Participatory Culture in a Networked Era
Introduction by Mimi Ito
Most of my research has focused on how young people engage with new technology and digital culture. As a researcher of education, I’ve always looked at these practices through the lens of learning and literacy. I’ve been a bit of a black sheep in the educational research community, because I haven’t focused on in-school learning. But I’ve been in good company with other ethnographers who have focused on learning “in the wild” (Hutchins 1995). This vein of work has also gained legitimacy within educational research over the years. As I was coming of age as a scholar, ethnographic and practice-based approaches to studying learning and literacy began to move from the fringe of the field to become a challenge to the orthodoxy of experimental and psychological approaches. I feel fortunate to have been trained by a brilliant group of educational ethnographers and cognitive scientists while these approaches began to be taken more seriously by the educational establishment. The work that I’ve been doing as part of the MacArthur Foundation’s Digital Media and Learning initiative, developing an approach that we’ve called “connected learning,” is testament to the strength of this research. In coordination with the research, a growing cohort of educators have been developing and refining these ideas in the classroom.
As a graduate student at Stanford I apprenticed at the Institute for Research on Learning (IRL), the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (Xerox PARC), and the Laboratory of Comparative Human Cognition (LCHC), all of which were developing new ideas around situated learning and cognition.1 It was an exciting time intellectually – we were seeing people in many fields debate and synthesize a new paradigm for theorizing and supporting learning. Educators had believed that learning and cognition happens “in the head” of individuals, and that education should be about getting stuff into those individuals’ heads so they can carry knowledge around and apply it in different settings. Researchers at IRL, PARC, and LCHC demonstrated through empirical study that learning is inseparable from the cultural identities, practices, and material settings of everyday life. They argued that the educational agenda should focus not on getting things into kids’ heads but on supporting contexts where kids could belong, participate, and contribute.
Jean Lave’s Cognition in Practice is one of the books that exemplified how this research challenged assumptions about learning. Lave took on one of the most school-identified disciplines – mathematics. She studied how people engaged in mathematical reasoning as part of grocery shopping or cooking at home and contrasted these observations with what happened in classroom. In one oft-cited example, a Weight Watchers participant needs to measure out three-quarters of a two-thirds cup serving of cottage cheese. After muttering about how he should have learned this in school, he said he “got it.” He measured out two-thirds of a cup in a measuring cup, then dumped it on the cutting board, patted it into a circle, marked a cross on it, scooped up one quadrant, and served the rest (Lave 1988: 165). Whether it was in measuring ingredients or making price comparisons in a grocery store aisle, Lave found that people who didn’t feel they were competent in school math performed quite well in everyday problem-solving for a meaningful purpose.
Situated learning theory not only took aim at the foundations of cognitive theory, it challenged the core assumptions of our educational practice. Why should we be sitting kids down in rows to learn math in the abstract when it is both more engaging and effective to learn it in the real world or through meaningful social activity? These research studies resonated with those of us who subscribed to progressive education and its hands-on, meaningful, and real-world forms of learning.
This challenge to experimental psychology in education has a counterpart in debates within media studies between socio-cultural theorists and “effects” researchers. Just as educational psychologists study how “content” gets into the heads of students, media effects researchers use similar methodological tools to study how media messages get into the minds of audiences. Shared culture, identity, and practice don’t enter into these frameworks. It’s not surprising that those of us who critique such approaches talk about participation as an important part of culture and social context. By examining participation we see our relationship to “content” – whether that is educational or entertainment-centered – as part of shared practice and cultural belonging, not as a process of individual “internalization.” This is why Henry’s notion of participatory culture resonated so much with me when I first encountered it, and why we tend to see similar potential in social media and grassroots media production. These differences also tie in with the evolution of media education. While there is a longstanding approach to media education that focuses on critical analysis of media messages, we see a growing interest in approaches that take a more participatory and production-oriented focus (Buckingham 2003).
New media technology has the possibility to reproduce many of the traditional assumptions of learning: disembodied, behaviorist, and sequestered. Examples include drill-and-practice software and more efficient testing regimes. But I’ve been captivated by the potential of digital and social media for progressive education through new means. I’ve marveled at how young people – for example, US anime fans – pick up knowledge and skills by engaging with peers around shared purpose and passion, and how they take up digital tools for new forms of creative production. These fans pick up Japanese, as well as sophisticated writing and technical skills, because of their love of cult media and through practices like fan subtitling and video remix. In these settings, learning is a side effect of creative production, collaboration, and community organizing, not the explicit purpose of the activity. I doubt that those same kids would have learned as much in a formal classroom setting in the quest for a good grade.
The youth who are learning in this way are not typical. You could call them “positive deviants” (Pascale, Sternin, and Sternin 2010) – people who are unusually successful in mobilizing resources widely available in a community or setting. In the Digital Youth study we found that most young people were going online to hang out with friends in ways that were not particularly focused on academic or expertise-oriented learning. A significant number did use online networks to geek out in areas of interest, such as gaming or fandom, and many of these groups were intergenerational in composition. But only a very small handful of resourceful young people were taking their community-based learning and connecting it to in-school, civic, or career-relevant settings. I realized it wasn’t enough simply to celebrate the cool things that kids were creating and learning in their affinity networks if we wanted to make these activities matter for education and other forms of opportunity. Most young people needed support from parents, educators, or other caring adults in order to broker connections across settings. This could take the form of a parent who guides their child to a specialized camp or program in their area of interest, an affinity network that actively seeks civic opportunities, or a teacher who sponsors an interest-centered after-school club. In order to better understand these supports, in our current Leveling Up study we are researching affinity networks that connect out to sites of opportunity that are academic, civic, and career-oriented.
danah: When we started working together on the Digital Youth project, the goal was to understand how youth were integrating the various new media technologies into their lives for personal, social, and educational purposes. One of the most powerful interventions that came out of this was a realization that there was often a pathway between hanging out, messing around, and geeking out. This led you to work with learning researchers to help envision connected learning. The history that you just offered puts a lot of this in context, but can you explain more explicitly the connected learning piece?
