Kids' Informal Learning with Digital Media

About Digital Youth

"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.

Projecting Identities

Clubhouse Productions (a pseudonym) is a youth-run, video production company. Ranging in age from 16-18, the mostly male members began forming friendships at school and later, at social events offered for home-schooled children and their families. Even though the boys had seen each other at social events many times, it was not until they began making movies together that they became a tight-knit group. The youth regularly make videos and ritualize aspects of their friendship around video-themed events, such as filming themselves at their annual New Year’s Eve party. Late last year, the group won a prize for their work. As many of the youth are entering college, they wonder whether they will continue making movies together. They all reiterated that their collaborative movie making projects were important in their adolescence, and they anticipate being life-long friends.

This case study discusses the activities of Fred (18) and his brother Stuart (16), who are the core members. The study discusses how they and their close friends Jack (17), Jones (17), Qwerty (19), and James (18) made movies to have fun and to show how they have matured emotionally and become experts in technical activities. This study examines their practices as discussed in ethnographic interviews, as well as encoded in their videos. The case study asks: 1) How do the youth perform technical identities through their narratives of being self-taught with respect to video cameras, computers, and electronic devices? 2) How do youth project identities of maturity and technological expertise by parodying former versions of themselves as well as other youth videos on YouTube? and 3) How do the youth create and materially encode communal, symbolic representations of nostalgia at a time in life that represents a sense of loss for the past?

Being Self-Taught

Prior studies (Lange 2003, 2006) show that participants in certain technical communities, such as those interested in computers, privilege certain forms of learning over others. In certain online gaming communities, participants encouraged others to eschew social forms of learning and acquire knowledge about computing practices and information largely through trial and error and by consulting social knowledge as encoded in documents such as frequently asked questions (FAQ) files. Knowledge, as encoded in sometimes difficult to access FAQ files, was not understood as social information, obtained from “others.” Although other models of learning exist, such as intensive, one-on-one mentoring, participants in technical communities often dismiss this is a useful or valuable approach.

Similarly, youth who work with video whom I interviewed for this project frequently cite being “self-taught” with regard to video, computer-based tools, and other technologies. Being “self-taught” has numerous meanings for different interviewees. For some, it means not having direct help from other people, although they will use other socially-encoded sources of information such as websites and online video tutorials. For many interviewees who work with video, being self-taught is used as a synonym for “trial and error” methods of experimentation and learning.

For the members of Clubhouse Productions, being self-taught has similar connotations. It also contrasts to formal types of instruction in schools or scenarios that include a formal “seated” learning session. Many of the members of Clubhouse Productions were home-schooled. Interviewees noted that as home-schooled children age, they become more self-directed until they pass a high-school proficiency test. It is interesting to observe how Fred alludes to learning from others. For instance, his father gave him his first camera and he eventually took over his uncle’s local cable station television show to showcase their movies. He also mentions in his narrative that he and his brother help each other with tips, but he does not characterize that as “learning” in the sense of engaging in sit-down, unidirectional, imparting of information. His narratives of being self-taught echo many of those of other youth video makers I interviewed, most of whom are not home-schooled.

Patricia Lange: So did your dad kind of teach you how to use the camera? What kind of camera was it?

Fred: It was – he just used an analog VHS camera at the time and he was kind of who taught me how to run that. And then eventually I moved on to using a digital camera. I’m mostly self-taught. I’ve pretty much figured out a lot of the editing and how to run the camera and just a lot of my resources and things I’ve just kind of figured them out myself.

Patricia Lange: Mm-hmm, and did you end up teaching a lot about movie making to your brother Stuart?

Fred: Yeah, we kind of help each other through that. [We] both know just about all we need to know to get through the editing process and all of that, but if one of us finds out a little trick or something, we tell each other. I’d say we kind of figured it out on our own. There wasn’t a lot of learning between us. [We] didn’t both sit down and say, “Okay, now I’m going to show you how to do this and this and that.”

