Young people in the United States today are growing up in a media ecology where digital and networked media play an increasingly central role. Even youth who do not possess computers and Internet access at home are participants in a shared culture where new social media,1 online media distribution, and digital media production are commonplace among their peers and in their everyday school contexts. The implications of this new media ecology weigh heavily on the minds of parents and educators alike, who worry about the changes new media may present for learning and literacy as well as for the process of growing up in American society.
This report summarizes the results of a three-year ethnographic study, funded by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, examining young people’s participation in the new media ecology. It represents a condensed version of a longer treatment of the project findings (Ito et al., forthcoming). We present empirical data of new media in the lives of American youth in order to reflect on the relationship between new media and learning. In our research, one of the largest qualitative and ethnographic studies of American youth culture, we examine what sociality among young people actually looks like in this new media ecology as well as how the emergence of networked public culture may shape and transform social interaction, peer-based learning, and new media literacy among young people.
This research was designed to address a gap in the literature surrounding the role of digital media in the lives of American youth. While there are a growing number of quantitative studies surveying the overall distribution of youth digital media practices, most qualitative research is based on single case studies, making it difficult to document the broader social and cultural contours, as well as the overall diversity, in youth engagement with digital media. Given the lack of research in this area, our study was motivated by two primary research questions:
- How are new media being taken up by youth practices and agendas?
- How do these practices change the dynamics of youth-adult negotiations over literacy, learning, and authoritative knowledge?
In framing the analysis of this research, we believe that there are four key concepts that characterize the ways youth live and learn with new media and, in turn, our perspective on the practices and conditions that define young people’s engagements with new media.
New Media Ecology We use the term new media to describe a media ecology where more traditional media such as books, television, and radio are intersecting with digital media, specifically interactive media, online networks, and media for social communication. We use the metaphor of ecology to emphasize that the everyday practices of youth, existing structural conditions, infrastructures of place, and technologies are all dynamically interrelated; the meanings, uses, functions, flows, and interconnections in young people’s everyday lives located in particular settings are also situated within young people’s wider media ecologies.
Networked Publics The term networked publics describes participation in public culture (Appadurai and Breckenridge 1988) that is supported by Internet and mobile networks. The growing availability of digital media-production tools and infrastructure, combined with the traffic in media across social connections and networks, is creating convergence between mass media and online communication (Benkler 2006; Ito 2009; Jenkins 2006; Shirky 2008; Varnelis 2009). Rather than conceptualize everyday media engagement as "consumption" by "audiences," the term networked publics foregrounds the active participation of a distributed social network in the production and circulation of culture and knowledge.
Peer-Based Learning Our attention to youth perspectives, as well as the high level of youth engagement in social and recreational activities online, determined our focus on the more informal and loosely organized contexts of peer-based learning. Our focus is on describing learning outside of school, primarily in settings of peer-based interaction. While adults often view the influence of peers negatively, as characterized by the term peer pressure, we approach these informal spaces for peer interactions as spaces of opportunity for learning.
New Media Literacy We examine the current practices of youth and query what kinds of literacies and social competencies they are defining as a particular generational cohort, experimenting with a new set of media technologies. To inform current debates over the definition of new media literacy, we describe the forms of competencies, skills, and literacy practices that youth are developing through media production and online communication in order to inform these broader debates.
Alongside the conceptual framework that structured our study, throughout this report we frame youth engagements with new media in terms of emerging practices, or genres of participation. This framework does not rely solely on distinctions based on given categories such as gender, class, or ethnic identity. Rather, we identified distinct, but interrelated, genres based on what we saw in our ethnographic material on youth practice and culture. Genres of participation help us interpret how media intersect with learning and participation. The first two genres focus upon the activities and perspectives that motivate, or drive, young people’s use of new media.
Friendship-Driven Genres of Participation A friendship-driven genre of participation characterizes the dominant and mainstream practices of youth as they go about their day-to-day negotiations with friends and peers in given, local contexts that center on relationships fostered in school and other local community institutions.
