Youth Cultural Production: Limits and Possibilities

The rough-cut screening was tough on youth and adults alike. HYPE educators left the conversation with conflicted responses: excitement, on the one hand, that the teens were roused to claim ownership of the documentary-making process; and frustration, on the other, that this newfound determination had not surfaced earlier in the five-week program. What responsibility did the teens bear for the disappointments of the rough cut? Some had simply not “shown up” for the documentary work, preferring instead to hang out, or at every opportunity to engage with other online digital media practices—Facebook, MySpace, YouTube, gaming, and texting with cell phones.

Not only does this unsettled tension provide another site for examining the ethical dilemmas that emerge when adult and youth agendas collide, it also raises important issues of class and race embedded in the social conditions of HYPE. For many of the Latino and African American participants, at school and at home, high-speed access to the Internet is limited. While survey data from the Pew Hispanic Center and the Pew Internet & American Life Project suggest the gap in home Internet use between white and Latino households may be shrinking—given the rising percentage of Latino households with broadband connections from 2006 to 2008—disparities in access in households with annual incomes under $30,000 persist.19 Access to computers in urban public schools is similarly limited by an absence of infrastructure and support and by the current organization of the environment around standardized curricula and testing. Compared to suburban public schools, computers in urban city schools are often older, and Internet access is both slow and heavily restricted. By contrast, at HYPE, youth enter a college environment infused with new digital media tools. The room where most of the collective work takes place is encircled by 16 state-of-the-art Apple computers with high-speed broadband access, two printers, and a scanner. The multimedia production studio is similarly well equipped, with multiple high-definition video cameras, a mobile laptop system, and other production tools—the value of which far exceeds the annual income of a high school teacher in the district. The draw of the technology for the students is undeniable.20 This social context makes it difficult to dismiss the teens’ online activities as mere distraction from the “legitimate” media-making goals at hand and is a reminder of the need to listen closely to the meanings the students make of these disparities.

Cell phones were ubiquitous at HYPE. All 12 students kept their cell phones close by, if not on them physically at all times. Like their peers nationally, HYPE students own and carry with them an array of digital media devices, including cell phones, Nintendo DS and other handheld gaming systems, iPods, and other MP3 players. On these devices they download and share music, text message, participate in Internet social networking sites, play games, and view and share YouTube videos.21 While the teens mostly observed the rule prohibiting talking on their phones during HYPE, they were almost always connected and online via texting and Internet social networking sites. While at the computer editing in Final Cut Pro or iMovie or doing Internet research, teens had multiple windows open where they would jump between HYPE work and MySpace, Facebook, YouTube, and gaming and fan sites.

For some scholars, these digital media practices signal a new kind of creative production for youth. This perspective unites chapters in the edited volume Hanging Out, Messing Around and Geeking Out. In one chapter, “Creative Production,” Patricia Lange and Mizuko Ito argue that new online media practices constitute a kind of creative production in the digital age. Writing about MySpace and the particular process of constructing a user profile, the authors suggest that “for most youth, profile creation is a casual activity in defining a personal web page and graphic identity, pieced together with found materials on the internet. This is a form of messing around that can provide some initial introductions to how to manipulate online digital media.”22 At HYPE, we also recognize that beneath the surface of this casual “messing around” is an excitement to connect with new media that can be mobilized to engage youth in other forms of media making. As Lange and Ito point out, “Personal media creation is often a starting point for broadening media production into other forms.”23 New digital opportunities to create personally and socially relevant content may be particularly meaningful for youth of color, in the context of an Internet that is, as Ellen Seiter argues, “so heavily skewed toward white, English-speaking professionals who are interested in making purchases online.”24

Henry Jenkins and his colleagues at Massachusetts Institute of Technology argue that social networking sites and other online spaces where youth create and share content provide them with possibilities to engage in a “participatory culture.”25 Within this conceptual framework, digital and online media are seen, in Lange and Ito’s summary, to open up “new avenues for young people to create and share media” and compose a “new media ecology” that has the potential “to reshape the conditions under which young people engage with media and culture, moving youth from positions as media consumers to more active media producers.”26

