Rewriting the Script: Toward a Politics of Young People’s Digital Media Participation

Accepting popular culture does not mean a lazy throwing open of the school doors to the latest fad, but rather committing to a principled understanding of the complexity of contemporary cultural experience.
—Paul Willis, 2003

INTRODUCTION

Words like “participation,” “participatory culture,” and “interactivity” have entered the popular lexicon laden with promises. Marketers of interactive technologies offer limitless entertainment choices, and breathless copy claims that the Web 2.0—epitomized by sites such as YouTube and Facebook—will create community, empower users, and revolutionize communication. Perhaps one the most insistent promises of a new, participatory culture is the democratization of media production. Within this promise lies not only the possibility of equality between media users and producers, but even the convergence of their roles, as media audiences take on new functions as citizen journalists, bloggers, game designers, and video artists. This celebratory script and its attendant vision of transformed social relations are evident in countless mainstream media accounts. At the end of 2006, for example, Time magazine declared “You” the Person of the Year, “for seizing the reins of the global media, for founding and framing the new digital democracy, for working for nothing and beating the pros at their own game” (Grossman 2006, 15), positioning new media users as competitive, powerful, and unpaid digital citizens.
Young people are accorded a prominent role within this participatory culture. Indeed, as the titles of popular books such as Growing Up Digital: The Rise of the Net Generation (Tapscott 1998) and Born Digital: Understanding the First Generation of Digital Natives (Palfrey and Gasser 2008) suggest, youth culture is becoming synonymous with digital technology and mediated practices like texting, tagging, blogging, social networking, and remixing. Throughout the mainstream media, stories of teens who make it big in digital culture serve to emphasize young people’s new roles as media producers and creators, at the same time that they celebrate narratives of technological progress and entrepreneurial savvy.
I begin by noting these popular representations because they serve as an important backdrop to my own research. As Marita Sturken and Douglas Thomas (2004) write, new technologies are frequently the subject of fascination and hyperbole and serve as a screen onto which a broad array of hopes are projected. Such visions impact how technologies are “marketed, used, made sense of and integrated into people’s lives” (3), and no study concerned with new media can overlook their highly productive role. I also begin with these imaginaries because they were my own starting place. As a teacher of secondary school English and media studies and an instructor in a university child and youth studies program, I have long been interested in young people’s cultural production and consumption. The possibility that young people might be at the forefront of media democratization was a proposition I wanted to examine more carefully. Yet as I became increasingly interested in the intersections of digital media, popular culture, and youth practices, I found that phrases like “digital natives” and “net generation” and idealized narratives of connectivity, collaboration, and empowerment did not adequately capture the tensions I noted between youth and corporate media, nor did they fully recognize the complicated forms of pop culture consumption and appropriation I observed happening in both online and school settings.
My research for the past two years, then, has been an attempt to trace and analyze the complex online interactions I see between young media users and corporate producers. Employing a combined methodology of web sphere analysis (Schneider and Foot 2004) and critical discourse analysis, I have identified, collected, and examined groups of linked sites, both corporate sites targeted at youth and those created by youth themselves. These include blogs, social networking sites, discussion boards, and video-hosting sites. I have also analyzed youth-driven activities such as remixing, tagging, discussing, archiving, and sharing, as well as producing and submitting user-generated content. Throughout this process, it has been my aim to identify and evaluate not only the interactions between corporate producers and young users but also the power relations between the two. I present some of my findings from this study here, focusing on two case studies and their implications for how we conceptualize and teach media education.
My analysis proceeds in four parts. The first section introduces key theoretical concepts, including commodification, labor, intellectual property, and user agency. It expresses the need for a more clearly articulated politics of digital participation, one that locates interactivity inside the social, material, and economic contexts that allow, constrain, and channel youth participation. The second and third sections detail case studies of young people’s appropriation of the television programs Gossip Girl and The Colbert Report. Examining the ways in which young people digitally remix these two programs, I note a spectrum of participatory processes and meanings that range from uninvited and occasionally transgressive rewritings of pop culture texts to compliant consumption within carefully managed, interactive environments. The last section presents a brief reflection on ways that we might use these examples to help us frame our own pedagogical projects, particularly within media education. Overall, it is my hope that this survey of the terrain of digital interactions among youth, corporations, and pop culture texts will begin to complicate current visions of participatory culture and contribute to Willis’ (2003) call for a “principled understanding of the complexity of contemporary cultural experience” (411).