Mimi: The connected learning model that we are developing as part of the Digital Media and Learning initiative focuses on connecting young people’s interest and peer-centered learning with academic, civic participation, and career possibilities. The settings that we found were most effective for these connections are guided by a shared purpose, are centered around production, and have an openly networked dimension to them (Ito et al. 2013). A cornerstone of connected learning is also a commitment to equity. Progressive and interest-driven learning has been available to privileged children with access to specialized enrichment activities, but new media offer the potential to make these experiences available to many more young people.
This model grew out of the insights from the Digital Youth study as well as a set of design principles being developed by practitioners and designers in the DML initiative more broadly. The model values a wide range of youth interests as potential entry points to connected learning, so we’re not just talking about tech or literature nerds but also looking to interests as varied as popular music, dance, fashion, or skating. It’s not necessary for the interest to have a digital focus, but we do see new technologies as a way of lowering the barriers to accessing specialized communities of interests, self-expression, and sharing with a community. It’s still early days in developing, refining, and testing the model in practice, but it’s exciting to see that it seems to resonate not only with folks who have been part of the DML work but also with a much wider network of researchers, designers, and practitioners.
Henry: We are each making interventions around education that stress collective rather than individualized, personalized, or privatized modes of learning. For me, a participatory learning environment is one that respects and values the contributions of each participant, whether teacher, student, or someone from the outside community. It’s one where members have some degree of control over their own learning process and some input into collective decision-making. Such classrooms are hard to achieve in practice, in part because fewer and fewer of the decisions impacting learning are being made at the most local levels, as teachers are forced more and more into a standardized curriculum in support of regimes of standardized testing. Teachers feel as if they have limited control over what happens in their classrooms; parents feel as if they have little control over what gets taught their children; and students feel as if they have no control over what or how they are taught.
The more authoritative a classroom structure becomes, the less students feel that their own voice and their own choices matter, the less free they are to pursue their own passions and interests, and the less likely the curriculum is to reflect the realities of their lives beyond the schoolroom. A participatory classroom, on the other hand, would be one where students help to shape the curriculum, define the norms of what constitutes appropriate conduct, and feel free to share what they know with others in their own community. For those who are used to a teacher-controlled classroom, this shift towards power-sharing can be frightening.
Mimi: The idea of participatory learning creates a useful bridge between socio-cultural forms of learning theory and media studies, but the term has never really worked for me. I have a pretty strong theoretical commitment to recognizing that all learning is socially situated, and it has been a big fight in our field to have that recognized to be the case – whether that is classroom learning or out-of-school learning. I was trained by classroom ethnographers who documented in excruciating detail how students and teachers interactionally coconstructed the learning environment, culture, and practice. Young people are never passive vessels in even the most traditional classroom setting. I think signaling “participatory learning” as something unique sets us back in that progress we’ve made in the learning sciences at this theoretical level, though I don’t have any beef with the elaborated description of what Henry means by the term “participatory learning.” I am much more comfortable with the term “connected learning” to describe the aspirational learning environment.
Henry: If I had known the term “connected learning” when we started doing our work, I might have adopted it. But let me try to defend my term. While all forms of education exist in some kind of social context and all people perform some roles in supporting those learning spaces, it is not hard to imagine a series of choices which would centralize much of the authority on the teacher or the school system, give learners limited roles in deciding the materials covered, actively discourage participation in discussion, and focus more on rote learning than activity-based or constructionist learning – all decisions which would result in a less participatory model of education. As long as we are talking about public education, there are constraints on how participatory learning can become, since teachers cannot escape certain legal obligations stemming from their roles as agents of the state, restricting how much control they could shift towards the students. As a consequence, just as all education is participatory to some degree, all education in a public-school context is also authoritarian to a degree. So, we introduced the concept of participatory learning as a way of modeling for educators how they could make choices that might allow students to learn by participating within a classroom that took on many of the traits of a participatory culture. We did have an emphasis on bridging from school to the student’s life world, but the work of Mimi and her collaborators on the Connected Learning Research Network have really focused so much more attention on this aspect of reimagining the learning environment.
Mimi: We’re facing a big challenge, which is that today’s networked world requires a different set of skills, literacies, and social relationships in order to thrive and succeed. Much of the focus of the twentieth-century educational system is out of step with what we need today to navigate this changing ecosystem of how information, culture, and knowledge are produced and circulated. Henry, the white paper that you and your team put out on twenty-first-century media education (Jenkins et al. 2007) set up a lot of the terms of the debate that we’ve been having in subsequent years about how best to support young people in learning to thrive in a digital culture.
