Jenkins on Participatory Media Culture and Youth

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) professor Henry Jenkins first discusses participatory media culture and the public and private significance of this cultural revolution for contemporary media consumers. He then turns to youth, challenging the misperceptions of adults who struggle to understand children and their consumption of new digital media.

Participatory culture is anything but fringe or underground today. Fan fiction can be accessed in astonishing quantities and diversities by anyone who knows how to Google. Media producers monitor Web forums such as “Television without Pity,” planting trial balloons to test viewer response, measuring reaction to controversial plot twists. Game companies give the public access to their design tools, publicize the best results, and hire the top amateur programmers. The amateur subtitling and circulation of anime arguably helped to open the market for Asian cultural imports. And formed as a way for collectors to trade Beanie Babies; its impact was first demonstrated by X-Philes as they lobbied to keep their show on the air; but it became a central resource in the 2004 presidential campaign. News stories appear regularly about media companies suing their consumers, trying to beat them back into submission, and the blogging community continues to challenge the mainstream news media and shake up the political parties. …

The key issue isn’t what the media are doing to our children but rather what our children are doing with the media. The vocabulary of “media effects…” has been challenged by numerous American and international scholars as an inadequate and simplistic representation of media consumption and popular culture. Media effects research most often empties media images of their meanings, strips them of their contexts, and denies their consumers any agency over their use. …

Consumption becomes production; reading becomes writing; spectator culture becomes participatory culture. …

Popular culture has become one of the central battlegrounds through which teens stake out a claim on their own autonomy from their parents. Adolescent symbols from zoot suits to goth amulets define the boundaries between generations. The intentionally cryptic nature of these symbols often means adults invest them with all of our worst fears, including our fear that our children are breaking away from us. But that doesn’t mean that these symbols carry all of these same meanings for our children. … Children fourteen and under now constitute roughly 30 percent of the American population, a demographic group larger than the baby boom itself. Adults are feeling more and more estranged from the dominant forms of popular culture, which now reflect their children’s values rather than their own. Despite our unfamiliarity with this new technology, the fantasies shaping contemporary video games are not profoundly different from those that shaped backyard play a generation ago. Boys have always enjoyed blood-and-thunder entertainment, always enjoyed risk-taking and roughhousing, but these activities often took place in vacant lots or backyards, out of adult view. In a world where children have diminished access to play space, American mothers are now confronting directly the messy business of turning boys into men in our culture and they are alarmed at what they are seeing. But the fact that they are seeing it at all means that we can talk about it and shape it in a way that was impossible when it was hidden from view. We are afraid of our children. We are afraid of their reactions to digital media. And we suddenly can’t avoid either … .

Journalist Jon Katz has described a backlash against popular culture in our high schools. Schools are shutting down student net access. Parents are cutting their children off from online friends. Students are being suspended for displaying cultural symbols or expressing controversial views. Katz chillingly documents the consequences of adult ignorance and fear of our children’s culture. Rather than teaching children to be more tolerant, high school teachers and administrators are teaching students that difference is dangerous, that individuality should be punished, and that self-expression should be constrained. In this polarized climate, it becomes impossible for young people to explain to us what their popular culture means to them. We’re pushing this culture further and further underground and thus further and further from our understanding.

Listen to our children. Don’t fear them.

Jenkins, Henry. Fans, Bloggers, and Gamers: Exploring Participatory Culture. New York: New York University Press, 2006, pp. 2, 60, 194-197. || Amazon || WorldCat

Previous || Chapter 2: Directory || Next