"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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Photo Credits: Ritchie Ly and Geert Allegaert.
As I read the New York Times this morning, an article about teenagers' use of public libraries as "hangout" spots caught my eye. In it experts bemoaned the growing lack of "third places," in other words, places which weren't home or school, where teens could engage in a time honored tradition of American adolescence, "hanging out." Indeed as we perceive that our streets grow more dangerous, as suburban family life increasingly takes place in atomized homes, and the amount of public spaces decline, public or quasi-public places where youth can socialize appear infrequently. In talking to teens about their technology use, it seems that the internet offers a form of this third place. While not a physical space, for those teens who have access to the internet, it, in a variety of ways, from the ubiquitous MySpace to online game sites, provides a form of a third space, a semi-public place for teens to hang out. As with many teen hangouts, adults are nervous about teens' activities when they are online. But most of the teens I've talked to about their internet practices tell me that their online activities look a lot like their offline lives. They chat with their friends, flirt, find the latest "cool" site, watch videos, play games and download music.
Clarissa, a 17 year old growing up in a working class suburb of San Francisco, is one of the many teens who uses the internet as a third place. Like most of the teens I talk to, Clarissa checks her MySpace site daily, looking for messages from her friends and her girlfriend, updating pictures or adding other content. Clarissa's primary hangout site is not MySpace, though. She is an avid online role player and spends most of her time on her favorite site, Faraway Lands, with her two best friends, also role players. Their online role playing is not about murder and mayhem, but about trying out varieties of selves, informal story telling, meeting new people and crafting a sense of themselves as writers. On this site they can hang out in a manner that isn't always possible in any sort of constructive way in their physical community, one plagued by problems of crime and gangs.
Clarissa describes Faraway Lands as a "really nice quality, good, inviting, comfortable, fun place to be." She finds it to be a community of supportive friends who have high writing standards and creativity. Members must write intricate character applications to join the site. These character applications are essentially 25,000 word descriptions of a given character, its race, its history and its location. For Clarissa, an aspiring writer and filmmaker, this site allows her to use "words like clay to create whatever stories suit your fancy." She finds the community to be a "nurturing" one, in which she is "able to fully develop intricate personalities and plots that in computer games, sports and academics are simply not possible." Faraway Lands is text based site where members weave long and detailed tales about their characters' quests and adventures.
In this online hangout Clarissa has made many friends and transcended her local boundaries. While people of all ages are on this site, "most of the people that I've interacted with are in my age group. It's sort of cool 'cause they're far away and sort of fun." On Faraway Lands she is simultaneously in character and out of character as she "hangs out" and "chats" on an internet relay channel. During these chats she has made friends all over the world, telling me "I know a guy in Spain now and fun stuff like that." She and her friend from Spain are currently in the middle of planning a new role play in which his "evil" character tries to hire one of Clarissa's characters, Saloria, as an apprentice.
Faraway Lands also provides a forum in which Clarissa can be creative and hone her writing skills. She and her role playing friends critique each other's writing and stories. She and a fellow role player from Oregon "had this sort of thing where we were reviewing each other's work all the time 'cause he just wanted all the input he could get." The creative aspect of this site is part of what drew Clarissa to Faraway Lands. "It's something I can do in my spare time, be creative and write and not have to be graded," because, "you know how in school you're creative, but you're doing it for a grade so it doesn't really count?" In this digital hangout teens are not treated as problem causing kids, but as legitimate players, artists and writers. Unlike in school where teens live in a world of hierarchical relations – where they are graded, run the risk of getting in trouble, and must obey all sorts of status and age oriented rules, in Faraway Lands Clarissa is evaluated on her creativity and artistic ability.
Clarissa's character, Saloria, received glowing reviews from the site's administrators, who must approve characters before members can engage in a role play. Clarissa shared her excitement with me about the feedback she received saying for Saloria she was awarded "two golden approvals. I was amazed 'cause I was just finishing her." Clarissa's stories involve themes of fantasy, triumph and escape. Her character Saloria, for instance, grew up in a poor neighborhood and was raised by a "loving community" rather than a nuclear family. As a teen, Saloria leaves this community to seek her fortune in the wider world. However, she soon realizes that, as a single woman, the world is a dangerous place. Saloria then decides to live her life as a man, "because men have it better. So she spends her days as a man." During the day, as a man, Saloria performs "roadwork around the city. She's a happy go lucky charming young fellow." At night "she's a crazy lady who has fun." Clarissa drew on her real life experience to create Saloria. She recalled fondly stories of adventurous women. She "loved those women who would go on these voyages acting like they were boys for months, and months, and months. It was daring and crazy. And I was like, 'I want to do that. That would be fun.'” While this sort of adventuring is not feasible for Clarissa, her characters can live out this fantasies. She sums up Saloria's story by saying, "It just started with that, the freedom of being a boy." Through this particular role play, Clarissa grapples with intense issues of adolescent identity work and imagines her way out of some of the gendered expectations faced by teenage girls.
Faraway Lands is Clarissa's "third place," a place where she can make friends, hang out, chat and write fantastical stories. It's both an escape from the physical world of school and an extension of her offline social life. Internet forums such as Faraway Lands offer a place for teens to both hang out and create. Clarissa sums it up aptly: "This is just a nice little world that you can control and you can make your own drama. But you can do it in a creative in-depth story telling fun way that's all artistic. You have another world to create. It's fun."
Citation: Pascoe, C.J.. 2007. ""You have Another World to Create": Teens and Online Hangouts. Digital Youth Research http://digitalyouth.ischool.berkeley.edu/node/104. January 12, 2007.