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May 9, 2008 |
American Educational Research Association

Presentation for the 2008 Annual Meeting of the American Educational Research Association Presidential session

I’m here today to talk about learning in the networked world. I’ll be drawing on some of the results of a three-year ethnographic project that has been supported by the MacArthur Foundation. The digital youth project is a broad ethnographic fact finding mission looking at how new media are part of changes in how kids engage with knowledge, culture, and social life.

Our focus has been to look for learning in the informal and non-institutionalized settings of kids’ everyday engagement with new media, in homes, afterschool, and other sites of socializing and play. Our goal has been to look at new media from a kids’ point of view, working to understand the motivations and interests they bring to new media when they engage on their own terms. And our motivating intuition, hypothesis even, has been that youth culture surrounding new media is a site of innovation that can help inform how we approach educational efforts in this space.

This is a large study, comprised of 22 case studies by 25 researchers, over 700 interviews, and over 5000 observation hours online and offline.

First, I’d like to provide a bit of context to the changes that we’ve been seeing in relation to kids, new media, and learning. There are two big factors at play. The first is the increasing accessibility of tools for digital production. For a majority of youth now in the US, tools for writing, creating and modifying digital photos and videos, and communicating on the Internet are part of their everyday life. The unique affordances of digital media – to make, remake, modify, mashup, and remix media content – these are taken for granted now. They are part of their everyday media ecology that they are immersed in. Basic tools for digital media creation come prepackaged with a personal computer now. Ten years ago, if I had stood here and said that the majority of teens in the US have made a personal home page, I would have been laughed out of the room. Today, in the era of MySpace, it is utterly unremarkable.

The second big factor is that kids are creating and sharing their digital works in a context of public scrutiny. Not only do they have the ability to create new media works, but they are able to publish, share, and distribute them on the Internet, and have other like-minded folks view and comment on the work. The networks that young people have access to through the Internet have evolved tremendously in the past decade, in significant part due to the innovation and social energies of youth themselves.

What web 2.0 means, not for the technologists but for kids in their day-to-day lives, is that what they make is inextricably tied to who they make it for and with. The creation of texts, of media, or play is a deeply social activity and not something driven by the technology itself. This social and technical ecology is what we call networked publics. Networked publics is about the lateral, peer-to-peer and many to many networks of people, media and communication that we are seeing proliferating on the Internet today.
The important thing about these networked publics is that they are highly differentiated and socially activated. This isn’t the undifferentiated or passive public that we associate with mass media. This is about niche publics built around specialized interests and local practices, and all of this aggregated and articulated within a global network of media and communications.

What I’ve been interested in is the properties of learning that happens in these networked publics of digital media creation and sharing. When you have an ecology of culture and knowledge that supports peer-to-peer and many-to-many communication, how do kids exploit it for their own learning agendas?

For most kids, peer-to-peer learning online is about sites like MySpace and Facebook. For younger kids, maybe it’s Neopets and Club Penguin. It’s about going online primarily to see friends, and making digital media is part of this hanging out online. Kids make MySpace profiles, customize their igloo, buy clothes for the digital pets, upload photos and videos of themselves and their friends, and write journal entries and comments both privately and publicly.

These are contexts where kids are gossiping, flirting, and engaging in negotiations over status and popularity just as kids have always done as they move between private talk and public performance. This is the kind of peer-to-peer learning that has been ubiquitous among children and youth, and which we see being reproduced online today. Many of the researchers on our project – Dan Perkel, Christo Sims, CJ Pascoe, danah boyd – have been looking at participation in these kinds of environments, what we have called friendship-driven networks of learning and participation.

My focus today is somewhat different. These kinds of common Web 2.0 practices and literacies are a backdrop, a source of new forms of media literacies and forms if communication, out of which we are seeing some interesting innovations in youth-driven learning.

In contrast to the friendship-driven mode that you see in sites like MySpace, we’ve also seen a large number of kids who engage in what we call interest driven learning and participation. This is not about popularity, flirting and mainstream status, but is more about the lives of the geeks, freaks, artists, musicians, and dorks – the kids who are identified as smart or creative, the kids we see at the margins of teen social worlds. This is about kids with passionate interests and serious hobbies finding peers online and mobilizing around their interests.

