Chapter Three: Gaps and Genres in Participation

Chapter 3

Gaps and Genres in Participation

Introduction by Mimi Ito

As a cultural anthropologist, I’ve always delighted in seeing the social and cultural diversity of people who take up and reshape new technologies. While we can discern some trends and similarities in how technologies get adopted, I’ve been focused on understanding how different groups use technologies to fit their specific needs, expectations, and existing institutions. We’ve already discussed some of the problems associated with assuming a generational or age-based relationship to new technology. This leads us to another question: what are the differences that matter between youth with different experiences and backgrounds?

I grappled with this question early on in my career, during my doctoral research on the uptake of children’s software CD-ROMs in the 1990s (Ito 2009). Observing kids playing with these new media in after-school club settings, I noticed how the differences in how young people participated in the club paralleled the differences in media genres of the software. I began to use the term “genre” to describe both media genres and the associated genres of participation in a community. Genres of media in children’s software, just as with more traditional media, are ways of framing expectations and categorizing media based on style and other conventions. Riffing on this, I use the term “genres of participation” to describe how the ways in which people engage with media also track along certain styles and conventions. These conventions are embedded in the media but are also enacted through specific contexts of practice, so aren’t fully determined by the media genre in play.

Through multi-sited ethnographic study, I identified three different genres of participation and media structured by setting, design, and the market segmentation of the edutainment software: entertainment, academic, and construction. The entertainment genre, exemplified by titles such as Pajama Sam or the Magic School Bus series, centered on playful exploration, with educational references sprinkled in. The academic genre, with titles such as Math Blaster or JumpStart, focused on specific curricular content and a behaviorist approach to learning. SimCity, the title that exemplified the construction genre at the time, empowered the player to tinker and create. The first two genres replicate longstanding genres of children’s media, but the third genre was more innovative. It brought the spirit of construction-oriented toys and artistic tools into a media format. While the first generation of multimedia edutainment games included these innovative titles, such as Oregon Trail, Carmen Sandiego, and SimCity, the move to commercial markets was accompanied by hardening into the more established genres. The market came to segment and polarize in a way that tracked to these academic and entertainment genres.

The story of how new innovations get swallowed up by existing structures and institutions is familiar, particularly in high-stakes domains like education. For example, Larry Cuban (1986, 2009) has described, how time and again, the promise of technologies to transform education has withered in the face of entrenched educational practices and institutional imperatives. In some ways, my story of children’s software does resemble other stories of agency versus structure, or innovators versus incumbents. However, I do not see a space of freedom, innovation, and agency that is separate from an entrenched societal structure. I view all of the actors in these struggles as part of existing cultural genres. When looking at the out-of-school and market-driven learning space, these negotiations also tend to be more fluid than the negotiations around school reform. The innovators in children’s software were part of a tradition of progressive education, which stressed a learnercentered and constructivist approach.

Educational technologists Seymour Papert (1993), Yasmin Kafai, and Mitchel Resnick echoed the language of Piaget when they used the term “constructionist” (Kafai and Resnick [1996] 2012) to describe technology-enhanced learning that put the child in the role of programmer and world builder. Even as the children’s software industry flowed into existing market categories, structured by the genres of education and entertainment, it was clear that we were seeing the growth of child-centered, hacker-oriented forms of hands-on engagement with software. I saw this in the popularity of the Sims line of products and in my observations at after-school computer clubs. I see the historical popularity of Lego and today’s growth of Minecraft as part of the evolution of this genre across technological toolsets. The struggle for institutional acceptance and influence between the genres of entertainment, academics, and construction is ongoing, and new technology can change the balance of power in important ways.

The struggle over genres is a struggle of cultural influence as much as it is one of economic and institutional power. Genres have a conservative dimension to them, and they can be institutionalized and structured in formal ways. At the same time, they are open to evolution and reshaping as part of the process of creative innovation or reinterpretation by audiences, gamers, and users. Unlike social differences that are fixed attributes – like race, class, and gender – genre implies a set of practices and conventions that individuals take up situationally. For example, you could characterize me as an Asian immigrant and a postgraduate-educated, creative-class, middle-aged female. You could then analyze how these characteristics influence my preference for geek culture, Apple products, progressive school choices for my kids, and so on. By contrast, a genre-centered approach would take into account my fixed attributes but also recognize that at different times I might push drill-and-practice software at my kids to get them through a math exam or typing practice, even as I embrace their use of Minecraft as a social and constructive problem-solving environment.

This framework for looking at genres of participation informed the Digital Youth study as well. One of our goals was to understand the diverse ways in which youth were taking up networked and digital technology. We wanted to get beyond blanket proclamations about “kids these days.” Our case studies were designed to look at different populations from different vantage points. For example, I focused on the digitally savvy and geeky kids, looking at groups based on shared interests, whereas danah studied peer structures in local contexts such as school. We argued about how things looked different, depending on the entry points and populations. Early on in the work, we started noticing a fault line between the more geeky affinity groups and more mainstream peer cultures in schools. Eventually we identified this split as the difference between interest-driven and friendship-driven participation. This fault line mapped onto the use of technology in interesting ways. In the early to mid-2000s, the friendship-driven practices tended to happen on MySpace and IM. The interest-driven practices were more fragmented but were often taking place on LiveJournal. These genres of participation tracked to online behavior that kids called “hanging out,” “messing around,” and “geeking out.”

Hanging out was associated with friendship-driven learning and participation. It was motivated mostly by social connection and a sense of belonging. Messing around was about kids exploring and experimenting with tools and techniques as part of this everyday social behavior. Dan Perkel’s (2008) work on how kids were modifying their MySpace pages is a key example of messing around. He did research on how teens would figure out how to modify profiles and mess with a little bit of HTML. They started to learn some programming skills and sometimes cultivated an interest in digital media production. This is an example of how the social, “hanging out” forms of online participation can become a pathway to more geeky activities. The online world also hands kids new tools for looking around and lurking on forums. There’s a low barrier to finding information, so, if they want to know what it takes to modify a photo, or how to install their own memory card, they just Google it. This is behavior that is technically oriented and expertise-oriented, but isn’t driven by deep passionate interest or a desire to participate in a geek community.

