Category Archives: youth culture

where are the people?

Following SXSW-Interactive, i rented a car and headed to suburbs outside of Austin to interview teens. Between my interviews, i drove around the different suburbs to check out what i could see. It was completely eerie. While the streets of Austin are overflowing with SXSW attendees, the suburbs are startlingly silent. During the 3+ hours of touring various neighborhoods, i saw a total of two kids outside (on their driveway). While this may make sense for a typical weekday, it’s spring break in Austin. It might also have made sense if the weather was dreadful, but both days were in the mid-70s. I saw numerous sprinklers watering grass, but there were no kids playing on the grass.

The explanations that i heard outside of Austin were like the ones i’ve heard so many times before:

  • “There’s nothing to do outside.”
  • “My parents won’t let me.” (Typically followed with a remark of what the parents are afraid of.)
  • “None of my friends live nearby.” (Typically followed by a comment on needing parents to drive them anywhere)

Sometimes, i hear comments about the fast-moving cars and the lack of sidewalks. In the cities, i hear about gang turf wars. In newer suburban neighborhoods, i hear about not knowing/trusting the neighbors. Whatever the excuse, i rarely hear teens talk about things that they do outside in open space. (Sports typically happen outside in closed space.)

My mother remembers getting lost on July 4th in the suburbs of New Jersey a few years back. She felt like she ran into the twilight zone. There were no BBQs, no picnics, no pickup football games, no family gatherings, no chalk on the streets, no nothing. Everyone was indoors.

This makes me sad, very very sad.

an interview with me

I did an interview with WireTap a while back about MySpace and youth. Today, it was reposted on Alternet. It’s an OK interview – not very in-depth, but it’s hard to be in-depth in that format. Still, the comments on Alternet make me sad. I’m called “barely articulate” and a “typical talking head” (and my age is brought into the discussion as a way to dismiss me). It’s always peculiar to see my speaking style in written form; i feel far more coherent when i control the written form. That said, those labels sting.

I’m also accused of being too blase about the safety issues. As with all interviews, i gloss over a lot of details to get general ideas across but it is driving me nuts that everyone assumes that because i think we’ve gone too far in the direction of moral panics and culture of fear that i don’t care about safety or teenagers or rape. I find myself wanting to scream. I spent five years working on the issues of rape, domestic violence, and other violence against women; safety is a very real concern of mine, but reality is far more nuanced than the sky is falling perspective seems to convey. When an extremist position is taking up the airwaves, it’s super hard to correct course and it seems as though it’s easy to be painted a radical in the opposite direction even if those are not my views ::sigh:: How have other folks combatted extreme media positions before? Any advice for being more effective?

a few more thoughts on child abuse, sexual predators, and the moral panic

Every day, i read more articles about child abuse and online sexual predators. They make me sad but they also make me very frustrated because the more we talk about these cases of strangers abusing children, the less we talk about the real perpetrators of child abuse: adults who know children intimately. Today, i ran across a phenomenal article by Peter Reilly entitled The Facts About Online Sex Abuse and Schools. In it, he shares a lot of data about perpetrators, the state of child abuse in general, and the importance of not buying into the fear. Two of the images that he shares capture my unbearable frustration with our obsession with online sexual predators:

Of course, while the hype and paranoia continues, researchers are showing that teens are safer than adults think. Even The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children is saying that things are getting better: new data in their longitudinal study of online victimization shows that only 4% of youth were asked for a naked or sexually explicit photo (down from 5 years ago).

Of course, i’m painfully aware that facts are worthless in a fight against paranoia and panic and this makes me tear my hair out. I wish i had the first clue how to stop a moral panic from doing the cultural damage that this panic has inflicted on teens. I talk to teenagers who are afraid of the Internet because they think it’s dangerous. I talk to teenagers whose parents believe everything they hear on Fox and have barred them from the Internet. How can we educate our youth about how to be responsible users of the Internet when we’re flipping out? ::sigh::

I think that Pete Reilly put it well in his article:

When we slice the “less than five percent pie” into these smaller pieces, the risk gets much, much smaller. Of course, statistics aren’t going to matter much if you are the parent of a child who has had an online incident, or the leader of school that has experienced one.