TOWARD A POLITICS OF DIGITAL PARTICIPATION

The material practices and discursive articulations associated with digital participation vary widely. Behind this variety is not ambiguity or confusion, but rather the deeply contested issue of just how digital participation will be configured, and for whose benefit. Such a contest has significant implications for the construction of subjectivities, social relations, and solidarities and deserves to be considered with care. What is required now, I would argue, is a critical examination of the politics of digital participation. Such an engagement would undertake a number of projects. To begin with, participatory culture should be analyzed in context, considering, for example, the consolidation of media ownership, the reregulation of digital technologies, and the formation of publics and counterpublics. It can also fruitfully be linked to concepts such as digital capitalism and globalizing youth cultures. There must also be a recognition of the culturally constituted desire to participate. Rather than falling into the trap of regarding digital participation as the outcome of technological innovation, we must relocate it within the realm of social desires, desires that create a demand for, shape, and recreate interactive technologies and practices (Cover 2006). Overcoming the burden of technological determinism also opens up spaces for pedagogical possibility, as I argue in the final part of this article, for it recognizes the productive gaps between the intention and the use(s) of the technology, what Raymond Williams (1974) called technology’s “uncontrollable opportunities” (134). Finally, I believe, we are required to step back from the discourse of novelty that surrounds young people’s digital participation. We must keep in mind, as Saskia Sassen (2002) writes, that new media “can indeed be constitutive of new social dynamics, but they can also be derivative or merely reproduce older conditions” (77).
Accepting the need for a politics of digital participation means being attentive to the ways in which power, contestation, and hierarchy inscribe participatory technologies and processes. Given the vast range of interactive environments, there are countless practices, sites, and discourses in which to ground such an analysis. But in a culture that promises new levels of collaboration and power-sharing—promises frequently transmitted through the invitations of the corporate media and extended toward young users—I would argue that the interactions among commercial media, young user-producers, and popular culture texts are a particularly crucial site for an analysis of the production and circulation of power. Indeed, it is here that we can trace many of the most significant concerns currently debated by those interested in digital theory, cultural studies, and critical media literacy, including struggles over commodification, user agency, labor, and intellectual property. I briefly reflect on these four struggles here, describing the debates and tensions that attend each, before giving them more concrete form in the case studies that follow.

The past few years have seen the emergence of a set of corporate digital practices that might be seen to constitute the “commodification of participation.” This phenomenon includes at least three recent developments. The first is the takeover of a number of highly interactive sites by large media corporations, including Google’s purchase of YouTube, NewsCorp’s purchase of MySpace, and NBC’s purchase of Television Without Pity. The second development is the appearance of large companies such as PepsiCo, Walmart, and the Royal Bank of Canada on social networking sites like Facebook. The third, related development is more amorphous, but equally significant to the shape of interactivity. This is what Tom McCourt and Patrick Burkart (2007) observe as the shift of users from vibrant online communities to shopping destinations and “light virtual communities,” spaces where “online cultural distributors construct the appearance of community, while largely denying members the ability to communicate or otherwise interact directly” (269). A number of scholars (Holmes 2004; Terranova 2007) have begun to suggest that these forms of embedded participation point toward the emergence of new forms of capital rooted in social relations.
The context of commodification necessarily frames the remaining debates, and in particular leads to questions about the possibility of user agency. Scholars such as Mark Andrejevic (2007) have framed user interactions with digital media texts and producers within the terms of surveillance, consumption, and the reproduction of “communicative capitalism” (Dean 2002). In her examination of corporate and user practices on YouTube, José van Dijk (2009) questions user agency by noting the ways in which the site’s interface steers users by means of codes that promote commercialized content. Other scholars have been intent to demonstrate users’ active role in shaping interactivity. Russell Richards (2006) stresses that while users may indeed be positioned by digital media producers and texts (e.g., interpellated as consumers), they also position themselves, and negotiate power relationships by taking on productive activities that include customizing and circulating content. Jenkins (2006b), similarly beginning from a standpoint that affirms users’ transformative powers, argues that fans of popular culture proliferate interpretations and attract new audiences through rereading, remixing, and retelling corporately produced content, thereby “repair[ing] the damage caused by an increasingly privatized culture” (256).
