Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century (Part One)

I spent Thursday in New York speaking on a panel with the University of Chicago's Nicole Pinkard and the University of Southern California's Mimi Ito as part of the public launch of the MacArthur Foundation's exciting slate of new initiatives in the area of youth, learning, and digital media. People interested in understanding the full context of this initiative should keep an eye on the Foundation's new blog. The event was simulcast on Second Life and on Teen Second Life. henry%20in%20second%20life.jpg

This is the context in which we have been pursuing our own Project nml (New Media Literacies) initiatives which I have been discussing from time to time in this blog. The New York City press event was the launching point for a white paper which I wrote for MacArthur identifying what we see as the key social skills and cultural competencies which young people need to be full participants in convergence culture. In Convergence Culture, I devote one chapter to thinking about the impact of participatory culture on our current understandings of education. Here I -- and my collaborators Ravi Purushotma, Margaret Weigel, Katherine Clinton, and Alice J. Robison -- have been able to dig much deeper into the pedagogical implications of the world I discuss in the book as well as to lay out some of the key insights from contemporary research on informal learning, games-based pedagogy, online communities, and participatory culture.

My hope is that this white paper will spark conversations among educators at all levels -- in schools and in after school programs, in public institutions, and in churches and other community centers -- about how we need to change our practices to reflect the new ways that young people are engaging with the world around them.

In hopes of sparking such a conversation, I am publishing the white paper in installments through my blog. This first installment sets the stage, describing some of the challenges and opportunities participatory culture represents in the lives of our young people.

For those of you who are impatient and want to read the whole report at once, you can download it here.

The Needed Skills in the New Media Culture

"If it were possible to define generally the mission of education, it could be said that its fundamental purpose is to ensure that all students benefit from learning in ways that allow them to participate fully in public, community, [Creative] and economic life."

-- New London Group

Ashley Richardson was a middle-schooler when she ran for president of Alphaville. She wanted to control a government that had more than 100 volunteer workers and that made policies that affected thousands of people. She debated her opponent on National Public Radio. She found herself in the center of a debate about the nature of citizenship, about how to ensure honest elections, and about the future of democracy in a digital age. Alphaville is the largest city in the popular multiplayer game, The Sims Online.

Heather Lawver was 14 years old. She wanted to help other young people improve their reading and writing skills. She established an online publication with a staff of more than 100 people across the world. Her project was embraced by teachers and integrated into their curriculum. She emerged as an important spokesperson in a national debate about intellectual property. The website Lawver created was a school newspaper for the fictional Hogwarts, the location for the popular Harry Potter books.

Blake Ross was 14 years old when he was hired for a summer internship at Netscape. By that point, he already had developed computer programming skills and published his own website. Frustrated by many of the corporate decisions made at Netscape, Ross decided to design his own web browser. Through the joint participation of thousands of other volunteer youth and adults working on his project worldwide, the Firefox web browser was born. Today, Firefox enjoys more than 60 times as many users as Netscape Navigator. By age 19, Ross had the venture capital needed to launch his own start-up company. His interest in computing was sparked by playing the popular video game, Sim City.

Josh Meeter was about to graduate from high school when he completed the claymation animation for Awards Showdown, which subsequent was widely circulated on the web. Meeter negotiated with composer John Williams for the rights to use excerpts from his film scores. By networking, he was able to convince Stephen Spielberg to watch the film, and it was later featured on the Spielberg's Dreamworks website. Meeter is now starting work on his first feature film.

Richardson, Lawver, Ross, and Meeter are the future politicians, activists, educators, writers, entrepreneurs, and media makers. The skills they acquired--learning how to campaign and govern; how to read, write, edit, and defend civil liberties; how to program computers and run a business; how to make a movie and get it distributed--are the kinds of skills we might hope our best schools would teach. Yet, none of these activities took place in schools. Indeed, many of these youth were frustrated with school; some dropped out and others chose to graduate early. They developed much of the skill and knowledge through their participation in the informal learning communities of fans and gamers.

Richardson, Lawver, Ross, and Meeter are exceptional individuals. In any given period, exceptional individuals will break all the rules and enjoy off-the-charts success--even at surprisingly young ages. But, Richardson, Lawver, Ross, and Meeter are perhaps less exceptional than one might at first imagine.

According to a 2005 study conducted by the Pew Internet and American Life project, more than one-half of all American teens--and 57 percent of teens who use the Internet--could be considered media creators. For the purpose of the study, a media creator is someone who created a blog or webpage, posted original artwork, photography, stories or videos online or remixed online content into their own new creations. Most have done two or more of these activities. One-third of teens share what they create online with others, 22 percent have their own websites, 19 percent blog, and 19 percent remix online content.

Contrary to popular stereotypes, these activities are not restricted to white suburban males. In fact, urban youth (40 percent) are somewhat more likely than their suburban (28 percent) or rural (38 percent) counterparts to be media creators. Girls aged 15-17 (27 percent) are more likely than boys their age (17 percent) to be involved with blogging or other social activities online. The Pew researchers found no significant differences in participation by race-ethnicity.