Similarly, James, who was not home-schooled, emphasizes how he learned about aspects of electronics by himself. Filming experiments enabled him to demonstrate, through visual documentation, his technical expertise to other people familiar with these scientific concepts. Fred’s and James’s narratives allow them to perform an identity of expertise that shows acceptable forms of learning and thus confirms their participation in communities of experts who value “trial and error,” independent, and informal, forms of learning. By posting his documented experiments online, James wished to connect with others and participate as a member of a larger community of dispersed experts.

Patricia: And how did you learn to do a Jacob’s Ladder? Was that at school or self taught?

James: That is also mostly self taught. Unfortunately, at least the schools I have attended, public school really doesn’t teach anything useful anymore. Well, of course, there’s the English and the Math, but the um – especially in elementary and middle, the science courses are really a joke. You know, in high school, for example, right now I’m taking AP Physics and there’s all kinds of really interesting and useful material, but…most of the courses have focused more on theory than on practical application. For example, our school no longer has a wood shop or an auto shop or a metal shop. So I’m not sure it ever had a metal shop, I know it had a wood shop and an auto shop. In fact, even the middle school I went to used to have a wood shop and they’ve since then gotten rid of all of those things. Which is kind of disappointing because those would have been fun to experience.

Encoding Nostalgia

Holbrook quotes Davis (1979) as saying that “simple nostalgia” involves positively longing for the past while experiencing negative feelings about the present or future. Holbrook and Schindler (1991) extend these ideas to suggest that nostalgia represents “a preference (general liking, positive attitude, or favorable affect) toward objects (people, places, or things) that were more common (popular, fashionable, or widely circulated when one was younger.” Many of Clubhouse Productions’ experiences similarly encode feelings of affinity toward objects, popular culture, and individual dynamics between the youth. These feelings come at a time when their lives are changing as they move from the home-schooled environment to college. Examining their work on YouTube reveals numerous films containing parodies that are homages to people, places, and things that are associated with contemporary popular culture in the United States during a particular phase of their adolescence.

A broader notion of parody applies, which refers to lifting tropes from one context to another, in this case to their videos. Such parody functions as a commentary on current usage of specific materials in different periods of their lives. For instance, their videos parody subjects such as video games, speaking styles (so-called “random speech”), and films of people doing stunts (similar to the Jackass television show). They also parody former selves as they learn to make movies and move through adolescent relationships. One of their earliest inspirations for moving making was Fred’s desire to make a live action version of a video game, Earthbound Saga, at the age of 6. He instructed his father to film him in scenes that mimicked the game’s plot lines.

Years later, the boys’ nostalgia for the video game spurred them to finish their original film. To Fred, what made the game interesting was its storyline, rather than “shoot-‘em-up” features, and he intended to play the game throughout life. He said that if you play the game enough, you memorize the story and action. He avoids playing too much so that he will be surprised each time he plays it. One scene, in which a teenage Fred picks up where the original video left off, is particularly interesting. In one scene, Fred is costumed in a baseball cap, backpack, and shorts. The scene is comical because he is an older youth performing the role of a younger boy, and also because, although he had introduced a female character in the original version, he and his friends decide not to include this character in the later scenes. In the shot below, Fred asks a woman, who is playing an older version of the little girl (and is not the same actress), if she would like to investigate a noise. After she says yes, Fred awkwardly tells her, “Uh…on second thought, I don’t want you too,” and he abruptly runs off.

In some ways, the footage symbolizes an awkwardness with women that the youth parody in several other films. A parody of a former self shows a recognition of social awkwardness, and men in transition, and it provides an ability to view certain behaviors critically to begin the process of change.

The rest of the video is impossible to parse without being intimately familiar with the game. The youth were surprised that their video received such a warm fan response. Fred attributed its success not to his video-making technique, but to the strong interest fans had in seeing a favorite video game re-enacted in a live-action style. Of their 31 films on YouTube, the first Earthbound Saga video is among their highest rated. With over 40,000 views it trails only a parody of an infomercial (another contemporary trope) which has garnered over 60,000 views. Fred said the group intentionally used bad technique because this appears to appeal to fans. What I interpreted as a lobster, for example, was actually a “Titanic Ant,” which was a “boss” type figure from the game.