Debates over the provision of free labor within the digital economy add another layer of complexity to questions of agency. Introduced by cybertheorist Tiziana Terranova in 2000, the concept of free labor has become even more relevant with the rise of collaborative technologies such as wikis, and the intensification of user-generated content and the cultural economic trend toward “crowd-sourcing.” Drawing on neo-Marxist theory, numerous scholars have entered a discussion of “immaterial labor,” debating the degree to which free digital labor is structured and shaped by late capitalism, and its ability to exist outside of and subvert technocapitalist acceleration (Barbrook 1999, cited in Terranova 2000; Terranova 2000; Deuze and Scholtz, 2007). Other debates center around the usefulness of concepts of commodification and exploited labor in theorizing the relationship between commercial and noncommercial interests. In their study of the gaming industry, for example, John Banks and Sal Humphreys (2008) reject notions of user ignorance and exploitation that they see at work in neo-Marxist interpretations of user labor, and instead posit the need for new analytical models that recognize the complex, hybrid, and changing power relations between users and producers.
Finally, it is impossible to consider the producer-user-text relationship without recognizing the way in which copyright laws, digital rights management, and users textual practices have brought media corporations and users into conflict. User-initiated practices provide serious challenges to dominant conceptualizations of intellectual property, ownership, and authority. Corporations have responded with both the development of locking technologies and lawsuits. A number of scholars and popular commentators (Sobol 2006; Lessig 2008) have noted the ways in which these legal interventions criminalize the consumption patterns and creative practices central to young people’s identity-building. Others (Santo 2007) have suggested that corporate invitations to participate that frame or regulate the ways in which copyrighted material can be used might also be interpreted as a new, more subtle mechanism of control.
Although I have presented each of these debates separately, they are of course deeply connected, and it is their intersection that creates the contradictions, convergences, and paradoxes that so many theorists identify with “network culture.” Rather than trying to resolve or simplify these tensions, researchers need to recognize them and, more importantly, trace the ways in which power is reproduced, resisted, and circulated within such struggles. That is exactly what I propose to do in the subsequent case studies, which map the often messy, uneven and contested interactions among corporate media, pop culture texts, and young user-producers. Each of these examples is taken from Internet television—a hybrid, transmedia set of practices that not only brings together the “old” and “new” technologies of television and the Internet, but also draws in activities such as blogging, discussing, voting, spoofing, remixing, archiving, and circulating televisual texts. While all of these processes are a part of my research, here I focus on the practice of video remix, and on those forms of participation in which the pop culture text is appropriated, altered, or customized either at the young audience’s initiative or at the invitation of corporate media producers.

TALKING BEHIND THEIR BACKS: HOW FAN GIRLS DIGITALLY RESCRIPT GOSSIP GIRL

I want to begin with a glimpse into fan girl culture, analyzing the interplay among corporate media, girls who vid, and the television texts they love. Fan girls have a unique and complex relationship with pop culture and commercial media, based as it is in both an attachment to the original text and the desire to rewrite that text. Fan girl practices have an established history that dates back to handmade zines, analog remixes, and early rewritings of Star Trek, a history that has had a significant impact on today’s digital activities (see Coppa 2008). The term “fan girl” itself can be applied to both girls and adult women. Here, however, I focus on the contemporary digital practices of teen and young adult fan girls, in order to raise questions about youth creativity, intellectual property, alternative models of distribution, and the desire for authorship.

I want to look in particular at one video remix that dramatically alters the narrative of the teen drama Gossip Girl. Gossip Girl was first aired in September 2007 on the CW Television Network, an American network that targets its programming to female audiences between the ages of 18 to 34 years. The show itself is based on a popular series of books that portray the lives of wealthy teens living in New York’s upper East side. Both the novels and the program have been controversial, mostly for their sensationalized portraits of teen sexuality. Feminist critic Naomi Wolf (2006), for example, denounced the books for the way in which they commodified rather than explored teen sexuality. Similarly, the show’s advertising was criticized in 2008 when it splashed the text language OMFGG across pictures of scantily clad teens. Like most current television programming, but particularly that targeted at youth, Gossip Girl exists across many platforms. Alongside the program, which is available both online and on TV, the producers offer audiences opportunities to participate through numerous discussion boards, Facebook and Twitter updates, and a Gossip Girl neighborhood inside Second Life.