We found that some kids jump off from this point into finding a new genuine interest. That is the geeking-out part: the fans, gamers, geeks, activists, and creative kids. These kids were driven towards specialized knowledge and getting good at something. They often get held up as poster children for the promise of the digital generation, but in reality they were a small minority compared to the kids who were hanging out. We did find that kids embodied these different genres to different extents, but the skew is towards the more friendship-driven genres. It’s important to understand, though, that kids move fluidly between different genres of participation. It’s not about categorizing individuals in buckets but about recognizing the palette of available options that the culture hands us (Ito et al. 2010).

It gets more complicated when considering how genres of participation relate to inequity. Although a genre-based analysis does not presume that participation is determined by individual traits or existing forms of stratification, we need to ask whether people engage in these genres in equitable or inequitable ways. For example, the fact that the most geeked-out and constructionist genres skew towards more educated white males is a cause for concern. We need to ask ourselves why it is that girls tend to gravitate towards more friendshiporiented genres and how economic and other factors create barriers and hurdles to participation. Further, what kinds of invitations and exclusions do young people of color experience that are different from those of their white counterparts? In the Digital Youth study as well as my prior work on children’s software, it was clear that more production-centered and geeked-out technologies put young people on a path towards technical expertise. In other words, genres of participation are not value-neutral when it comes to issues of equity and opportunity.

Following the Digital Youth project, it was clear that we had to delve further into these issues. Understanding how to expand participation in technologically supported learning environments is key for the network I am chairing. My current research in the Connected Learning Research Network’s Leveling Up project consists of case studies of youth affinity groups, which open up opportunity for young people in academic, civic, and career pursuits. For this project, we’ve selected many cases that have high numbers of girls and black and Latino/ Latina youth. I’ll talk more about these case studies and the connected learning model in the next chapter on learning and literacy. When trying to understand how access to opportunity is stratified, it’s critical to look at factors such as economics and access to technology but also at the more complex interplay of culture, identity, and affiliation. We are still early in developing a robust understanding of these complicated barriers to participation. While it is easy to understand simple lack of access to technology, understanding how people get excluded from or included in participatory cultures based on their cultural, ethnic, gender, or racial affiliation is much more complex.

Genres and Belonging

Henry: As a media scholar, I have always been intrigued by the use of the term “genre” in Mimi’s phrase “genres of participation.” Recent work on film and television genres (Altman 1999; Mittell 2004) has moved away from thinking of genres as rigid formulas or sets of fixed textual features. There are no clear borders and boundaries between different genres. Instead, there has been a move towards thinking of genres in terms of interpretive strategies readers bring to their encounters with texts. The same film might be “read as” a western, a melodrama, or a film noir by different groups of viewers, depending on their background, their interests, and, perhaps most importantly, the models of interpretation they can access. We pay attention to different elements, make different meanings, predict different plot developments, depending on which genre we assume is pertinent. Learning to read a genre film is a kind of literacy; access to that literacy is unevenly distributed. I am struck by the parallels between this approach to media texts and the ways Mimi talks about genres of participation here. Not every genre of participation is accessible to every person; not every genre of participation is valued equally by all institutions and their gatekeepers. Some get counted as informal learning; others get dismissed as a waste of time. In both cases sociological or anthropological work must be performed in order to understand how genres operate in relation to other social and cultural institutions.

On the ground, the various communities that grow up around participatory culture often translate these genres of participation into ethical norms and shared practices that are designed to foster greater participation. If you look at pre-digital fandom, there was already a deeply ingrained set of norms that valued what you contributed rather than who you were outside of the community. Within the female fan circles I wrote about in Textual Poachers (Jenkins 1992), it was considered rude to ask another fan what they did in their “mundane life.” This discretion was shaped by the routine ways that patriarchy devalues women’s contributions to the culture. Many of these fans did not identify strongly with their jobs. They were housewives; they were “pink collar workers” – those working in jobs that have been feminized and devalued in our culture, despite requiring a high level of education for access. The attitude was built into the fannish concept of “mundane life,” life that lacked deep meanings or passions. This perspective reversed the “get a life” language that people often project onto fans. Instead, these women wanted to be valued within fandom based on what they could do as authors, artists, or critics. The result was an alternative and very fluid conception of status. It is a world where every reader is assumed to be a potential writer, and those who are not creating now are assumed not yet to have found the right story to share with the world. When fandom went online, then, these same norms ensured a creative space where young people could be contributors without having to disclose their age. What mattered was their shared experience as fans and their ability to contribute something the community values. This is a great example of how the qualities of participation may be norm-based and not platform-based.

danah: Both of you celebrate the communities that have been formed by people who have used technology to build new connections, learn new skills, and create phenomena that reveal the socio-technical potential of young people engaging with social media. Yet, critics have pointed to how rarified these practices are. Neither geeking out generally nor fandom specifically are mainstream practices. Most young people that I’ve met aren’t even aware of these phenomena, let alone engaged with them, even if they have access to the technologies through which these practices form. There are many genres of participation that are dismissed or viewed with disdain or fear, such as gang organizing or thinspiration remix videos. There are many interpretations of digital content that are viewed as illegitimate. Notably, much of the participation from young people of color and other marginalized youth is often categorized as such, unless it is actively and intentionally framed as productive by adults with societal standing and bounded in particular ways, such as through adult-monitored hip-hop media classes or when activist youth of color use tactics that are recognizable to and respected by older activists.

