into the night and being woken in the early hours by a bouncy child who never understood why I didn’t want to wake up at 6AM. But above everything else, the sheer delight of brainjamming with two people whose ideas and souls I knew so well was ecstasy.

I didn’t want it to end, either, danah. There were times when our exchanges felt like a tag team with each of us adding to what the person before had said as we made common cause against shared frustrations in the discourse about, say, “digital natives.” There were times when our interactions were like Truth and Dare as we ended up pushing each other to spill the beans and address core criticisms of our work. And there are a few places where some fundamental disagreements surfaced — such as an exchange about Mimi’s term, Connected Learning, and my term, Participatory Learning — which people might not have recognized from the outside. I think this book poses more questions than we can address, but it is intended as a conversation starter, so literally, the conversation doesn’t have to end but may spark many subsequent exchanges with many more people. So, as they used to say on Saturday Night Live, “talk amongst yourselves.”

So far, the book has been enthusiastically received by Howard Rhinegold, who had most flattering things to say about the project:

My single strongest recommendation to you: if you want the best and latest evidence-based, authoritative, nuanced, critical knowledge about how digital media and networks are transforming not just learning but commercial media, citizen participation in democracy, and the everyday practices of young people, my advice is to obtain a copy of the new book, “Participatory Culture in A Networked Era,” by Henry Jenkins, Mizuko Ito, and danah boyd. This book is the opposite of so much sound-bite generalization about “digital natives” and “Twitter revolutions.” Jenkins, Ito, and boyd seek to unpack the nuances behind the generalizations of digital media enthusiasts and critics alike, rather than to reduce them to easily digested phrases. And, they articulate their knowledge clearly. They not only know this subject matter as well as anyone on the planet, they know how to talk about it.

Here are a few more reactions to the book (these blurbs solicited by Polity, our publisher):

“Jenkins, Ito and boyd offer us all a wonderful gift in the form of this book — it’s as though one gets a chance to listen in on a great dinner party conversation between three brilliant scholars, reflecting on more than twenty years of trenchant scholarship on culture, play, identity, and the emergence of the digital world.”
John Palfrey, Phillips Academy

“These authors practise what they preach! To unlock the promise of participatory culture, Jenkins, Ito and boyd invite us to join their intellectual conversation as they puzzle over the dilemmas, insights and challenges of living in a networked era. This is an exciting way to engage with a fast-developing field of research, knowledge and experience.”
Sonia Livingstone, London School of Economics

“The idea of scholarship as dialogue is one that lies buried deep within the humanities. In the pages of this engaging and accessible book, Jenkins, Ito and boyd have brought the ethos of dialogue very much to the surface. Their conversation is an entirely apt technique for reflecting on what is by now a sustained history of collaboration on questions of informal learning, participation and power in the evolving digital media environment.”
Jean Burgess, Queensland University of Technology

In the spirit of keeping the conversation going, danah, Mimi and I had a new exchange via e-mail this past week, tackling a few recent concerns around participatory culture, as a way of sharing a taste of the book.

Henry: Last week, Common Sense Media announced a new report, based on a survey with 2600 tweens and teens, that they say depicts the current state of media usage in the United States. Among their findings are several which are likely troubling to one or another of us:

“Low-income kids lack access. Children growing up in lower-income homes are far less likely to have access to computers, tablets, and smartphones than their wealthier peers, but when they do have access, they are more likely to spend more time on their devices….

Social media use is big, but maybe not very enjoyable. Social media is an integral part of most teens’ lives (45% use “every day”), but only 36% of teens say they enjoy using social media “a lot” compared to 73% who enjoy listening to music “a lot,” and 45% watching TV.

Everyone can be a maker, but not many are. The vast majority of children’s engagement with media consists of consuming media, with only a small portion devoted to creating content.”