Henry: One of our primary goals for the white paper was to try to identify, specifically, the core social skills and competencies that young people might need to acquire if they were going to participate meaningfully in the kind of networked society we’ve described throughout this conversation. For one thing, this new focus requires a movement from thinking of literacy as a personal or individualized skill to thinking about it as a skill that has to do with how we relate to others in our community, thinking about how we create, circulate, collaborate, and connect with other people. Howard Rheingold, in Net Smart (2012), claims that network literacy is a fundamental part of being able to manage our lives and our knowledge today in a competent manner. By that, he means both the most technical notion of how a network works and the ability to understand and meet the norms of a networked community – how to put information into circulation. Too often, in today’s schools, a student’s writing ends up on the teacher’s desk and sits there waiting a grade. Rather, we should think about literacy as involving the capacity to engage with networked publics, to share what you write, and to receive feedback from some kind of larger community. In that sense, we were trying to move literacy from the capacity to produce and consume information to the capacity to participate in some larger social system. This expanded conception of literacy brings new kinds of ethical expectations – a greater sense of accountability for the information we produce and share with others given the impact of our communication practices on the people around us.
danah: The average digitally connected person has more access to more information today than ever before in history. It’s not remotely possible for anyone to consume all of what is available. According to YouTube’s statistics page (www.youtube.com/yt/press/statistics.html), more than 100 hours of video are uploaded to the site each minute. Today’s media-rich ecosystem isn’t just full of highly edited content produced by professionals or experts; everyday people produce it, sometimes for a public audience and sometimes just for their friends. People are swimming in a wide array of different types of information: news articles, status updates from friends, tweets from celebrities, informative blog posts, funny animated GIFs on Tumblr, etc. Sorting out what to consume is not an easy task. This prompts a sense of “information overload.”
For some, solving “information overload” tends to focus on how to deal with massive amounts of information. This thread tends to take on a narrative of optimization. Technologists love to discuss tools that make people more efficient at consuming more information. Other people debate the issue of multitasking or accepting the onslaught. Commentators like Linda Stone (n.d.) argue that there is no such thing as multitasking: there is only continuous partial attention, and it’s physiologically and socially costly. Some debate the importance of accepting the onslaught of information. Computer scientist Michael Bernstein uses the phrase “Twitter Zen” to describe his practice of dipping into social media without worrying about what he’s missed, because, as entrepreneur Caterina Fake (2011) points out, “fear of missing out” (or FOMO) drives obsessive social media practices.
Another debate underlying these issues has to do with information quality. In a world where there is so much information, how much of it is credible? How does one find and prioritize “good” information? And what does it mean that the internet enables access to inaccurate, incendiary, and outright hateful information?
There are many pragmatic and political considerations at play when thinking about the massive quantity of information available today. What does it mean to be literate in an environment where information isn’t just at your fingertips but flooding your senses? Should we expect people to develop sensibilities to make informed judgments about what they see, or should information be vetted and controlled in order to limit people’s exposure to questionable content? And what does this mean vis-à-vis vulnerable populations who may be more susceptible to being manipulated by content driven by an agenda?
Mimi: We’re at an interesting moment where there is a lot of public debate about whether these technologies are good or bad for kids, for learning, and for culture. Many critics have said that we can’t focus anymore and we can’t have reflective thought. It’s valuable to have critiques, but at the same time I think it’s important not to lose sight of the fact that information abundance is a good thing. Social connection is a good thing. When young people get grief for being online too much or not going to the library, they just give you a blank look and say, “But the internet is awesome. I can look up anything. And it’s really easy. I like to be in touch with people I want to be in touch with.” It’s important to keep the big picture in view. Given that we have these incredible new opportunities for learning and knowledge and social connection, how can we optimize them and what are the things we need to be careful about? What new practices of mindfulness, awareness, and restraint do we need to cultivate? This is why I feel so strongly that it’s not enough to have a research agenda that is about describing and critiquing but also to have an educational agenda that is about supporting productive forms of engagement and literacy. Otherwise critique ends up being more about building the reputation of the researcher than being part of solutions.
It reminds me of when, for us as a species, calorie abundance (as opposed to calorie scarcity) became a problem. We had to learn new skills in order to manage the fact that fats and sugars are abundant and cheap in our diet, and there are definitely downsides in terms of our health that have resulted from it. We see a similar concern with negative effects of information abundance, but that doesn’t mean that we want to go back to a diet of starvation in terms of communication and information.
Henry: There’s a dangerous tendency to talk about these experiences of media change and information overload as if this had never happened before. We might productively go and look at the turn of the twentieth century, when an explosion of mass media was impacting American life, urban areas were experiencing the introduction of electric lights, signs and billboards cluttered the landscape for the first time, millions were moving from the farm to the city, blacks were moving from the South to the North, and waves of immigrants were bringing new peoples to America. Progressive-era writers described people as overwhelmed by information, unable to keep pace with the changes. There were so many signs and so much noise and so much to take in. People talked about sensory overload; about the challenges of dealing with diversity in the lower east side of New York, where people from all over the world were being shoved against each other and having to sort out their differences; about innocents from the farm not knowing how to deal with the sensual temptations of urban nightlife.
If you were a Brahmin in Boston in the late nineteenth century, this was all deeply, deeply threatening because it could destroy your way of life and strip away your historic privileges. These elites had exercised a monopoly over knowledge and culture; they got to determine what counted and what didn’t count in their society, and that power was under threat. If, on the other hand, you were an immigrant or part of the rising middle class, there was enormous gain in having access to greater information and greater cultural diversity. So we always have to ask who gains and who loses? What’s at stake? What are the risks? What are the benefits?
The interesting thing is we survived all of this. Human beings adapted to new cultural experiences, they lived through the transition, they developed social structures that helped them deal with the risks and the dangers, and, yes, elite power reasserted itself, regaining some of the privilege it felt was on the verge of being lost. People didn’t reach this point without some pain, without some negative consequences, and some of these problems persist, but the process was not as devastating or dramatic as reformers of that era had feared. So we have to start with an assumption that we’ll survive the transition and we’ll identify the structures that we need to cope with the changes that are taking place around us. We do need to be offering an affirmative picture of a society that is concerned with the welfare of all, embraces diversity, identifies and promotes shared ethical norms, supports the forms of civility required for democratic debates, commits to mutual responsibility over the kinds of information we circulate, and helps to ensure broader access. If we’re going to talk seriously about participatory culture, we have to figure out what these new structures of knowledge and social interaction should look like and find ways to transmit those skills and values to the society at large.
danah: I think it’s important not just to think about an increased availability of information but also about what information manages to get traction and why. I’m fascinated by what information spreads and who gets attention in a mediated world. Who has the power to make certain that their perspective is heard above the fray? In a world where, theoretically, anyone can participate, who actually gets to control the public narrative? While I appreciate the historic reminders of empowerment of less privileged populations, I’m not convinced that this is what’s happening. But it’s also not so simple as to say that privilege is simply reasserting itself.