The question is, “Are we going to take a ‘zero risk’ approach to using technology and the tools of the Web?”

We don’t take a “zero risk” approach with our sports programs where the chance of injury, paralysis, and, in rare cases, death, is always present. We don’t take that approach with field trips where students travel to museums and historical sites in locations where they might be touched by crime. We don’t take that approach with recess on our playgrounds, or transporting our kids to and from school.

We can never eliminate all risk; but there are ways to maximize our students’ safety while using these incredibly powerful tools. Each tool needs to be analyzed individually to ascertain its benefits and the specific risks it might present. From there, thoughtful people can find solutions to the student safety issues that may arise.

(tx mrc)

the cost of lying

This afternoon, i did an interview with MTV. Although the clip will be only 3 minutes in length, they interviewed Zadi Diaz and i for almost two hours. The core of our conversation concerned the story of a teenage boy who wrote a suicidal message on his MySpace. Zadi saw it and contacted the boy; he wrote back indicating that he was in the middle of taking a lot of pills. Zadi wrote to her friends, begging for help. One of her friends found the boy’s school on his profile and contacted the principal who, in turn, contacted the family and got an ambulance to the boy in time.

I couldn’t help but wonder what would happen if this boy had followed the “safety measures” that most parents groups advocate. The data that made him traceable – his school, his real name – helped a kind stranger save his life. I wonder how many people’s lives are saved (or enhanced) by the presence of authentic data online.

Many years ago, a young Ani DiFranco fan contacted me. She wrote to me regularly about how her mother abused her, how she wanted to commit suicide. I pleaded with her to get help. I offered to help her find someone to talk with. But she would never give me identifying information. I knew she lived in Ohio, but that was it. Her email address was a Hotmail account (and there’s no way Microsoft was going to help). She was terrified of her mom finding out that she was telling on her. Her messages got more and more desperate and i begged for a way to contact her. And then she disappeared. I still live with the fear of what that girl might have done and am constantly asking myself what i could’ve done that would’ve helped more.

It’s a double-edged sword, isn’t it? The things that make us safest from others make us least from ourselves.

I also can’t help but wonder if there are other costs to all of this deception that we’re promoting as a safety mechanism. What does it mean to tell an entire generation that the way to be safe is to lie? Lie about your age, your name, your hometown, etc. All for good reason. Are we creating a generation of liars? Sure, it’s a “white” lie, but that’s a slippery slope, no?

Lying about one’s age is at the core of socialization into the Internet. Did Congress really believe that all 13-year-olds suddenly disappeared from the social sites regulated by COPPA? Ha! 8-year-olds are telling me that the way to get into this that or the other site is to say you were born in 1993. The technological affordances have forced them to lie to get what they want. Next, their parents will tell them to lie to be safe. What’s next? Lie to get into college? It sure is a funny moral, no?

The lying is certainly working. In my last round of talking with teens, not a single one of them put a real age on their MySpace profiles. They were no longer saying that they were 69 or 104 (typically identifiers for teens). Instead, they were choosing arbitrary ages ranging from 16-24. Think about that. If this is as common as i’m seeing, none of the data is remotely real when it comes to age. How far does this go? Does it extend offline? Many teens are well-versed at pretending to be 21 in this country… fake IDs have gotten more sophisticated but they haven’t gone away. But what happens when a 21-year-old starts talking to someone that he thinks is also 21 on MySpace?

I can’t help but think that all of this lying has a cost…

what i mean when i say “email is dead” in reference to teens

When i was a child, i used to get super excited when the postman came. Although i almost never got anything, those handful of letters from penpals were such joyous gifts. Email was the same at first – even the pyramid schemes and bizarro forwards were a reason to celebrate. “You’ve got mail!” Today, snail mail is full of bills and email is full of spam and expectations. Joy comes through IM or SMS or MySpace. At least for now.