If anything, the Pew study undercounts the number of American young people who are embracing the new participatory culture. The Pew study did not consider newer forms of expression, such as podcasting, game modding or machinima. Nor did it count other forms of creative expression and appropriation, such as music sampling in the hip hop community. These forms are highly technological but use other tools and tap other networks for their production and distribution. The study does not include even more widespread practices, such as computer or video gaming, that can require an extensive focus on constructing and performing as fictional personas. Our focus here is not on individual accomplishment but rather the emergence of a cultural context that supports widespread participation in the production and distribution of media.

Enabling Participation

"While to adults the Internet primarily means the world wide web, for children it means email, chat, games-- and here they are already content producers. Too often neglected, except as a source of risk, these communication and entertainment focused activities, by contrast with the information-focused uses at the centre of public and policy agendas, are driving emerging media literacy. Through such uses, children are most engaged-- multi-tasking, becoming proficient at navigation and manoeuvre so as to win, judging their participation and that of others, etc.... In terms of personal development, identity, expression and their social consequences-- participation, social capital, civic culture- these are the activities that serve to network today's younger generation." -- Sonia Livingstone.

Participatory Culture

For the moment, let's define participatory culture as one:

1. With relatively low barriers to artistic expression and civic engagement

2. With strong support for creating and sharing one's creations with others

3. With some type of informal mentorship whereby what is known by the most experienced is passed along to novices

4. Where members believe that their contributions matter

5. Where members feel some degree of social connection with one another (at the least they care what other people think about what they have created).

Not every member must contribute, but all must believe they are free to contribute when ready and that what they contribute will be appropriately valued.

In such a world, many will only dabble, some will dig deeper, and still others will master the skills that are most valued within the community. The community itself, however, provides strong incentives for creative expression and active participation. Historically, we have valued creative writing or art classes because they help to identify and train future writers and artists, but also because the creative process is valuable on its own; every child deserves the chance to express him- or herself through words, sounds, and images, even if most will never write, perform, or draw professionally. Having these experiences, we believe, changes the way youth think about themselves and alters the way they look at work created by others.

Most public policy discussion of new media have centered on technologies--tools and their affordances. The computer is discussed as a magic black box with the potential to create a learning revolution (in the positive version) or a black hole that consumes resources that might better be devoted to traditional classroom activities (in the more critical version). Yet, as the quote above suggests, media operate in specific cultural and institutional contexts that determine how and why they are used. We may never know whether a tree makes a sound when it falls in a forest with no one around. But clearly, a computer does nothing in the absence of a user. The computer does not operate in a vacuum. Injecting digital technologies into the classroom necessarily affects our relationship with every other communications technology, changing how we feel about what can or should be done with pencils and paper, chalk and blackboard, books, films, and recordings.

Rather than dealing with each technology in isolation, we would do better to take an ecological approach, thinking about the interrelationship among all of these different communication technologies, the cultural communities that grow up around them, and the activities they support. Media systems consist of communication technologies and the social, cultural, legal, political, and economic institutions, practices, and protocols that shape and surround them. The same task can be performed with a range of different technologies, and the same technology can be deployed toward a variety of different ends. Some tasks may be easier with some technologies than with others, and thus the introduction of a new technology may inspire certain uses. Yet, these activities become widespread only if the culture also supports them, if they fill recurring needs at a particular historical juncture. It matters what tools are available to a culture, but it matters more what that culture chooses to do with those tools.

That is why we focus in this paper on the concept of participatory cultures rather than on interactive technologies. Interactivity is a property of the technology, while participation is a property of culture. Participatory culture is emerging as the culture absorbs and responds to the explosion of new media technologies that make it possible for average consumers to archive, annotate, appropriate, and recirculate media content in powerful new ways. A focus on expanding access to new technologies carries us only so far if we do not also foster the skills and cultural knowledge necessary to deploy those tools toward our own ends.

We are using participation as a term that cuts across educational practices, creative processes, community life, and democratic citizenship. Our goals should be to encourage youth to develop the skills, knowledge, ethical frameworks, and self-confidence needed to be full participants in contemporary culture. Many young people are already part of this process through:

Affiliations -- memberships, formal and informal, in online communities centered around various forms of media, such as Friendster, Facebook, message boards, metagaming, game clans, or MySpace).

Expressions -- producing new creative forms, such as digital sampling, skinning and modding, fan videomaking, fan fiction writing, zines, mash-ups).

Collaborative Problem-solving -- working together in teams, formal and informal, to complete tasks and develop new knowledge (such as through Wikipedia, alternative reality gaming, spoiling).

Circulations -- Shaping the flow of media (such as podcasting, blogging)

The MacArthur Foundation has launched an ambitious effort to document these activities and the roles they play in young people's lives. We do not want to preempt or duplicate that effort here. For the moment, it is sufficient to argue that each of these activities contains opportunities for learning, creative expression, civic engagement, political empowerment, and economic advancement.

