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Expert Interview: Henry Jenkins

Audrey Stokes | March 11, 2011

Do you wonder how kids are being affected by growing up in a globally interconnected, multicultural, participatory world? In this expert interview, Henry Jenkins (Provost’s Professor of Communication, Journalism and Cinematic Arts at USC Annenberg) discusses participatory culture and what it means for kids in today’s society.

You study “participatory culture.” What does that mean?

Henry: The core concept is that this is a world where everyone is encouraged to participate. That is, we live in a moment of time when more and more young people are producing media, are engaged in online communities, are writing fan fiction, are leading guilds and game worlds. Everyone has something to contribute and what they contribute is valued by the group. There are mechanisms that emerge that welcome “newbies” into that environment and more-experienced people take newbies under their wing and help them acquire the skills they need to participate.

It doesn’t require that everyone participate; there are plenty of “lurkers” who are watching on the sidelines trying to see what this world is about and how they may engage with it. But everyone should feel like they’re entitled to participate. The people there are passionate about the same things, and that encourages people to learn from each other.

What’s an example of a young person participating in this way?

Henry: One of my grad students started at 13 writing fan fiction around Harry Potter, and by 15 or 16 she was editing other people’s fan fiction. By about that same age she published her first full-length novel online. She never told anyone her age, and she discovered that she was giving editorial advice to 35- or 40-year-old women who were writing stories, and in turn, they were giving her advice about some of the adult dilemmas that were emerging in the stories that she was writing.

This is an example of a culture where the roles between adults and young people are much fuzzier than they would be in school or church or at home, where there are fixed hierarchical relations between adults and kids. It’s a space that allows for adults and kids to talk to each other on new terms and to be connected because of their shared passion, rather than disconnected by assumptions about age and authority.

What are kids learning from participatory culture?

Henry: Well it may not look like it’s always looked, but a lot of the values in this world are the same ones that kids have always learned. The kid who’s running a game guild of 100 people may be learning the same leadership that a student council president learned at another time and place. The kid who’s running a blog and gets a lot of readers and he responds to them may be learning some of the skills that a student newspaper editor learned at another time and place. There are parallels there that we should recognize and value and respect, rather than just being spooked because the learning is taking place in a different technology.

What can parents do to help their kids benefit from this?

Henry answers this question in the video at the top of this page. Check it out!

What does it mean for kids to grow up in a networked society?

Henry: We’re now discovering that we carry our friendship ties with us like a turtle carries its shell on its back as we move from place to place; that these social networks are people we may know for the rest of our lives. As adults we may be discovering friends from high school or college who are reconnecting with us because of the online world.

Our sons and daughters will carry those connections with them unbroken, wherever they travel on the planet, and that sense of connectivity forms the basis for civic engagement, and for professional collaboration. They’re going to be living in a world where jobs are more short-term and they’re having to constantly negotiate and network their way into those jobs and they’re going to need that ability to move through a social network. It’s going to affect their ability to be creative because in the modern world you don’t just make things but you circulate them.

What are some challenges of this media culture?

Henry: Well, the biggest one is one of proportion. And we need to separate proportion from passion, right? It’s not bad to be passionate about something. It’s not bad for a certain moment in time to really geek out and want to dig in deep and explore something that matters to you. But there’s got to be balance — not on a day-to-day basis — on a day-to-day basis you may really be absorbed by something — but over time, the kid ought to be open to exploring a range of different experiences, some online, some off.

Just as if you’d sent a kid to the library, you’d want them to explore their favorite topic but also nudge them to read books on other subjects. You don’t want them to be totally locked online, nor do you want them to be shut off from the online world. It’s also about helping them value the kinds of learning that they’re acquiring through that time.