What began as an exercise in personal nostalgia for the youth became a communal form as evidenced by fan requests to produce additional installments. Holbrook points out that studies show that adolescence often offers the richest time period in life for retaining nostalgic resources (Holbrook 1993: 246). As individuals age, they continue to orient around evocative objects and things from the adolescent stage of life, in particular. By encoding their nostalgic feelings for a game in video, the youth enable other fans to re-experience their feelings of nostalgia as related to the game and their associated, personal experiences. The film moves beyond a sense of fun and play, but also allows members of similar age cohorts to be “surprised” as Fred suggested and re-discover the pleasures and personal associations surrounding a favorite game.

Projecting Maturity

In addition to remixing tropes that demonstrate admiration for them, the youth also made videos that contained humorous parodies that criticize other video makers, as well former versions of themselves. They parodied what they called “Jackass” knock-off videos as well as sites such as YouTube that display such videos. The parodies of themselves that figure into their film narratives often display social awkwardness with others. Such parodies project identities of relative maturity, in comparison to their peers and to the younger versions of themselves who cannot display critical distance and evaluation of their behavior.

One such parody is a take-off of a television show called Jackass which aired from 2000-2002. In this show, young men perform stunts such as executing extremely dangerous skateboarding maneuvers. Fred said he enjoyed the Jackass program because he likes the slapstick and brutal nature of the show, which he characterized as funny, ridiculous, and crude. Nevertheless, they are not fans of what they call “Jackass wannabe” movies which are “plaguing the Internet.” They view these "wannabe films" as not particularly funny and as harmful for the kids who imitate dangerous stunts and film them. In response, Fred and his friends created a film, “Jackass Wannabes” (a pseudonym) that is filled with parodic elements that attend closely to Jackass imitation videos on YouTube.

This quite amusing parody is filled with grainy, jittery camera work that focuses on oddly-dressed youths who are obliviously awkward on camera and who execute a series of silly, pointless stunts such as jumping off dumpsters, knocking one another off of moving skateboards, and beating each other with brooms handles. In one shot, a boy falls off of a wheel chair while another moves to hit him. A third boy poorly attempts skateboarding tricks. The boys are constantly laughing throughout the film, finding everything—no matter how excruciatingly trivial—completely hysterical. The film sports pointless stylistic effects, such as clichéd wipes and transitions, and intermittent, sudden appearances of over-saturated colors and sepia tones.

On the one hand, Fred admitted that the parodic nature of the film may be lost on Jackass “wannabes,” who see it as a straightforward homage to the series. He originally posted this film on Yahoo! Video without an identifying watermark from their production company because he did not want his carefully crafted videos and reputation to be associated with it. Within a short time the film garnered 10,000 views on that site. In a way, the video’s popularity felt like a “punch in the face” to Fred because they do not like or support those kinds of films. Fred wondered whether they were interpreted as admiringly imitative or as parodic criticism.

For the members of Clubhouse Productions, the film serves to distance themselves from other youths who do not display what they view as adequate maturity in terms of appropriate and technically-capable video content online. Fred and his friends project identities of technical expertise by showing the many flaws that exist in “wannabe” films and they demonstrate their good taste by mocking what they see as the pointlessness of the videos’ stunts.

In addition to mocking other youths, members of Clubhouse Productions talk about how their own, even high quality films, often contain amusing or goofy characters that are actually former versions of themselves. Making fun of former selves demonstrates that they are self-aware of behaviors that are changing as they age. In one interview, Jones describes a scene in one of their films in which a person tries to get attention at a party by constantly talking to people, saying vacuous things like, “Great party!” even to people who are obviously in no mood to interact in such a superficial way.

Jones: …I didn’t think about this before, but a lot of our characters are based off of our past selves, as in ourselves from years ago.

Patricia: Hmm.

Jones: You know, cause when you look back on yourself, you usually think why would I have been like that? Why did I act like that?

Patricia: Mm hmm.

Jones: So a lot of characters come from that and our own interpretation of what we used to be like. And a lot of characters, funny characters, come from that, cause if you can look back on yourself and laugh, it’s usually pretty funny just to see.


