Kids' Informal Learning with Digital Media

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"Kids' Informal Learning with Digital Media: An Ethnographic Investigation of Innovative Knowledge Cultures" is a three-year collaborative project funded by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. Carried out by researchers at the University of Southern California and University of California, Berkeley, the digital youth project explores how kids use digital media in their everyday lives. Read more

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“No, I just don’t feel complimented”: A young artist's take on copyright

I spent some time at an afterschool media-technology program and one of the things I became curious about was how the kids there, all from lower income areas from San Francisco, learned to create their MySpace pages. Customizing a profile typically involves copying and pasting chunks of HTML and CSS code from other sites.[1]

Some of the code they are cutting/copying and pasting is code to make the profile look sleek or garish. Some of the code links to media, such as videos, of content found elsewhere, such as YouTube. At the program, I had a several chances to watch how kids quickly navigated web pages, found content they wanted, found the code, and stick it back on their own or their friends’ MySpace pages. one of the teenagers told me that getting videos on his MySpace page is easy: “It’s just cut and copy… cut and copy.” I guess the pasting wasn’t the important part here!

While much of the media that I have seen these young people using comes from sites, such as YouTube, that explicitly encourage people to use the content on their MySpace profiles, this kind of collage and remixing of media, when discussed by concerned educators or scholars often leads to conversations about the ethics and legalities of reusing copyrighted content without explicit permission. Sometimes it is assumed that young people don’t know about copyright law, or misunderstand it, or simply have no respect for the law. A recent study in the United Kingdom, which was deeply critical of what they referred to as the “myths” of the “Google generation,” agreed with the idea that younger people were in fact the “cut-and-paste generation” (though this was referring to their use of text in gathering and using information for research papers, not for using code for MySpace pages) [2]. Nevertheless, they were quite skeptical of claims that young people today “do not respect intellectual property” noting that those surveyed between the ages of 12-15 have “very high levels of awareness and understanding of the basic principles of intellectual. However, young people feel that copyright regimes are unfair” and this is where they see the age gap widening.

One evening last year, in a conversation over instant messenger, I interviewed a young woman, Sharon (15) [3], whose views complicate this picture. Sharon saw herself as an aspiring photographer, and her participation in various online art communities was, in part, shaping her understanding of copyright. Sharon described seeing the work of people she knew appearing on profiles on various social network and blog sites. She told me about seeing other people’s artwork re-used as icons, banners, and book covers, the kind of re-mixing that some people argue, sometimes in horror, sometimes in admiration, is a part of the way all kids want to treat media. This kind of activity seemed to deeply upset Sharon’s sense of right and wrong.

When I asked Sharon if she had ever seen any of her photos on another site, she said that one time she was looking at a set of photography blogs on a popular blogging site and she was shocked to see her own face looking back at her in one of the posts. This was a self-portrait she had put up on a different site. Sharon said that this particular incident upset her so much it lead her to taking her work off of the art site. I asked her if she had tried to get the photograph taken down from the blog site, she replied that she tried through the comments, but that the author claimed s/he had just found it on another blog site. Sharon explained her resignation: “Then I just stopped caring…or trying to care. It was sort of useless because so many people have already got a hold of that picture. I don’t want to fight them all.”

When I asked her to tell me more about the incident, I asked her if she had met anyone who claimed that they had actually snapped the photography or if people just said that they found it somewhere and re-posted it. She indicated the latter, that no one claimed the picture as their own. Nevertheless, this was also not okay with her: “…by posting the picture, they leave it open for other people to steal it…and use it on another website and pretend that they are me…or pretend that they took it. They also aren’t allowed to do that, to post my pictures.”

“Allowed?” I asked.

“Yeah. It’s copyrighted…They don’t know the copyright rules though on all my pictures I ask people not to share them. They post pictures they like. I don’t like my pictures so available for people to take.”

“So you don’t think it’s a compliment?”

“No, I really don’t. I’m not even flattered one bit. Some people tell me I should be…I just don’t feel complimented,” Sharon concluded. It was clear to me that she was upset by the incident.

Sharon went on to describe how she had now moved all of her photographs, or some of them, to a different site, one she claims makes it more difficult to take photos by disabling the right-click menu. It’s clear that there is a tension here between Sharon’s sense of being upset at having her work “available for people to steal” and her own role in posting the work online in the first place. Yet, it was clear from the rest of the interview that being able to share her work, get feedback from other photographers, build up an audience, and so forth, was all contributing in some way to her desire to go to art school and to become a professional after high school.

In 2005, the Pew Internet and American Life project reported that over 50% of all teenagers who are online create and share some sort of media content online and that 33% share or create original work [4]. Sharon falls in this group. Her struggles may be the same struggles that many young aspiring artists have to go through, though I can’t claim that Sharon’s story is representative of all teenage photographers or artists. Rather, this story hopefully illustrates some of the complexities when thinking about teenagers’ views of right and wrong when it comes to media remixing, fair use of media, and so forth. The clash of views, between teenagers and adults, between teenagers and other teenagers, in online art communities, in other forums, all may contribute to the evolution of everyday media practices.

[1] HTML stands for “HyperText Markup Language” and is the language used to display a web page in a browser. CSS stands for “Cascading Style Sheets” and is the language used to format the way that the HTML appears on the screen.
[2] Nichols, David, Ian Rowlands, and Paul Huntington. 2008. Information behaviour of the researcher of the future - a ciber briefing paper. JISC (with UCL)
[3] Note that all names of people been changed to preserve anonymity of participants.
[4] Lenhart, Amanda, and Mary Madden. 2005. Teen Content Creators and Consumers: Findings of the Pew Internet and American Life Project. Pew Research Center .

Perkel, Dan. 2008. “No, I just don’t feel complimented”: A young artist’s take on copyright. Digital Youth Research. February 6, 2008.