The Digital Divide and the Participation Gap

danah: Most discussions that struggle with differences in participation begin with the “digital divide,” implying that what’s at stake is limited access to high-quality tools. There are certainly huge cultural and structural barriers to widespread participation, but there is also the reality that some youth are simply uninterested in participating in the kinds of activities that are often celebrated. I’m more concerned about how, when we talk about genres of participation, scholarly communities often gloss over the issues of what’s considered culturally valuable, without recognizing the ways in which stratification and inequity are part of the interpretation of value.

Henry: Throughout the 1990s, the digital divide kept getting discussed as a matter of access to technology. The solution seemed clear, if not easy to achieve: wire the classrooms and libraries and most Americans would have access to networked computing. The latest figures suggest that something like 95 percent of American youth have some access to digital technologies (Zickuhr and Smith 2012). The remaining 5 percent are left out because of deeply intractable problems, such as Native Americans living on some rural reservations that have never gotten telephone lines (Savchuk 2011). Here, there are deep infrastructural problems (not to mention systemic problems) blocking access.

However successful Americans have been at increasing access to the technologies, we have not made as much ground in providing equal opportunities for participation in the kinds of communities and practices being discussed here. In this regard, there are still many being left behind for many different reasons, so there is a need to move beyond talking primarily about access to technology and talk much more about access to skills, experiences, and mentorship. When we wrote our white paper for MacArthur (Jenkins et al. 2007), we used the participation gap as opposed to the digital divide to describe this different, but related, set of issues.

As this term has been taken up by various other scholars and community-based groups, the participation gap actually has many more layers than we first imagined. Those who want to address this problem need to talk about the issue of access to particular kinds of experiences and access to mentorship structures that support and sustain participants’ growth and development. We need to describe the sense of self-confidence or empowerment that allows participants to share what they create with a larger public. We need to consider what’s required to connect these sites of informal learning to educational institutions, so that what young people learn outside the classroom gets valued in school, leading to further educational opportunities (i.e., higher education) and further economic opportunities (employment, professional development). We also need to think about the political implications of these issues. How might we connect ideals of political participation and civic engagement to other kinds of cultural participation and social networking? These are just a few of the inequalities that shape who gets to participate and what impact their participation might have.

We need to devise a more sophisticated vocabulary to describe these various barriers and to identify strategies to help marginalized or at-risk youth to overcome the participation gaps. As we do so, we need to avoid normalizing assumptions that suggest we simply need to help poor and minority kids to have more access to the things that middle-class and white youth are doing, rather than exploring diverse and alternative models for what participatory culture might look like within these communities.

danah: I don’t feel as if we even have a handle on the normalizing assumptions that have become so central to discussions of participation. There are also tremendous politics at play here, raising significant issues of power and political might. I will never forget the “aha!” moment I had when I read “Who’s Responsible for the Digital Divide?” by Dmitry Epstein, Erik Nisbet, and Tarleton Gillespie (2011). They look at two competing rhetorical moves – the narrative of access that dominated the early discussions and the issue of skills that underpins some of the participation gaps you describe. They argue that, in policy circles, when people talk about the issue as being one of access, there’s an assumption that the government should be responsible for addressing the issue. But when there’s a rhetorical shift to skills, the onus moves to the individual or the community to solve their own problem. I find this particularly fascinating in light of our conversations on a participation gap, because it forces us to think through the kinds of inequities that emerge or are reinscribed and what should be done to make a difference. From my vantage point, we’re dealing with significant systemic inequality, lack of supportive social networks, and socio-cultural constraints. These can’t be addressed by placing the burden on the individual. This is why the rhetoric of meritocracy disturbs me and why I think we need a richer discussion of structural inequity. For better or worse, access and skills often end up being a distraction when they are used politically to avoid discussing broader structural issues.

Mimi: Different social groups’ relation to technology can change rapidly, but it’s much harder to change how those same societal groups are positioned relative to power and resources. We saw this with the recent adoption of social and mobile media by adults and the mainstreaming of gaming. Back in the 1990s, when there was a lot of talk about the digital divide, well-off technical and geek communities had privileged access to computers and the internet. Many assumed that access to technology would give access to privilege when in fact that causality was flowing more decisively in the other direction. The technologies signaled privilege because of the elite nature of the groups who were engaged with it. Now, in the era of the smartphone and networked gaming, access to interactive and networked technology has spread beyond a privileged geek demographic and the digital world is dominated by popular and lowbrow content. If you look at digital media engagement today, it’s not stereotypically privileged kids who are doing the most anymore. For example, the Kaiser surveys have shown that black and Latino youth tend to lead in engagement with popular media like television and also digital media like video games. With the turn to mobile digital and networked media, we see these same young people adopting and engaging at higher rates than their white and Asian counterparts (Nielsen 2010; Rideout, Foehr, and Roberts 2010). That doesn’t mean that the adoption of new media is leading to a shift in access to opportunity. What it does mean is that we can’t pretend that access to digital technology is synonymous with access to elite power.

Race and Class Politics of Participation

Henry: Even so, we are seeing some young people become more politically engaged and develop greater voice and influence through the use of new media platforms and practices, even if those forms of political participation are not fully appreciated by the news media, educators, or political leaders, as we will discuss more fully in the final chapter. We can see these new capacities at play in the struggles around Ferguson and racialized police violence more generally. People have noted that net-based activism reflected the emergence of a new generation of civil rights leaders who were tapping into the power of participatory politics. With each new incident over the past years, the public has been able to respond more quickly and more effectively and direct the attention of the media and political establishment onto situations that could no longer be swept under the rug. These protests represent a visible example of how young people are starting to change politics, especially politics around race, gender, sexuality, and social justice in America.

