Outside the Digital Playground Looking In

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only barely begun to scrape the surface, but that the language they are using to formulate their studies are hopelessly out of date.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?

4 Replies to “Outside the Digital Playground Looking In”

  1. I like your points about the fluid definition of activities like "hanging out" or even doing work on the internet. Web browsers, with their multiple tabs, are obviously designed for such multitasking. I'm typing this, streaming music in another tab, and Gmail is always open just in case a new email arrives to give me an excuse to divert my attention to that tab for a few minutes. We fracture our focus. Some worry that this decreases our attention spans. Maybe it does when it comes to more traditional forms of media like reading a book or watching a film – but on the web, this fluidity might actually foster new directions of workflow and collaboration… Synergy across tabs. Disciplines and activities tend to blend. Someone just messaged me in Gmail, casually wanting to know what I was up to. I told them what I was doing in this tab, and now we're waxing philosophical on these ideas there, too. I don't think "hanging out" adequately describes that social interaction. Likewise, it's not accurate to say that I'm "working" now, either. What would you call it?

  2. This is the problem. Linguistics of the real world don't fully apply, and thus don't lend themselves to solid research. Another issue I had with the paper was the very use of linguistics to describe how youth communicate with each other online. It fails to fully convey the depth of that communication which also includes animated gifs, videos, and images loaded with symbolic meaning. Perhaps the researchers should use the term that the youth themselves use to describe the phenomenon Memetics. It's a far more apt term.

  3. I personally don't think word choice is a problem in this article. When they refer to “hanging out,” they’re talking mostly about when kids physically “hang out” with their friends (or family members) “using new media” like playing video games, etc. In addition, the three categories are by no means meant to define EVERY single activity online and often these activities merge. For instance, “messing around” is about browsing online looking for new tools and activities and tinkering with things like online gaming platforms, etc, which can be done by yourself, though if you got a group together to create some online virtual world, that would be “hanging out” and “messing around.” Then, if you get to the point where you’re becoming experts in a “particular media property, genre, or type of technology,” then you’re “geeking out.” Basically, the whole point of this article is to explain how these different activities online are not just a “waste of time,” but help educate youth in ways we couldn’t have imagined prior to these new technologies, and even provide opportunities for income and career growth.

    While I agree that new media technologies help youth in “learning properties” and exercising “adult-like agency and leadership,” I disagree with the article’s overall insinuation that parents, libraries, and schools are preventing access to youth because of their lack of appreciation of the “value of youth participation in social communication and popular culture.” As a parent, in my opinion, “prohibitions,” “technical barriers,” and “time limits” are a crucial part of parenting. I agree that the “quality of participation and learning” between children and parents is crucial, but let’s not forget, kids will be kids, and “prohibitions,” “technical barriers,” and “time limits” are part of the parent’s responsibility (as the article mentions earlier) of “setting goals” with their children. The authors conclude that “limited availability of unrestricted computer and Internet access, competing responsibilities such as household chores, extracurricular activities (e.g., sports and music), and lack of mobility (e.g., transportation) frequently reflect the lack of priority adults place on hanging out.” What nonsense! Maybe they reflect the fact that teenagers have responsibilities around the house like everyone else, are interested in sports and music, and don’t have the money to buy their own cars, or that numerous studies point to harmful effects of sitting in front of a computer screen as opposed to actual human interaction and physical activity. Just because life is changing because of technology doesn’t mean that technology should completely take over our lives.

  4. "Did anyone else get the impression that the researchers are looking in at a playground that many of us are already inside? " Great question! One that I think should prove great fodder for our discussion this week.

    Personally I find the notions of "hanging out" "messing around" and "geeking out" to be potent ways to explain genres of online participation. To answer Peter's question though, I do think much of this is about explaining things that some of us are already participating in. With that said, I think a big part of the value of this kind of work is its ability to help explain inside information from communities to people outside them.

    Now, to Dennis's point about “prohibitions,” “technical barriers,” and “time limits” on young people's participation. I think it is fair to say that parent's don't prioritize young peoples hanging out. I also don't think that is a problem, for exactly the reasons you point out. With that said, if we do take the point that young people are developing important new media literacies in this space then I think there are some important equity issues to consider for us to help make sure that different folks are getting the same access to these experiences.

    Taking a step back, you guys might be wondering why this is in our set of readings this week. We have talked a fair bit about the community aspects of the web, and I think this research provides useful material for us to use to start to think about who is participating and what that participation looks like.

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