But while the program’s producers exploit multiple technologies to build viewership and audience loyalty, there has also been much unsolicited interaction with the Gossip Girl brand. The program has become popular with teen girls, who have flooded YouTube with fan videos—known as vids—in which clips from the source text are remixed and set to music. While many of these vids keep the original narrative intact, there are also a large number that radically redirect that narrative, following conventions within fan culture in which “alternative universes” are imagined, or characters from one program introduced into another to create hybrid “crossovers.” Another possibility for rewriting the original text lies in “slash.” Slash places two characters of the same sex—often male—into a homoerotic relationship, and uses clips from the original program to sustain this new vision. The name slash is derived from the typographical character that separates the two male names: for example in the very first instance of slash, Kirk/Spock. Producing slash—either through fan fiction or in video form—has until recently been the work of an underground subculture of mostly female fans. Slash is now becoming more public, however, as older, more experienced vidders record and analyze slash’s history, and vidders of all ages post original digital works online on popular sites such as YouTube and Vimeo.
“Breathe Me,” a vid created by Vridore (2008), a teenage vidder living in England, demonstrates many of the textual features and production processes common to slash. In it, Vridore reimagines the heteronormative text of Gossip Girl by placing best friends Nate and Chuck into an intense and troubled romantic relationship with each other. Her quickly edited scenes show Nate and Chuck occasionally in the presence of the program’s female characters, but most often looking at or talking to one another. The repetition of scenes in which Nate and Chuck leave each other, visibly frustrated and hurt, creates an atmosphere of tension and angst. Set to Sia’s 2005 pop song “Breathe Me,” the vid itself puts the song’s melancholy lyrics to use not only to create mood, but as a tool for reimagining Nate’s and Chuck’s friendship. The chorus “Hold me, wrap me up/Unfold me I am small/ and needy/Warm me up/And breathe me” implies a sexual dimension to the young men’s relationship, and also gives their characters a sense of vulnerability and hurt. Still, the painful, almost doomed portrait of their relationship is broken by two erotic scenes that imply sexual encounters between the two characters, and by the vid’s ending, which shows the two characters in a scene of reconciliation.
Vridore’s remix takes its place alongside a host of other vids on YouTube, most by young women, that recode the characters, plots and relationships of Gossip Girl, vids like Cuircorps’ (2009) four-part series Gossip Gays, which draws on the conventions of camp to queer all the characters, male and female, or BlueMoon01’s (2008) femslash work “Your guardian angel,” which eroticizes the friendship between female leads Blair and Serena. Texts like “Breathe Me” challenge—or as feminist theorist Sonia Katyal (2006) suggests, slash through—heteronormative and patriarchal constructions of gender and sexuality by imagining less constrained gender roles and more equitable relationships, and by inverting television’s male gaze. Slash vids also perforate notions of completeness and authenticity in the original text and demonstrate young audience’s desires to interact with digital narratives. Francesca Coppa (2006), both a vidder and scholar, writes that such fan creativity is significant for what it reveals about television texts, articulating the idea that plots and characters are “neither constructed or owned” (230).
In fact, it is exactly questions of ownership that fan vids and slash raise. Struggles over copyright are at the center of interactions between vidders and corporate media. While vidders often post disclaimers stating that they do not own the clips they use and that they are not making profit from their work, as Vridore notes on her own home page, vids are frequently taken down by YouTube at the request of broadcasters, most recently through the use of YouTube’s automated copyright filtering system known as “Content ID.” Because of its radical rewriting of dominant narratives, slash is particularly vulnerable to this sort of unannounced removal. For their part, vidders argue that their works are noncommercial in nature and, more, that pop culture texts are also the property of those who consume them. They hold—as do many legal scholars (Katyal 2006; Tushnet 2007)—that their creative reworking of such texts should be considered fair use under copyright law. Katyal (2006) takes this argument further. Drawing on the transgressive recoding of gendered performances in slash, she argues that copyright law must likewise view cultural commodities not as fixed texts but as starting points for ongoing performances. Indeed, the presence of vids like “Breathe Me” in the public forums of YouTube not only stand as a symbol of the struggle over who has the right to create meaning but also act as a catalyst for further remixes, evoking Umberto Eco’s (1989) concept of “works in movement,” in which semiotically open texts give rise to continuous variation.