In the summer of 2012, Cathy Cohen and Joe Kahne (for the MacArthur Foundation’s Youth and Participatory Politics research network) released the results of a large-scale national survey of young people, designed to map their use of social media and its connections with their political lives. Their data found relatively few differences across races in terms of the likelihood that young people would use digital media for political purposes. Specifically, 43 percent of white, 41 percent of black, 38 percent of Latino, and 36 percent of Asian-American youth participated in at least one act of participatory politics during the previous twelve months. The racial gap in terms of engaging in participatory politics is much narrower than the gap in voting, where there’s a 15 point divide between the most active group – African-Americans – and the least active – Latino/Latina. There are also some signs that those who participate online in political discussions are substantially more likely to vote in the future. My current project – Media, Activism, and Participatory Politics (MAPP) – has been seeking to explore some of the groups that have been most innovative and effective at drawing young people into the political process.

danah: I would never argue that people of color aren’t participating in meaningful political resistance, but the kinds of political practices that are made visible and celebrated are almost always those from white, middle- and upper-class communities, just as the kinds of informal learning that get recognized as valuable and used as examples inevitably come from more privileged communities. When we look at the numbers, we see diversity. But when we look at what stories get academic and media attention, we rarely do so. When stories of technologically mediated activism by people of color do emerge, they’re often deemed controversial and problematic in ways that do not parallel the treatment of white youths’ activism. Or they’re dismissed as being just digital without real activist teeth. Why?

Mimi: We do need to do more work in linking the literature on political awareness and mobilization by people of color with the technology world, which is why the work that folks like Craig Watkins (2010) and Cathy Cohen and Joe Kahne, or the cases of DREAM activism (Zimmerman 2012) and Muslim youth (Shresthova 2013) that the MAPP project are undertaking, are so important. If you look beyond our more parochial technology discussions, we see a robust recognition of the political awareness of oppressed groups in this country, ranging from civil rights activists, to immigrant rights, to Arab and Muslim groups in the post 9/11 era. Many of us would argue that youth who have grown up under conditions of structural oppression and racism tend to have a more sophisticated political awareness than those who have not.

If we believe that today’s participatory culture is a site for learning to be digitally literate and net savvy, and can put young people on a path towards more self-directed learning, then I think there might be an interesting story emerging here. Some of the case studies in our Leveling Up project are pointing in these directions. For example, Crystle Martin (2014) has been looking closely at the dynamics of professional wrestling fandoms, which enlist youth from diverse socio-economic backgrounds. Matt Rafalow and Kiley Larson (2014) have looked at interest in fashion as a site of connected learning. Maybe some of the young people growing up in less economically privileged households are actually being primed for learning in ways that their middle-class counterparts are not. At the same time, youth in professional middle-class families have growing achievement anxiety that is clamping down on their space for autonomy and exploration (Pope 2001; Levine 2006). Clearly, wealthy kids still have many more paths to opportunity than poor and working class kids. At the same time, there may be a unique opportunity to close the participation gap if we can have some well-positioned policies and educational interventions.

danah: But what would it mean to close the participation gap? How do we grapple with the fact that people learn different things through their different experiences? I can’t imagine either of you would argue for homogenizing people’s experiences. We know that social networks matter and that who you know influences your interests and learning. In a perfect world, we’d all know an equal number of people with diverse perspectives who would expose us to a plethora of new ideas. But this imaginary world doesn’t exist. There is no neutral baseline. The notion of truly equal opportunity is a fantasy. I struggle with understanding how it’s possible to close the participation gap meaningfully, given that there are going to be both natural and culturally situated differences in experience and exposure. Some activities are going to be more valorized than others because they’re more recognizable by those who are privileged and/or powerful.

Addressing the participation gap isn’t just about access and skills. Some of the most egregious inequities have a lot to do with people’s structural position within a broader network. One of the challenges for me around participatory culture is that even awareness of the kinds of activities in which one can participate is very much shaped by who you know. Being exposed to some of the things that we relish – even awareness of something as simple as fan fiction – requires being connected to certain people. Youth are judged based on the norms of their peer group. And they’re also able to imagine possibilities based on the practices of those around them.

Henry: I have been drawn recently to a passage from Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger’s early work on “legitimate peripheral participation” (1991: 36): “As a place in which one moves towards more intensive participation, peripherality is an empowering position. As a place in which one is kept from participating more fully – often legitimately, from the broader perspective of society at large – it is a disempowering position.” This framing forces us to pay more attention to the scaffolding that different communities provide for moving towards greater participation. It asks us to distinguish between situations where people have not yet acquired the skills and self-confidence needed to participate and situations where there are structural obstacles blocking full and meaningful participation. So, our first task is to seek to identify and eliminate those structural obstacles, making it possible for more and more segments of our society to participate meaningfully. Recognizing that participation can take many different forms, another task is to help identify forms of scaffolding that enable people to move more fluidly from peripherality towards more engaged and empowered positions. Sangita Shresthova (2013), for example, has been tracing the various ways that American Muslim youth have been struggling to find and assert their voices and shape their representations in the wake of 9/11. This is often a one-step forward, one-step back process: given the chilling effects of the racial profiling unleashed in the aftermath of the Boston bombing in April 2013, we saw many that had struggled towards self-representation via social media retreat again.

We might draw a comparison with the concept of the “public sphere.” Our theories have moved from a focus on the idea of one big public sphere, where all public opinion is formed, towards a recognition that there are multiple counterpublics, where localized opinion needs to be consolidated before groups are empowered to speak effectively within a more generalized space. There has been recognition, via writers such as Mary L. Gray (2009), that some of these counterpublics may be temporary and precarious, struggling to survive under very adverse conditions. Yet, we still need to better understand the points of contact between these different publics and counterpublics, the ways ideas move (or don’t move) from one to another and influence or enable larger conversations between groups that are not yet speaking to each other comfortably. We might think about the relations between different forms of participatory culture in similar terms: there’s a need for distinctive practices and spaces, but there should ultimately be a way of getting these populations to speak to each other. What are some of the differences you are observing in your work?

danah: I’m personally intrigued by the kinds of learning that are particular to marginalized groups trying to route around cultural restrictions and institutional barriers. Many middle- and upper-class youth have access to the internet at home via computers, often their own laptops or tablets. As a result, they grumble when their schools ban social media sites, but they don’t do much to resist the censorship except to try out a few rumored work-arounds. In less privileged environments, before the widespread adoption of smartphones, I was astonished at how often teens had developed broad strategies for finding new proxies, breaking through censor walls, sharing what they learn, and iterating as they engaged in a game of whack-a-mole with school administrators and government agencies, who theoretically created these restrictions to protect them from themselves and others. Because school was the only place where these youth had significant access to the internet – and because digital media are so central to participation for many of these teens – marginalized youth often went to great lengths to find a way to route around any restriction placed in front of them. As a result, they learned highly sophisticated techniques for navigating the internet in order to get access to forbidden sites and services.