Lately, i’ve gotten into some trouble for saying that email is dead with young people so i wanted to do some clarification.

Do young people have email accounts? Yes. Do they login to them semi-regularly? Yes. Do they use it as their primary form of asynchronous communication for talking with their friends? No.

Academics have been noting that young people’s social and emotional energies have been moving from email to IM. Consider for example Steven Thorne’s 2003 article “Artifacts and Cultures-of-Use in Intercultural Communication.” This article shows a cross-language penpal experiment. Those who used email (as assigned) got very little out of the relationship but a segment of participants switched to IM with their penpal, resulting in a much better connection. In examining this, he finds that this is because IM is the primary site of sociable communication for young people. It is where teens prefer to go to socialize.

Many of you (dear readers) receive your bills via email now. Does this mean that you’ve stopped checking snail mail? No. That said, what kind of emotional attachment do you have towards your mailbox? You probably love when your Netflix disks arrive or when you get that neat package from Amazon, but is snail mail all that exciting now? If you couldn’t check your snail mail for a day or two, would you be emotionally distraught? Most of you probably twitch when you can’t get to your email. Why? There are many more important, interesting, juicy things there that feel timely and important.

Now, let’s talk about youth. They have email accounts. They get homework assignments sent there. Xanga tells them that their friends have updated their pages. Attachments (a.k.a. digital Netflix/Amazon packages) get sent there. Companies try to spam them there (a.k.a. junk mail). Sifting through the crap, they might get a neat penpal letter or a friend might have sent them something to read but, by and large, there’s not a lot of emotional investment over email.

That said, take away their AIM or MySpace or SMS or whatever their primary form of asynchronous messaging with their friends is and they will start twitching and moan about how you’ve ruined their life. And you have. Because you’ve taken away their access to their friends, their access to the thing that matters most to them. It’s like me taking away your access to blogs and email and being forced to stay at the office just because you showed up late for work.

I’m part of the generation caught between email and IM where IM feels more natural but most of the folks just a little older than me refuse to use IM so i’m stuck dealing with email. Today’s teens are stuck between IM, MySpace/Facebook, and SMS. There’s another transition going on which is why there’s no clean one place. IM replaced email for quite a few years but now things are in flux again. Still, no matter what, email is not regaining beloved ground.

Email is not gone but it is dead in the sense that it is no longer a site of deep emotional passion. People still have accounts, just like they still have mailboxes. But their place for sociable communication is elsewhere.

the consequences of ‘modern’ life

Yesterday’s UK Telegraph printed an open letter from numerous academics, professionals, and artists concerned about the health of youth. The piece, signed by hundreds, is called: Modern life leads to more depression among children:

Sir – As professionals and academics from a range of backgrounds, we are deeply concerned at the escalating incidence of childhood depression and children’s behavioural and developmental conditions. We believe this is largely due to a lack of understanding, on the part of both politicians and the general public, of the realities and subtleties of child development.

Since children’s brains are still developing, they cannot adjust – as full-grown adults can – to the effects of ever more rapid technological and cultural change. They still need what developing human beings have always needed, including real food (as opposed to processed “junk”), real play (as opposed to sedentary, screen-based entertainment), first-hand experience of the world they live in and regular interaction with the real-life significant adults in their lives.

They also need time. In a fast-moving hyper-competitive culture, today’s children are expected to cope with an ever-earlier start to formal schoolwork and an overly academic test-driven primary curriculum. They are pushed by market forces to act and dress like mini-adults and exposed via the electronic media to material which would have been considered unsuitable for children even in the very recent past.

Our society rightly takes great pains to protect children from physical harm, but seems to have lost sight of their emotional and social needs. However, it’s now clear that the mental health of an unacceptable number of children is being unnecessarily compromised, and that this is almost certainly a key factor in the rise of substance abuse, violence and self-harm amongst our young people.