Politicians celebrate when they get a million followers on Twitter, but I follow teenagers whose tweets are read by millions. Activists who try to get a message to be spread far and wide often fail, but when a teen posts something sexual or grotesque, embarrassing or shocking, it often spreads at an obscene speed. Those who accept a market-driven world often shrug at this disparity and say that people get what they want. But I think that there are serious consequences to the attention economy. What captures people’s attention is often the most salacious, fearful, and gossipy content available. It’s the junk food of content. And there are plenty of folks out there preying on people’s gluttonous media practices. I realize one interpretation of this is that social media democratizes participation, but is this really what we mean or even want?
Managing Media Consumption
Mimi: One problem I have with some of the criticism is that the response is to reel things back into old systems of legitimacy, control, and validation: to say no to technology, go back to reading books, and shut off Wi-Fi in the classroom. Just telling kids to disconnect or hoping technology will go away is not realistic or even desirable. The technology is infinitely malleable, and the question we need to be asking is how new norms, practices, and literacies can make our engagements most productive individually and collectively. It’s not a simple binary. We’re starting to devolve power away from institutions to collectives and individuals and networks, and that means that every person has to take responsibility for the credibility of information, their ownership and production of it, in ways that weren’t quite as necessary in an earlier era.
danah: Even information is often boiled down to an assessment of whether a particular piece of media content – or a particular platform – is good or bad. Teenagers tell me that they’ve been told that Wikipedia is bad while Google is good. When I push them on this, I find that they’re often not sure exactly what this means. But they’ve been taught to read certain platforms as trustworthy and to eschew others, with no critical apparatus to understand why. I’m saddened by the low level of computational and media literacy out there and the broad refusal to engage with these issues. It’s easier to be afraid of technology and media than to engage critically with it.
Much of what’s at stake has to do with the ways in which norms and values are negotiated in our networked society and how we reach widespread consensus when there are significant value-laden conflicts. Whose values get to shape public discourse? How do we think about personal desires versus societal benefits? When information and tools reflect values, how are they interpreted or rejected?
Henry: There’s been a tendency behind many of these platforms to assume that what the majority likes is what’s best. This majoritarian logic means that there is very little if any commitment to ensuring that we have access to a diversity of perspectives, rather than simply allowing the most hegemonic thinking to be reproduced yet again. These sites do not necessarily create mechanisms which ensure that minority tastes and interests are fully represented, any more than broadcast media has done so. And, so, one area where we need to develop more critical literacy is around the mechanisms and processes that determine our relative access to different kinds of materials. As we confront today’s complex problems, we need to expand as much as possible the range of solutions that are proposed and the different kinds of expertise we tap. But most of us do not yet have very good tools or skills for seeking out and sustaining this diversity of perspective.
It’s one thing to look at the highest-circulating videos, which tend a bit towards the lowest common denominator – or at least appeal to majority tastes. It’s another to look at those videos that are reaching a few thousand or even a few hundred thousand people; at that level, they tend to reflect minority tastes and perspectives, or at least niche interests. Many of those videos share ideas that would never have gotten wider circulation under the broadcast paradigm, and they are making a difference in the lives of the people who produce and share them. This is the heart of the expanded communication capacity we are discussing. But there are limits in terms of the ability of many of these videos to break out from their niches and reach a more mainstream public. These are ideas that are still blocked from becoming part of the larger cultural and political agenda. So, here we go from a notion of information overload back to one of information scarcity. As long as we have this illusion of plentitude, we are discouraged from asking what is missing from the conversation.
danah: Niche communities are phenomenal, but there’s an increasing tendency to turn everyone into a niche community, especially given the fetishization of personalization. This can be both beneficial and problematic. On the one hand, niche communities and marginalized individuals might relish the opportunity to have content and information tailored to their interests. On the other, what does it mean when our information society gets so fractured that people have no common ground? Algorithms that are designed to tailor content for individual people have significant cultural implications. They can be empowering and make unexpected voices heard, but they can also result in fragmentation and massive localization. Much of this depends on how these systems are architected, with what goals in mind. I think of Tarleton Gillespie’s (2014) work on the politics of algorithms and platforms. How do certain values get baked into systems? What should we do when we see conflicting values and norms? Does it behoove us to challenge people’s views because it’s for the greater good, or should we be focused on giving people what they want most?
Media Effects and Media Ethics
Mimi: Now that more of us are not only media consumers but producers and distributors as well, how media shapes society and culture is our collective responsibility. I don’t think we are there yet, but we need to be moving away from the frame of what “they the media” are doing to us to what “we the media” are responsible for. In working with young people, it can be challenging to move them from a subjectivity of a media consumer to that of a producer. It is even more challenging to support the cultivation of a mindset of social responsibility about the sharing and circulation of media. When we work with kids who have had limited access to digital tools and networks, it’s not difficult for them to pick up skills in media creation. The bigger challenge is for them to take a leap to being an active contributor to the online world and develop an identity as someone who has real contributions to make.
