Henry Jenkins on Participatory Media in a Networked Era, Part 1

You are probably reading this because you are interested in the use of digital media in learning. My single strongest recommendation to you: if you want the best and latest evidence-based, authoritative, nuanced, critical knowledge about how digital media and networks are transforming not just learning but commercial media, citizen participation in democracy, and the everyday practices of young people, my advice is to obtain a copy of the new book, “Participatory Culture in A Networked Era,” by Henry Jenkins, Mizuko Ito, and danah boyd.

This book is the opposite of so much sound-bite generalization about “digital natives” and “Twitter revolutions.” Jenkins, Ito, and boyd seek to unpack the nuances behind the generalizations of digital media enthusiasts and critics alike, rather than to reduce them to easily digested phrases. And, they articulate their knowledge clearly. They not only know this subject matter as well as anyone on the planet, they know how to talk about it.

Unlike so much of the armchair theorizing and anecdotal hypothesizing about young people and their use of media, the thinking underlying this book was informed by the findings of a multi-year, multi-million dollar research project by dozens of University of California researchers who studied what youth from different regions and socio-economic strata actually do with Facebook and Snapchat, YouTube and Tumblr and what their parents and teachers think about youth media practices. Since the publication of that landmark research, the authors have extended their examination of these practices under the auspices of Microsoft Research, MIT, University of California, and USC’s Annenberg School.

I confess that I have known and learned personally from each of these authors because I have long sought out those who not only know what they are talking about when it comes to the culture of new media, but talk about it with elegance. And, I confess that I was enlisted as an enthusiast for the study and understanding of participatory culture when I read the landmark 2009 study by Henry Jenkins et. al, “Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century.” The line of thought inspired by my reading of that study led me to write my 2012 book, “Net Smart: How to Thrive Online.” The thinking that precipitated three years of work on my part was about whether the devices and services in our pockets and in the cloud are good for us as individuals, families, communities, societies — and what, if anything, you or I can do about it.

The question that had been forming in my own mind for years — decades, actually — is whether digital media and networks will end up as a mind-amplifying, culture-expanding, democracy-enhancing benefit or a Mephistophelian vortex of distraction, disinfotainment, and dystopia. The answer is: it depends. The shape of the regime dominated by Moore’s Law and Berners-Lee’s Web is still to be determined, and each one of us can influence the outcome by acting knowledgeably. In other words, literacy is pivotal. The new literacies we now need to navigate to a more humane and mindful future encompass the “media literacies” that educators and parents have discussed for decades, but also include skill sets far more powerful and potentially effective than knowledge of how to decode advertising, television, and news media. The whole idea of participatory culture is that when technologies enable billions to influence cultural production, rather than leaving the influences on what most people think and believe to the elites of the print and broadcast regimes, today’s aggregated actions of web publishers, YouTube video makers, Pinterest curators, dot-com entrepreneurs, connected learners and educators are shaping new ways of learning, socializing, educating, and governing.

When the mass-empowerment potential of many-to-many networked multimedia first became visible a quarter of a century ago, many of us — I include myself — were enthusiastic about the possibility that participatory culture via digital media could improve our lives. Although early observers like Jenkins and myself were not uncritical, neither had we yet experienced the tsunami of bad information, toxic commentary, and sinister behavior that also came along when the online population expanded to a significant portion of the world. After the initial enthusiasm, waves of equally strong critiques created an overly-Manichean public conversation about what smartphones and apps, web services and social media were doing to us — especially our youth. Now that we have some solid scientific evidence and gifted interpreters of the search data, it’s time for a widespread and more subtle conversation. This book is the best conversation-starter we could hope for.

My video interview with Henry Jenkins encompassed all the major topics of the book: defining participatory culture; youth culture, youth practices; gaps and genres in participation; learning and literacy; commercial culture; democracy civic engagement, and activism; and redefining participatory culture. Jenkins packed a lot of communication into a few words, but covering this territory that has fascinated us both for much our careers took nearly 40 minutes, so the interview has been split into two parts. Here is the first part. If you are intrigued by my description but want to know more about what the research has uncovered and what the authors have to say, this video will be 20 minutes well spent. Part 2 next week.

Banner image: “Participatory Culture in a Networked Era” and its authors Henry Jenkins, Mizuko Ito and danah boyd.