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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More than just MP3s: Creating Space through Podcasting

Since the publication of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone nearly 10 years ago, fans of the series have adopted a variety of technologies for sharing writing, facilitating discussion, creating artwork and computer graphics, and producing audio and video. One such practice is podcasting, which became an important part of the fandom around August 2005.

Podcasting itself is a relatively young practice; most accounts, note its emergence in 2004. The word “podcast” is made from “iPod” and “broadcast;” however, the name is a bit misleading. Podcasts do not require an iPod to produce or listen; podcasts are also not broadcasts in the sense that they do not reach a wide audience. The Pew Internet and American Life Project has estimated that 11% of American adults own an iPod or other MP3 player; of that 11%, 29% of users have downloaded podcasts. According to their calculations, this amounts to approximately 6 million people who have downloaded and listened to a podcast at least one time.

There are currently about 30 Harry Potter podcasts in production (defined loosely as having released an episode within the last 6 moths). My research to date has focused on discussion based podcasts, which do news, analysis, debates, discussion. However, other podcasts are designed to showcase other forms of fan production, such as fan fiction and Wizard Rock. Podcasting seems like a natural fit for this technology-savvy fandom. It creates a space for ongoing analysis of canon materials and in-depth, sustained commentary on fans’ consumption and production practices, discussions that do not necessarily have a home within other forms of fan production.

I had the opportunity to speak with the producers of one Harry Potter podcast, the PotterFanCast (PFC),* shortly after its one year anniversary “on the air.” The three co-hosts, aged 19, 17, and 15, do not live near each other, and at the time of our interview, had not all met in person. However, they work closely together to meet their production goal of two episodes of the PFC per month. Each (approximately) hour-long is made up of segments that focus on the fandom—what it means to be a fan, what is going on in the fandom, and whatever else they happen to want to talk about.

All of the co-hosts are full-time students in high school or college and participate in various school-sanctioned extracurricular activities such as yearbook and drama club. In addition to their school responsibilities, however, each of the podcasters invests a great deal of time and energy in fan production. In addition to producing the PFC, two of the co-hosts are staff members at a large fan site and assist on the production of another podcast. However, they make a clear differentiation between their work on other fan productions and the production of their own podcast, which they do not describe as work.

The PFC is particularly interesting because of its intertextuality. The show is a fan production about fan production. All fan work is intertextual to the extent that it remixes canon materials (as in the case of fan fiction) and incorporates outside texts (such as music tracks or repurposed images). This production extends this intertextuality through its references to other texts produced by the fandom—what some fan researchers have dubbed the “fanon.” The producers explain their relationship to other parts on the fandom best in their public MySpace profile: “We are the fans of the fans of the fans of Harry Potter. Confused? Join the club.”

The content of the PFC, the invited guests, the social networks of the co-hosts, and the topics and titles of segments all represent intersections with various other fan texts. Take, for example, a segment called “The Shipping Forecast,” which features a discussion of character pairings in fan fiction and beyond. Clearly, the Shipping Forecast could not exist without the presence of many other fan texts. At the same time, each podcast episode that contains a Shipping Forecast segment contributes to existing conversations about shipping, expanding and perpetuating the practice within the fandom.

Intertextuality has been a key element of the PFC from its inception. The idea for the show was born in a chat room, and was originally intended to be a recap of the chat, allowing people who missed out on portions of the interaction to keep up with their friends and with the discussions in the chat. Just over a year later, its audience has expanded beyond the chat participants, which has prompted changes to the format, specifically, the inclusion of more general fandom discussions that can be enjoyed by people outside of the original, very specific audience.

In addition to its role as a communication channel for a specific group of friends and fans, the show meets another need within the fandom. From the early days of the Harry Potter podcast craze, the producers recognized an emergent hierarchy within the podcast community. Shows affiliated with large fan sites have huge listener bases, but do not always provide as many opportunities for “regular” fans to participate. Because of the show formats, the time allotted to listener input, and the personalities of the hosts, fans who wanted an opportunity to speak on such podcasts often did not have the opportunity to do so. On the other hand, podcasts like the PFC, which are not affiliated with large sites, create space for the expression of a larger variety of voices and opinions. As one of the co-hosts told me, “The main focus of the show is to give other people a chance to be podcasters…we want to give them an opportunity to be a podcaster. The first thing we decided was that anyone who wants to be a guest host can be on the show.”

For the producers of the PFC, podcasting is not a job. However, I am hesitant to describe it as a hobby, either. Podcasting appears to be an essential part of the way that they communicate. In fact, for the podcasters, it seems that producing the show falls loosely into the same category as talking on the phone, emailing, or instant messaging with friends. The audience is just slightly larger. The technology used to produce the podcast is the same technology they use for regular, personal communication. For example, the VOIP software Skype is used to facilitate the conference call that is the basis of the podcast. However, at the same time, Skype facilitates everyday communication—it is not just production software. In our conversation, the co-hosts described regularly spending several hours dialed in to a Skype conference call with each other. Although the call is silent most of the time because they are working on homework or other projects, they are able to virtually hang out with friends who are geographically distant. Through the conference call, they keep each other company while working on other things, making mundane tasks a little less isolating. Both of these uses of Skype—facilitating the podcast and “hanging out”—contribute to creating alternate spaces for communication, socializing, and production.

The extended contact through Skype and IM, combined with the shared goal of producing the podcast and shared experiences in fandom have helped to cement a close friendship between the three producers of the PFC, despite the fact that the three of them have never been in the same room. In this way, podcasting creates another alternative space for social interaction and friendship. During our conversation, each of the podcasters discussed the friends they have met through participation in online fan communities. In contrast to research that claims that online interaction is less rich than face-to-face interaction, these teens described a closeness with friends online that does not exist with “3D friends” (such as classmates). They attributed this closeness to interaction that is not colored by distractions like appearance or location. Although each of the podcasters has classmates, acquaintances, and 3D friends, they felt that they have a greater level of intimacy in communication with online friends. As one co-host told me, “Online friends are more personal because they’re in your house when you need them.”

For these three young people, it is clear that podcasting and online communication create alternative spaces that allow them to express opinions, to connect with friends, to produce media that is meaningful to them—and to have a great time doing it.

*intensely lame pseudonym