This post is another in a series of essays written by the graduate students in my Media Theory and Methods proseminar last term. They were asked to try their hands at integrating autobiographical perspectives into theorizing contemporary media practices. As noted previously, the result was a strong emphasis on the informal learning which takes place around participatory culture.
The Radical Idea that Children are People
by Flourish Klink
The original iMac is instantly recognizable. Its cute curvy body and its Bondi blue back are iconic; one might go so far as to say that it is the most iconic personal computer that has ever been released. For me, the Bondi blue iMac represents more than just a turning point in the fortunes of Apple Inc., or even a turning point in Americans' computing habits. It represents a key, unlocking the door of the adult world.
In 1999, I was twelve years old. All my friends were having their Bar and Bat Mitzvahs, and I was feeling more than a little left out. Since my family wasn't Jewish, and my mother wasn't quite enough of a hippie to hold a "moon party" to celebrate my menses, my parents decided to buy me an iMac for my twelfth birthday. Even though it was advertised as "affordable," I knew at age twelve that this was an exorbitantly costly present: a thousand three hundred dollars! It was too large a number for me to put it into any kind of context. (Now that I am older I can say: a thousand three hundred dollars is three months' rent on a crummy graduate student apartment, and it was probably more than that in 1999. ScheiÃŸe!)
The iMac itself, however, wasn't the important thing. I'd been around computers forever, and I knew what they could do: they could help me draw things, write things, calculate things, program things, blah, blah, blah. All that was exciting, but it got old fast. What was important was the cords that attached to the iMac. You see, I was about to become the only one of my friends to have an internet connection of her very own. No more arguing over whether I should hog the family computer long after my homework was finished. No more begging my father to hurry up so I could get online. Just me and the information superhighway, me and the vast world of online communities, me and all the knowledge I could possibly cram into my malleable young brain.
According to the Pew Internet and American Life project, a third of all teens share their media creations online with others. At twelve, I was ready to be part of that demographic. In fact, I was thrilled. Most of my friends didn't share my single-minded passion for fiction writing and textual exegesis. Actually, "textual exegesis" makes it sound like I was interested in Hemingway or Joyce or something equally high-minded. The fact is, my friends just weren't interested in chronicling the rules of spell casting in the Harry Potter world (you might say "Crucio!" to cast the Cruciatus Curse, but you never Crucio someone; rather, you Cruciate them). I didn't know it, because I didn't know anyone who was involved in the world of media fandom yet, but I was a budding fangirl.
As soon as that iMac came into my life, I began connecting with people online, exploring Harry Potter fan sites, joining mailing lists, posting fanfiction, making friends. The stories I wrote weren't very good - I was twelve years old, and I wanted to explore emotions that I had only the most inchoate and vague experience with. But my writing skills were good enough that I attracted the attention of not just other preteens but also adults, good enough that I was able to take my place in the online community as a valuable participant. In Situated Language and Learning: A Critique of Traditional Schooling, Jim Gee calls spaces like the Harry Potter fan community "affinity spaces," and cites their value as locations for learning.
My experiences support his claim. I couldn't tell you about almost anything I did in high school; a few fantastic teachers are easy to recall, but even the details of what I learned in their classes is fuzzy and dim. Yet I can remember the experience of getting feedback on my fanfiction as if it were yesterday; I can remember how much I struggled to write my first fanfiction novel, and I can remember reading Strunk and White's The Elements of Style because I translated it into Harry Potter terms ("Headmaster Dumbledore is a man of principle, and his principal goal is to keep Lord Voldemort from rising again," et cetera). I was driven to write, to read, to found a non-profit company, for heaven's sakes, all before I reached the age of sixteen. In comparison, my time in high school seems empty, void, a place-holder that let me get that precious diploma and hightail it to college as fast as possible.
I believe that my internet connection, as symbolized and enabled by that beautiful Bondi blue iMac, inspired me to pursue my goals - but I also believe that it helped me fill an enormous lack in my life. Trapped as I was in the suburbs, too young to drive and be mobile, I could not find a community where my own particular expertise was respected and valued. I felt trapped in my twelve-year-old body, frustrated that everyone around me saw me as a kid. (Actually, I wonder if I wouldn't have felt just as trapped even if I lived in an urban area, even if I was able to seek out other people like me in the physical world: "on the internet, nobody knows your a dog," but in person, everybody knows that you're only twelve.) My internet connection gave me the opportunity to try on a new role: the role of an fan author and editor. That role wasn't one that was tied to my "kid" status. Anyone could be a fan author, anyone could be a fan editor, and if I could do those things as well as anyone, I could earn the right to be just as important and respected as an adult.
Now, looking back through the mists of time, I spend a lot of time thinking about how I could help other kids have similar experiences to mine. If I could find some way to introduce teens to affinity spaces that would provide them room to learn and grow the way that Harry Potter fandom did for me, I'd do it in an instant. Unfortunately, you can't force anyone to discover an affinity space. As young, idealistic English teachers learn every day, just because you love a book doesn't mean you can make everyone else love it (sorry, Ms Christiansen; I still think that Harry Potter was more formative for me than The Catcher in the Rye). If I had discovered the online fan community through a class, I might still have liked it - but then, I might have rejected it, slotting it firmly into the category of "work" rather than "play."
Then, too, there's the problem of the digital divide. I felt awfully overlooked, sometimes even dehumanized and objectified, as a pretty little twelve-year-old, but I wasn't nearly as overlooked as a kid whose parents couldn't afford to buy her a shiny new iMac - and I wasn't anywhere near as overlooked as a kid who'd never gotten to interact with a computer at all, or a kid whose literacy skills were so poor that they couldn't participate effectively in online discussion. For privileged young me, the internet was a saving grace, but I was starting with so many advantages that it seems short-sighted to take me as a case study.
So what can I learn from my childhood experiences? What can I give youth that's as valuable to them as Bondi blue idol was to me? I think that the first answer has to be "don't give them anything." That power relationship has got to go. That's what the computer really did for me: it gave me access to a space where no adult could tell me what to do. In the Harry Potter books, Harry was taking on adult roles, taking on challenges that would be difficult for grown-ups even though he was only a kid; online, I was doing the same thing. Since then, though, I've - well - I've aged. I've become less and less likely to think of preteens as individuals with hopes, dreams, expertise, knowledge and more and more likely to think of them as kids. When I was 12, I never believed this day would come, but at 22, it's easy to forget how I felt ten years ago.
I can't give every preteen I meet a shiny new iMac, and I can't teach them how to use it, and I can't instill confidence in them, and I can't lead them by the hand into affinity spaces and make them like it. I can try to make it so that they don't need the same measure of escape that I did. I can try to make sure that I don't just slot them into the category of "child" and forget about them, and I can try to make sure that they know I respect, trust, and believe in them. I can do that much.
Flourish Klink co-founded one of the largest Harry Potter fan fiction sites, FictionAlley.org, a project which was nominated for a Webby in 2004 and a Prix Ars Electronica award in 2005. She was one of the young fan fiction writers interviewed for Convergence Culture, already identified as a key writer and editor while still in high school. Her undergraduate career focused on the classics and religion, interests that she learned to combine with her growing fascination with digital media and fan culture. She earned a BA in religion from Reed College in 2008, where her undergraduate thesis explored the question: Can one have a Catholic religious experience in virtual reality? The project ultimately centered on religious communities within Second Life. At MIT, Klink has become a valuable member of the Project NML team. Her personal website is at madelineklink.com.