"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.
One important dimension of our research is to develop an understanding of the diversity in ways that different youth engage with digital media, and what some of the factors are that lie behind this diversity. While broad demographic indicators such as national context, socioeconomic status, gender, age, or race have been analyzed as sources of diversity in digital media adoption, we still have very limited understanding of the specific practices, social contexts, and cultural identifications that inflect digital media use in different ways. For example, while we may know the general demographics and numbers of US teens who have decided to participate in an online site such as MySpace, we know little about why particular youth decide to opt in or out of participation, and what the variables are—personal, social, cultural—that factor into these decisions as part of an unfolding life history. Why is it that some youth decide to participate in some online sites rather than others? How do social categories in youth culture such as “geeks,” “jocks,” and “cool kids” inflect participation online? How do specific hobbies, interests, and friendships factor into young people’s decisions of where to go online? As the palette of options for online participation continues to expand, it is critical that we look at the relation between the diversity in youth culture and the diversity in online engagement. The “participation gap” as Jenkins (2006) has suggested, is not simply about haves and have-nots in relation to universal resource, but about intentional decisions people make between different but equally engaged forms of online participation.
As one angle into this set of issues, this post looks at the question of how certain youth gain entry into subcultural forms of engagement with media, and the online networks that support these subcultures. My fieldwork has focused on the English-language fandoms surrounding Japanese media such as anime (animation), manga (comics) and Japanese games. In the past decade since the widespread adoption of the Internet by youth, the overseas fandom surrounding anime has exploded, aided by video filesharing and a wide range of online sites that traffic in anime related information and conversation. In this span of time, “anime otaku” (anime fans) have become an established and visible subcultural community within US youth culture, and represent one of many alternative subcultures available to youth who do not identify with mainstream youth cultural forms. Anime subcultures in the US are unique in many ways, but they are also representative of the growing diversity of subcultural options available to young people, and the ways in which digital media have supported these new identifications. Here I describe the cases of two anime fans, how they became involved in fandoms related to anime and gaming, and what their stories can tell us about trajectories that lead to subcultural and production-oriented forms of online participation. This description is one step towards understanding the difference between online sites that reproduce or mirror the dynamics of existing school-based peer cultures, and more interest-driven online sites that take youth outside their given social networks.
Thuban and Earendil
I interviewed Thuban and Earendil several months ago as part of an ethnographic case I am developing on creators of anime music videos (AMVs). At the time of the interview, Thuban is a 25 year-old environmental scientist. Earendil is 22, and is completing his BA in video production. They are both avid fans of anime, engage in fandoms outside of anime as well, and have each created one AMV. I chose them as a focus for this discussion because they are well-established fans who have moved from casual engagement to active production. But they are not off the charts in terms of investment in the fandom. Their level of engagement is relatively sustainable and attainable for a serious fan, and represents the dominant genre of participation (Ito Forthcoming) for fan producers. This is a genre of participation that stops short of the top-tier star or leader of a creative community, but is well above the level of commitment of those who are casual AMV viewers who never go on to create an AMV. Both of them see their involvement in anime and gaming as a lifelong hobby, and have found a sustainable way to balance their participation with the other demands of schooling and work.
Their stories are in many ways idiosyncratic, and their introduction to anime subcultures includes elements of serendipity as well as sometimes seeming over-determined by their personal interests, identities, and life circumstances. They had interests related to anime as young children. In Thuban’s case it was an interest in reading and cartoons, and for Earendil it was interest in gaming. Both of them describe themselves as being outside of the dominant social networks of their school. Thuban says of her high school years: “The thing is, I was so non-mainstream. I mean, I was really into anime, I was really into science fiction. Those two things didn’t really click with the rest of everyone else I knew, except for like, two or three people.” Earendil, describes his high school self as “a small unathletic jewish kid, who cried easily, and liked beautiful music :p,” He reflects, “bottom line, when I think about it, I was somewhat anti-social or just very particular with my friends.” When we are discussing his lack of participation in popular online sites such as Neopets and YouTube, he notes, ”I’m anti social, so if everybody likes it, I get wary.”
Becoming a Fan
Although most fans of anime share an interest in non-mainstream media and readings, and describe themselves as outside of the dominant status politics of high school, the actual pathways into the fandom are highly diverse. In Thuban’s case, she discovered manga at her local library, where she was working, and became interested in anime after that. She has two local friends in high school who were interested in anime and slash fan fiction respectively, who helped support her blossoming identity as a fan. She and her friends would go online in search of anime and fan fiction, which was difficult to come by at the time. They would develop relationships with fans in AOL chat rooms who would snail mail fan zines and VHS tapes to their homes. In college, she became involved in gaming as another serious hobby, and started living with a set of roommates who were dedicated gamers, some of whom she continues to live and game with today.
By contrast, Earendil did not become exposed to anime until he was in community college. He grew up largely home schooled, in a family that was an early adopter of computers, but restricted screen time to one hour a day until Earendil was in his teens. Despite this, he developed an active interest in gaming. He participated in an online MUD as soon as he was given access to the Internet when he was 13, and went to his friends’ homes to play console games until he got his first console when he was 18. It was this base gamer identity that eventually led him to anime in college. He fell in quickly with a crowd of gamers, a large number of who were also into anime.