This is a complex socio-cultural problem to which there is no simple solution, but a sensible first step would be to encourage parents and policy-makers to start talking about ways of improving children’s well-being. We therefore propose as a matter of urgency that public debate be initiated on child-rearing in the 21st century this issue should be central to public policy-making in coming decades.

Given the British slant of this, i’m kinda surprised to not see David Buckingham on the list of signers. His book After the Death of Childhood: Growing up in the Age of Electronic Media deals directly with this issue, showing both positives and negatives of contemporary society.

I strongly support this letter. I believe that discourse about the state of children’s health is desperately needed. The issue is complex – it is not a matter of just taking away junk food or banning TV; it is about rethinking the child-raising process at all levels. It is also not something that just pertains to psychology, but also to sociology, anthropology, economics, media studies, politics, education, etc. There are scholars researching many components of this but the issue itself extends far beyond the academy. I’m concerned that the media has defined the concerns and that there is too little discussion between scholars and the public at large. I would *love* to see this change.

One concern i had in reading this letter is that i fear people will interpret it to mean that technology is bad bad bad. (For that reason, i bolded two parts that i think highlight key sites of trouble in our society.) By and large, technology is filling a gap and that gap is created by us – parents, educators, politicians, media, … society in general. TV is allowing children to have desperately-needed downtime, the Internet provides them with the a place to hang out amongst their friends when they are locked into their nuclear family residences. If we take their plea seriously (and i hope we do), i think that it’s important to put down our adult biases, our technophobia, our xenophobia, and our parental fears to think about youth’s worlds from their point of view.


Over the last week, i’ve gotten innumerable emails about lonelygirl15. Folks were wondering if i was behind it or if i knew who was. They wanted to know my opinion, if i thought it was fake.

I did. I thought it was fake but i expected that it was a TV or movie organization. I was kinda curious if it was an ARG but it didn’t look like it. I decided that i should do a proper analysis of the different bits when the news broke: LonelyGirl15 is crafted by a group of filmmakers as an art project. Here’s the letter they wrote to their fans on the forum explaining LonelyGirl15:

To Our Incredible Fans,

Thank you so much for enjoying our show so far. We are amazed by the overwhelmingly positive response to our videos; it has exceeded our wildest expectations. With your help we believe we are witnessing the birth of a new art form. Our intention from the outset has been to tell a story– A story that could only be told using the medium of video blogs and the distribution power of the internet. A story that is interactive and constantly evolving with the audience.

Right now, the biggest mystery of Lonelygirl15 is “who is she?” We think this is an oversimplification. Lonelygirl15 is a reflection of everyone. She is no more real or fictitious than the portions of our personalities that we choose to show (or hide) when we interact with the people around us. Regardless, there are deeper mysteries buried within the plot, dialogue, and background of the Lonelygirl15 videos, and many of our tireless and dedicated fans have unearthed some of these. There are many more to come.

To enhance the community experience of Lonelygirl15, which you have already helped to create, we are in the process of building a website centered around video and interactivity. This website will allow everyone to enjoy the full potential of this new medium. Unfortunately, we aren’t programmers. We are filmmakers. We are working furiously to complete the website, and hope to have it up and running shortly.

So, sit tight. You are the only reason for our success, and we appreciate your devotion. We want you to know that we aren’t a big corporation. We are just like you. A few people who love good stories. We hope that you will join us in the continuing story of Lonelygirl15, and help us usher in an era of interactive storytelling where the line between “fan” and “star” has been removed, and dedicated fans like yourselves are paid for their efforts. This is an incredible time for the creator inside all of us.

Some thoughts

Now that i’ve killed the suspense, let me back up and tell you about what happened. For those who aren’t familiar, videos by LonelyGirl15 started appearing on YouTube over the summer. She’s supposedly a teenager who is homeschooled by religious parents who don’t know she’s creating videos online. Her friend Daniel helps her with the videos and they often talk back and forth across their videos. It’s rather endearing but too good to be true.

