Today’s ‘low barrier to participation”
Those are media professor Henry Jenkins’s words in a talk he gave to USC students’ parents this fall about “raising the digital generation.” It’s good to be reminded that Facebook, MySpace, (or Hyves, studiVZ, or Tuenti in Europe, for example) are not the all of social media for youth – that today’s highly interactive, global digital media lower the barrier of participation in all sorts of interests (music, travel, anime, film, gaming, politics, sports, etc.) as well as to sharing those interests, finding mentors and competitors, and promoting one’s own interests and talents in all sorts of apps, services, sites, games, and virtual worlds. In the talk, Jenkins describes how he and his wife helped their child become “an author of his media culture, not just a consumer of it and not a victim of it.” He also talks about the 12 social competencies of new media literacy, described by the New Media Literacies Project, which he started – “skills that involve citizenship,” he said in the talk.
What I’ve learned from him and other social media scholars is that, in working with youth in the new media environment surrounding all of us – whether we’re participating with phones, computers, or other devices – we can no more separate citizenship from media literacy (because media are behavioral/social now) than we can separate online and offline (because both are participatory “spaces” where life is learned and lived). If we stop seeing the online part of young people’s lives as virtual and the offline part “real,” maybe the online part will become less inconsequential in their own eyes – we’ll be supporting increasingly meaningful use of social media. Taking our traditional-media blinders off will also allow us to see how our children’s use of social media can complement and support their offline civic engagement and other kinds of participation in communities that are expressed both online and offline (I was surprised that, in a recent article about social activism and social media in The New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell represented online and offline as an either/or proposition, that anybody who’s really paying attention thinks online civic engagement somehow replaces the “real world” kind). As Carrie James of the Harvard School of Education GoodPlay Project called on us to do: “Challenge the young people you know to see themselves as citizens of online communities, to use social media for something greater than themselves, then to move beyond mere clicks or what some people call ‘clicktivism’ to deep, sustained commitments to urgent global or local issues” (see this for more on that).