A final aspect of vidding to consider is the way in which pop culture texts mediate relations between young users. In the case of “Breathe Me,” this means examining the conditions under which the vid was produced and distributed. In fact, we see that Vridore and other teenage vidders create not just alternative universes through their work, but also alternative economies. The text directly below “Breathe Me” indicates the video was created in response to a contest. Following the links, we see that the contest was initiated by a 15-year-old girl living in Calgary, who put out a call for vids remixing her five favorite programs—Smallville, Supernatural, One Tree Hill, The O.C., and Gossip Girl. In her contest announcement, the teen promises to award the winners with three prizes: she’ll provide them with comments on ten of their vids, send their winning vid to her list of over 300 friends, and make each of them a vid based on their own specifications. Such contests are not unusual within the vidding community, especially among young vidders, and they function as an important way to create community and an economy of recognition and exchange among new participants.
The role fan vids play in promoting the program within and beyond fan communities and vidders’ own complicated relationships with source texts suggest that we cannot read “Breathe Me” and other slash vids as expressions of audience autonomy separated from the circulation of power and profit. Nonetheless, the work and practices of vidders—and their relationships to corporations, corporately produced texts, and to one another—gesture toward struggles over meaning, authorship, and property and demonstrate the possibility of subversive rewritings and alternative gift economies. In a context in which participation is increasingly managed, slash vidders remind us that interactions with the text can be seized upon as opportunities to critique and remodel the products of popular culture and that, as Paul Willis (2003) has written, “young people creatively respond to a plethora of electronic signals and cultural commodities in ways that surprise their makers, finding meanings and identities never meant to be there and defying simple nostrums that bewail the manipulation or passivity of ‘consumers’”(392). Still, even as slash vids have proven somewhat indigestible to the corporate hunger to commodify social relations, the wider practices of remix have nonetheless been quickly appropriated by corporate media as a means of reaching new audiences, extending brand recognition, and adding value to televisual properties. It is this trend that I want to look at next, as we turn to The Colbert Report, and questions of labor, control, and centralization.

“THE SMARTIST MINDS IN TELEVISION”: MANAGING DIGITAL PARTICIPATION ON THE COLBERT REPORT

Comedy Central’s late-night parody of right-wing media, The Colbert Report, has attracted a large and youthful audience. It is also widely acknowledged as one of the first programs to tap into remix culture and audiences’ desire to participate. Journalist Rachel Sklar (2007) remarked in The Huffington Post that “the people behind The Colbert Report may be the smartest minds in television: While everyone else frets about YouTube, Web TV, and platform integration, Stephen Colbert & Co. are already galvanizing the online to action and integrating user-generated content into the show.” Interactions between the program’s producers and its active audience are both numerous and compelling. Of their own accord, viewers have initiated several thriving fan sites dedicated to the program, organized protests in support of striking writers, and devoted countless threads to discussion of the show. At the invitation of Colbert and the program’s producers, viewers have also changed Wikipedia pages, stuffed an online ballot with 17 million votes, and remixed video to depict Colbert as a Jedi warrior.
It is this last invitation that I want to examine here. In 2006, in a segment celebrating Marin county, home to Star Wars creator George Lucas, Colbert was shown wielding a light saber against a green screen. According to writer Peter Gwinn (2006), by the next day, fans had already remixed the green screen clip and posted it on YouTube. In an effort to exploit this online activity, Colbert Report producers issued an official, on-air challenge to viewers to remix the green screen footage, which was made available on the program’s official Web site, The Colbert Nation.
The initial challenge already begins constraining viewer participation in a number of ways. The first is simply the fact of providing viewers with footage to remix. As Avi Santo (2007) has remarked in regard to another youth media outlet, MTV, providing audiences with clips to remix legally allows control over the kind of material that will be created. In the case of the Colbert Report, the green screen footage plays perfectly into the program’s mock-heroic tone. Another important aspect of the challenge was the set of instructions on how to submit remixes. Videos could only be uploaded onto The Colbert Nation site, where they were showcased. Not only did this centralization strategy bring more viewers to the program’s official site, it also kept videos from being uploaded to YouTube, where attention—and thus profits—would migrate to YouTube’s owner Google. Finally, the videos themselves were used as a way of limiting possible interpretations of the footage. During the run of the contest, Colbert featured several of the remixes on the program, as a way, in his words, to “inspire” viewers. While these broadcasts may indeed have encouraged viewers, and were remarked upon by critics like Rachel Sklar as signs of audience-empowering convergence, they almost certainly directed future videos toward very particular kinds of representation.
