"Geeking Out" For Democracy (Part One)

On the eve of our conference at MIT on "Learning in a Participatory Culture," Cable in the Classroom has joined forces with Project New Media Literacies to edit a special issue of Threshold which centers on the work we've been doing and the vision behind it. Among the features are a wonderful graphic showing the new learning environment and how informal, individual, and school based learning can work together to reinforce the core social skills and cultural competencies we've been discussing; a transcribed conversation with Benjamin Stokes, Daniel T. Hickey, Barry Joseph, John Palfrey, and myself about the challenges and opportunities surrounding bringing new media into the classroom; James Bosco adopting a school reform perspective on these issues; and a range of pieces by the core researchers on our team describing what happened when we introduced some of our materials into schools or after school programs. If you wanted to attend the conference but just couldn't make it to Cambridge, you can follow along through the live webcasts of the event. Check here for details.

Over the next few weeks, I am going to be showcasing the work of Project New Media Literacies and introducing you to some of our curricular materials which are just now going public. Along the way, you will get a chance to read several pieces from the Threshold magazine, including one from our award-winning research director Erin Reilly, get some reflections from some of our students about how they learned about and through popular culture, and learn about how spreadability may impact education. Today and next time, I will be running the essay which I wrote for the magazine, which maps the ways I am starting to think about the relationship between participatory culture and participatory democracy.

And if that's not enough New Media Literacies thinking for you, check out this great podcast put together by Barry Joseph and others at Global Kids, one of our research partners, which includes a conversation between Mimi Ito and myself and an interview with Constance Steinkuehler.

"Geeking Out" For Democracy

by Henry Jenkins

In his book, Bowling Alone, sociologist Robert Putnam suggests that many members of the post-WWII generation discovered civic engagement at the local bowling alley. The bowling alley was a place where people gathered regularly not simply to play together, but talk about the personal and collective interests of the community, to form social ties and identify common interests. In a classic narrative of cultural decline, Putnam blames television for eroding these strong social ties, resulting in a world where people spent more time isolated in their homes and less time participating in shared activities with the larger community.

But what does civic engagement look like in the age of Facebook, YouTube, and World of Warcraft? All of these new platforms are reconnecting home-based media with larger communities, bridging between our public and private lives. All offer us a way to move from media consumption towards cultural participation.

During a recent visit in Santiago, I sat down with Chilean national Senator Fernando Flores Labra who believes that the guild structure in the massively multiplayer video game, World of Warcraft, offers an important training ground for the next generation of business and political leaders. (Guilds are affiliations of players who work together towards a common cause, such as battling the monsters or overcoming other enemies in the sword-and-sorcery realm depicted in the game.) The middle aged Labra, with his slicked back hair, his paunchy midsection, and his well-pressed suits, is probably not what you expect a World of Warcraft player to look like. Yet, he's someone who has spent, by his own estimate, "thousands of hours playing these games, with hundreds of people, of all ages, all over the world."

Labra recently invited leading business and political leaders to come together and learn more about such games, explaining: "I am convinced that these technologies can be excellent laboratories for learning the practices, skills and ethics required to succeed in today's global environment, where people are increasingly required to interact with people all over the world, but still have a hard time working with their colleagues in the office next door, never mind with their new colleagues, whom they have never met, on the other side of the world. If an organization is to survive and thrive in today's era of globalization, its leaders must ensure that members of their organization become experts in operational coordination among geographically and culturally diverse groups; build and cultivate trust among their various stakeholders, including their employees, their customers and their investors, all of whom may be culturally and geographically diverse; cultivate people that are able to act with leadership in an era of rapid and constant change."

Playing World of Warcraft requires the mobilization of a large number of participants and the coordination of efforts across a range of different skill groups. Experienced players find themselves logging into the game not simply because they want to play but because they feel an obligation to the other players. Participants often network outside the game space to coordinate their efforts and soon find themselves discussing a much broader range of topics (much like Putnam's bowlers). Participants develop and deploy tools which allow them to manage complex data sets and monitor their own performances. And the guild leadership, many of whom are still in their teens, learn to deal with their team member's complex motivations and sometimes conflicting personalities.

Whatever these folks are doing, they are not "bowling alone." If Putnam's correct, bowling was more than a game for post-war citizens, and World of Warcraft is more than a game for many students in your classrooms.

But let's take it a step further. Game guilds and other kinds of social networks are as central to what we mean by civic engagement in the 21st century as civic organizations were to the community life of the 20th century. If bowling helped connect citizens at the geographically local level, these new kinds of communities bring people together from diverse backgrounds, including adults and youths, and across geographically dispersed communities. Such dispersed social ties are valuable in a world where the average American moves once every four or five years, often across regions, and where many of us find ourselves needing to interact with colleagues around the planet.

