As director of the comparative media studies program at MIT, Jenkins is working under a grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation to study how digital environments are influencing children and to develop educational curricula based on his group's findings. (Last year, the MacArthur Foundation said it would invest $50 million over the next five years to build a network of researchers and community activists to work on digital education and new media literacy.)
Jenkins, 50, is also an expert on popular culture in the Digital Age and author of several books including Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. Work on that book spawned the Convergence Culture Consortium, which helps media companies like MTV Networks and Yahoo think about how to engage with participatory cultures that define the generation growing up with technology.
CNET News.com talked with Jenkins about the new digital divide, how games are replacing TV for learning and the YouTube presidential debates.
Q: What do you think defines this generation growing up with the Internet? What sets it apart from previous generations?
Jenkins: I think that there is an expectation to participate that runs through much of this generation. It's a desire to be part of the world and to be taken seriously on their own terms, to be not just a consumer of culture, but also a producer of culture.
(Research has shown) that 57 percent of teens online have produced media and about a third of them have produced media that they shared with people beyond their immediate friends and families. A good chunk of those produced media by remixing it, so this is a generation that is not just consuming media, but producing media.
I have two follow up questions. One is, how do you think that sense of empowerment changes their intelligence and how they socialize, if at all? The second is what do you think of the fact that remixing media is still largely an illegal act and they're sort of being made to be thieves?
Jenkins: Both of those are interesting questions so we'll begin with the first. I think that they are very much social networkers, at least those kids who are most immersed in the digital environment. That's a qualification I need to make right away because this cuts through this notion of a "participation gap."
If we go back to that 57 percent of kids producing media, that means 43 percent didn't. The 57 percent are finding their way into the world without a lot of adult guidance because most of the adults around them don't understand the new social networks and new participatory culture they're moving through. The 43 percent are being left behind (because) they don't have access to technology (and) to shared social skills and cultural competencies they're going to need to become full participants in this environment.
Even among those who are participating, we're discovering these other hidden factors. Danah Boyd (a researcher at the University of California) has done some very interesting work on the role that class divisions play in shaping who uses Facebook and who uses MySpace. Even within that space we're seeing a division starting to climb.
(But the former group), these are kids who are learning to share knowledge, to collaborate over distances, to work with people from diverse backgrounds, to participate in a global culture--those are really powerful things that are emerging in this generation. But they're also facing dilemmas about intellectual property, cyberbullying and how to navigate these environments.
To the second question: What we've got to understand is this is a complex space that everyone is trying to find their way through. This is a period of prolonged and profound transition in the ways we relate to communication and information. That change is kind of a struggle that everyone is involved in.
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