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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Coming of Age in Networked Public Culture: Stories from the Field

In talking to families in Silicon Valley about their use of media and technology, I often hear stories about how different the experience of being a teenager is today. While there is clear continuity between the ways in which my generation made ‘mixed tapes’ or ‘hung out’ on the telephone for hours at a time, one of the most fundamental shifts in American youth culture centers upon kids’ engagement in what has been termed “networked public culture”, or “those cultural artifacts associated with “personal” culture (like home movies, snapshots, diaries, and scrapbooks) have now entered the arena of “public” culture (like newspapers, cinema, and television)”(Russell, Ito, Richmond and Tuters 2006).

For young adults such as 18 year old Ann, the entrée into networked public culture first came through MySpace. Throughout her junior and senior years of high school, Ann was an active MySpace user, uploading pictures and commenting on friend’s comments on a daily basis. Ann also participated in what she called "MySpace parties" which involved dressing up and taking photographs individually and with friends to post on their respective MySpace pages. Often provocative in nature, Ann and her friends enjoyed trying on different clothing through which they explored their burgeoning aesthetic sensibilities and sexuality by donning short skirts, bra tops, fishnet stockings or other sexy clothes. With the incorporation of video on MySpace, Ann also viewed videos her friends crafted of 'funny stuff', such as videos of her friends dancing or imitating celebrities.

Not long after she accepted her offer to the liberal arts college in Washington, Ann received an invitation to participate in Facebook, a social network site geared towards the college community. Ann’s formal introduction to Facebook came through her future dorm’s RA (Resident Assistant). Ann’s RA sent her an invite to be part of the “Crystal Mountain” wing, part of a wider network of 90 dorm residents attending her new college. Two weeks later, Ann declared that she spent hours at a time perusing different people’s sites, looking for familiar names and faces and checking out friends of friends. As the summer progressed, Ann increasingly felt that she was becoming “addicted” to Facebook, checking it anytime she had a free moment for status updates (e.g. a change to someone's profile) an average of four to five times per day, a typical session lasting about ten minutes. Through this brief, repetitive engagement, Ann started to meet the other students slated to live in her dorm, the most important and exciting of these new connections being her future roommate Sarah. Describing her fascination with her Facebook page, Ann explains,

“And you can see everyone else’s dorm room and I have groups. Like everyone in my dorm room is in this group. And you can see like all the others…and so like I can see who my RA is going to be and stuff and so it’s like really cool. And then I have — I can show you my roommate. It’s really exciting. So I can see her. And so it’s – I don't know, I can just see a picture of her instead of having to wait and stuff.”

Over the course of the summer, Ann and her future roomate Sarah ‘poked’ each other and wrote messages continuously. Some of these conversations were pragmatic, such as when they planned to move up, what 'stuff' they had or what classes they thought they might take. Ann also delved into the details of Sarah’s Facebook page for insight into what she imagined would be shared interests, the most obvious being her taste in music and media,

“But actually her and I like a lot of the same music, I could tell from her Facebook. And so we were talking about concerts that we’ve been to this summer and stuff. So I’m sure – ‘cause she’s bringing a TV ‘cause she lives in a really, really rich area of Washington. And so I think she’s bringing a really nice TV, so I’m like I should probably bring something kind of nice. So I think I’ll bring this [ipod speakers] and then we can both hook our iPods up whenever we want … I’m supposed to bring a microwave but I don’t think I’ll bring a microwave.”

More than shared interests or even competitive consumption, Ann's decision about what to bring to college was aligned with a desire to construct an aesthetic balance. Purchasing new, trendy ipod speakers complements a “really nice TV” and creates an acoustic space wherein they might share interests, the building blocks of friendship. Alongside music and media, Ann and Sarah also decided to upload a few pictures of their bedrooms at home onto their Facebook pages. Ann was thrilled when she looked at the photographs and saw Sarah’s signature colors, “I’m brown and pink stuff and she’s brown and blue stuff!” Ann surmised that this aesthetic harmony would also signify a harmonious relationship (Cf. Clarke 2001, Young 2005).

For individuals such as Ann, MySpace and Facebook have played key roles in their imagination and creation of personhood, enabling the development and maintenance of relationships with friends, love interests and future dorm mates. Ann's investment in Facebook also harnesses the power of digital media in networked public culture to imagine and re-imagine her future college life. Being a college student involves reconfiguring relationships with high school friends, such as when Ann declares, “I’m not falling out with a lot of my friends, but just I wasn’t really into them as much anymore.” or “This is the girl that I’m talking about, that I didn’t talk to in high school but when we’re in the same school, now we’re talking. But she went to – she’s going to college with me.” It also hinges upon the ability to establish relationships with new individuals and communities, the most central of which is the new domestic space: the dorm room. Through the medium of Facebook, Ann designs a shared and intimate living space within spaces of networked public culture. Much like homecoming, prom and graduation, Facebook and other spaces of networked public culture have now become part and parcel of the process of coming of age for teenagers in the United States.

Clarke, Alison J. 2001. The aesthetics of social aspiration. In Daniel Miller's (ed) Home Possessions: Material Culture Behind Closed Doors. Oxford and NY: Berg.

Russell, Adrian, Mimi Ito, Todd Richmond and Marc Tuters. 2006. Networked Public Culture., Accessed June 25, 2006.

Woodward, Sophie. 2005. Looking Good, Feeling Right: Aesthetics of the Self. In S. Kuechler and D. Miller’s Clothing as Material Culture. Oxford and NY: Berg.

Young, Diana. 2005. ‘The Colours of Things’. Handbook of Material Culture, P. Spyer, C. Tilley, S. Kuechler and W. Keane, eds. Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications.

Citation: Horst, Heather A. 2007. Coming of Age in Networked Public Culture. Digital Youth Project. June 21, 2007.