Millenials, New Media, and Social Change (Part Three)

Are they worried about concepts such as their privacy?

It's a bit of a myth that this current generation doesn't care about privacy. Most contemporary research in the U.S. indicates quite the opposite - that young people are deeply concerned about privacy and control over information, but they don't always understand the mechanisms by which their privacy is being violated and they don't often feel that they have any means of altering trends in the society, which are leading toward a surveillance state on the case of the government and increased encroachment of businesses into their personal data sets online. They've come of age in a world of data mining and a post-9/11 society, and the two combined creates a kind of fatalistic sense that whatever concerns they have about privacy, they are going to be overridden by institutions much more powerful than they are. But for many of them, Edward Snowden is a hero.

I think one of the reasons young people's relationship to privacy is so often misunderstood is that they draw lines in different places. I don't think that we can think about privacy without also thinking about publicity. We can't think about information we exclude from public circulation without thinking about information we disclose, and the politics of disclosure has been central to many of the political movements over the last thirty or forty years. If we think about feminism and the slogan "The Personal is Political," the consciousness raising sessions of the 1960s were precisely moments when women spoke out about issues that had been locked away behind closed doors for so long - they talked about domestic violence, they talked about inequality of pay, they talked about sexual harassment in the workplace, they talked about reproductive rights,  and these issues were ones that made many people uncomfortable when they were first addressed in public, but were central to political agendas over the last several decades. The same would be true of the modern LGBTQ movement, with its "Silence Equals Death" slogan, and the idea of coming out of the closet about one's sexuality. Again this was about violating things people once felt should remain private, and insisting that they were public matters that should be discussed so that we could share collective experiences and form common cause around the process of social change.

So, young people today are simply embracing different notions of sharing, different ideas about what kinds of information can be discussed in public and why. They're more likely to disclose health related information, for example, as they seek out online communities of patients who are speaking behind the backs of their doctors and trying to identify and pursue their shared interest in the face of an increasingly bureaucratized and impersonal medical system. They're likely to be more open about transgender issues than their parents had been, and indeed are much more accepting of the idea of more gender fluidity in the restroom, an issue that seems to be a dividing line between the generations in the United States at the moment. So, publicity is part of the politics of privacy as they understand it. Privacy is not an absolute - no one wants to remain private to the point that they are invisible in a networked society. Rather, as danah boyd has noted, privacy is about control over information, knowing what information you're releasing, to whom, and under what circumstances. Being able to dictate the terms in which your information is used is central to the way this generation understands privacy. We might think of it as a transactional model. And so privacy in this case comes hand in hand with transparency, full disclosure - which groups are tapping our information, for what purposes, and what they're doing with it - and privacy comes hand in hand with mechanisms of control. They want opt-in systems, systems where they have to actively choose what information to disclose, rather than opt-out systems where if they don't know that their information is being tapped, they can be exploited without regulation. So that's where I think the issue of privacy has been going in recent years and why it is so central to understanding the millennial generation.


They appear to be a generation that uses and takes part actively in digital networks, but:  What do they think about intellectual property?

The first thing I think one has to recognize about the millennial generation is that they've come of age with an expectation of meaningful participation. I often talk in my work about participatory culture - by which I mean the culmination of several hundred-plus years of struggles for everyday people to gain greater access to the means of cultural production and circulation. In a participatory culture, people create media, tell stories, and produce culture together for the purposes of expressing their personal and shared interest. The line starts to blur between commercial media producers and so-called amateur media producers, and indeed as Yochai Benkler notes, a fully participatory culture has many layers of cultural production, including government, education, activism, religion, and various non-profit and semi-commercial producers. We're seeing some fluidity of young people who may start out as fans or gamers producing amateur content and increasingly becoming YouTube stars as part of this process that David Craig and Stuart Cunningham are calling community-based entertainment.

Young people have been central to the struggles for a more participatory culture, and they tend to see connections across issues such as net neutrality, copyright control, media literacy education, and surveillance by both corporate and governmental powers as all part of a larger struggle over the terms of their participation. We see different attitudes emerge among those who have become media producers and circulators of digital content and those who have not. They certainly are aware of a kind of double standard where corporations are expecting them to be restrained in their use of commercially owned intellectual property, and yet young people's cultural output is rarely understood as intellectual property, but, much more likely to be read as user-generated content, is often freely used by corporations in the service of their own ends. So as they are starting to assert their identity as producers, they want to opt into some form of system that protects their rights over the things that they create.