Patricia: Anything in yourself that you tried to put on film that was from your past self?

Jones: Myself would be three years ago, probably. Well, let’s go back further. Five years ago, I was just full of, like I said, I needed attention and I tried to get it wherever I could. So if we were at a party, I would just, you know, be the main party guy, whether anybody wanted me to or not. So that script I was talking about with, “Great party,” I’m that sort of character in that movie, where it’s basically me just trying my best to get all the attention of everybody and being the main party animal.

Last year, members of Clubhouse Productions won a prize for their video, “Stuart’s Chicken” (a pseudonym). Four of the members attended the ceremony. They had no prior knowledge that they would win when they attended. They were thrilled to be called on stage to receive their prizes which included a $7500 college scholarship, digital video cameras, and an airing of the video on the Turner Class Movie cable station. The basic idea for the video was to parody their own moving making process as a group. In the video, the director, played by Fred, struggles with Jack and Jones who joke around, fail to listen to directions, and arrive late to shoots. Frustrated, Fred guides the youths into completing the project, showing what he has learned in terms of technical and leadership skills necessary for completing video projects.

The video ends tragically as Fred tries to upload the completed video on the fictional, parodic, MyTube site only to be rejected for having “inadequate entertainment value.” In one scene, Fred is staring, frustrated, at a video sharing site called “MyTube” which parodies YouTube and MySpace. Fred is watching yet another homemade movie in which a young boy jumps up and own on a bed while lip synching. In voice over Fred wonders why these kinds of videos are so popular. The footage is actually that of his brother Stuart as a boy. It is especially poignant that the fictional video manages to garner over 2 million views and receive a rating of 5 stars.

Observers may wonder why Fred and his friends are so critical of other video makers on YouTube when, ironically, they themselves sometimes offer content that other video makers may find flawed in terms of technical ability and taste. Members admitted that even though they maintain high standards, the videos nevertheless contain numerous inside jokes that are likely to be lost on outsiders. Participants mentioned that they gave each other nicknames that reflected different stages of their lives. For instance the title of the video “Stuart’s Chicken” refers to a stage in Stuart’s young life when he would eat almost nothing but chicken.

Critics of so-called viral videos miss the point that they are not necessarily about creating technical perfection but are rather used to establish what Nardi (2005) calls “affinity” or willingness to establish a social bond with people. Nardi’s argument may be extended (Lange 2007) to show how videos may be created and shared to similarly maintain ongoing openness to communicate and interact. Many people rigorously distinguish between diary forms of video blogging and videos made for entertainment, but as demonstrated in the experience of the members of Clubhouse Productions, the genres may conflate. Video makers may encode evocative objects that enable dispersed age-similar cohorts to experience communal forms of nostalgia and social rites of passage of into maturity.


Davis, Fred (1979) Yearning for Yesterday: A Sociology of Nostalgia. New York: Free Press.

Holbrook, Morris B. (1993) “Nostalgia and Consumption Preferences: Some Emerging Patterns of Consumer Tastes,” Journal of Consumer Research, 20(2): 245-256.

Holbrook, Morris B. and Schindler, Robert M. (1991) “Echoes of the dear departed past: Some work in progress on nostalgia,” in Advances in Consumer Research, Vol. 18, Rebecca H. Holman and Michael R. Solomon (Eds.). Provo, Utah: Association for Consumer Research, 330-333.

Lange, Patricia (2003) Virtual Trouble: Negotiating Access in Online Communities. Ph.D. Dissertation. University of Michigan

Lange, Patricia (2006) “Learning real life lessons from online games” presented at the Society for Social Studies of Science Conference, November 2, 2006 in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.

Lange, Patricia (2007) “Publicly Private and Privately Public: A Semiotic Analysis of Social Network Creation,” submitted for review, February 28, 2007 to the Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication for a special issue on Social Networking Sites.

Nardi, Bonnie (2005) “Beyond Bandwidth: Dimensions of connection in interpersonal communication,” Computer Supported Cooperative Work, 14:91-130.