The structures of the networked publics surrounding interest-driven behaviors are quite different from the friendship-driven ones. Again, this relates to the properties of networked publics – the creation of media works within a social sharing context, the development of niche and specialized knowledge and skills, and ongoing review feedback and reputation within a peer-based status economy.

This is not the majority of kids, but I think we do have reason to believe that more and more kids are starting to engage in these ways. And nowadays kids can be part of the mainstream friendship-driven popularity practices can still dabble in more geeky interest-driven networks through online groups. In other words they can be smart or creative with online friends without it translating to downward social mobility in school.

In the time I have remaining, I want to quickly sketch out two cases of kids who are interest-driven participants in the online world, to give a sense of some of the potential that kids are realizing by activating these networks.

I want to start with Clarissa. Clarissa is a teen who CJ Pascoe (2007) has written about. She comes from a working class home in the San Francisco Bay Area, and aspires to be a writer.

Clarissa participates in an online role-playing board, Faraway Lands, with a few of her friends from school. To join the site potential members must write intricate character applications and receive a moderator’s approval. These character applications are lengthy descriptions of a given character, its race, its history and its location. Clarissa received glowing reviews from the site’s administrators when she sent in her first character application. For Clarissa, Faraway Lands is a place to hang out with her existing friends as well as develop new friendships. She has gotten to know people from all over the country, and even has one friend in Spain who she is developing a role-playing scenario with.

This is some text that I excerpted from the rules of another role-playing board.


That you should generally follow but are not necessarily required to follow.

Take criticism constructively and give it out the same…

Compose your writing to the best of your ability. Do your best to be understandable and to spell all words to the fullest with conventional letters. It’s easier to read for people and generally earns you respect…

It’s an example of the kinds of guidelines that kids follow when participating in these spaces. It involves social sharing and feedback on each other’s work, and a collective commitment to improve one’s writing craft.

Clarissa’s online participation reflects these kinds of commitments. She takes her writing very seriously. She and her role-playing friends constantly critique each others’ writing. And she delights in developing complex plots and intricate personalities.
Here, she indicates some of the ways in which her writing for role playing is not the same as writing for school.

Online, she is not doing it for a grade. Rather, she is driven by her own interests and passions, and a nurturing creative community that respects her and appreciates her work.

It’s something I can do in my spare time, be creative and write and not have to be graded…You know how in school you’re creative, but you’re doing it for a grade so it doesn’t really count?

Online, she is not doing it for a grade. Rather, she is driven by her own interests and passions, and a nurturing creative community that respects her and appreciates her work. At the same time, the skills she has picked up in the role playing world have served her well in school. For one of her school assignments she chose to write a 100 page screenplay based on one of her characters she developed on the FL. And in her college applications she writes about role playing as preparation to be a screenwriter. In her applications, she submitted creative writing samples based on her role playing writing. She was admitted to both Emerson and Chapman and she feels these writing samples were a big part of why she was accepted.
I want to turn now to my second case, Lantis, who I met in my research with online fans of Japanese animation, or anime. He’s a recent college graduate, and an active participant in the online fandom surrounding anime. A large part of his online participation revolves around the online fansubbing scene, where fans will translate, subtitle, and distribute anime episodes.

He describes for me how he got involved in fansubbing as a teenager. As early as middle school he had discovered fansubbed episodes of anime that were not available commercially in the US. By high school he was actively tracking different fansub groups online and had taken a particular liking to one fansub group known for the high quality of their translations. When they advertised for a position of quality checking for their group he jumped at the opportunity.

I was particularly impressed with releases by AC. I idled in their channel. Then in October 2004 they ran ads that they were recruiting QC. I thought it a dream come true to work for them.I’d QC everything as soon as they came in. I made lots and lots of suggestions. I wanted to let the team know they did the right thing by picking me.

Lantis is a connoisseur of anime and of fansubs. He appreciates the minute differences in quality that distinguishes a carefully crafted work. Nobody in the fansub world gets paid. But like other subbers, Lantis takes his own work as a fansubber very seriously, and knows that thousands of people will be viewing the episodes that he has worked on. He writes: “I just feel so good when I can release something that conforms to my standards, and make it available to the world of anime.”