We can see this in the submissions themselves. Although they could not avoid representing Colbert as a saber-wielding hero given the clip they were required to work with, most of the remixers whole-heartedly took up the images and narratives of the program itself. This is evident in a compilation of videos that Colbert played on the evening the winner was announced. Bears, Nancy Pelousi, Dick Cheney—all the program’s in-jokes that fans revel in—make repeat performances. The final winning entry, in particular, recreates the program’s visual and narrative codes. Entitled “Freedom Fighter” (Bonnie R 2006), the remix replicates the program’s main motifs, including screaming eagles and American flags, while its loose storyline—Colbert versus the Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad—reproduces the binary of good and evil the show satirizes. Even the video’s carnivalesque atmosphere enacts the program’s satiric excess and spectacle.
Of course, these representations are mostly unsurprising. Given the conditions of production—a contest in which the main prize is broadcast and national recognition—most remixers would be likely to work within the parameters of the challenge and recreate the conventions of the program. Perhaps what is particularly important to point out is how common the practice of inviting video remixes and providing digital material has become since the Green Screen Challenge. In 2007, the Battlestar Galactica Web site posted a tool kit for audience members to produce their own mash-ups, with the winning entry promised a spot in the program’s third season. The Web site for The N, a television channel directed at teens and like Comedy Central owned by Viacom, hosts a video masher that allows users to create simple vids from clips of Degrassi: The Next Generation. Similarly, on the CW network site, viewers are invited to experiment in “The CW Lab,” where they are provided with music soundtracks and carefully chosen clips from youth-targeted programs such as 90210, American’s Next Top Model, One Tree Hill, Smallville, and Gossip Girl. Or they can take part in the network’s “Making the Cut” contest, aimed at college students, in which the prize is an internship in CW’s promotion department.
As critics like Mark Andrejevic (2007) have pointed out, the language of empowerment that often frames such invitations masks a number of troubling elements in the interaction between audiences and corporations that extend beyond the attempt to centralize and manage audience creativity. In the case of The Colbert Report, for example, fans’ labor provides free content for both the Web site and the broadcast, not only now but in the future, as all content uploaded to The Colbert Nation Web site becomes the property of Viacom “perpetually and indefinitely” (Terms of Use). Remix is also employed as a strategy to further brand loyalty amongst fans themselves, as creating for and being a part of the broadcast leads to stickiness with the program. Finally, and most pervasively, television producers and writers frequently mine user-created content to generate story ideas, while corporations mine users’ personal data to be bought and sold. As José van Dijk (2009) writes, “it is crucial to understand the new role of users as both content providers and data providers” (47, italics in original). Such routine acts of monitoring and surveillance quite clearly undercut claims of media democratization.
Still, as important as it is to trace such interactions as evidence of the increasing commodification of participation, interpretations of the Green Screen Challenge cannot be pinned down quite so neatly. This is due to the provocative nature of Colbert’s satire. As a parody, Colbert’s invitations to the audience play out somewhat differently than those of say, Battlestar Galactica. In an interview at the Harvard Institute of Politics (2006), Colbert stated that his work takes aim at the “cult of personality” and “monolithic tone and shamelessness” that have arisen within the contemporary news aesthetic. Self-aggrandizement is a primary facet of Colbert’s character, and Colbert’s suggestion that the audience remix footage of him in heroic exploits is just one of several such requests. This “shameless” pursuit of fame is part of the parody’s critique of a news media that relies more on personality and affect than deliberative discussion (Baym 2007; Burwell and Boler 2008). Ultimately, such requests may act as both profit-making strategies and satiric jabs at right-wing spectacle. Read this way, the ambiguity of the program’s invitations to participate must also be extended to Colbert’s fans. Colbert himself has suggested that his audience is, in his words, “a character in a scene I’m playing” (Snierson 2007). This is a role that fans themselves are aware of. On both the program’s official and unofficial Web sites, for example, fans take part in numerous self-reflexive discussions about their participation in the program’s parody. They note they have a complicated “double consciousness” about their involvement in the show, responding to its invitations with both ironic and earnest intent (WordsWithGrace 2007). By including in our analysis this self-awareness on the part of fans and the complexity of a pop culture text like the Colbert Report, we keep the door open to the possibility that participation in pop culture’s digital playground could be more than the reproduction of capital and the commodification of youth creativity.
