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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Creativity and gaps in participation: Stories from the Field

Michael and James. Two teenage boys in the Bay Area, James from a poor area of San Francisco, Michael from a wealthier home in Oakland. Each uses the Interent and other digital technologies as a part of their social lives and their interest in art and technology. Like most of their friends, each has a MySpace profile, though their use of the site differs dramatically and can only be understood in light of their other hobbies. Their differing levels of access to social and technical resources is in line with what some call a “participation gap,” but as I describe in detail below, this might run the risk of, at best, an over-simplification of their digitally-enhanced creative interests, and at worst, a privileging of the value of one of the boy’s interests and activities over the other’s.

When I left Michael’s large house in an Oakland neighborhood that day, my head was spinning. I had just spent nearly two hours talking to the white, fourteen year-old about his use of the internet, software, and other digital technologies. Most of that time was spent in his bedroom, at his desk, in front of a fairly new laptop that was hooked up to a large external flat screen monitor, talking about various software and websites. Throughout our conversation Michael quickly provided demonstrations by rapidly switching focus from the laptop monitor to the flat screen, at the same time using both the laptop keyboard and a second keyboard and mouse depending on which screen we were looking at. It was obvious that Michael had a wealth of resources at his disposal provided by his parents (his mother a professor at a nearby state university and his father an executive at an online company) and his school (a private school he has attended most of his life). However, it was also clear that Michael had created a lot of his own opportunities through his interests and emerging digital hobbies.

Learning about these interests and watching some of them in action felt like a shock, because up until that interview, I had spent a great deal of time hanging out with and talking to some teenagers in a completely different environment: a community center for arts and technology (hereafter “the Center”) located near, but not in, the Bayview area of San Francisco, one of the poorest areas of a wealthy city. I had spent much of that time hanging out before, during, and after the TV and film production classes, observing the teenage participants’ use of the Center’s Apple iMacs and the internet.

One 16 year old, James (who I would describe as “mixed race” though he once called himself a “mutt”), usually arrived at the Center forty-five minutes to an hour early each day before his video production class met, three days a week, and most of this time was spent in front of a computer. Over the course of two months, I had a number of conversations with him about what he was doing during that time while he was online. In these conversations I got a sense of some aspects of James’ use of digital technologies in his personal time. The picture I came up with felt quite different from what I saw and heard at Michael’s house. It brought to mind the notion of the "Participation Gap," (Jenkins et al 2006), which as an alternative to the “digital divide” focuses on a qualitative differences and inequalities between how people—perhaps, but not necessarily, correlating with different socio-economic backgrounds—actually use digital media in various everyday social and/or creative activities (or in “participatory cultures”). These inequalities in opportunities, resources, and experiences shape a person’s ability to fully participate in different activities:

“What a person can accomplish with an outdated machine in a public library with mandatory filtering software and no opportunity for storage or transmission pales in comparison to what a person can accomplish with a home computer with unfettered Internet access, high bandwidth, and continuous connectivity” (Jenkins et al 2006, p. 13).

I had the feeling that Michael was participating in activities and using the internet in ways that James didn’t even know existed. However, as I thought more about the relationship between each boys' interests and hobbies, what I knew about their internet and computer use, and what I sensed about their relationships with friends, I began to feel more and more uneasy with this notion of a “participation gap” as it might apply here. How the two boys use MySpace provides a good starting point to explore the differences between Michael and James, problematizing the notion of their differences being turned into a “gap.”

At the Center, James went onto MySpace every day that I saw him at the Center. Most of that time he spent checking his messages and responding to them. The Center is one of the places that he is actually able to use the site. He told me that his parents found his first profile and were upset about it. They deleted his profile after making him give them the password. However, even though he generally seems to be respectful of his parents and talked about being “responsible,” he made a new profile that they don’t know about.

In fact, James is working on a second profile, this one for his dance/rap group (he described it both ways on separate occasions), which includes two of his younger brothers and his friend. This profile is a MySpace “Music” profile, which is a special section of MySpace for bands and musicians. His group is affiliated with Hyphy, a cultural form and style associated with the Bay Area involving hip hop music and dance (see: Wikipedia's entry on Hyphy for more detail). The title of James’ group, his own nickname in the group, and the images on his profile were various ways that James identified himself as an active part of Hyphy culture in the Bay Area. James also showed me the profile of the hip-hop group that his cousin, who is a year younger, was in. He played his cousin’s song for me and it was obvious from his smiling, dancing in his chair, and singing that he not only liked the song, he was proud to be closely related to the artist.

James told me that he was making a MySpace profile for his group and wanted to eventually shoot a dance video and get it up on his group’s profile, in a sense emulating his cousin and perhaps others he has seen online. He said that his mom was going to help him shoot the video but then he would have to get help getting it online while at the Center from one of the teachers (the last time I saw him, though, he hadn’t made much progress on this).

I know from other conversations that James is a part of another extracurricular activity that involves dancing. Dancing, hip-hop, and participating in Hyphy culture seems to be an important part of his life and one of his main interests (one time, I watched him perform a dance-off against a video someone had uploaded to YouTube, but I’ll save that for another story…). James’ use of MySpace is intimately connected to these hobbies and interests and also to his friends and family from his neighborhood, school, and people he meets at community events.