We question some of the exuberance in these calls to focus on Facebook, MySpace, and other online pursuits within youth media education. As a program, HYPE values the knowledge and experiences that youth bring to the table—and this includes, increasingly, their experiences online. But as media educators, we also have a responsibility to provide them with information about the limitations of these practices, situated as they are within a context of commodification that is notoriously relentless in targeting urban Latino and African American youth. It matters that the new avenues for young people to create and share information online are paved by profit motives, and, as Seiter insists, media educators and researchers bear a responsibility to “teach children about the economics of the Internet,” including making transparent the “hidden forms of commercialism” implicit in the business of mining and profiling based on user-generated content.27 There are huge differences between online avenues and the streets one walks down to get to school or to the store, a playground, or work.

In the context of HYPE, cultural production serves larger social justice aims. That is, documentary media making involves a set of practices that help teens from center city Allentown become agents of change within the community. We have witnessed the deep learning and community engagement that opens up when we walk slowly with HYPE teens through center city, mobile Geographic Information System devices and video cameras in their hands—mapping information about public safety, housing, health, and environmental concerns and systematically gathering visible evidence for their documentary productions. Community screenings of Roots of Change, at a center city restaurant, a college campus, and a public library, opened up vital avenues for dialogue in which youth who are regularly silenced by community institutions are positioned— position themselves—and recognized by adults as part of the solution, rather than the problem. In other words, youth become agents in transforming their relationships within the community as well as their relationships to media systems, critically exercising their right to communication.

Rather than signaling a new era of possibilities in how young people communicate, online activities like Facebook do not radically transform urban youths’ relationship to media in particular and consumer capitalism more broadly. Beneath the hype of transforming them into “producer-consumers” in a “participatory culture,” the value of their participation is that Facebook’s owners and the advertisers on its site profit from the steady stream of content that users generate in the form of posts, photos, links, friends, and personal profile information.28 “While these sites can offer participants entertainment and a way to socialize,” observes Nicole Cohen, “the social relations present on a site like Facebook can obscure economic relations that reflect larger patterns of capitalist development in the digital age.”29 In the context of digital capitalism, Facebook and other Web 2.0 ventures are best understood as a continuation of the commodification of urban youth. Undeniably, HYPE students, like other youth, find meaning in their online communication. However, a theoretical understanding of the free labor these activities provide and the wider context of capitalist accumulation in which they are situated puts them in direct conflict with youth media’s goal to engage young people in forms of meaning making that offer alternatives to the meanings made available within dominant consumer culture.

Facebook, MySpace, and YouTube are very much a part of the institutions of media that form what Goodman describes as a system of authority, one that contributes to the criminalization and commodification of the urban working class and youth of color.30 Indeed, social networking sites dramatically expand the cultural surveillance of urban youth by market research firms heavily invested in tracking this “taste culture.”31 As Cohen rightly argues, “While there may be an element of agency present as members navigate Facebook, social networking sites created from the Web 2.0 business model should not be misunderstood as open, ‘democratic’ spaces in which people can act as they please. While there is room within the website to construct an online identity, interact with people in various ways, and generate a sense of empowerment or fulfillment, the structures (in this case, site design, functionality, privacy settings) are set according to the economic imperative of the company, and participation is constrained or enabled by the economic goals of the site.”32 Engaging young people in critical dialogue about these social processes is an important part of supporting their development as media makers. HYPE teens have good reason to look for alternative sites of communication and participation, given the unwelcoming environments they encounter at school and in the community, where they have no voice. “At school, it’s like I’m mute,” says Jamie, whose experience is echoed by his HYPE peers. But creating social networks online, meaningful as they may be, is no substitute for the daunting work of constructing a more inclusive community for these youth in Allentown. The longing for a more just social world in their community is deeply held by HYPE teens. This longing is articulated by Jessie, a 16-year-old Latina student, who has been in the HYPE program for 3 years.

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