Interest-Driven Genres of Participation An interest-driven genre of participation characterizes engagement with specialized activities, interests, or niche and marginalized identities. In contrast to friendship-driven participation, kids establish relationships that center on their interests, hobbies, and career aspirations rather than friendship per se.
In addition to the broad distinctions between friendshipdriven and interest-driven genres of participation, we have identified three genres that correspond to differing levels of commitment and intensity in new media practices.
- Hanging out is primarily a friendship-driven genre of participation in which young people spend their casual social time with one another. In interest-driven groups that result in friendships, we also see hanging out activity, but most youth hanging out is with local friendship-driven networks. Sites such as MySpace and Facebook, and communications technologies such as instant messaging (IM) and text messaging, provide a light weight means for youth to stay in ongoing social contact and to arrange real-life gatherings. Furthermore, new media provide a topic for conversation, in the form of forwarding and linking to interesting pieces of online media, as well as a focus for activity, such as when youth play social games together or share music. As we will illustrate, hanging out may also take place within the context of home and family life.
- Messing around represents the beginning of a more intense media-centric form of engagement. When messing around, young people begin to take an interest in and focus on the workings and content of the technology and media themselves, tinkering, exploring, and extending their understanding. Some activities that we identify as messing around including looking around and searching for information online as well as experimentation and play using a range of media, such as digital and video cameras, music and photo editing software, and other new media. Messing around is often a transitional genre, in which kids move between hanging out and friendship-driven forms of participation to more interest-driven genres of participation.
- Geeking out involves the more expertise-centered forms of interest-driven participation surrounding new media that we found among some of the gamers, fans, and media producers we encountered in our study. Geeking out involves intensive and frequent use of new and, at times, relatively obscure media, high levels of specialized knowledge, alternative models of status and credibility, and a willingness to bend and/or break social and technological rules.
Our practice-focused analysis of young people in the new media ecology enabled the documentation of the everyday lives of youth in the United States. It also structured the development of an empirically based paradigm for understanding learning and participation in contemporary networked publics. From this work, we suggest the following implications of our findings for the dynamics of youth-adult negotiations over literacy, learning, and authoritative knowledge:
Robust participation in networked publics requires a social, cultural, and technical ecology grounded in social and recreational practices.
Ongoing, lightweight, and relatively unrestricted access to digital-production tools and the Internet was a precondition for participation in most of the networked public spaces that are the focus of attention for U.S. teens. Further, much of this engagement is centered on access to social and commercial entertainment content that is generally frowned upon in formal educational settings.
Networked publics provide a context for youth to develop social norms in the context of public participation.
Networked publics have altered many of the conditions of hanging out and publicity for youth, even as they build on existing youth practices of socializing, flirting, and pursuing hobbies and interests. Contrary to fears that social norms are eroding online, we saw almost no evidence that participation in networked publics resulted in riskier behavior than teens engaged in offline, and their online communication is conducted in a context of public scrutiny and structured by well-developed norms of social appropriateness, a sense of reciprocity, and collective ethics.
Youth are developing new forms of media literacy that are keyed to new media and youth-centered social and cultural worlds.
Youth are developing a wide range of new literacy forms through their informal new media practices, including deliberately casual forms of online speech, formats for displaying public connections, and new forms of appropriative literacies such as customizing MySpace profiles, mashups, and remixes. Efforts to address new media literacy need to take into account the specific social and cultural contexts that are meaningful to youth.
Peer-based learning has unique properties that drive engagement in ways that differ fundamentally from formal instruction.
In both the friendship-driven and interest-driven sides peers help to drive learning. Peer-based learning is characterized by a context of reciprocity, in which participants believe they can both produce and evaluate knowledge and culture, and in which they can develop reputation and receive recognition from respected peers. In these settings, the focus of learning and engagement is not defined by institutional accountabilities but rather emerges from kids’ interests and everyday social com munication.