Henry Jenkins on Participatory Culture (Transcript)
Henry Jenkins: My grad students were interviewing high-school-aged students around the world. In almost every case, what we heard was young people had a richer intellectual and creative life outside of school than inside it, that the things they learned from and the things they cared about were things they did after the school day was over.
Henry: Participatory culture describes a world where everyone participates, where we take media in our own hands, where we have the capacity, often, to produce media, share media. I trace participatory culture back to the middle of the 19th century when there was a Tory printing-press movement and high-school-aged kids were producing publications, hand-laying type down and sending them across a national network. So the Amateur Press Association in the 19th century paved the way for science-fiction fandom in the 20th century, for radio, amateur radio and ham radio, down through the zine movements around Riot Grrrls and punk rock, the indie movement around Seattle and the World Trade Organization, down to the rise of digital media.
Henry: So there's a whole trajectory of examples where communities begin to produce media to share ideas among themselves and where they follow some of the practices we might associate with a folk culture.
Henry: In a folk culture, media is produced not to make money. People produce media to share it with each other. When someone makes a quilt, as my grandmother used to make, people gathered together. There's no expert. There are people who are learning from each other. Skills get passed from someone who knows a little more to someone who knows a little less. It's a social mode of production. It's a gift, typically, that the quilt is given. Until fairly recently, it was not sold. It was passed on to a member of the community as the community acknowledged a ritual in their life.
Henry: When we think about media on the Internet, it does many of those things, right? The fan communities I have spent much of my career studying write stories not because they want to get in the industry or they want to make money, but because they love telling stories and they want to tell stories to each other.
Henry: If we think about YouTube, and many of the people on YouTube are producing media because there's something they vitally want to share. It might be a skateboarder who did a great stunt and had their friends record it and paste it online. It might be an amateur remix artist who saw a TV show they loved and set it to music. It could be a political commentator or someone doing a video blog to talk about their everyday life. All of that becomes part of what I'm describing as a participatory culture.
Henry: The question is really, well, how do we go from participating in our culture to participating in our political and civic structures? If we look at, for example, the young people who made videos to support the Obama campaign a year or so back, how many of them got their start making movies of themselves skateboarding or making fan films or whatever? They acquired their skill by simply playing around with media, in the terms of the Digital Youth Project, "messing around" comes first. They were messing around with technology, "geeking out" around a certain set of subject matter. So what I'm interested in right now is what would it mean to "geek out" for democracy?
Henry: What does it mean to be as passionate about the future of your society as you are about anime, about games, about the sort of forms of popular culture that young people are involved with?
Henry: We could also point to, for example, the Harry Potter Alliance, and the Harry Potter Alliance is a group that organizes around human-rights issues around the world. So Andrew Slack, the 20-something-year-old leader of the group, said when he read Harry Potter, what he saw was a story of a young man who recognized evil in his society the government was covering up, the mass media of his time was lying about it, but he saw through it, organized his classmates to form Dumbledore's Army and went out and changed the world. And that's his account of the plot of Harry Potter, and he said, "Well, what if we had a Dumbledore's Army in our world? What issues would it tackle? What are the concerns? What would you do?" And now he uses that fantasy of Dumbledore's Army to mobilize. Now 100,000 young people around the world are involved in the Harry Potter Alliance and they're going out to deal with human-rights violations in the Third World, Darfur, Uganda, workers' rights issues in the United States around Walmart, gay-marriage propositions in Maine and California they've mobilized on. They just raised a cargo plane worth of supplies for Haiti. So they work on a range of issues. So the people who are involved in that are not the kids who join student government. They're the kids who were, you know, playing "Dungeons and Dragons," the kids who, you know, were collecting monster magazines, the kids who read a lot of science fiction books. They're suddenly finding a vehicle to think politically through these kinds of interest-driven networks. And we're seeing again and again these interest-driven networks are preparing the way for them to think of themselves as citizens in a new way, to mobilize the skills they developed as contributing to online communities and participatory culture and direct them toward changing society, changing the world.
Henry: I mean, I'm deeply enthusiastic about all of this stuff that's taking place outside of school, but if we leave it there as sort of the way we create feral children of the Internet, you know, and the idea that just let them be, they'll learn on their own, I think leaves a lot of kids behind and it leaves us -- those kids without adult guidance, without engagement and skill, validation of those skills that would prepare them to move up to higher levels and to get recognition for what they've accomplished. They don't need us snooping over their shoulders, but they do need us watching their backs.
Henry: What I'm seeing is there are individual teachers out there who are incredibly innovative, dedicated, willing to explore things, willing to think in open-minded ways about the future of education, and those are the battles that are worth fighting for at this point. School systems, you know, are locked down. Federal policy makes it difficult. The change, they may be in schools where all of the affordances of participatory culture are locked out.
Henry: What's important is to figure out how to bring that into the educational process. So, for example, Moby Dick, we had students make changes in the Wikipedia entries around Melville and Moby Dick and defend those changes against challenge through the vetting process on Wikipedia and to have some of their changes stand the test of the community and have to mobilize evidence and support arguments and demonstrate the value of the arguments they made on something that would be a permanent part of the public record and the public conversation around these books. And the sense of empowerment those kids got by participating in that process is really vital, but to think of all the schools who say, "Wikipedia is bad, let's not let that in our classroom," that's the experience that so many kids in America have.
Henry: In the short term, it's about getting this stuff in the hands of teachers who will want to make a difference and giving them the validation and encouragement they need to keep fighting the good fight on behalf of the new media literacies.