As I have tried to suggest through these preceding two examples, the interactions among users, producers, and texts—with youth practices at their center—are considerably more contradictory and uneven than celebratory discourses of media democratization might suggest. Processes such as centralization, commodification, and the exploitation of free labor coexist and intersect with the appropriation of dominant narratives, the organization of alternative economies, and the imagination of alternative worlds. Such intersections complicate the popular rhetoric about online participation, demonstrating that opportunities to participate are variously seized, taken, created, managed, constrained, controlled, sold, and profited from. They also complicate one-dimensional representations of youth as either empowered or exploited by digital technology, instead suggesting that young people’s creative responses to popular culture are neither solely resistant nor simply reproductive. Instead, they may be both simultaneously and, more than that, are always transformative in some way, creating new cultural ground that must constantly be renegotiated (Willis 2003). In a context in which digital texts and discourses like those found on Internet television play an increasingly important role in daily life as forms of exchange and capital, “who gets access to them, who can manipulate and construct them, who can critique, refute, second guess them” is, as Allan Luke (2000, 449) has written about texts in the twenty-first century more generally, a key pedagogical issue. It is to questions of media education and its potential response to the shifting terrain of media production and use that I want to turn in the final section.

“UNCONTROLLABLE OPPORTUNITIES”: FRAMING MEDIA EDUCATION IN TERMS OF POWER

A number of recent reflections on media education have considered the ways in which rapid digitization may require new ways of thinking about the field. In her essay “Debates and Challenges Facing New Literacies in the Twenty-First Century,” for example, Renee Hobbs (2008) writes that “[e]ducators are just beginning to explore what it means to build critical thinking and communication skills around…new online genres and digital media forms, like instant messaging, social networking software, blogs, podcasts and user-modified videogames, where user-generated content and participation are central” (440). As Hobbs’ description suggests, participation and user activity are now key concerns for media educators. Indeed, a number of scholars agree that interactivity is at the center of new forms of literacy. Sonia Livingstone (2003) reports that it is “interactivity which marks the greatest disjunction in the literacy requirements of old and new media” (19), while Henry Jenkins (2006a) envisions the rise of participatory cultures in which users learn to create, share, and interact in new ways. Yet as we have seen, such participatory cultures are marked by contradiction and contestation and are located within changing social, economic, and cultural contexts. But rather than viewing such conflicts and contexts as complications to media education, we might see them as crucial starting places for critical inquiry and imaginative production practices.
Just as the meanings of participation form contested ground, so too do the meanings and purposes of media education. Kari Dehli (2009) has helpfully conceptualized media education as a set of discourses made up from a variety of sources both formal and informal, including curriculum documents, scholarly works, teachers’ classroom practices, workshops, conferences, and conversations. She traces some of the competing claims that have been made “to establish what counts as media education” (57) and provides a genealogical analysis of the major themes and tensions within its thirty-year history. These include the role of the teacher in media education (as facilitating learning or “empowering” students), the view of young people’s relationship to media (as passive recipients or active shapers of meaning), and the aim of media education (as a form of intervention that questions relations of power, or the provision of skills for survival in a globalizing economy). Hobbs (2008) similarly outlines debates within contemporary media education scholarship. She identifies four distinct approaches currently used to conceptualize new literacies—media literacy, information literacy, critical literacy, and media management—and notes their differing positions in regard to the role of the teacher, the degree of focus on socio-historical and political contexts, the media’s impact on young people’s well-being, and the relative emphasis on the author, reader, or text. Each of these two accounts makes amply clear not only the debates around how media literacy should be conceived but also the range and depth of discourses and conceptualizations—arising from theory, curriculum, and classroom practices—on which current educators can and do draw. In this final short section, I want to focus on media education’s long and well-established emphases on critical inquiry and media production as venues for addressing the complexity of participatory cultures. My aim is not so much to recommend specific activities as to suggest ways of framing media education that might assist us in developing “an explicit pedagogy of critical vocabularies” (Luke 2000, 453) for talking and thinking about digital interactivity and lead to an imaginative and experimental stance in the creation of new cultural texts and production practices.