I’ve also watched less privileged youth surpass mainstream youth because of how they navigate limitations. Consider the rise of the Danger Sidekick in the mid-2000s. It was launched by T-Mobile, which was not a carrier that most middle- to upper-class parents used. Wealthier parents tended to put their children on their phone plan and give them a hand-me-down phone. T-Mobile, which had a prepay option – you could pay for each month in the store – launched the Sidekick and targeted urban youth. Early adopters started complaining to customer service about data and usage, so they made the data plan all-you-can-eat. They also decoupled the data plan from the calling plan so that users could choose one or the other.

This combination of options was very appealing to low-income youth from urban regions, who quickly adopted the Sidekick as a text plus data-only device. AOL Instant Messenger (AIM) was on the phone, and teens went wild. I heard rumors that, at the peak of Sidekick’s popularity (with only 150K devices), the device was accounting for one-third of AIM’s US traffic. These predominantly black and Latino youth were doing fascinating things with their devices before “smartphone” was even a concept.

When the iPhone came out, it was celebrated as the first popular consumer smartphone, even though it was inaccessible to less privileged youth. Sidekick was never really maintained, and its core developers all went to Google to produce Android. But there was an amazing moment in the history of smartphones where low-income young people – and particularly low-income youth of color – were being more innovative and engaging more deeply with the “always-on” life imagined by digital connectivity than any of their wealthier peers.

I think it’s helpful to remember when, where, and how marginalized youth end up forging new pathways in order either to achieve parity with their wealthier peers or to address directly their social conditions. At the same time, it’s important to recognize how they get shut out of these systems by new innovations meant to curtail their creative acts. The non-generative technology movement that Jonathan Zittrain (2008) critiques doesn’t just curtail the actions of geeks; it severely limits what marginalized youth can do. Today, most youth have access to the internet through their phones, but there is very little room for technical creativity in an app world.

Henry: Sasha Costanza-Chock’s book on the immigrant rights movement in Los Angeles (2014) tells an interesting story. Many of those who would become digital activists first acquired skills in video production and digital sharing to share pictures and videos with families still in Latin America. They were trying to preserve some continuity of traditions, some sense of social connections. Those production and circulation skills spread across the community. They did not emerge top-down as something taught to youth or bottom-up as something youth discovered on their own. They emerged from traditional family and community life, as young people worked with their parents and grandparents to learn how to use this technology to preserve older ways of life that mattered to them. Young people began using these skills and platforms for political ends, especially in pursuit of educational and citizenship rights for youth who had been raised largely in the United States (Zimmerman 2012).

Mimi: In the Digital Youth project we found it was often the lower-income teens who had more autonomy, ingenuity, and resourcefulness. The ability to solve problems and engage in self-directed learning needs to be cultivated, and that can only happen when young people are given the time and space to explore, as well as have some responsibility. But it’s not enough to celebrate the fact that resource-poor communities are using ingenuity and finding work-arounds. The question is how that capacity can elevate opportunity. It’s not going to happen just because access to technology and online networks is becoming more pervasive. I don’t see the participation gap as resulting from a lack of ingenuity, creativity, or even skills. I see it as resulting from a lack of social connections to opportunity. There have been and will continue to be a ton of low-income youth who are highly engaged, smart, and creative, but the amazing things they are doing will be marginalized without some principled interventions that are targeted squarely to these equity issues.

danah: This gets at the crux of my anxiety when thinking about these issues. Knowledge and skills matter little when you don’t have the social connections to open doors to opportunities. I can’t help but think of Paul Willis’s (1981) study of how working-class kids get working-class jobs. He argues that there is a significant cultural cost involved in transitioning to the middle class that is not typically recognized in popular rhetoric about class mobility. While entering the middle class may provide more financial stability, it is often done at the expense of a person’s personal relationships. Leaving one’s hometown to go to college or taking a job in a different community can feel like a betrayal, and yet moving is often necessary for upward mobility.

Class mobility has less to do with explicit forms of education and more to do with connections and support. The majority of young people are on some major social media at this point – Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, etc. – but what they see on their feeds, and thus what becomes normative for them, varies depending on the people in their network. I sit with privileged teens who are being socialized into the norms of elite colleges through their older friends and family, then I watch the feeds of less privileged youth reflect anti-educational agendas. And I get it. I get that those who are written out of many opportunities find self-worth by demeaning certain paths, but this is how local norms get developed and reinforced. So, while I can celebrate how technology opens up new possibilities, I can’t help but worry about how it also reinscribes what is normative in ways that are especially costly for less privileged youth.

At the height of MySpace’s popularity, I received a phone call from an Ivy League admissions officer. The college was interested in an applicant from South Central Los Angeles. He’d written a compelling essay about leaving behind the gang culture that surrounded him. But the question they asked me was, “Why would he lie to us when we can tell the truth online?” They had gone to his MySpace profile, which was filled with gang insignia. And, rather than reading it as a survival tactic, they read it as proof that he was really a gangbanger himself. This situation highlights how people’s class position also shapes how they read others’ online activities. Parents and educators often talk about the things that youth should do to make sure that they aren’t interpreted in the wrong light, but we rarely put the onus on privileged adults to account for the cultural power of their interpretations.