That said, they also have moved into a kind of folk economy where it is expected, as media properties circulate across the internet, that people will modify them, remix them, appropriate them and build on them in a variety of ways. It's a highly collaborative culture. It's a culture where one subcultural group's media properties can quickly be adapted for other purposes. Memes operate as a kind of shared language, where the same image gets recaptioned and recirculated many times for many different purposes and can often go back and forth across ideological divides in the course of its lifetime. They recognize as artists the need to build on a larger cultural reservoir. So I think copyright is understood as a much more fluid system for these millennials because of the forms of cultural production and consumption they've been part of, and this often frustrates or confuses corporate rights holders who want to be ever more expansive in the ways they regulate what people do with their IP.

We could look, for example, at struggles over fan filmmakers in the Star Trek community, where fans there are acutely aware of the economic value they generate for media producers and see their cultural output primarily as publicity rather than as infringement. Fan filmmakers for thirty years have made amateur Star Trek films with varying degrees of visibility, and only recently has the studio sought to regulate what kind of fan films might be produced and how they might be distributed. They were pushed to do so by the case of Axanar, a fan-made film which was highly professional in its technical qualities, which told an original story set in the Star Trek universe, and which was funded through crowdfunding via Kickstarter. Axanar becomes an issue when the amount of money being raised by fan media makers exceeds anyone's understanding of what the budget of an amateur film might look like. Axanar becomes the test case for a blurring of the lines between amateur, semi-professional, and professional media production.

So it's not that young people don't value the creativity behind intellectual property, it's simply that they have a different model of creativity than has governed the industry over the last few generations. Their assumption is that creativity is fueled by what we borrow from other artists, that appropriation is not exploitation, that appropriation is simply a natural part of the creative process, and that we need ways that we can build on each other’s work. I particularly note that if politics among the millennial generation of activists is shaped by a civic imagination informed by popular culture, then the right to appropriate symbols, characters, narratives from mass media and deploy them for political purposes is a fundamental free speech issue. Struggles over intellectual property and copyright control by corporations are completely bound up with struggles over censorship by government as it's understood by this generation.

Millennials' attitudes to copyright are also shaped by a strong sense of ethics having to do with sharing information and resources within a community. A networked society is one where people count on each other to be there to provide the information they need on an ad hoc or just-in-time basis, and things that block the flow of information, that block the exchange of resources within the community are seen in much more negative terms than might have been seen by a generation that saw all of this as more privatized, as more exclusive.

Secondly, it's shaped by a sense that they generate revenue, visibility, and support through other means beyond that of their purchasing power. Young millennials often feel like they don't yet have the fluid capital to be able to buy into the consumer system, but because of their social skills and their understanding of how networks operate, they both provide data to corporations that drive future design decisions, and they provide visibility for corporate products among their peers, which increase the circulation of that material. So, it's a different understanding of the economic value they bring to the relationship that I think is fundamental to the ways they are thinking about copyright.

A third factor is they often feel a much closer relationship to artists and have a common cause against corporate right holders, so as more and more artists go independent, as more and more artists directly court their fan base through what Nancy Baym calls "relational labor," or relationship-building labor, the alignment is with the artist and there is a growing sense that the middlemen merely get in the way. So it's not that they wouldn't support artists producing music, it's that they don't want the heavy tax on their income necessary to sustain the entire bureaucratic and corporate infrastructure that supported the music industry up until this point in time. So it's a different way of understanding how artists might relate to their public that drives a lot of millennial thinking about copyright.


In your frequent travels: Have you observed any noteworthy differences in attitudes across different cultures?

Most of my comments here have been focused on American youth. This is not because I don't care about global dimensions of youth culture, but because I'm reluctant as an American to make generalizations about other people’s cultures. Most of my own research has been US-centric, because that's where the funding from various foundations and other supporting institutions has come from, but in recent years, as you note, I've been traveling more and more around the world trying to engage with conversations about the forms participatory culture is taking elsewhere.