For example, my team worked with Jonathan Worth, who for years has been teaching an open online photography-based digital storytelling course – Phonar – with college students. We co-developed Phonar Nation, a version of the course tailored for teens, which relied exclusively on photo capture and sharing on mobile devices. Lower-income teens we worked with loved taking photos and creating stories, but getting them to share online was a challenge because they didn’t see their work as “good enough.” When they did get their first feedback from others on the open internet, you could see them light up. The next big step is to encourage reciprocity and to have them comment and give feedback on others’ work. That’s when you start to see them cultivate a subjectivity of someone who has influence in shaping online culture and media. This is the subjectivity that we see with kids who are highly engaged in affinity groups and networked culture, and it is a critical component of developing both media literacy and media ethics. When they can move even further, and begin to look under the hood at the technical conditions of media production and circulation, that is yet another step.
danah: Media literacy in a networked era isn’t just about making sense of images, text, and other content that is produced by people. All too often, we forget about technical creations that produce cultural artifacts with significant implications. A few years ago, communication scholar Mike Ananny (2011) was downloading Grindr on his Android when he noticed that the app store recommended that he next download a “Sex Offender Search” app. There are many different possible explanations for how that recommendation was made, so Mike wrote an essay in The Atlantic to ask critical questions about this recommendation algorithm. His technical fluency allowed him to critically interrogate the feedback that he received from services, but many people have little to no understanding of how technical systems work. I’ve met so many teens who think that Google hand picks what appears at the top of a search query or who think that Facebook manually curates what goes into their news feed. Media literacy in a technical world isn’t just about trying to understand the content that you see; it’s also about how it gets there in the first place. If you don’t understand how the most ubiquitous algorithms work, you’re more likely to be duped.
Information is power. It can be empowering, but it can also be a tool for disempowerment and manipulation. For example, I’m very curious about the future of neuro-marketing and efforts to use personal data to understand and control people. These are very nascent technologies, but corporations are increasingly turning to them in an effort to manipulate the public in order to capture people’s attention or capitalize on their emotional responses. They use statistical models to determine which messages are most effective in terms of neuro-biological responses or which presentations will produce the highest number of clicks. These technologies are often introduced to undermine people’s critical awareness of how they’re being targeted and manipulated through the messages and media narratives around them. We’ve seen this script before with propaganda and the early work of Bernays ( 2005).
Henry: danah, I am struggling with your focus on manipulation here. I agree that you are raising an area of enormous concern, but I’m having trouble separating out your claims from broader debates about media effects (more as they operate in the realm of public policy than as a paradigm of academic research). There’s such a persistent desire out there to imagine that media is affecting us on some visceral level that’s beyond our control and outside the realm of the rational. These arguments dismiss the degree of control people have over media, the ways in which we assert that authority on a routine basis – that emphasis on agency is at the heart of my arguments about participatory culture.
danah: I share your skepticism with media effects because the approach that gets categorized under that name tends to lack nuance. All too often, correlation gets associated with causation, particularly when the analysis is covered by news media. There are a lot of cultural issues at play in terms of how we consume media and integrate it into our lives. It’s equally unhelpful to presume that every interaction with media is cultural and none of it is biological or neurological. I think that disciplinary siloing ends up doing us a disservice, and that those of us who tend to take a cultural stance on these issues need to take seriously the possibility that there are cognitive processes at work too.
Neural pathways get formed through exposure to information and experiences with situations. This enables learning but also makes possible manipulation. I think that we need to develop techniques and approaches for critically interrogating the kinds of practices that are emerging in the world of marketing, including those that assume more data equals more knowledge and that the answer to humanity can be found in neuroscience. We can eschew these mythical frames, but I think that dismissing statistically oriented and biologically oriented approaches is limiting. I would really like to see interdisciplinary scholars work together to construct a more critical approach. There’s too little understanding of how biology and cultural influences intersect. The interplay between both is crucial for making certain that people have the critical skills needed to interrogate the manipulation that they are experiencing.
For example, we know that Fox News differentially lights guests based on their perspective. Does this affect how people perceive those guests? How? Can we help the audience be more aware of this form of manipulation? We know that sounds are used in media to signal emotional responses to specific ads or content. Can viewers be attuned to these subtle influences? How do we help them be aware?
Henry: The disproportionate status ascribed to science in our culture makes such a collaborative perspective difficult to imagine. There are a massive number of people who take assertions made about “brain science” uncritically, who believe that this research has pushed much further than it has, and there’s a tendency for people in those fields to make claims about culture that are value-laden while using their authority as “scientists” to mystify the ideological values underlying their work. Such claims are accepted in court proceedings or government hearings on very different terms from claims made from a more humanistic vantage point. So the problem is not getting humanists to be more receptive of biological arguments, but to create a space where cultural arguments get taken seriously by people in power.
Leaving these methodological disputes aside, we are at a moment where issues of media literacy – and media transparency – are coming to a head. On the one hand, there’s probably more access to information about how media is produced today than at any moment in the past in terms of all the director’s commentaries and making of documentaries on DVDs. We’ve turned the critical analysis of how media gets produced into its own kind of popular entertainment. Everyday people are surprisingly aware now of the choices that go into, say, the development of special effects or the design of costumes or the framing of shots. Unfortunately, most of that information is not produced with skepticism about the ideological effects. You are unlikely to learn anything about manipulation through a director’s commentary on a DVD.
On the other hand, we’ve had decades of US educators calling for media literacy classes and largely failing, whereas in many other parts of the world there are requirements in support of media literacy that have varying degrees of success. As those struggles have continued, some media literacy advocates have become embittered and sometimes moved from skepticism towards cynicism. Their version of media literacy has too strong a focus on manipulation, to the point that young people are often seen as victims of the media rather than as potentially active, creative contributors to the new media landscape.
