Connected Youth and Digital Futures: A Conversation with Sonia Livingstone and Julian Sefton-Green (Part Two)

Today, we continue a conversation between Sonia Livingstone and Julian Sefton-Green (London School of Economics), Sangita Shresthova and myself (USC) about our two books that launched the New York University Press/MacArthur Foundation book series, Connected Youth and Digital Futures:  By Any Media Necessary: the New Youth Activism and The Class: Living and Learning in the Digital Age. This time, we move beyond the goals and contexts that generated the books to focus on some of our findings. If you live in or near London, you have a chance to watch this exchange continue in real time. I am flying to England this weekend and will be participating in an event being hosted around the two books at the London School of Economics' Shaw Library, Old Building on June 22 from 4-6 p.m. In addition to myself, Livingstone, and Sefton-Green, the event will also feature University of Nottingham Professor of Education Pat Thompson. To reserve a seat please contact Svetlana Smirnova at

So what did we learn through our research?

Henry and Sangita write of By Any Media Necessary:

We got lucky: many of these groups and campaigns have gained visibility and influence over the period of our study. We were struck watching some of the early Democratic Party debates this U.S. presidential campaign season that many of the core issues -- immigration reform, racialized police violence, income inequality, legalization of pot, among them -- were issues that these networks had been mobilizing around. Kony 2012, a video produced by Invisible Children, broke all records for internet circulation during the period of our research. The Harry Potter Alliance successfully boycotted Warner Brothers to get them to embrace fair trade policies around the chocolates they produced and sold at their amusement parks. And Obama took executive action to promote the interests of the DREAMers, undocumented youth seeking greater citizenship and education rights. So, we sought success stories and those successes turned out to be more dramatic than we could have imagined when our research began.

Across this research, we identified some core principles shaping this new youth activism as well as some obstacles that are blocking these groups from achieving their full potential. First and foremost, as the book’s title suggests, these groups are seeking to make change by any media necessary. Yes, social media platforms have generated lots of press because they represent the newest technologies for mass mobilization and media circulation. But we also saw them tapping into  street protest and print culture as needed to reach a broad range of potential supporters. These groups had limited access to resources so they used whatever they could get their hands on, though often the most impoverished groups were among the most creative and thoughtful in learning how to use these platforms and practices in new ways.

Second, our work has led us to a focus on what we call the “civic imagination.” Any campaign for social change requires its participants to articulate a shared sense of what a better world would look like, the steps towards achieving this change, the political agency of participants, and often, some empathy for those whose experiences and perspectives differ from their own. Different cultures articulate what they are fighting for and what they are fighting against through different means. We were intrigued to see that, across these very different social movements, popular culture references played central roles in their rhetorical practices. Images from popular media -- superheroes, wizards, zombies, and the like -- are appropriated, remixed, reframed, and recirculated as a means of creating a common language amongst diverse participants.

Our book is cautiously optimistic about the ways these groups are impacting American politics. These movements model some ideal conditions for scaffolding young people as they transition into more active roles as citizens. These groups map ways that individual participation can add up to something larger. They direct attention to specific issues and propose ways that people can work together to bring about change. They train members to produce their own media and tell their own stories. They offer networks through which these media can circulate and reach an appreciative audience. Above all, they create a context where ‘talking politics’ is a normal, ongoing part of social interactions. In this focus on the conditions that enable meaningful connections between different aspects of young people's lives, we are very much drawing on insights from the Connected Learning research. Young people are more likely to have both voice and influence when they connect with larger networks pursuing the same goals.

Of course, these networks are not open to all potential participants: there are systemic and structural biases in who can enter through these means; there is uneven access to technological infrastructure, mentorship, skills, and a sense of empowerment, all of which pave the way for new entrants. These groups do not necessarily breakdown on predictable class or racial lines: some of the most innovative and creative activism we’ve seen came from undocumented youth, many of whom lack access, on an individual bias, to the basic tools they need to do their work but have taken advantage of opportunities offered by libraries or community centers.