And Lantis is not the only one who cares about quality in fansubs. Although the industry might dispute this, most fans believe that good fansubs far exceed the quality of professionally produced subtitles. Fansub comparison sites will pick apart and critique the details of different fansubs – looking at the quality of the typesetting, translation, and encoding of episodes released by different fansub groups.

During his 3 years fansubbing, Lantis has moved between different jobs within the same fansub group. He started as a quality checker, then was promoted to editor, and recently took on a job as translator for a series he had been editing.
I ask him how he learned Japanese, and he explains that he first began studying Japanese in relation to video games that he enjoyed as a kid.

It all started when I bought that Japanese game, and listening to anime music while following along the lyrics. Most of my Japanese reading skills comes from following lyrics. I was playing Japanese games with fairly good understanding before I took my first Japanese language course in college. Then I took 3 years of formal Japanese classes. GPA booster!

By the time he was in college, and able to take Japanese classes, he was already well versed in the language. He describes the Japanese classes as a GPA booster since he basically knew the language already. He recently sent me a photo of a level two Japanese language proficiency certificate which indicates near fluency in the language. He hopes for a career that will utilize his understanding of Japanese and his interest in new media.

I hope the cases of Clarissa and Lantis have given you some sense of the online environments that some kids are navigating, motivated by their own passionate interests.

I hope the cases of Anesha and Lantis have given you some sense of the online environments that some kids are navigating, motivated by their own passionate interests. These interest-driven forms of participation are in many ways highly unique and idiosyncratic. But they represent a growing palette of opportunities for young people to exercise their agency online. These practices are in many ways quite distinct from the mainstream of friendship-driven practices. At the same time, both grow out of young people’s participation in networked publics.

Just like the cases of interest-driven participation, participation in friendship-driven networked publics is also a site of important learning and socialization with a network of peers. Kids need different social contexts in order to find their place in the world, whether it is to learn the hard lessons about dating and breaking up, or to geek out on digital video codecs with other tech heads. Although most kids stick pretty close to home, and use online spaces to reproduce their everyday given social relations, we do see some kids who take the potential of these networks to reach out to new kinds of communities and special interests.

In both cases, however, the peer group becomes a powerful driver for learning. For better or for worse, kids learn from their peers. Where things get interesting is when what constitutes a “peer” starts to change because of the change in a young person’s network of relations. In the case of kids who’ve become immersed in interest-driven publics, the context of who their peers are, what kinds of skills they get recognition and reputation for changes, and thus the learning dynamic also shifts in that direction. We can think of this negatively, in terms of that familiar term, “peer pressure,” or we can think of it as a powerful space of opportunity for learning. Our cases demonstrate that some of the drivers of self-motivated learning come not from the “authorities” in kids’ lives setting standards and providing instruction, but from observing and communicating with people engaged in the same interests, and the same struggles for status and recognition that they are.

Unlike in the home, the public nature of learning in schools and in networked publics raises the stakes for participation for kids. Their work becomes visible and consequential in new ways when it circulates in different publics. For schools, the publicity is about being part of a collective institution to which they are accountable. Kids understand that getting good grades and pleasing their teachers is part of crafting their future role in public life. But getting good grades is not about the here and now of the publics that matter to them as kids. Unlike in schools, peer-based networked publics is about reputation, learning, and recognition that is consequential and visible in the here and now of kids public participation.

Kids participation in networked publics suggests some new ways of thinking about public education. Rather than thinking of public education as a burden that schools must shoulder on their own, what would it mean to think of public education as a responsibility of a more distributed network of people and institutions? And rather than assuming that education is primarily about preparing for jobs and careers, what would it mean to think of education as a process of guiding kids’ participation in public life more generally, a public life that includes social, recreational and civic engagement? And finally, what would it mean to enlist help in this endeavor from an engaged and diverse set of publics – publics that are relevant and accessible to kids now, where they can find role models, recognition, friends, and collaborators who are co-participants in the journey of growing up in a digital age.

These are the questions that we would like to put forward to you.


Pascoe, CJ. 2007. “Creating Saloria.” A presentation at the annual meeting of the International Communication Association.