EPP: Playing with Fire: Learning in Niche Online Communities


Given the vast spectrum of online platforms, not every online community can be a focus of academic research. However, a few — particularly the larger ones, such as Facebook, Twitter, and MMOs — have dominated the research agenda of how digital media environments impact learning.

Young users inhabit dozens of spaces online that are not included in this academic discourse, but these spaces still exist as social learning environments for teens. Underrepresented and misunderstood, sometimes niche and even deviant, these online communities  — such as 4chan, ChatRoulette, Formspring, LiveJournal, Stickam, and a multitude of discussion forums — challenge our assumptions and help expand our theories about digital learning that dominate the research. For example, while 4chan is not even well known for its anarchic collective Anonymous or its popularization of memetic art (e.g., LOLcats), it is rarely seen as (though it is) a space where youth socialize, create and evaluate digital art, share information, debate one another, and even solicit advice about everyday issues and problems from their online peers. 

In 2010, Sonia Livingstone highlighted that while adults craft digital learning spaces for youth, they also introduce places where kids can play with fire. This panel aims to examine the act of playing with fire and how it impacts youth sociability, identity, and safety in what we wouldn’t ordinarily call “online learning environments.” What can these peculiar online communities teach researchers and educators — especially those who have only been exposed to the literature about Facebook, Twitter, and MMOs — about the expansive reality of the social internet and how youth learn inside social groups hidden away from parents’ and teachers’ eyes? How do these communities support or challenge the discourse about digital learning? How do we parse learning behaviors in communities that also participate in harmful practices, such as cyberbullying, ‚Äúthinspiration,” and discrimination? And what are the ethics of studying these underground social spaces in light of policy makers that frequently buy into moral panics?

Niche and deviant online communities are particularly interesting spaces, because while we espouse digital skills for youth, these spaces — which have existed for years and will continue to replicate in newer though not much more technically advanced forms — fit into the educational models of social communities of practice, yet continue to remain outside of the purview of critical research.