One of my favorite uses of #hashtag activism addressed the issue of interpretation head-on. After Michael Brown was killed in Ferguson, many youth of color objected to how the teen was portrayed in mainstream media. News stories often used an old picture of Brown seemingly throwing a gang sign rather than using his very recent high-school graduation photo. Youth began posting two images of themselves – one acceptable to white society and one not – to Twitter, along with the hashtag #IfTheyGunnedMeDown, highlighting the biases of media coverage of black and white deaths. In doing so, they reminded the public of the ways in which interpretation is a structural inequity issue.

Mimi: These issues of interpretation and stereotyping run deep. They relate to a whole host of assumptions, including stereotypes about cultural and intellectual deficiencies. I’ve learned from my colleagues who have researched what Kris Gutiérrez describes as “nondominant” groups such as Latino immigrants. Gutiérrez argues that educational research on students who are not part of the dominant culture, and who are economically marginalized, often assumes cognitive deficiencies and social and cultural deprivation. The discourse is about how immigrant kids can measure up to the benchmarks of the dominant culture rather than recognizing the strong capacities and cultural competencies that these young people and their communities already possess.

Gutiérrez argues for the term “nondominant” rather than terms such as “at risk” or “disadvantaged,” which signal this more deprivationist frame (Gutiérrez, Morales, and Martinez 2009). If we can start from a place of valuing the existing capacities of nondominant communities, then the solutions with respect to technology and education look very different than those efforts that try to “fix,” “bridge,” or fill in for “deficiencies” in nondominant youth. Instead, we would look to new interventions and technologies to support and amplify existing culture, values, and capacities inherent in nondominant settings.

One place to look for alternatives could be in what Juliet Schor has been calling “connected consumption.” Her team has been conducting a range of studies on how communities share resources through peer-to-peer markets like time-banking, open learning urban farming, maker spaces, and food swaps as part of the Connected Learning Research Network (Carfagna 2014; Schor and Thompson 2014). These peer markets, as well as some of the community dynamics we see in our Leveling Up cases, give some hints as to how we can go about building social capital within communities rather than taking kids out of their existing social networks. For example, maker spaces and hacker spaces are community-run places where people can have access to tools to create things, find supports for learning, and connect with mentors. There is a growing movement to think of these spaces as intergenerational learning environments. Jeff Sturges has taken this model to Detroit, where there is a lot of expertise in making and manufacturing but also high rates of poverty and unemployment. He is working in a church, together with the pastor, and leveraging local capacity in order to rebuild their community. His maker space has become a place where older folks can come and impart their skills and wisdom to the youth, and everyone is creating and making things in ways that build relationships, elevate the community, and help with local economic viability ( That’s a fundamentally different approach from trying to build pathways for a select number of kids to become coders or designers in order for them to leave their communities.

I admire the efforts within education that are about opening up traditional pathways to opportunity for kids who don’t otherwise have access. We need more black kids in tech, we need more girls in gaming. All of that’s important. But it doesn’t solve the capacity issue when you’re in an era of contracting opportunity. It just reshuffles the deck. Rebalancing the gender and racial dynamics of people at the top is an important agenda, but, at the end of the day, there are only a handful of kids who are going to make it out of poor communities, and you’re not going to change the fact that they’re leaving the majority behind.

The formal educational system can’t fundamentally address equity in an era of contracting opportunity, because the focus is on assessment and sorting kids into existing opportunities. Traditional educational achievement is about managing the competition for existing resources and opportunity. When the pie is expanding, this management gives more people access to opportunity, but when the pie is contracting, it produces more inequity. Today we have to focus on building more capacity, entry points, and pathways to opportunity. I think our work in education has to be pursued within the context of real-life action and communities. Otherwise it becomes just another exercise in sorting and reshuffling.

Social Capital and Networks

Henry: To achieve the kinds of changes you are proposing, Mimi, we need to acknowledge the many invisible barriers to participation that operate within even the most robust forms of participatory culture. People involved in a community’s practices may not fully recognize or understand the ways the practices they take for granted may be huge hurdles for someone who is not already involved in that community. I’ve seen the debate play out at many fan conventions: the community openly embraces diversity, yet they end up with a room full of forty white people asking two or three people of color why there aren’t more people like them attending the convention. This turns out – surprise, surprise – to be a largely counterproductive approach to the problem of cultural segregation. This debate erupted online in 2009 via a range of fan discussion lists in what became known as the “#racefail” debate. It started as a conversation about racially insensitive stereotypes in genre fiction, went through a deeply divisive and painful process, but ended up with many fans gaining greater consciousness about the invisible ways that race enters into a participatory culture (Klink 2010).

My own recent thinking on this issue has emphasized the social construction of taste. There’s a strong body of research showing how class shapes taste, which is understood as a set of shared social norms within which personalized choices occur. So people raised in different economic or racial/ethnic communities may have different degrees of access to cultural materials or practices. They may be encouraged to define or discouraged from defining their identities in certain ways, may be more or less likely to express certain fantasies or desires, and thus are going to be more or less likely to enter specific communities of practice. Those communities do not need to be actively excluding anyone on the basis of class or race for them to end up with relatively homogeneous memberships. They may be open to anyone who shares their tastes and interests but nevertheless limit meaningful participation to certain groups, simply because the tastes around which fandom organizes are more likely to be found among middle-class Caucasians and Asian-Americans than other segments of the population. Many of these participants may feel they have had to defend their tastes against conservative or anti-intellectual teachers and parents, without realizing they also had more resources and support for doing so than those of other cultural and economic backgrounds.

danah: Participation is so deeply entwined with the people you’re surrounded by. It’s often destabilizing for people to be exposed to other networks through shared platforms or interests. I’ve seen tremendous racist and homophobic backlashes when people are exposed to other values on Twitter. I agree that these incidents open people’s eyes, but they don’t solve the structural problems. Getting people to talk about racial insensitivities doesn’t obliterate them. And when people talk about these issues online, they’re doing so within their networks. Inequalities are baked into people’s social networks.

