Networked communication environment and youth

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The adoption of digital media among young people is redefining how researchers think about media practices,participation in social life, and the role of networks in the age of connected media. Drawing from studies acrossvarious disciplines how are the use of digital media platforms and new formations of networks transforming whatsome scholars refer to as participatory culture? Specifically, how is youth participation in peer-drivencommunities, learning ecologies, and/or civic life evolving with the adoption of digital media and in the context ofnetworked publics and platforms? In your essay discuss, for example, the distinct attributes of digital media, networks, and participatory culture. Also, what is the relationship between digital media, networks, and participatory culture?

Young people growing up in advanced capitalist and post-industrial societies are living immersed in a new communication environment that is networked, rich in information, and participatory. The development and adoption of digital technology infrastructures, tools, procedures, and communication media, during the last three decades, has facilitated the emergence of this new environment. By participating, interacting, and using digital technology across different contexts young people practice new forms of mediated communication and sociability. In the new communication environment, young people are active and visible participants. They are not only able to take roles as producers of culture, information, and knowledge, but they are also able to carve out their own spaces for socializing. Young people are creating unique networked publics where they discuss, share, and socialize with they peers. The consequences of such active and visible practices are shifting the balance of power between young people and adults. Such balance shift needs to be understood as part of broader series of transformations in society, culture, and economy.

The transition towards a network society is one of the most important changes that have surrounded the adoption of digital technologies. Networks are organizational forms that consist on a set of interconnected nodes. They are very powerful organizing tools because they are flexible, and adaptable. As Castells has argued, although networks have existed before in the history of human civilizations, it is has not been until the introduction of computer-based communication technologies and particularly, the Internet, that they have been able to perform they power and develop in scale and complexity. Digital technologies increase the capacity for managing complexity and coordinating tasks. According to Castells, "This results in an unprecedented combination of flexibility and task performance, of coordinated decision-making and decentralized execution, of individualized expression and global, horizontal communication, which provide a superior organization form for human action." (2) The proliferation of networks powered up by digital technologies since the 1970s has given rise to a new form of society, economy, and culture.

Among all digital technologies, the Internet is the most fascinating one and powerful. Thanks to its communication power, radical decentralization, and open architecture, the Internet is at the core of all the current sociocultural and economical transformations. As a network of interconnected computers, the Internet has become more pervasive and ubiquitous, facilitating not only the free flow of information but also the improved access to it. As Karaganis has explained, thanks to being an open and decentralized system, the Internet privileged the transmission of data over what was conveyed. With the increased digitization of all kinds of media, the Internet grew capable of communicating rich media content. Its open architecture (indifferent to the uses it is put) not only facilitated its widespread adoption, but also supported the development of new distribution models. According to Karaganis, collective efforts of governments and scientists, developed a network that "supported not only survivability and interoperability but also a very wide scope for future innovation. The lowest-level internet protocols provided a platform for other networks and applications with more specific functionality." (258) So far, the new distribution models have been able to handle all types of data represented in digital form. From numbers to texts, to images, sounds, and videos, digital content is published, accessed, and shared on the Internet.

The Internet is a great example of the affordances of digital media as technologies of expression, social interaction, and communication. In contrast to analogous mass media such as broadcast radio, television, and film, digital technologies allow both many-to-many and peer-to-peer communication, decentralized individual action, and active consumption/production of content. Benkler has noticed that the Internet solves some of the basic limitations of commercial and concentrated mass media such as the oversimplification of complex discussions (homogeneity), and the overwhelming power of media owners to shape opinion and information. The radical decentralization of the Internet has enabled new patterns of social and cultural production and exchange, and of course, has enabled the building of networks. However, the kind of networking allowed by the Internet was of a very specific kind, self-directed and individualist. Self-publishing, self-organizing, self-networking, are characteristics of a new pattern of behavior that Castells has labeled "networked individualism." Internet is the material support for networked individualism. As Castells explain, the Internet enables a social trend towards "networked individualism" where "individuals build their networks, online and off-line, on the basis of their interests, values, affinities, and projects." (131) Thanks to the communicational power of the Internet, individuals can reach many others, can inform them, and build networks with them. Although these networks can be considered me-networks due to their individualism (Castells), the decentralized individual action has the capacity of aggregating coordinated effects with other individuals allowing cooperation and collaboration (Benkler). According to Castells, networked individualism is a social pattern not a collection of isolated individuals.