In contrast to James, when I talked to Michael about MySpace, it quickly became clear that it is not a big part of his everyday activities. Like most of his friends (he says “80 percent”), Michael has a MySpace profile. However, his impression is that he uses the site a lot less than they do. He sees it as a “waste of time” and “doesn’t find it that interesting.” To communicate with his friends online, he uses instant messenger and email.

Regarding his MySpace profile, Michael said that “it was fun to make…but not really,” which reflects a stance that has to do with Michael’s main hobby which comes at an intersection of games and art. When we first looked at his profile together, Michael quickly pointed out his profile picture as something he made in Photoshop that combines his face with a robot, something kin to The Terminator. His background image, a fantasy skyline, came from a site called “Digital Blasphemy,” and he had used the same graphic once for a school science project.

Michael, though, didn’t seem entirely satisfied with what he had up there: "I think if I might spend some more time on it I could get it to look how I wanted. I know I probably spent - I spent a whole bunch of time on it when I first got it. I thought it was kind of cool, and then I didn’t really like it anymore. I got tired of it pretty quickly."

Michael read most of the value in MySpace in how it could be used as an artistic tool rather than a communication tool, and he didn’t see it as a good site for his own creative interests.

Rather, these interests manifested themselves in Michael's production of digital artwork. He used Photoshop and Terragen (possibly derived from "Terrain generator") to create fantasy landscapes and other pieces. He showed me his account on DeviantArt, an online art community. His interest in creating this kind of artwork originated with his playing an online game called Battlefield II. He played this game with his friends, but also began to get involved in the discussion forums for the games online. In order to participate like other members in the discussions, he wanted to create the right kind of signature for his message posts, which led him to learn to use graphics software.

Through playing Battlefield II and using the “Total Battlefield” site, he became also involved in what he called a community, “like a clan,” called the Sir. Community. The Sir. Community, in essence, is a distributed production studio that makes game modifications (“mods”) and machinima (movies using game engines as the production tool) based on Battlefield II.

I asked him if he did any other art, wondering if this interest was rooted in prior artistic interests. His response: "Not really, that’s why I - yeah. It’s kind of weird, because I’m terrible at drawing. Really bad at drawing."

Michael’s hesitant answer to this question reveals a moment of reflection that indicates that he sees that there is a connection between his interest in art and the use of digital media. This connection is “weird,” given that he never did anything he would call art in more traditional media. Nevertheless, he did see himself as an artist, and his path to becoming one followed a digital course. The internet and digital software had a direct role in shaping Michael’s interests.

Unlike James, then, this picture of Michael’s main digital-media-related hobbies show a near separation between his “offline” social world and his “online” world. It’s not that all of his interests take him online. In fact both he and James both play sports for school. But in Michael’s case, a main use of the internet and digital media concerns creative interests that connect him to people in other places that he knows only through digital media and their shared interests. In James’ case, his creative interests do not derive from using digital technologies. They come from a culture that he shares with his friends, family, and local community that extends out to the entire Bay Area and beyond through hip hop and dance.

Re-examining the teenagers’ use of MySpace in light of each one’s other interests shows that for James MySpace is a site where I can see his participation in culture enacted in one way—where his interests and offline social worlds intersect. With Michael, I see his use of MySpace in the negative: a site that doesn’t allow him the kind of artistic activity he loves and a passion that is almost completely separate from his offline social world.

In conclusion, my initial reaction of “Paricipation Gap!,” when thinking about the differences between Michael and James, is problematic. The problem with the participation gap in this situation is that it may emphasize deficiencies that need to be overcome and risks ignoring what is actually going on. It would be easy to talk about all of the things that Michael is involved in that James is not involved in and all of the technology related skills, concepts, and social practices that Michael knows about that James has no conception of (such as how to find free software online, what open source software is all about, how to participate in a distributed production environment, and so forth). However, there are potentially a number of other practices that James is building up through his use of MySpace and YouTube, connected to his experience at the Center and other activities that Michael is choosing to not make a part of his life, or he does not know much about (such as Hyphy culture).

It is not that there are no differences. Perhaps Michael’s access to resources enables more choices or provides more possibilities. Certainly, his parents provide some financial support, including the intial purchase of the laptop as a gift. Additionally, in James’ case, of course one could argue that the Center is a place that is helping to bridge a participation gap that might be larger if it did not exist.

Nevertheless, I hope to have shown that emphasizing diversity and difference does not necessarily mean a “gap.” If thinking about these cases in terms of a participation gap is to be useful, then, I think that it can only be seen in relation to the use of particular technologies in situations, or in particular “participatory cultures.” The idea of a general gap doesn’t seem to hold. While it is true that there are substantial differences in each teenager’s access to resources and support for using digital media creatively, and while they clearly “participate” in different communities and cultures differently, it’s not clear if this can be described as a situation of a “gap,” or rather, what the consequences of those differences (or any gap) actually are.

Jenins, Henry. Clinton, K., Purushotma, R., Robinson, A. J., and Weigel, M. (2006). Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century. An Occasional Paper written for the MacArthur Foundation