Through these various forms of participatory culture, young people are acquiring skills that will serve them well in the future. Participatory culture is reworking the rules by which school, cultural expression, civic life, and work operate. A growing body of work has focused on the value of participatory culture and its long-term impact on children's understanding of themselves and the world around them.

Affinity Spaces

Many have argued that these new participatory cultures represent ideal learning environments. James Paul Gee calls such informal learning cultures "affinity spaces," asking why people learn more, participate more actively, engage more deeply with popular culture than they do with the contents of their textbooks. Affinity spaces offer powerful opportunities for learning, Gee argues, because they are sustained by common endeavors that bridge differences in age, class, race, gender, and educational level, and because people can participate in various ways according to their skills and interests, because they depend on peer-to-peer teaching with each participant constantly motivated to acquire new knowledge or refine their existing skills, and because they allow each participant to feel like an expert while tapping the expertise of others. For example, Rebecca Black finds that the "beta-reading" (or editorial feedback) provided by online fan communities helps contributors grow as writers, mastering not only the basic building blocks of sentence construction and narrative structure, but also pushing them to be close readers of the works that inspire them. Participants in the beta-reading process learn both by receiving feedback on their own work and by giving feedback to others, creating an ideal peer-to-peer learning community.

Affinity spaces are distinct from formal educational systems in several ways. While formal education is often conservative, the informal learning within popular culture is often experimental. While formal education is static, the informal learning within popular culture is innovative. The structures that sustain informal learning are more provisional, those supporting formal education are more institutional. Informal learning communities can evolve to respond to short-term needs and temporary interests, whereas the institutions supporting public education have remained little changed despite decades of school reform. Informal learning communities are ad hoc and localized; formal educational communities are bureaucratic and increasingly national in scope. We can move in and out of informal learning communities if they fail to meet our needs; we enjoy no such mobility in our relations to formal education.

Affinity spaces are also highly generative environments, from which new aesthetic experiments and innovations emerge Andrew Blau's 2005 report on The Future of Independent Media argued that this kind of grassroots creativity was an important engine of cultural transformation:

The media landscape will be reshaped by the bottom-up energy of media created by amateurs and hobbyists as a matter of course. This bottom up energy will generate enormous creativity, but it will also tear apart some of the categories that organize the lives and work of media makers...A new generation of media-makers and viewers are emerging which could lead to a sea change in how media is made and consumed.

Blau's report celebrates a world in which everyone has access to the means of creative expression and the networks supporting artistic distribution. The Pew study suggests something more: young people who create and circulate their own media are more likely to respect the intellectual property rights of others because they feel a greater stake in the cultural economy. Both reports suggest we are moving away from a world in which some produce and many consume media, toward one in which everyone has a more active stake in the culture that is produced.

David Buckingham argues that young people's lack of interest in news and their disconnection from politics reflects their perception of disempowerment.

"By and large, young people are not defined by society as political subjects, let alone as political agents. Even in the areas of social life that affect and concern them to a much greater extent than adults--most notably education--political debate is conducted almost entirely 'over their heads'"

Politics, as constructed by the news, becomes a spectator sport, something we watch but do not do. Yet, the new participatory culture offers many opportunities for youth to engage in civic debates, to participate in community life, to become political leaders, even if sometimes only through the "second lives" offered by massively multiplayer games or online fan communities.

Empowerment comes from making meaningful decisions within a real civic context: we learn the skills of citizenship by becoming political actors and gradually coming to understand the choices we make in political terms. Today's children learn through play the skills they will apply to more serious tasks later. The challenge is how to connect decisions in the context of our everyday lives with the decisions made at local, state, or national levels. The step from watching television news and acting politically seems greater than the transition from being a political actor in a game world to acting politically in the "real world."

Participating in these affinity spaces also has economic implications. We suspect that young people who spend more time playing within these new media environments will feel greater comfort interacting with one another via electronic channels, will have greater fluidity in navigating information landscapes, will be better able to multitask and make rapid decisions about the quality of information they are receiving, and will be able to collaborate better with people from diverse cultural backgrounds. These claims are borne out by research conducted by Beck and Wade into the ways that early game play experiences affect subsequent work habits and professional activities. Beck and Wade conclude that gamers were more open to taking risks and engaging in competition but also more open to collaborating with others and more willing to revise earlier assumptions.

This focus on the value of participating within the new media culture stands in striking contrast to recent reports from the Kaiser Family Foundation that have bemoaned the amount of time young people spend on "screen media." The Kaiser reports collapse a range of different media consumption and production activities into the general category of "screen time" without reflecting very deeply on the different degrees of social connectivity, creativity, and learning involved. We do not mean to dismiss the very real concerns they raise: that mediated experience may squeeze out time for other learning activities; that contemporary children often lack access to real world play spaces, with adverse health consequences, that adults may inadequately supervise and interact with children about the media they consume (and produce); or concerns about the moral values and commercialization in much contemporary entertainment. Yet, the focus on negative effects of media consumption offers an incomplete picture. These accounts do not appropriately value the skills and knowledge young people are gaining through their involvement with new media, and as a consequence, they may mislead us about the roles teachers and parents should play in helping children learn and grow.