If you want to take one thing away from “Living and Learning with New Media” is just how far reality has passed research. If this paper is truly representative of the research on childhood and the internet, then not only have researchers only barely begun to scrape the surface, but that the language they are using to formulate their studies are hopelessly out of date. For all of that, I ultimately took away an optimistic message.
Mimi Ito et al. set out to study how children play, self-actualize and learn in a digital environment. The key message is that children pick up surprisingly sophisticated knowledge online in the process of networking with friends and peer groups. The study included students involved in social gaming like MMORPGs and first person shooters, youths creating AMVs (adding music soundtracks to anime clips) and people creating fan dubs and subs (translating foreign films, usually anime). In each case, youths acquired highly sophisticated knowledge about video editing, and computer usage through peer interaction. They developed and carefully maintained online personae which allowed them to talk, socialize and even flirt in a secure environment.
There conclusions are actually quite optimistic. It suggests that children are well aware of themselves and their activities online. The goal of parents and adults should not be to restrict or police the internet activity of children, but rather, to moderate it as fellow peers. Schools, they suggest, would do well to emulate the networked nature of the digital learning environment with student driven, peer moderated learning, relying on the sophistication students have already developed as part of their socializing to access, synthesize and learn knew knowledge.
As I was reading this, I was amazed at how much it sounded like me as a teenager on the internet 15 years ago. All of these practices referred to in the study were things I participated in. My brother at 14, taught himself first how to create maps in Doom, then learned Photoshop, then 3d Studio Max and now works as a 3d artist for Blizzard Entertainment, all through knowledge gained online through peer interaction. Granted this was over dial-up connections playing Quakeworld, or on Web 1.0 newsgroups, but there seems no fundamental difference. This suggests to me two things. First, despite changes in technology, the methodology of digital networking has not changed. Perhaps we’ve reached the end of the digital revolution. If that is the case, this study is even more behind the reality than its creators may realize.
One example of how behind the curve Ito and the rest are is in their choice of language. For instance, they refer to socializing online as “hanging out.” I found this to be problematic at best. Internet socialization is far from hanging out. For me, “hanging out” is an activity. As a kid, when I used that term, it referred to actually going somewhere, actually investing time in being physically with friends. Online time with friends is usually carried out in a different manner. Being on IM is an activity that increasingly is part of the background of usual activity. For instance, chatting with a friend through Facebook while reading this article (bad admission?), or dropping by a forum to post while hunting through JSTOR for an article. Reflecting, this is not fundamentally different from how I interacted on the web 15 years ago.
Did anyone else get the impression that the researchers are looking in at a playground that many of us are already inside? Is this crisis of a generational digital divide really worth the ink and web-space devoted to it? Or is this merely a phenomenon of this particular generation of researchers commenting on this particular generation of kids? Will academia evolve toward a more web-centric approach to learning as web-centric learners step in the fill the gap, or will institutional inertia prevent what is happening naturally across the country?