Perhaps it is exactly here—with media practices—that we might begin. While critical analysis of media texts and representations has long been at the center of thinking about media literacy (Hobbs 2006), there appears to be a need to shift some of that attention toward mediated interactions and new modes of communication and production, as media technologies become increasingly social. Interactive practices such as vidding, blogging, photosharing, podcasting, social networking, and creating user-generated content could all be considered. Such an investigation of practices (whether those of audiences, users, or producers) allows for a number of important ideas to be introduced and connections made. First of all, it opens up discussion of theoretically rich concepts such as agency, community, appropriation, intellectual property, and commodification, which are at the center of current debates over the future configuration of new media—and also at the center of young people’s media consumption practices. Second, a discussion of mediated practices enables students to analyze critically their everyday, lived media experiences, an important undertaking in a context in which young people’s identities and world views are increasingly shaped through digital interaction. Beginning with their own media use, students and teachers can analyze the emerging relationships between audiences and media industries, posing questions about how users are positioned and constructed by digital texts, sites, and producers and how young users position themselves. This kind of inquiry also has the advantage of bridging the divide between young people’s experiences of media and technology inside and outside of school contexts. As schools continue to overlook or even ban the use of interactive sites and technologies such as cell phones, Facebook, and YouTube, young people require a place to reflect critically on their understanding and use of these platforms. Finally, classroom-based inquiries into “uses in context” (Willis 2003) also make clear that young people’s “everyday cultural practices are not disconnected from pressing economic and political issues…in an increasingly privatized, globalized world” but rather are a “force in shaping and reshaping the world” (Dolby 2003, 272). Media educators can help youth make connections between their own media practices and issues of globalization, democracy, nation-building, inclusion, exclusion, and difference, placing their everyday lives and cultural practices within the context of larger social relations of power.
In addition to critical analysis, production has also played a significant role in media literacy education, and many educators argue not only for its continued importance but for an expansion of the kinds of technical and creative production skills taught in classrooms (Jenkins 2006a). But including production as a key component within media education is not simply about skills acquisition; it is about a commitment to social analyses and change. “Agency,” Lawrence Grossberg (1996) writes, “involves relations of participation and access, the possibilities of moving into particular sites of activity and power, and of belonging to them in such a way as to be able to enact their powers” (100, cited in Dolby 2003, 268). In an age in which the ability to participate in creating, critiquing, and manipulating digital texts is indeed a means of belonging and social power, and in which participation and access are routinely proclaimed and yet rarely realized, media education needs to educate students not only in the theory but also the practicalities of symbolic meaning-making. In fact, school-based production allows for both theoretical and practical considerations. In the case of video remix, for example, creative appropriation within the classroom provides opportunities to analyze the source text’s ideologies and the conditions of its production and reception, as well as to make creative, intellectual, and technical decisions about whether, why, and how to rework that text. Another way to frame media education’s commitment to production might lie in a return to Raymond Williams’ (1974) observation about the gap between the intentions and uses of technology, technology’s “uncontrollable opportunities” (134). Many of the practices of appropriation mentioned here—like vidding, remixing, rewriting, and customizing—suggest that young people are in fact mining the gap between the intentions and uses of pop culture texts and technologies, even as commercial interests seek to manage and profit from such efforts. One aim of media educators, then, might lie in facilitating young people’s efforts in this direction, working with them to explore ways that cultural consumption and production might operate more experimentally and less exploitatively.
While celebratory discourses of media democratization suggest that the Internet is rapidly replacing the one-to-many communication model of broadcasting with a horizontal and interactive model that flattens the hierarchy between users and producers, critical examinations of participatory environments and practices demonstrate that the emerging relations between users and producers are messy, uneven, multiple, and contested. Through their prolific uses of popular culture’s texts and technologies—whether imitative or imaginative, invited or seized upon—young people play an active role in shaping participatory culture and the relationships between users and producers. Media education does indeed need to respond to the emerging digital culture, but it needs to do so in a way that recognizes both the tensions swirling around issues of control, creativity, and profit, and the varied roles young people play within these struggles, as users attempting to engage popular culture in meaningful ways that enter their own interests and identities into the public realm.

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