Rationalizing Exuberance in Youth Media Education

July 19, 2007


Some thoughts that will be developed more fully in my forthcoming book, with Vivian Chavez, called Drop That Knowledge, about youth, learning, and media culture:

It is an especially exuberant moment in 2007 with so many new digital outlets for youth voices and citizen journalists contributing to and shaping public debate in seemingly unprecedented ways. Until recently, much of the research on young people’s relationship to media focused on their patterns of consumption, with media literacy pitched to prepare young people to analyze and critique adult-manufactured news, entertainment, and advertising. Even when scholars have taken pains to frame consumption as a creative act, still the emphasis has traditionally centered on how young people digest, interpret, and subvert other people’s creative output, not on their own. More recently, the balance has shifted, as communications and cultural studies scholars in particular are enthusiastically tracking the impact of dramatic transformations in digital culture and technology and the advent of Web 2.0. Mobile devices; wireless access; sites for user-created content, comment, and distribution; and cheap production tools have launched an explosion of youth-made media. Through offerings including blogs, fan fic, mix tapes, and digital videos, young people write, picture, and game themselves into being.

Traditionally, non-profit organizations like Youth Radio have acted as gatekeepers for young people to high-cost equipment, professional expertise, and distribution outlets (Buckingham, Burn, & Willett, 2005). If young people working on their own can now find cheap tools, professional production values, and significant audiences, what’s the point of youth media organizations? Should adults just get out of the way?

Youth media organizations remain crucial for a number of reasons. They provide a platform for collective activity that builds and broadcasts a critical mass of youth voices. They offer opportunities for sustained youth involvement, with escalating opportunities for leadership and advanced skill-building. They act as advocates and allies for young people and liaisons to networks of opportunity for broadcast, policy impact, jobs and higher education. Perhaps most importantly, they engage young people who are otherwise marginalized from digital privilege. Young people whose perspectives are distorted, neglected, sensationalized, or outright ignored by mainstream media find themselves on the wrong side of what Henry Jenkins (2006) calls digital media’s “participation gap.” Digitally marginalized youths bear the brunt of today’s acute challenges, even in a time of exuberance: pressures within the education system that box out any pursuit that doesn’t translate into standardized measurement; a heavily re-regulated and rapidly consolidating mainstream media restricted more and more by corporate interests and government sanctions (Klinenberg, 2007); and significant obstacles that make it very difficult for young producers to convert media savvy into concrete opportunities in education or employment.

Never has it been easier nor harder for young people to reach audiences. Never have non-commercial outlets experienced more pressure and threats to their survival—including the very digital platforms many of us regard as promising spaces for independent expression and collective social action. Never has there been a greater need for young people to have a say in the public debates and decisions affecting their lives and social worlds. And never has there been a stronger imperative to make sure that young people can connect to the kinds of tools, networks, and experiences they need to formulate and disseminate something worthwhile to say.

Authorship vs. Intelligence

July 13, 2007

One more thought about this idea of collective intelligence (see prior two posts, and forgive my lapse in writing…just settling back in after a week away).

Reflecting back on what I’ve written on this topic, I sense that I may have been conflating collective authorship with collective intelligence. There are a whole host of practical and conceptual issues that come up when multiple authors jointly create a single work–a scenario that almost always defines media-making projects. How do participants negotiate conflict and critique? What conditions are in place to ensure reciprocity and some measure of fairness in terms of who does the heavy lifting when it’s time to deliver, and who gets credit? Once the story circulates, who “owns” the production? These are serious and sometimes daunting questions that youth media producers have to pose, answer, and re-think with every project.

But they may not be exactly the questions that cut to the heart of collective intelligence, which isn’t so much about joint production as it is about shared knowledge, not so much about who deserves credit for the product, but how various minds/bodies/imaginations inform and derive “smarts” from the process.

It’s hard to find a more fraught concept than intelligence in the education literature. Scholars like Howard Gardner decades ago refuted the idea that individuals possess fixed and measureable levels of intelligence narrowly defined, and yet America can’t quite seem to let go of this view. And so I’m wondering what the notion of “collective intelligence” as a property of “new media literacies” contributes to debates about intelligence in a more general sense. For one thing, when I reflect on my own creative methods as both a writer and producer working together with youth and adult colleagues, I can see how “intelligence” can be displaced from the people in the room to the project underway, to the literal and metaphorical “space” or “site” that takes shape throughout the time it takes to complete a given piece of work. If that’s true, it makes me wonder what happens to that collective and perhaps temporary or contingent intelligence once the group disbands or the project ends?