Contemporary youth, using digital technologies, practice this kind of networked individualism. They have been building their networks (online and off-line) on the basis of their interests, values, projects, and affinities. The Internet has provided young people with powerful communication tools such as Social Network Sites (SNS) that are useful to organize their social, educational, and cultural life. As researchers of digital media and youth such as Livingstone, Watkins, boyd, and Ito et. al. have demonstrated in their studies, young people using digital media technologies and networking online have not isolated themselves from other peers. In contrast, boys and girls are using these technologies to enhance their physical peer networks and facilitate their face-to-face interactions. They are communicating more actively (and constantly) with friends, sharing their experiences and expressions. As Watkins has explained, teens have made of the Internet a place of their own, a place where they can hangout, in order to solve some of their restrictions on mobility and controlled free time. In her studies of SNS, boyd has also argued that digital media technologies and the Internet have become integral to "processes of building performing, articulating, and developing friendships and status in teen peer networks." (113) By sharing emotions, expressions, texts, and ideas, young people is strengthening their connections with their peers. The networked individualism of digital youth is, therefore, a hybrid process that mixes online and offline negotiations and interactions.

However, before addressing more deeply the characteristics of SNS and other digital media technologies used by youth such as mobile phones, chats, and music players, it is necessary to describe, briefly, the characteristics of the new communication environment where all these technologies are integrated. Because in this environment all media are progressively interconnected, and because the social uses of the digital technologies are increasingly focused on the production of networks, information, knowledge, and culture, I would refer to it, following Benkler, as a networked information environment. In contrast to the previous mass-media environment of broadcasted communication, the new environment is rich in information and knowledge created by both experts and non-experts, and is diverse in commercial and non-commercial cultural goods produced by both professionals and amateurs. As Benkler explains, due to the declining price of computation, communication and storage, the material requirements for effective information production and communication are now owned by a great number of individuals. Including young people, a significant part of the world's population has now access to computer-based digital media technologies that allow them to produce, and distribute information, knowledge, and culture on a global scale.

According to Benkler, in the new networked information environment, the removal of physical constraints on information production creates the conditions for a new kind of culture that is more transparent, malleable, self-reflective, and democratic. What he calls networked culture is a kind of folk culture "where many more of us participate actively in making cultural moves and finding meaning in the world around us." (15) Members become better readers, more self-reflective and critical, and more self-reflective participants in conversations within their own culture. Having greater freedom to participate, individuals can easily pull at the cultural creations of others making the culture they occupy their own. However, since commercial and proprietary cultural goods circulate in this culture alongside the noncommercial and nonproprietary ones, some of the networked practices have been blamed by the mass media industries as forms of piracy. Interestingly, and despite the criminalization and persecution of practices such as file sharing and remixing, non-market individual and cooperative production continue to thrive, and young people have been at the leading front of their development. Because in the networked culture participants are not "constrained to organize their relationship through a price system or in traditional hierarchical hierarchical models of social economic organization" (Benkler, 8), they can experiment with a diversity of production strategies for information such as cooperative, non-proprietary, and noncommercial production. Such experimentation has leaded to innovative projects produced in a cooperative peer-based mode such as Wikipedia and Linux. Jenkins has also elaborated a useful framework for understanding the new kind of culture that emerges in the networked information environment. He has called this culture "convergence culture" to emphasize the complex interactions between old and new media, between top-down corporate media and bottom-up participatory culture. According to him, "within convergence culture, everyone's a participant --although participants may have different degrees of status and influence." (132) The changing conditions on the production, circulation and reception of media content enable new forms of interaction of active engagement that coexist with passive old forms of consumption. While new media consumers are active, migratory, socially connected, noisy, and public; old consumers are passive, predictable, isolated individuals, silent and invisible. New media consumer practices are similar to the ones that have been historically practiced by fan-viders, fan fiction writers, punk musicians, zinesters, djs, and radio amateurs. Historically, when young people have taken into their own hands the production and distribution of media texts, they have engaged themselves in creative and innovative uses of communication technologies.