Henry: Talk is not the same thing as substantive change, but it can be a first step. But we also need to recognize that segregation within subcultural communities is really a symptom of much larger changes in how American society has dealt with diversity. In the aftermath of the civil rights movement, there has been a shift – not everywhere but in many parts of the country – from overt racism (burning crosses) and legalized segregation to a more informal system of social exclusion, which may be well meaning in its goals but is deeply divisive in its effects. People still live largely segregated lives. This, as danah and others (boyd 2011; Watkins 2010) have noted, extends to their online lives. It may well be that people of color who are born into the middle and upper classes, live in integrated communities, adopt a middle-class sensibility, and form bonds within racially mixed classrooms have found their way into some of these sites of participatory culture. They identify strongly with some of the other participants, until something happens that forcefully reminds them of their different cultural histories and trajectories. Those who have remained largely marginalized through class-based factors find it much harder to engage fully in some of these practices.

So, rather than identifying geek culture as something that appeals only to middle-class white kids, we may want to think about what it is about this culture that welcomes some people but excludes others, or at least doesn’t pull others into participation. So, what does participation look like in other kinds of spaces that operate according to different racial dynamics? How do we think, for example, about white youth who find themselves drawn into the world of hip-hop? Most of us doing this research come out of geek culture and are drawn towards researching communities that have mattered to ourselves and our children, and we’ve fought hard for the right to write about them. Yet this focus leaves us blindsided when it comes to dealing with communities that fall outside of our comfort zones. We still know relatively little about the racial dynamics of participatory culture more generally.

Mimi: Getting our arms around these dynamics of inclusion and exclusion in youth interests and affinity is incredibly challenging. Geek and nerd culture is complicated because, while it is tied to academic and technological privilege, it doesn’t have high status in youth culture, where interests like music or athletics are more dominant. It’s much cooler to be hanging out with friends, engaging in the heterosexual marketplace, and exchanging tokens of popular culture through fashion and music than it is to be nerding out on tech with your teachers. As danah notes, affiliation with working-class culture and networks creates one set of divisions. Some forms of affiliation that possess high status in youth culture but not in adult culture can also produce similar outcomes. One of my big questions coming off the Digital Youth study was “What is the difference between those kids who are engaged primarily in friendship-driven circles and kids whose social lives revolve around interests and causes?” The kids who do engage deeply in civic, creative, or academic interests and who form close bonds with teachers and other adult experts often get marginalized as the nerds, geeks, creative freaks, or whatever the label du jour is. Why aren’t there more and diverse kinds of genres and social identities that get sanctioned by our learning institutions as smart, engaged, and creative? That’s the kind of participation gap that I’m concerned about addressing as an educator.

A lot of my earlier work was really a celebration of geek learning. How do kids get into deep verticals in communities that reinforce expertise and are challenge- and inquiry-driven? How do they develop technical literacy and skills in social networks, in status and reputation-building? We could say the same for other youth affinity groups, like hip-hop or sports fandom, which may not be geek identified but exhibit similar interest-driven learning dynamics. More recently, I’ve come to the realization that it’s not enough that kids are diving into deep verticals. They need to connect that learning to things that matter in terms of broader societal values and achievement that will open doors for them in their adult lives. What we find in a lot of youth subcultural groups is that, if they are defined in opposition to adult cultures of achievement, they can have a counterproductive effect as far as connections to opportunities in adulthood are concerned. This is particularly true for young people who are highly identified with nondominant subcultures that have low social and cultural capital in institutions of power. It reinforces the sort of social inequity that we don’t want.

danah: Oddly enough, this makes me think about the significance of 4chan. 4chan is an image board that was started in 2003 by a fifteenyear-old named Chris Poole to share content that he thought other boys his age would find interesting: pornography and anime. This site is often described as the underbelly of the internet, but it has also become ground zero for some of the most innovative cultural productions and youthful political action out there. 4chan has given birth to both popular “memes” such as LOLCats and political action groups such as Anonymous. It’s easy to critique many aspects of 4chan, but what’s surprising about the formation of this site is that its users aren’t necessarily privileged elites. While its culture of anonymity makes it hard actually to discern who is on the site, the content seems to suggest that the crowd is predominantly young, male, and white. But when I started looking for teens who participated in 4chan, I began to notice that, with a few extremely wealthy exceptions, many of them were not particularly wealthy or highly educated. Generally speaking, the youth I met were the kinds of geeks who felt siloed in their home communities but found kinship online through sites like 4chan. But they were more diverse than any one category could easily describe. Biella Coleman (2014) found the same thing when she started to investigate who was beyond Anonymous, one of the most politically oriented offshoots of the site.

Those on 4chan are engaged in all sorts of practices that blur capacity-building and political resistance. The tactics that members of 4chan take include those that are recognized by adults and those that are seen as anarchic and politically dangerous. Participants have been celebrated by the establishment for their ingenuity and arrested as terrorists for their more political acts. Sites like 4chan reveal the complex and interconnected nature of different kinds of participation.

Mimi: At the end of the day, they may be raising awareness, but I doubt for most of the kids that 4chan is a pathway to opportunity, and that’s unfortunate. You want to support more young people who can connect and translate between these deeply engaged subcultures and institutionalized sites of power and influence.

