Youth and Participation

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The concept of participation goes together with the democracy, civic engagement, and community life. Associated with youth, this concept highlights not only the agency that young people has in their society, culture and economy, but also the literacy practices that they develop through their interactions. Hence, the perspective that focuses on participation has been characterized by studies and theories that are related to processes of learning and the development of skills and competences for participating in communities, societies and cultures.

In Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century (2006), Jenkins et al. used the term "participatory culture" to describe a culture with "relatively low barriers to artistic expression and civic engagement, strong support for creating and sharing one’s creations, and some type of informal mentorship whereby what is known by the most experienced is passed along to novices. A participatory culture is also one in which members believe their contributions matter, and feel some degree of social connection with one another. (at the least they care what other people think about what they have created)." (3)

According to Jenkins et al. this kind of culture is emerging, becoming more visible as the "culture absorbs and responds to the explosion of new media technologies that make it possible for average consumers to archive, annotate, appropriate, and recirculate media content in powerful new ways." (8) Using as example case studies of young people in the USA, Jenkins et al. stated that young people is taken part of this process through: affiliations, expressions, collaborative problem solving and circulation. Although Jenkins et al. point out that these processes can be either formal or informal, their survey focuses on the informal kind of learning that happens out of school. They claim that media education must take into account the variety of formal and informal contexts in where young people is learning and make a call for incorporating the “new media literacies” in the classroom and out-of-school activities.

The authors claim that beyond the digital divide (unequal access to technology), what is important for American society is to fill the participation gap (unequal access to the opportunities, experiences, skills, and knowledge that will prepare youth for participation in new media culture). In order to address that problem, Jenkins et al. propose a set of skills that they call the new media literacies, and that are the cultural competencies that young people need to acquire in order to become fully active, creative, and ethical participants in contemporary participatory cultures. These skills are play, performance, simulation, appropriation, multitasking, distributed cognition, collective intelligence, judgment, transmedia navigation, networking, and negotiation. As the authors explain each skill and provide examples of how they are being developed by young people, they highlight the fact that the new media literacies shift the focus from individual expression to community involvement.

In Convergence Culture (2006) Jenkins addresses the theme of participatory cultures as a way to explain the changes that are taking place in contemporary media culture. In this book, in particular, he illustrates different kinds of participatory cultures by looking at media fandom and its practices. According to him, the current media environment has made visible to the public the sociocultural practices of fan communities. As he explains, "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) Thanks to the infrastructure that networked digital media provide, the sociocultural practices that fans used to have with media are becoming more and more popular. Media consumption turns out to be more participatory. According to Jenkins, the participatory culture of fans, 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) Because fan practices such as remix and appropriation are based in an active appropriation of the culture produced by media corporations, the public visibility of participatory culture has disrupted the commercial distribution and consumption of media. In order to illustrate fan practices, Jenkins provide several examples of how youth is engaged in these activities. When he talks about machinima, fan subbing, modding, or fan fiction, he tends to focus on the role that youth has played in the development of these practices and communities.

In "Communities of readers, clusters of practices" (2010), Jenkins revisits previous conceptualizations of participatory cultures and elaborates an argument about their pedagogical potential. According to him, the major characteristic of these cultures is that they are communities, collective enterprises. It is precisely the sense of collective enterprise, as in a community of practice, what creates a shared space. Creativity, in participatory cultures, is understood as a trait of communities. Likewise, expression occurs through collaboration. That is why the ethos of participation, when applied to learning relies on mutual support networks. The emphasis in communities allows Jenkins to make a difference with the kind of learning 2.0 and education 2.0 formulations that tend to only highlight the wonder of the new technologies. For Jenkins, what matters in participatory culture are communities of participants not technologies. He argues that the pedagogy of participatory culture requires that teachers not only teach how to use technology or how to create a video or a podcast. Instead, they should also create the shared space for the formation of a community of practice, and as well allow students to participate in other informal communities of expertise where they can learn.

In this text, Jenkins also addresses the relationship between new media and participatory cultures from a historical perspective. By doing that, he is able to demonstrate not only that participatory cultures have existed long before digital media, but also that some of the practices of fans and amateur communities are not unique to the 21st century. According to Jenkins, the resources new media technologies offers, allow the creation of distinctive forms of participatory culture. For instance, he describes how the emergence of science fiction fandom in the 1920 and 1930 embraced the amateur press publication practices, and how the television fandom encouraged fans to remix footage using home video systems. As he explains, participatory cultures "embraced each new technology as it offered them new affordances which could support their ongoing social and cultural interactions." (241) Practices such as amateur printing, radio production, and home movies production relied not only in the use of new media technologies but more important, in the creation of a community of practitioners. Each community, has had their own assumptions about what cultural practices and identities are meaningful, and what it means to participate. An important question that Jenkins raises is, Are new media literacies just community practices developed before by the advent of digital networked media? In this sense, it is possible to argue that what digital media has enable is the visibility and popularization of participatory cultures and communities of practice.

The Digital Youth Project had also implemented the participatory perspective as part of its analytical framework. In Hanging Out, Messing Around, and Geeking Out (2010), Ito et al. use the concept of "genres of participation" as a way for understanding and categorizing youth engagement with media cultures. According to them, there are two high level genre categories: friendship-driven and interest-driven. The former is related to the everyday negotiations with friend s and peers and involve practices that grow out of friendships in specific local worlds. The latter is related to hobbies, specialized activities, niche identities, and career aspirations. It focuses on practices that expand an individual social circle based on interests. As Ito et al. explain, "these genres represent different investments that youth make in particular forms of sociability and differing forms of identification with media genres." (18)

The two high level genres of participation correspond to different genres of youth culture, social network structures, and modes of learning. For instance, in relation to genres of youth culture and online participation, interest-driven corresponds to geeking out, and friendship-driven correspond to hanging out. Ito et al. also identify a third genre of youth culture and online participation, messing around, which could be associated with the both interest-driven and friendship-driven. In fact, messing around could act as a transition or bridge between the two high-level genre categories. The question of transition between genres is of crucial importance for understanding process of learning that bridge formal and informal contexts. In this book, Ito et al. focus on the informal contexts and leave unresolved the questions of how to the transitions between genres can happen. However, the authors are able to provide a detailed and comprehensive account of how these genres of participation happen across different contexts in which youth engage with digital media such as friendship, intimacy, family, gaming, creative production, and work. After analyzing each context, Ito et al. conclude that young people has diverse learning opportunities through their engagement with digital media and their interaction with peers, and offer some recommendations to educators and policy makers. They point out that, “educators and policy makers need to understand that participation in the digital age means more than being able to access ‘serious’ online information and culture; it also means the ability to participate in social and recreational activities online”(p. 347)