Beyond either of these models, we have a growing number of people, especially young people, who have everyday experiences as media-makers. People are learning from each other, often in informal ways, how to produce media. As they make media, they have to make ethical choices about what kinds of stories they want to tell. And they are looking more and more at the media they consume through the eyes of someone who is actually or at least potentially a media producer.
Mimi: In his work on media education, David Buckingham (2003) describes the difference between an inoculation approach and a production-centered approach. That protective inoculation approach is important but not sufficient for today’s media ecology, because young people are media-makers. They’re circulators. They’re curators themselves. The inoculation approach was developed during the reign of commercial media, before today’s ecosystem of social and amateur media. Our educational challenge is much more complex because we have to deal with that longstanding, more traditional left-leaning issue of critiquing commercial media agendas, as well as with issues like digital citizenship and what it means to be a good participant in media culture. Being critical of powerful media producers does not make you a responsible participant in participatory culture. Media literacy may not even be the right term for it. Our mindset has to start moving beyond “How can I protect myself from media corporations?” and towards “How can I contribute in an effective and responsible way?”
danah: I also think it’s too simplistic to view the corporations or big media as the sole manipulators. Many of the same tools that we’re seeing corporations use are also being used by everyday people to capture the attention of their friends and followers. Few are as sophisticated as professional media-makers, but many are engaged in amateur practices that parallel what we see among experts, such as video hoaxes. People manipulate each other, consciously and unconsciously, for all sorts of reasons, including attention and entertainment.
I don’t think that inoculation or abstinence helps people cope with the contemporary media ecosystem. From my perspective, people are most critically aware when they understand how media is produced. This is one of the reasons that I’ve long subscribed to the commitments of both of you to getting people engaged in the production side of media. People learn a lot about media when they can see it from both sides. Being an integrated part of the media landscape is actually an essential part of learning.
The Case of Wikipedia
danah: Wikipedia is a really great example of how some of these issues around literacy and knowledge play out. The public’s widespread distrust of Wikipedia is deeply disconcerting. Teens regularly tell me that their teachers and parents tell them that it is bad because it can be edited by anyone. The underlying assumption is that experts always produce better content than passionate crowds of amateurs. Studies have shown that Wikipedia is equivalent if not more accurate than Britannica (Giles 2005), but that doesn’t satiate critics.
Personally, I see Wikipedia as a phenomenal display of knowledge. Wikipedia articles don’t just reveal the final written product. Because of the history pages and the discussion pages, it’s possible to see how that knowledge was produced. This allows the viewer to see how debates and disagreements get resolved as editors argue over what is “neutral.” My favorite example is the American Revolution article, because both British and American editors had to work together to resolve historical accounts that are often conflicting. Are the people who are fighting revolutionaries or terrorists? What exactly does it mean to be patriotic? Just take a look at the discussion page and you can see how much effort went into trying to resolve conflicting points of view on this one historical item.
Henry: We had a great experience with the New Media Literacies project working with a school in Indiana where Wikipedia was banned from the classroom, not because of anxieties about the quality of information but because some students had been caught intentionally putting up misinformation (Jenkins et al. 2013). We were working on this project around Moby-Dick. The teacher really wanted to have the students contribute to the Herman Melville page and had to get permission from the principal. These kids began to enter information they were learning about Moby-Dick, and, this being Wikipedia, there were disputes about some of what they put up that forced the students to defend their assertions. In some cases they won, and in some they lost, but at the end they felt an enormous sense of pride at having been able to contribute to the collective production of knowledge. They took away a deeper understanding of the ways knowledge is produced; it doesn’t just exist in the pages of a book. Knowledge is under dispute; we don’t have a uniform agreement about what the facts are. Wikipedians do agree upon some shared rules to arbitrate disputes, and so the students learned those rules. And, perhaps most importantly, they learned that people have to take personal and collective ownership over the quality of information they contribute to conversations.
Mimi: Wikipedia is a lovely example because information-sharing doesn’t just happen. It’s highly regulated, organized, and policed. The normative structure of Wikipedia is intense; it’s not just a selforganizing hive mind. Just looking at the relationship of an individual to a device or a piece of content doesn’t tell you what actually structures reception and influence, which is the social and institutional framework.
We’re seeing a blurring between what you would call digital citizenship and media literacy, because those things are becoming much harder to separate. Wikipedia represents a good case to think through these things, because we’re all responsible for its quality. It’s not a matter of critiquing the experts or critiquing the institutions. If you see something wrong, it’s your responsibility to get it fixed. That’s the kind of mind-shift that is important from an educational perspective.
Henry: Wikipedia has done a really good job as a community, maybe the best job of any participatory community, of articulating its norms, its values, its ethics. There is a clear model for what ethical participation in Wikipedia looks like – a set of articulated standards by which you measure the quality of any given contribution. What is not there yet is a system for ensuring diversity, for reaching out to groups that are under-represented, and for dealing with the problem of systemic blindness to certain kinds of knowledge and perspectives. I’d love to see other participatory culture communities develop this same level of self-reflection and articulate their standards for what they see as a good contribution or beneficial form of participation. That’s one reason why it seems important for students to understand how Wikipedia works, because it represents a rich model for thinking about what kinds of norms support participatory culture.
Mimi: I’ve been following Minecraft for precisely this reason. What’s interesting about Minecraft is how different it is from World of Warcraft (WoW) and other massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs), which have centrally controlled servers and content. Anyone can throw up a server and invite people in on Minecraft. Running a server on the player side raises all kinds of issues of shared governance, the control of content, and community norms. Kids gain first-hand experience of what it means when the server isn’t maintained based on collective values, because, if a server is poorly run, there’s griefing and low-quality content. That experience is completely different from the corporate governed WoW. Given that Minecraft is now one of the best-selling and most played games of all time, we’re seeing these experiences percolate among a rising generation. It builds on the kind of learning that kids get when they are negotiating with one another in playground games or social card games like Pokemon, but brings it to the online world. We’re running an online summer camp through Minecraft because we see it as a valuable entry point to issues of online social responsibility that can level up to participation in other online affinity groups, whether to do with other games, fandom, or Wikipedia.