As more videos popped up, people started questioning whether this was real or not. Speculation mounted and fake lonelygurls started to appear. People created videos to comment on LonelyGirl15. People flocked to the LonelyGirl15 forum to discuss. Problem is the LonelyGirl15 domain was registered before the videos started appearing. People started tracking down more and more clues, trying to hone in on what it was, who was behind it. Suspicion mounted. In classic fan style, people dove right down and tore apart all of the data. Quite a few thought that this was an ARG, Jane McGonigal style, but she denied involvement on NPR. Others thought it was an advert or some marketing campaign.

The clues people dug up were fascinating. Personally, i was intrigued by “Bree’s” MySpace profile. I knew it was fake but i didn’t know if the YouTube LonelyGirl15 made the MySpace profile LonelyGurl15. Why did i know it was fake? Well, i read too many teenage MySpaces. Not sure i should give away clues as to how to create a real-looking fake MySpace profile. ::wink::

Then press started covering it. Hands down, The New York Times had the best coverage. I can’t help but wonder if the NYTimes knew the truth because they are certainly using the same language: “Hey There, Lonelygirl – One cute teen’s online diary is probably a hoax. It’s also the birth of a new art form.” If so, go Adam for good reporting!

I like the idea that it is an art form but i also think it’s part of what Henry Jenkins calls Convergence Culture. Regardless, it’s super cool that people are using new media to create narratives. They are telling their story, truth or fiction. Of course, this makes many people very uncomfortable. They want blogs and YouTube and MySpace to be Real with a capital R. Or they want it to be complete play. Yet, what’s happening is both and neither. People are certainly playing but even those who are creating “reality” are still engaged in an act of performance. They are writing themselves into being for others to interpret and the digital bodies that emerge often confound those who are doing the interpretation. In many ways, this reminds me of the Fakester drama during the height of Friendster. As one of the instigators behind the Fakester manifesto explained, “none of this is real.” I won’t get all existential on you so we’ll leave it at that.

In many ways, i have to admit that i’m sad that the truth is out. I was really enjoying the suspicion. Far more than any episode of Lost or reality TV show. I was enjoying not knowing who was behind it and spending hours speculating and trying to find hints. I was enjoying watching a community of people talk endlessly about what they thought might be going on. Sure, the videos were quite endearing (although the ending of Poor Pluto disturbed the hell out of me) but do i just want to watch the videos by themselves? I’m not sure. I think i liked them for the mystery.

Regardless, i absolutely love the way people are using all of these new social technologies to create cultural experiments. To me, this signifies the importance of social media.

Update: The LATimes is reporting that emails concerning the site come from the Creative Artists Agency (CAA), a talent agency in Beverly Hills. (Perhaps i wasn’t as off as i thought?)

Update (9/13): The NYTimes has the full story. Bree is Jessica Rose, a 20-ish film student. LG15 is a 4-person production meant to create intrigue.

Update (9/16): For anyone who is interested in this topic, i’d suggest checking out Henry Jenkins’ entry on astroturf, humbugs, and Lonely Girl and Jane McGonigal’s entry on not fetishizing participation.

Continue reading

Save Your Space

Save Your Space is a website created by a Southern California organization called “The Friends of MySpace” (not affiliated with News Corp). They have put together a petition against DOPA and they’re trying to collect signatures of people of all ages who are opposed to the legislation. If you are (and you damn well should be if you’re reading my ramblings), please take a moment to sign. And then pass it on.

youth and those crazy hormones

When discussing the plight of teenagers with adults, i’m often chastised for viewing teens as mature humans capable of making reasonable decisions. All too often, people point to all that psychological research that indicates that teens are experiencing extensive hormonal rushes that impair their judgment. And then i go home to my 30-something friends who see a baby and start cooing as their biological clock begs for attention. And then i talk to people my mom’s age going through menopause and being about as coo-coo as they come. And then i get calls from my older male friends who are experiencing their midlife crisis and think that trading in their wife for people my age is a good idea. I don’t think that teenagers are the only population facing impaired judgment. In fact, i’m curious at what age one’s judgment is really all that functional.