I use the term "participatory culture" to describe the new kinds of social and creative activities which have emerged in a networked society. A participatory culture is a culture with relatively low barriers to artistic expression and civic engagement, strong support for creating and sharing one's creations, and some type of informal mentorship whereby what is known by the most experienced is passed along to novices. A participatory culture is also one in which members believe their contributions matter, and feel some degree of social connection with one another. Participatory culture shifts the focus of literacy from one of individual expression to community involvement.

The work we are doing through the MacArthur Foundation's emerging Digital Media and Learning Initiative, a network of scholars, educators, and activists , starts from the premise that these new media platforms represent important sites of informal learning. The time young people spend, outside the classroom, engaging with these new forms of cultural experience foster real benefits in terms of their mastering of core social skills and cultural competencies (the New Media Literacies) they are going to be deploying for years to come. While much has been said about why 21st century skills are essential for the contemporary workplace, they are also valuable in preparing young people for future roles in the arts, politics, and community life. Learning how to navigate social networks or produce media may result in a sense of greater personal empowerment across all aspects of youth's lives.

In a recent report, documenting a multi-year, multi-site ethnographic study of young people's lives on and off line, the Digital Youth Project suggests three potential modes of engagement which shape young people's participation in these online communities. First, many young people go on line to "hang out" with friends they already know from schools and their neighborhoods. Second, they may "mess around" with programs, tools, and platforms, just to see what they can do. And third, they may "geek out" as fans, bloggers, and gamers, digging deep into an area of intense interest to them, moving beyond their local community to connect with others who share their passions. The Digital Youth Project argues that each of these modes encourages young people to master core technical competencies, yet they may also do some of the things that Putnam ascribed to the bowling leagues of the 1950s -- they strengthen social bonds, they create shared experiences, they encourage conversations, and they provide a starting point for other civic activities.

For the past few decades, we've increasingly talked about those people who have been most invested in public policy as "wonks," a term implying that our civic and political life has increasingly been left to the experts, something to be discussed in specialized language. When a policy wonk speaks, most of us come away very impressed by how much the wonk knows but also a little bit depressed about how little we know. It's a language which encourages us to entrust more control over our lives to Big Brother and Sister, but which has turned many of us off to the idea of getting involved. But what if more of us had the chance to "geek out" about politics? What if we could create points of entry where young people saw the affairs of government as vitally linked to the practices of their everyday lives? "Geeking out" is empowering; it motivates our participation and in a world of social networks, pushes us to find others who share our passions. If being a "wonk" is about what you know, being a "geek" involves an ongoing process of sharing information and working through problems with others. Being a political "geek" involves taking on greater responsibility for solving your own problems, working as a member of a larger community, whether one defined in geographic terms or through shared interests.

Maybe "geeking out" about politics is key to fostering a more participatory democracy, one whose success is measured not simply by increases in voting (which we've started to see over the past few election cycles) but also increased volunteerism (which shows up in survey after survey of younger Americans), increased awareness of current events, increased responsibility for each other, and increased participation in public debates about the directions our society is taking. "Geeking out" might mean we think about civic engagement as a life style rather than as a special event.

We still have a lot to learn about how someone moves from involvement in participatory culture towards greater engagement with participatory democracy. But so far, there are some promising results when organizations seek to mobilize our emerging roles as fans, bloggers, and gamers. Consider, for example, the case of the HP Alliance, an organization created by Andrew Slack, a 20-something activist and stand up comic, who saw the Harry Potter books as potential resources for mobilizing young people to make a difference in the world. Slack argues that J.K. Rowling's novels have taught a generation to read and write (through fan fiction) and now it has the potential to help many of those young people cross-over into participation in the public sphere. Creating what he describes as "Dumbledore's Army" for the real world, the HP Alliance uses the story of a young man who questioned authority, organized his classmates, and battled evil to get young people connected with a range of human rights organization. Slack works closely with Wizard Rock bands, who perform at fan conventions, record their music as mp3s, and distribute it via social network sites and podcasts. He works with the people who run Harry Potter fan websites and blogs to help spread the word to the larger fan community. So far, the HP Alliance has moved more than 100,000 people, many of them teens, to contribute to the struggles against genocide in Darfur or the battles for worker's rights at Wal-Mart or the campaign against Proposition 8 in California.

Many parents and educators grumble about this generation's lack of motivation or commitment, describing them as too busy playing computer games to get involved in their communities. For some teens, this may be sadly true. But, Global Kids, a New York organization, has been using Second Life to bring together youth leaders from around the world and to give them a playground through which they can imagine and stage solutions to real world problems. Global Kids, for example, used machinima -- a practice by which game engines are deployed to create real time digital animation -- to document the story of a child soldier in Uganda and circulate it via YouTube and other platforms to call attention to the plight of youth in the developing world. Much like the HP Alliance, Global Kids is modeling ways we can bridge between participatory culture and participatory democracy.