What Contributions Are Valued?
danah: I’m curious as to how you two feel about the importance of contribution. When we talk about participatory culture, active engagement is typically valued over consumption. Usually this means focusing on the production side of things rather than critical consumption. This becomes particularly true when systems are used to measure what it means to be participatory. Clicking a “like” on Facebook is more valued than just reading the update. Adding a review to Yelp is more valued than just using the site to get a sense of what services are available. Comments are more valued on Reddit than voting. All of these metrics are driven by the fact that these services rely heavily on the content that users contribute. But what does it mean always to focus on active participation, regardless of the quality of that contribution? What does it mean to be a part of the system without necessarily giving back? Can someone be a valuable and participatory lurker? What does high-quality listening look like in a networked environment?
Mimi: It’s important not to celebrate contribution on its own without considering what kind of collectives we are contributing to. It’s about the quality of the contribution but also the broader purpose and agenda. Contribution to a group blog or a peer-governed Minecraft server is different from a Facebook “like” or rating a Netflix movie. Generically, the best way to learn the competencies necessary for thriving in an era of participatory culture involves, in addition to consumption and critique, production, participation, and social connection. I think we need to add to all of this the importance of having that contribution be part of meaningful civic, community, and political engagement. High-functioning affinity groups have ways of elevating and valuing high-quality contributions that are not just about volume or popularity.
Henry: We’ve been identifying a set of values, things we think are important for young people to understand within a participatory culture, but how do we construct an infrastructure that supports and nurtures these values? We shouldn’t fall back on schools and other adult-led institutions as the default mechanism for promoting these skills and norms, since the agendas of schools are not always well aligned with what young people find rewarding about participatory culture. I’ve written about Harry Potter fan fiction sites as spaces where kids are reading critically, writing, and mentoring each other (Jenkins 2006). But when I talk to educators about the benefits of these practices, invariably someone says that the kids are involved in copyright infringement, they have no respect for other authors, or they’re not creative and original. I could celebrate these fan fiction spaces as offering youth a chance to explore and express aspects of sexuality, while someone else would see youth reading and writing pornography. These tensions make bringing participatory cultures into schools especially dicey. The temptation is going to be to police those elements that seem antisocial from the teacher’s point of view, to remove those elements that seem controversial with parents, and to protect young people from the consequences of their own decisions. Yet, just as we don’t want corporate agents making decisions for us about what constitutes valuable participation, we should be cautious about imposing our own outside perspectives on what makes these sites meaningful to their young participants.
With Harry Potter, we have a group of young people who strongly identify as readers and writers. They are reading a book that centers on a school, Hogwarts; they are identifying with youth, such as Harry and Hermione, who in different ways are exceptional students. These Harry Potter fans would seem to be the kinds of students who would be easiest to connect back to the classroom, to place a positive value on their work. But, even here, we are finding that schools are uncertain about whether or not they can support fan fiction writing as an activity (Stephenson and Belcher 2013). And youth are uncertain about whether it is safe to acknowledge their out-of-school lives in the classroom, given the degree to which they use this forum as a space for exploring transgressive fantasies. After all, those fantasies are at once a normal part of growing up in our culture and precisely the kinds of things from which schools seek to protect young people.
danah: I agree that it’s important for us not to impose our ideas of what is good participation on young people, but I also think that we need to grapple seriously with the kinds of problematic participation. As I mentioned earlier in this book, there’s the case of pro-ana. Pro-ana is both a description of thinspiration content and a term to describe those who view themselves as part of the anorexic lifestyle. Those who subscribe to the pro-ana community see themselves as making a dieting choice and committing to a logic of thinness and restraint. They despise people who pathologize or otherwise medicalize their practices and are deeply resistant to crusaders who are looking to help them.
From a learning perspective, the pro-ana community is pretty amazing. It’s quite common for participants to engage critically with the broader media landscape, remix and Photoshop images, and develop new techniques to distribute media content. Some develop technical sensibilities to encode their content so that algorithmic censors by companies who forbid disordered eating content in their terms of service do not delete what they produce. In fact, the notion of “ana” is itself a coded reference. Rather than talking about “anorexia,” those in the pro-ana community often refer to their friend “Ana” to minimize the likelihood that they’ll be banned. Many pro-anas are extraordinarily technically proficient and deeply thoughtful about media practices. They often refer to their engagement with the anorexic lifestyle as the source of their media and technical literacy. If it weren’t for the subject matter that was bringing them together, we would celebrate them. So how do we untangle valuable learning from deeply problematic practices?
Henry: That’s a deeply troubling example. Clearly, the learning that goes on there are not the kinds that can or should be embraced by educators. Yet, the challenge is going to be how to create an alternative space that addresses the same kinds of needs that this community serves for its participants. Condemning such values is ultimately not going to be constructive if we are going to help these young people develop a different understanding of their bodies. The more adults push against such practices, the more likely they are to drive young people towards them. Without validating the specific set of beliefs and practices you describe here, we may also need to accept that there are some core needs that youth confront that cannot be addressed by formal institutions dominated by adult values and agendas.
What Interests Are Valued?
Mimi: Only a limited number of interests and identities are validated within schools and peer culture, and either you happen to be one of those kids whose interests are already connected or you’re one of those kids who isn’t embraced by the school culture, socially, academically, or culturally. There’s a strong cultural and institutional bias in many schools that validates interests like football or basketball, specific academic subjects, and extracurriculars such as chess or debate. Even putting aside something as challenging as pro-ana, it’s hard for a sci-fi fan or a skater to find a validated place in the school culture.
