Digital Youth: Collectivity, Collaboration, and Crowds

As you can probably tell from my colon-enriched title, I’m in academic mode… inspired by a visit with UC Berkeley researchers connected to the Institute for the Study of Social Change’s Digital Youth Project. I presented to this group a couple weeks back, and then two from their team came and spoke at my UC Berkeley class, which was cool. Last weekend, they held a gathering centered on their varied research projects, most ethnographic, studying digital media and learning among online and offline youth communities.

The conversation about the collaborative dimensions of youth media production really got me thinking. There’s obviously a whole lot of interest among practitioners and scholars alike in collaboration. Non-profit folks tout its benefits as a pro-social competency and marketable skill young people acquire by making media. Researchers explore the fine-grained, moment-to-moment processes that promote what Henry Jenkins calls “collective intelligence.”

All of this I find really interesting. But still, I’m struck that so often, we continue to recognize collectivity, or multiple voices, only when groups of young people gather together (digitally or face-to-face) to make media. What we sometimes miss are the ways that even an individual young person, when contributing ideas, making suggestions, offering critique, or framing arguments as a media producer, always speaks, as Erving Goffman says, “in the name of we.” Young people’s speech gets distinctly “crowded,” even when just one person is talking. They smuggle in multiple voices, by filling their talk “to over-flowing” as Bakhtin says, with other people’s words. Like what I just did, by folding Goffman and Bakhtin, two world-famous scholars, into my discourse. It’s an attempt–at this point deeply ingrained through academic training–to bring texture, influence and history into my “own” words. Young people do this kind of thing all the time when they’re producing media–citing what someone else has said about their work, aligning their opinions or arguments with powerful (or silenced) others, presenting their critiques as if they came through someone else’s mouth (thus cushioning the blow).

What’s the significance of all this linguistic detail? This probably isn’t the place to answer that question fully (I’ve tried to do so in some of my academic writing–like an article called Beyond Literacy and Voice in Youth Media Production in the McGill Journal of Education). But here I just want to say when we think and talk about “collaboration” as a property of youth media production, it might be really interesting to focus not only on how young people connect and communicate in groups, but also how they are always talking with, for, and against others, real and imagined, even when they apparently just speak for themselves.

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