This is one of the reasons that in my research network we’re not just talking about interest-driven or geek learning, but about connected learning, where social and interest-driven learning is connected to institutions and sites of power and opportunity (Ito et al. 2013). This connection can take many forms. For example, youth can apply capacities of community organizing, writing, or technical skills to what they are doing in school or work settings. They can also leverage relationships with mentors and peers developed through their interests to be introduced to a new opportunity in the workplace, civic life, or education. We also see narratives and frameworks in which young people were immersed through an interest-driven setting to understand something happening in school, as when Civilization or StarCraft helps a young person understand the history of war in class. Which isn’t to say that, just like having friends, geek knowledge and subcultural engagement aren’t valuable in and of themselves. But we feel it is important to tie informal and peer learning to opportunity as well.

danah: How do you see connected learning opening up opportunities for those who do not have meaningful social networks or supportive family situations? How can connected learning bridge the gap that exists because of structural inequities?

Mimi: The core of connected learning is this understanding that it takes relationships to open up opportunity. That’s why the focus is on learning within the context of social engagement and shared purpose, where young people are learning to get things done with both peers and adults. It’s not enough to push content and skills at kids, or to say that there’s knowledge out there on the internet. If young people don’t have relationships with peers and caring adults with whom they identify, and who can build those paths to opportunity, then the content and skills don’t do anything for them. I think kids are smart about that too. They are deeply skeptical of programs that might provide training, instruction, or consciousness-raising without being connected to relationships and social networks that are meaningful for them and that are going to support them.

This is the difference between engineering learning within a sequestered classroom environment, where the young person is expected to market those skills on their own in the world outside the classroom, versus a community-based maker space, where a young person is involved in a shared project with peers and adult mentors. These are places where they create things of value to the community and can raise funds to sustain their work. In connected learning, we talk about individual and group outcomes as interconnected, so that the learning environment is about building capacity and high-quality culture and knowledge rather than competing for scarce opportunities. We’re arguing against the vision of education as a competitive race in a winner-take-all career market. Instead, we ask what learning can look like if it’s about contributing to shared endeavors and building relationships, and not primarily about competing with your peers.

Henry: In that sense, the most powerful forms of participatory culture have always embraced some elements of what you are calling connected learning. For example, when my grandmother participated in the quilting bee, she was bonding with the older women in her town in ways that would support other aspects of her life. The samba schools functioned as a place to plan for carnival, but, in turn, as George Lipsitz (2006) has discussed in relation to the Mardi Gras Indians in New Orleans, they were entering into a culture that, while being “network rich and resource poor,” provided a support system during lean times. Science fiction fandom long functioned as a training and recruiting ground for future professionals alongside the work it did as a self-sustaining culture. All of these are traditions where experts and novices, youth and adults, learned side by side and provided support for each other for other aspects of their lives.

danah: When I was a teen, the internet enabled amazing opportunities to build new networks and connect to new people and new ideas that went far beyond what was available to me in my hometown. I was living the bridge between what is now called participatory culture and connected learning. When social media first emerged as a phenomenon that was poised to go mainstream, I was ecstatic, envisioning all of the ways in which young people could enrich their social networks. But this wasn’t how it played out. From the get-go, people connected primarily to people they already knew. And then the stranger-danger moral panics emerged, resulting in unbelievable cultural pressure not to engage with strangers (Marwick 2008). Sure, some youth broke out of that rhetorical grip – and many of them are engaged in practices that are at the core of both participatory culture and connected learning. But what frightens me is that, rather than connecting people to shared learning opportunities, the fear-mongering around social media has increased divisiveness.

The lack of diverse personal social networks – and the cultural resistance to strangers – makes me wary about a new participation gap brought on by people’s engagement with social media. I think that fear – and those who broker in it – significantly affects the development of both participatory culture and connected learning. The key to equality is to incite young people to engage with new people. Ironically, this is the historical power of two of our largest institutions for youth: the military and college. And, yet, the pervasive discourse in American society is that doing so puts youth at risk. We’ve started discouraging youth from interacting with new people – a.k.a. strangers – both online and offline. If we don’t find ways to enable meaningful cross-cultural network development, the core projects that both of you are passionate about will be undermined by a participation gap driven by a narrowing of networks.

Henry: The challenge you identify here concerns all three of us deeply. On the one hand, the kinds of interest-driven communities that we care about have expanded dramatically since the early days of the Web. More people are participating than ever before. The infrastructure is more robust, the projects deeper than they once were. We now know much more about what makes such participatory communities work. We are seeing research that demonstrates their pedagogical value, and they engender meaningful experiences.

Yet, on the other hand, there might have been a time when we could have seen the growth of participatory culture as a logical progression from the embrace of networked communication, and fewer users than we would have expected have taken that step. Instead they maintain stronger contact with friendship-based networks with which they also interact face to face. In some ways, the commercial growth of the web, especially coupled with the atmosphere of moral panic, has pushed us towards greater privatization – a retreat into our digital enclaves – rather than further experimentation in how we might use these tools to connect with more geographically dispersed communities of interests.

We should have known all along that there was nothing inevitable about how people were going to use this technology – and, of course, on some levels, we did. But those of us who value participatory culture must advocate for it, whether this is challenging the moral panic discourse or making the case for why participatory communities and practices should be connected to educational institutions. Each of us, in our own way, has tackled some dimension of this problem, and this is a project that will continue to demand our collective attention for years to come.

Mimi: I also see strong trends towards the kind of network homophily that danah is concerned about. We saw this when mobile phones were first taking off in Japan in the 1990s. When people have the option to associate primarily with people with whom they are most in tune, they will tend to do so. It’s what Misa Matsuda (2005) called the growth of selective sociability. This has been hotly debated in the internet space around issues like the echo chamber (Sunstein 2009) or the filter bubble (Pariser 2011). All of this is not necessarily in conflict with Henry’s observation that participatory culture continues to grow. Taken together, it means that social networks and cultural capital are becoming more important as determinants of opportunity. Status and power are negotiated through our formal institutions and organizational roles, but also through these much more fluid networks and practices. Without our public institutions like schools and universities taking on cultural identity and social networks directly, I also fear that we won’t see the intergenerational and cross-cultural network development that we need in order to address inequity in participation.