Katie Salen has written about changing the culture of the school to validate these gamer and geek identities in the Quest to Learn (Q2L) middle school (Salen et al. 2011). Q2L is a public middle school in Manhattan, founded in 2009, which now incorporates grades 6 to 12. Much of the school curriculum includes the input of game designers, and it centers on a game-based pedagogy and problem-solving. What you see in Q2L is a proliferation not just of the empowered geek identity but also kids starting a lot of after-school clubs that are interesting sites of overlap between school, peer, and interest culture. So there’ll be a Minecraft club or a video-making club and other interests that aren’t fully compatible with the curriculum but are still brought into the schools. This isn’t unique to Q2L. Teachers and schools around the country and elsewhere in the world support youth in organizing clubs and in extracurricular and other interest-driven enrichment activities. Given limitations in resources and time, it’s often difficult for schools to embrace a really wide range of interests, which is the constant underlying challenge.
Henry: For example, libraries are embracing comics as a way of engaging with young readers and, in some cases, to validate the expertise they already possess, their mastery over domains of knowledge that have not historically been recognized at school. We used to see a student smuggle a comic inside her textbook and have it confiscated by the teacher; now, we see whole library shelves stocked with graphic novels. In our New Media Literacies work, we have an activity where we ask students to map their identities as readers, to identify the many different things they read and write and the roles they play in their lives – from menus and cereal boxes to magazines and websites (Jenkins, Reilly, and Mehta, 2013). We’ve had any number of students complete the activity and come to the realization that, while schools have long classified them as not very good readers, they read all the time. Reading is a key part of their lives, but they simply don’t engage in the kinds of reading that schools value. They don’t read the right things or in the right way.
I recall an experience I had in the classroom at the start of my teaching career that still haunts me. I had a student who was performing at a C level and never said anything in class. One day, we started talking about Batman, and he came alive, making many contributions, dominating the discussion. For a solid hour, he got to be the expert and other students were asking him questions. He came to my office afterwards, still aglow, and we talked for another hour or more. This was an incredible, intense moment, where his interests were being valued. Then, two of my literature department colleagues walked down the hall, heard what we were discussing, stuck their head into my office, and said, “What are you doing talking about Batman? This is a literature department!” They were joking with me, but the student’s face turned ashen. He stopped talking almost instantly; he wandered away and he said nothing else in the class for the rest of the term.
So, bringing such knowledge into the classroom can be deeply empowering. But this is also an incredibly vulnerable moment, when the slightest negative message will be heard loudly. Schools often give this message – that what matters to young people doesn’t matter in school. As they do so, they also signal the opposite – that what matters in school doesn’t have any meaning in the rest of your life. We are all about finding those connected learning moments, but we also have to acknowledge how precarious they can be. If students are putting their faith in the system, if they are seeking acknowledgment, and we let them down, that can be devastating. Above all, do no harm.
danah: It’s frustrating when youth practices are dismissed by adults because they don’t conform to normative understandings of learning. On the flip side, I also meet a lot of young people who have been socialized into a world where any form of adult validation is viewed as negative. Sometimes, this perspective is shaped by broader communities. More often, I run into situations where parents and other family members teach young people not to trust non-family members, including teachers. I recognize how validation by people in power can be quite beneficial for some youth, but I don’t think we should take this as a given. It does create new questions and challenges, such as how should we think about diverse mechanisms of validation?
Mimi: While many youth cultures have an oppositional stance to adults, there’s generally adult leadership even in the most oppositional ones. I would challenge us to think of any subculture that doesn’t have adult heroes and leaders involved in it, which is why adults do have a role to play. I’ve seen educators who are authentically steeped in the affinity group do this well. It’s interesting talking to some of the youth at YOUmedia, a media-production-centered learning lab at the Harold Washington Library in downtown Chicago. The grown-up mentors in interest areas such as spoken word, beat-making, and gaming are not authority figures institutionally in the way that teachers are, but they’re people who embody that interest-driven identity, so they have a very different relationship to their kids. Brother Mike, who was the lead mentor for YOUMedia Chicago, is a great example of a poet and a hip-hop artist who had cultural capital with youth. After his tragic death in 2014, Charles Ashby Lewis described him at the memorial service as “a pied piper with dreadlocks.” He was known for his signature call and response, where he would say “Power to the people!” and the kids would respond “Right on!” Even teens with a troubled relationship to teachers and education would take advice from Brother Mike about everything ranging from schooling and their writing. Some kids talk about how it’s the first time that they were able to be in a space like a library and not be cynical (Larson et al. 2013).
We need translation zones where there’s sharing of power between interest-driven, peer-driven, and institution-driven imperatives. The Chicago YOUmedia learning lab, as well as others that are opening up around the country, are examples of experiments in this vein. These are the sites where we see mentors working with young people who have interests such as hip-hop, fashion, or spoken word, and they connect those interests to educational and career opportunity. Taking youth interests and participatory cultures and trying to put them entirely in the classroom is challenging because the institutional imperatives are going to win within the classroom walls. We don’t talk about the school as a fully connected learning environment because, most of the time, schools aren’t able to focus on this kind of more peer-driven, production-oriented activity that has relevance and visibility beyond the classroom walls. Schools are one important piece of young people’s learning ecology, but we have to take the social peer engagement and the diverse interests of kids seriously. Ideally we see schools embracing peer learning and diverse interests within the classroom, as well as connecting to the learning in the wider world. If we can find ways to broker the peace between the cultures of education, entertainment, and youth peer engagement, new media and networked culture can have a huge role to play in expanding these opportunities.