What fascinates me in watching teens is to see biology and culture at complete odds. Their bodies are screaming SEX! REPRODUCTION! NOW! while adults are screaming abstinence. Evolution does not think that waiting until you have your career settled before giving birth is a good idea regardless of what culture says. Personally, i think teens are doing an astounding job at quelching bodily urges in favor of societal norms. I think we should give them a lot of credit for their strength!

I’m not saying that teens are all-so-mature but as one of my colleagues points out, the best part of being a 30-something year old guy in today’s age is that it’s assumed that you still haven’t matured beyond fart jokes. Maturation is a progression – we build on things we’ve learned in the past in order to grow. Every significant experience teaches us something as we grow older. Hopefully, we won’t throw away those lessons and regress to bullying and gossip mongering but sadly, many do. The problem is that we need to face those challenges in order to learn from them. The more that we’re coddled, the less we learn. I have to admit that when it comes to teaching in a college classroom, i far prefer the street kids to the protected ones. At least the street kids know why they’re in school and it’s not simply to get away from their parents. Their experiences have been rough but they’ve learned a lot and it shows. Even worse than protected college students in the classrooms is spoiled ones in a foreign country. ::shudder:: That’s when it becomes painfully obvious how little freedom we’ve given our youth compared to other cultures.

As best as i can tell, the last big cognitive issue is the ability to think abstractly, negotiate social categories, and recognize that there are multiple possibilities to a situation based on your actions. Ideally, you should be able to get that there are multiple interpretations to a situation but i don’t think that most adults get this so i doubt that i can hold that as a standard for maturation even though it would be nice. Once you get this around adolescence/puberty, it’s building time from that point forward. Experience, risk-taking, and consequences matter. The crazy hormones surge at all different times to get in your way but like external crises, you gotta learn to recognize and deal with hormones. Locking up folks who are going through hormone rushes is never a good idea even if i had the urge to lock mom up for a few years.

There should be a list of things that youth should learn as young as possible to be a part of society. If i were to start a list, it would probably include:

  • Learn to manage your own money including situations where you don’t have enough money for something really important;
  • Work to make your own money;
  • Learn how to come up with money for monthly bills;
  • Learn how to cook, clean, and do laundry;
  • Learn how to take care of small children;
  • Learn how to handle sickness and doctors;
  • Learn how to travel (airplane, bus, etc.) on your own;
  • Learn to travel respectfully to foreign cultures;
  • Learn how to handle being drunk;
  • Experience being bullied, embarrassed, ridiculed, taunted, beaten up;
  • Be exposed to people really different than you and learn tolerance and respect;
  • Face failure and learn disappointment + face success and learn humility;
  • Experience heartbreak;
  • Manage significant emotional or physical pain;
  • Handle the death of someone close to you.

Obviously, some of these are taboo and others really shouldn’t be planned for but still, i have to say, this is what i’d want my child to know before being on their own. I have to give my mom props for making certain i knew many of these things. My favorite was the fact that she made me work in fast food to learn why i was getting a college education. Anyone else have favorite lessons that they wish all young people learned?

Digital Kids Postdoc (Application due May 5)

Attention newly minted and about to be minted PhDs: my research group is seeking post-docs to work on the digital kids project. Application deadline: MAY 5 (yes, *this* Friday). This is a great opportunity for people working in interdisciplinary spaces, interested in different aspects of digital youth. Your degree can be in anything from STS and HCI to soc and anthro to history and education, etc. You could be interested in studying online communities, gaming practices, mobile culture, youth and new media, etc. I should note that the grant comes from the American studies division of Macarthur so you should be interested in American practices. For more information, click here. Please pass this on to other academics who you think might be interested