It is not a coincidence that both Jenkins and Benkler refer to the folk nature of the emerging culture. A networked information environment where the constraints to publish, organize, and network, is apt for the construction of a culture that encourages participation, grassroots creativity, and bartering. Although corporate and mass media industrial culture and practices are still alive, they have to converge with the energy and public visibility of the emerging participatory cultures. As Jenkins has explained, participatory cultures have existed before our current media environment, but they have remained invisible to the public. The participatory culture of fans, for instance, has been produced "by fans and other amateurs for circulation through an underground economy and that draws much of its content from the commercial culture.” (285) The new environment, and in particular, the Internet, provides a new platform for amateur cultural production and distribution. For instance, fan-viders can not only find the video recordings of their favorite shows on Internet-based platforms such as Youtube, but can also distribute their fan-vids in the same platform. As Jenkins explain, "though this new participatory culture has its roots in practices that have occurred just below the radar of the media industry throughout the twentieth century, the web has pushed that layer of cultural activity into the foreground." (133) The visibility of the participatory practices has of course triggered the alert of the media industries that are trying to figure out how to stop what they call violations of copyright and how to collaborate and take advantages of the creative energy of the new active participants.

Thanks to the availability of a reliable system of distribution and production, participatory cultures are thriving in the networked information environment. Jenkins has stated that there is a "public reemergence of grassroots creativity as everyday people take advantage of new technologies that enable them to archive, annotate, appropriate and re-circulate media content." (136) Girls and boys make a big portion of the everyday people participating. Grassroots creativity and amateur production have historically been part of the characteristics of youth cultures. Young people with available free time and access to communication technologies have embraced the Do-It-Yourself ethos and produced media in their bedrooms, schools, and the streets before the existence of the Internet. However, as with the case of other participatory cultures, they productions were under the radar and difficult to find. In the networked information environment, youth participatory cultures such as the ones developed by anime fan-subbers, machinima filmmakers, and video-games modders, are thriving in a global scale. Young people who are active consumers/producers of media are blurring the boundaries between play and labor, work and leisure, by engaging themselves in the labor of love of amateurs.

Although, the new communication environment and forms of cultural production have been criticized by some commentators such as Keen and Terranova alluding to the cacophony of information and the free labor, their arguments are not as convincing as the ones celebrating its potential. For instance, in contrast to the furious attack of Keen to amateur production because is noisy, messy, and lacks expertise, Shirky has showed how doing something for the love of it can be very useful for organizing groups. When the amateur motivation is empowered with the new media tools that facilitate networking and publicity, amateurs are able to coordinate actions in larger scale, attracting other individuals with similar motivations to join them. Especially for girls and boys, who due the ideological and structural constraints of their status of youth, are not usually consider experts and professionals, amateurism is definitely empowering them.

Through the process of making, creative youth is also connecting. As Gauntlet has explained, when individuals make things, they make new connections between the materials they use and the new expressive things they create. They also make connections with other individuals by sharing their creations and contribute to building relationships by sharing the meanings of what they have created. Finally, by making things and sharing them with others, individuals feel greater connection with the world. They are active rather than passive and feel more engaged with the environment. Thanks to the interactive, expressive, and social, potential of digital media technologies, processes of making things are becoming part of the everyday life of youth people. For example, digital life styles that involve using mobile devices such as smart phones, facilitate the making and sharing of different kinds of media texts independently of the location. Female and male youth using smart phones can create and distribute typographic messages (SMS, IM, emails, tweets), photographs, videos, and audio recordings, everywhere as long as they have connection to the network.

As Lange and Ito have explained in their study of American youth and new media, what is special about content production in the networked information environment, is that the things young people is making with digital technologies are now "at hand and more amenable to modification, remix, and circulation through online networks." (247) Because young people can now participate in different networked publics, they are finding opportunities to not only circulate their work to different audiences but also to learn about media production. In many cases, those audiences provide feedback and recognition to the young people, and help them to find career paths. According to Lange and Ito, "what is significant about contemporary networked publics is that they open up multiple aspirational trajectories for young people. While some may aspire to professionalization and large audiences, others, see their creative work as a serious amateur hobby, pursued for the love of it and not for financial gain." (290) The transformative potential of this networked and public participation is that, as more young amateur media makers find places to discuss, learn, and share their creations, the long-tale of niche audiences expands. This fact, according to Lang and Ito, could motivate other youth to engage in media production in the context of public participation.

In conclusion, young people engaged with digital technology, networks, and participatory cultures, are being empowered. Although not all youth is having access to the technologies and knowledge to participate in the networked environment, the ones that are doing it are gaining autonomy, freedom, independency, and agency. They are becoming at the same time more individualistic and more connected. Because youth cultural and social practices become more visible, the balance of power between youngster and adults is changing. As culture in advanced capitalists societies is becoming more democratic and networked, the messages produced by youth are being heard by a wider audience and are starting to be taking seriously by different publics. New opportunities for civic participation, learning, and entrepreneurship are opening to youth.


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