Youth, adults & the social-media shift

By Anne Collier

No wonder adults, born and raised in the 20th century’s mass-media environment are struggling to wrap our brains around current media conditions – and what “Net safety” should look like under them. We’re in the middle of a Gutenberg Press-style media shift, multiplied by 3. Author and media pundit Clay Shirky talks about the four previous media shifts that “qualify for the term revolutionary,” all of which were either a) asynchronous one-to-many or b) realtime, one-to-one “conversations.” They were 1) that Gutenberg-enabled first shift to mass media (text) more than 5.5 centuries ago; 2) then real-time, two-way or conversational media (telegraph/text, then telephone/audio); 3) then recorded mass-distributed media other than text (photos, sound, film); then 4) the one-to-many mass media we grew up with, recorded and sent through the air (radio and TV).

Media shift on steroids
The Internet, Shirky said in his talk last June, does two revolutionary things, but I’d say three. Shirky’s two are: 1) blends real-time two-way conversation and one-to-many mass media to create real-time, many-to-many media or conversations and 2) is the distribution platform or pipe for all other media as well. The third piece is implied in Shirky’s first one, but I think it’s so significant or even radical, especially where online youth are concerned, that it deserves to be highlighted: the “many” in realtime, many-to-many media are the producers, marketers, and distributors as well as the consumers of media now. Anyone can be any of the above now, and many active social-media users are often all the above simultaneously. What determines the size of “viewership” is not control of the distribution channels so much as viewers’ attraction to the content and desire to help spread the word (these days, though, often it’s a hybrid of both conventional and new-media conditions, e.g., singer Susan Boyle’s success on both the “Britain’s Got Talent” TV show and YouTube).

E.g., the new ‘TV’
University of Southern California media professor Henry Jenkins zooms in on just one medium, television, in a fascinating piece at the Huffington Post about how it is not just something watched on TV sets anymore and how it’s distributed as much by social networks (real-life social circles) as by broadcast networks. And he gives lots of examples of transmedia properties (TV shows’ own videogames, comic books, podcasts, and Web series). As I read, I thought of Japan’s cellphone novels: serial novels “written” via cellphone, one screen at a time, the best of which go from blogs to books and probably eventually old-style TV shows and movies.

Big adjustment for adults
But just as interesting about this media revolution is the way we adults are handling it vis. our kids. I think youth use digital social media more fluidly because they’re experimenters, and digital media are experimental – they require active not passive use. To really make these media work for you, you don’t just take delivery; you need to experiment, play, produce, and collaboratively mess around with music, text, video, blogs, sites, games, virtual environments, and all the devices they’re on – which is really fun and compelling for youth. Maybe because “our” media are much less demanding, we grew up thinking of them as mere entertainment, and we project that view a lot onto our children’s media experience. We’re binary in our thinking: we somehow think they’re either working or playing, and we trivialize or even fear and block their use of social media.

Our one-way, top-down media also had relatively few companies producing them and controlling their distribution, with government regulating those companies. So at a recent meeting on Capitol Hill, I noted that some of us adults think that problems in today’s media can simply be fixed by people in authority (parents, companies, regulators, etc.), and distribution of bad stuff, e.g. adult content (which is no longer produced and distributed only by companies or only by adults), on all these dispersed, multi-directional media can be controlled or blocked at the “source.” But now the source – whether of good or bad content – is often a kid. As for professionally produced media, certainly government can still regulate some of it, but only media produced or mass-distributed by responsible companies, aka conventional media – not the media that parents are generally most concerned about.

Media companies ≠ media producers
Youth produce all kinds of media, most of it ok, neutral, or constructive, some nasty, less of it unethical, and even less illegal. It’s complex, like their lives, not given to simple characterizations – see the New York Times’s commentary on a New Jersey high school’s “slut list,” a case in which teen behavior around social status, gender, and sexuality deserves more consideration than the media through which those behaviors are acted out. What youth do communicate and produce in digital media largely mirrors their real-world social lives, though they often fictionalize and sometimes exaggerate parts of them (see “Fictionalizing their profiles”).

That deep, rich, disturbing picture is, for many of us, harder to look at than the professionally produced, regulated images of our past. But in many ways it’s good that this reflection, communication, and production are much more exposed than ever before – so people can conduct research, parent better, consider technical and other protections, and find ways to help young people respect and protect themselves. Two things are certain: Government can’t regulate the producers of the new media environment, and 2) those producers’ ears will tune out media-safety messages coming from the media environment of their parents.

Related links

* An example of a mass-distributed, many-to-many video conversation in YouTube: MadV’s “One World” (see Clive Thompson in Wired)
* “School & social media”
* “Online Safety 3.0: Empowering & Protecting Youth”
* “How teens use social network sites”
* “*Serious* informal learning”

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