A big step in that direction occurred last summer, when I spent three weeks at the Salzburg Academy for Global and Media Change. The Salzburg Academy brings together young people from roughly thirty different countries around the world for three weeks of intensive focus on media literacy and civic change issues. We lived together, we worked together and we created media together all living in a schloss in Salzburg - and it was a profoundly moving experience for me and the other faculty that participated. We were of course dealing for the most part with the digital elites from those countries, people who had the financial resources to send their children to Salzburg for the summer, and it's worth keeping that in mind, but what was striking was the enormous fluidity with which these young people could instantly form relationships with each other, find common ground, discover shared culture and begin working together. Certainly, they brought some historic conflicts with them to the space, but they also brought with them a sense of a global youth culture that provided the frame of reference for the work that they were doing. In that context, the kinds of work my team was conducting around the civic imagination resonated particularly strongly, and there were moments of sheer transcendence. Sangita Shresthova, my research director, did a workshop on Bollywood dance, and watching students from the Middle East, from Latin America, from Europe, from Africa, dance to the beats of Hindi music was particularly powerful - the sense that the body transcended a lot of the borders that we try to erect around it.

Indeed, the focus this summer was on refugee and migration issues and it was striking how many of the young people were simply hostile to the very notion of fixed borders and boundaries, insistent that the freedom to travel from place to place was a fundamental right for the twenty-first century. And I think this may have been shaped by the degree to which they've come of age with a communication system which made it relatively easy to communicate with people elsewhere around the world. Within their social networks, they already had friends in other countries, already had regular contact with people outside of their own environment. They'd come of age consuming popular culture, not necessarily within national boundaries - so they grew up watching Bollywood movies, consuming anime and manga, dancing to K-Pop, watching telenovelas, and so forth. This is what I call pop cosmopolitanism, the idea that if previous generations turned towards art or music to escape the parochialism of their own culture, young people today are more likely to turn towards popular media to serve those functions, and for a variety of reasons popular media from other parts of the world is simply more readily available than it was before, whether it is music, comics, or television. These are not young people seeking out art movies, but they're young people watching transnational media content as a taken-for-granted part of their generational experience.

At the same time, I was struck by the sense that people in that space felt unequal entitlement to the resources of popular culture. There was a young woman from Argentina who felt that Argentina didn't produce popular culture, that it had folk culture and high culture but that the popular culture was culture imposed on it from outside, that popular culture was American, and that they had to define their identity in opposition to American mass media in order to gain a sense of what it was to be Argentinian. I also was struck by different degrees of hope or optimism among this generation. Many of the young people from the Middle East struggled with how to maintain any hope for political change, having had their expectations raised through the Arab Spring movements, and then dashed by the failure of most of those movements to bring about real democracy and real cultural and economic shifts within their borders. So I saw people there struggling with how they could become part of the mechanisms of social change I've been discussing throughout this interview. Just because they're global elites that feel some connection to each other doesn't mean that they have equal opportunities for participation, equal access to resources, equal sense of entitlement and empowerment, and equal access to mentorship and adult support for the kinds of learning they need to achieve their goals. So these are very real issues.

I've also had some encounters in recent years in some of the poorest communities in the planet, going into the slums in Mumbai and the favelas in Rio and watching young people there struggle to get access to the means of cultural production and circulation. I sat in a small one-room squat that had ten people living in it in Mumbai and talked to young people who had made their own videos and put them out via the web, talked to young people who were making their own online newspapers using WhatsApp to report on the activities of their own community. These are young people who against all odds are finding a means to become part of the emerging participatory culture that has been so important to many millennials around the world, and we need to do more research to understand the mechanisms by which they've been able to do this. Sometimes it's tied to family and cultural traditions. Sasha Costanza-Chock has written about the ways that young Mexicans have helped their parents figure out how to maintain contact with the families they left behind, producing home videos to share via the internet, and that through these means they acquired skills at media production and distribution that they then turned to their struggles for the rights of undocumented youth. Sometimes, it's illicit - the young people in Mumbai I met had produced a video paying tribute to one of their peers who had died of a serious poverty-related illness, and they had snuck into one of the young people's workplaces at night and used the office computers there to produce and circulate their video. Most often, they're creating together. It's not a do-it-yourself but a do-it-together ethos that shapes the participatory culture that so many millennials participate in. This is a case where those who have more skills and knowledge pass it along informally to those who are learning, and in that process the community is strengthened by its ability to share.