So, first, are these findings consistent with other current research you’ve seen? If so, should we be concerned about these findings? How do they fit within our own accounts of the ways media is impacting how youth learn and live today? And if these are indeed problems, what do we see as effective steps forward from these situations?

danah: Let me begin by tackling the middle finding on social media. When I interviewed teens, they repeatedly told me that they’d *much* rather get together face-to-face but then went on to cite all of the reasons that they couldn’t get together in person. It was deeply frustrating to them. They saw socializing through social media as less ideal than hanging out with their peers in person, but didn’t feel as though they had a choice. But that’s the comparison for them – social media vs. face-to-face. Music and TV are a totally different category and should not be compared to social media. Music and TV can be used socially (and you’ll often find teens listening to music or watching YouTube videos when then get together in person). They can also be used passively, to veg out at the end of a long day. As Henry often argues, there are active ways of consuming media, but the reality that I see on the ground is that there are many times when teens simply want to be passive consumers of media that makes them feel good. Then again, same is true for adults.

Mimi: I’ll jump in on the first finding and like danah also try to add some perspective on this that nuances the broad quantitative findings. Our team has also found important gaps in access and participation, but the differences are quite nuanced and aren’t about a straightforward “digital divide.” Access to computers, tablets, smartphones, and Internet connectivity don’t always go hand in hand, though privileged kids might have access to all of the above. One example is that we found that for low income teens in LA, they may have access to an Internet connected computer or laptop through shared device at home or at a library, but they but lack smartphone-based Internet access. What this means that they are not able to use mobile app based social media like Instagram and Snapchat. Many of the teens said they “don’t use social media” because they are not part of today’s dominant social media platforms. They use text messaging, and may dip into Facebook, because it is more accessible through shared devices like computers and laptops, but they are non-participants in the mobile social media space. And because these patterns tend to track along peer groups in schools, when they attended majority low income high schools, even the kids who did have smartphones were not heavy social media users because their peers were not part of the ecosystem.

Henry: I will tackle the final finding here. All of us have been excited at one time or another by the recognition that an expanding number of American youth have access to the means to produce media and we’ve contributed to projects designed to encourage young makers and hackers to find their voice and develop skills at producing new content. But, we need to recognize that participation in the new media environment can take many different forms and that measuring media making by itself creates a very high bar for mapping the public’s changing communication capacities. Making media may be a special event for many youth — part of a school project, for example — but contributing to the media environment in other ways may occur much more commonly. So, for example, we need to recognize that much more casual acts, such as forwarding or retweeting or otherwise spreading a piece of media content or signing an online petition may, in fact, have an impact on larger societal debates; often local acts of contributing to social media don’t count as “making” media, but do impact the local community where a discussion is taking place, representing forms of participation that would have been hard to achieve in another historical era. In many ways, forms of media participation have become so mundane and everyday that they do not “count” and are often taken for granted. Yet, when this broader range of activities are taken into consideration, it is clear that more young people are “participating” in the media environment than ever before and even if we narrow our focus to things like political and civic participation, there are signs of steady increases, and not just restricted to the “usual suspects” of white suburban middle class kids.

danah: One thing that bothers me about how we talk about media is that we tend to lump it all together. We treat TV as equivalent to video games, social media as equivalent to music. All because it involves electronics at some level. At best, we talk about passive versus active engagement but as y’all know, that’s fraught. I’m curious how y’all would break out different types of media so that people don’t always compare apples to oranges.

Henry: I would start by identifying specific functions and the choices people make about what media tools and platforms are the most appropriate ways of achieving them. So, in The Breakup 2.0, Ilana Gershon asks young people how they would “break up” with a romantic partner, and she gets a wealth of different stories that show choices people are making about when and where certain forms of media are appropriate and useful. Chris Evans, as part of the Youth and Participatory Politics Network research, has asked young people what strategies they would follow to address particular community problems. There, she can chart their movement across a range of different tools and platform, though she notes that many young people do not immediately think of digital media in this way, even though they use it often for other everyday functions. So, I would love to see research that asks about a) a broader range of forms and genres of participation and b) the range of tools and platforms used to achieve everyday social functions.

Mimi: I agree that it is very challenging to make general statements across media types and genres of participation in an era when the defining trend is towards niches and personalization of media environments. We talk about the various gaps and diverse genres of participation at some length in our book. I feel like in different ways, we have each taken on the challenge of adding some texture to blanket proclamations about “kids these days.”