One hallmark of the activist media engagements that characterize fans, is that once an interest is sparked, they will overcome structural obstacles in order to pursue their interests. This is the genre of interest-driven media engagement that is so characteristic of fandom, and makes them breeding grounds for activist media cultures. Neither Thuban nor Earendil grew up in home environments that were particularly supportive of fannish engagements. Thuban didn’t get a computer until right before college. “I was just going to my friends’ houses almost every day. Every day I didn’t go to work, I was at somebody’s house trying to get online. If I wasn’t at somebody’s house online, I was at the school online.” Similarly, Earendil didn’t get a game console until he was 18. “But also growing up, I had friends who had consoles and parents who weren’t ‘mean’ so my brother and I also got our gaming kicks at their places.” Both of them came from households that were highly supportive of their creative and intellectual interests, but were not necessarily giving them access to media that supported their niche interests. These cases demonstrate that a disposition towards interest-driven learning is a major factor in developing the motivation to pursue an activist orientation to media that characterizes creative fandoms. Young people will find ways to overcome local obstacles to access given this motivation.
Also of interest is the fact that all fans I have interviewed find close friends who share their passions, but many shy away from organized fan clubs. Thuban describes how she was very engaged with anime in high school, but actually left the fandom after starting to participate in the anime club in college. She found the level of knowledge in the club overwhelming. “They were having these conversations about characters I hadn’t even heard of, and they were arguing about which episode they were going to watch first. I’m like, oh my God, there’s no way I can catch up to them.” Although he has a slightly different emphasis, Earendil also found the intensity of his college anime club to be unappealing. He describes the club as populated by “’pleasantly plump’ American girls wearing cat ears and trying to sound like the typical squeaky Japanese girl… major turn off.” Instead, he describes how he hung out with his gamer friends, and borrowed anime from them. Among these friends there were people who were much well versed in anime than he was, and would recommend good titles. The more ego-centered network of friendship was a more congenial mechanism for sharing fannish interests than the organized setting of the anime club for both Thuban and Earendil. Both Thuban and Earendil describe the friends they made through their interests in anime and gaming as their primary peer context in high school and college.
The Online Life of a Fan
Although Earendil and Thuban avoided anime clubs in their local peer networks, they are both avid participants in online fan networks. Thuban is a live journal virtuoso, and manages four different LJ accounts to segment her real life and different fannish identities. She participates on web forums related to different fandoms and web comics, but says she has to limit her level of immersion in them. “I cut down when I realized I was spending five hours a day in them, and I’ve kind of kept myself out of it since… I jump in and out of forums a lot. I try not to stay very long, cause I can get addicted to that sort of thing and I don’t want to do that.” Earendil describes how he first got Internet access when he was fifteen, and discovered the Ender’s game MUD. That experience discovering a whole social world online was a turning point for him, and he subsequently got involved in a series of online environments that had a user authoring component. This included participating in a game modding community, and his current interest in AMVs. Although he participates on web forums such as the one on animemusicvideos.org, he is not a regular user of MySpace, LJ, or any other blog, journal, or social network site.
Earendil and Thuban’s preferences for online groups represent what I have generally seen in my interviews with fans so far. They participate most actively in sites that are interest and task-focused, often around a particular mode of amateur or niche cultural production. They are less interested in participating in sites that are focused on socializing and personal networking. Many anime fans may have a MySpace, but it is very rare for them to take an active interest in the site. “It’s so obnoxious,” Thuban says of MySpace. “Just the colors and the music and just the whole this friend is more important than that friend. I don’t want to do high school again. I’m done with that. I try to stay out of flame wars online, and MySpace just seems to invite it.” Earendil had started a MySpace, but didn’t continue with it, saying “it didn’t er…coincide with my closemouthed nature… myspace seems kinda…false to me. You have all these people that are your ‘friends’ but they’re not really. They just clicked a button. I have no desire to reveal my tortured soul to a bunch of unknowns.”
Online life is characterized by a wide diversity in modes of participation. This is true even within the confines of one set of interest communities that center on the fandoms of Japanese anime. At the same time, we can identify certain patterns that structure genres of participation online. By genre, I am referring to not just the explicit “content” of the activity, but also the implicit norms and understandings that form the backdrop to a set of practices. In the case of anime fans, their engagement online is characterized by what I am describing as interest-driven participation, which differs from the more friend-driven modes of participation that are more mainstream in youth society. This genre of participation with media inflects the choices that fans make about how to organize their friendship networks, what types of media they are likely to engage in, their tendency towards more activist and production-oriented media engagement, and their selection of particular online sites. Genres are also defined in opposition to one another. Participants in interest-driven communities surrounding gaming and media will often self-identify as a fan or a geek, and as not a mainstream or popularity hungry individual. As we continue to develop cases of engagement with different types of media and online sites by diverse youth, we should be able to identify not only certain grammars and genres of participation online, but also how they are defined in relation and opposition to one another.