And these groups, themselves, struggle with core paradoxes as they think through the value of supporting broad participation as opposed to more centralized control over messaging and in particular an emphasis on process as opposed to results. These groups do not always command the respect of political leaders with the power to act on their concerns. They often face various forms of surveillance and intimidation. Participatory practices can be deployed by hate groups just as readily as by human rights groups.

The book coexists with or BAM, a resource that includes a large collection of original and curated materials related to the themes that emerged through our case studies. When we initially started developing it, we thought that BAM would effectively be a companion reader, a place where people could encounter media examples featured in the book. We ended up with a much more expansive resource that pushes far beyond our initial research to feature media created by a broad range of youth organizations, curated media, and original educational materials created through sustained partnerships we formed with companies like Participant Media and organizations like the Harry Potter Alliance. While we anticipate that various visitors may find their way to BAM, we did specifically focus on educators who want to explore youth driven participatory politics with their students. This is why we piloted and eventually rolled out BAM through collaborations with educators affiliated with National Writing Project and the National Association for Media Literacy Education.


Julian and Sonia write of The Class:

It may be that when our class of British 13-year olds gets a bit older, they too will explore such civic possibilities as Henry describes above. But certainly when we hung out with them, they were taking only the most tentative steps towards the wider world – perhaps by joining Twitter to follow the adult worlds of news, sports or celebrity. For them, Harry Potter was definitely a focus for fandom but not yet a pathway to the civic.

Rather, our class was more concerned to sustain clear boundaries between home, school and peer group than to overcome these through digital or social networking. For example, the school devoted a lot of time being distressed by students’ use of Facebook, seeking ways to keep its “drama” out of the life of the school, just as students proved equally keen to protect their free time (not that there was much of it) and spaces (ditto) from prying adult eyes.

One of our driving questions was to understand how digital media were used at home and school and especially, given ever greater access to mobile digital technologies, whether this allows home and school to be connected in different ways. At school we noticed how the teachers’ appropriation of popular culture served to create shared values and norms within but not beyond the walls of the class. So in afternoon registrations the class often watched BBC News. A geography teacher used the model of voting from ITV’s X Factor to liven up math teaching. Role models from the media dotted the classroom walls. But rarely was there any discussion about how the media are produced or who controls them or how they are structured to convey particular messages. For example, films about slavery in Black History Month were tacitly treated as transparent “windows on the world”, seemingly unrelated to the mix of black and white faces of the students watching the screen.

High culture received more explicit prominence, by contrast. The head-teacher favored a boy (who had private music lessons) who could play Chopin when the year group filed into assembly. Activities involving Shakespeare or great works of art were given prominence by the school. Kids learned classical music in school music lessons while enjoying something completely different in the home, and those who learned non-standard music at home received little recognition at school.

Moreover, attempts to use the media across the boundary of home and school were carefully policed. The school’s information management system worked really well as a form of digital surveillance, but all too often the Virtual Learning Environment didn't work or wasn't properly understood by teachers or students. Mobile phones, which could be very useful for learning, were forbidden in school (for reasons of concentration and safety). For all the talk about living in a connected world, the students didn't want teachers or parents to have access to their world; and the same was true of the adults.

Perhaps one of the most excruciating things to witnessed was the slow microscopic unfolding of misunderstandings, missed opportunities and social injustices experienced by the young people over the year. There was no shortage of high aspirations, good intentions and ambition but a lack of knowledge by the school about the actuality of the class’ day-to-day lives meant that the way the offer was organized, the way opportunities were constructed, were commonly at odds with how young people and families imagine what learning is good for. This led us to wonder: how would the school be different if teachers knew more about their students’ lives outside school? Why does the school choose not to know much about its students and why might they not want to reveal themselves to the school? In whose interests might greater, or lesser, connection across and between the social world of young people operate?

To return to the relation between our two books highlighted in this blog post, together they provide insights into both the extraordinary and ordinary nature of growing up in the digital age. While one book focuses on civic and political participation and the other on learning, together they capture the two key opportunities that adults hope young people will pursue, enabled by today’s digital and networked media. One book focuses on the exciting possibilities opening up, the other on how everyday realities favor practices of social reproduction that undermine the realization of such possibilities. It is surely now for society to work to bring more of the opportunities within the grasp of most, not just a few, of young people.