Our research team will be quite active in 2010. In addition to continuing our work with various organizations and digital media educational efforts our research agenda sets its sights on two interesting aspects of the digital world. The first area stakes out a space to explore the generational shifts that are constantly remaking the social media landscape. The second area seeks to document and analyze the increasingly diverse makeup of the digital media world.
When I talk about my research with various organizations and colleagues around the world I am often asked: how does the use of social media change over time? In other words, what would a longitudinal study of social media behaviors reveal about the complex ways we participate in digital media culture? Recently, The New York Times posted an interesting piece, The Children of Cyberspace: Old Fogies by Their 20s that underscores the mini-generational gaps that make it difficult to talk in very broad terms about youth and digital media. Lee Rainie, the director of the Pew Internet & American Life Project, told the Times, “People two, three or four years apart are having completely different experiences with technology.”
The article points out that the digital media behaviors of 22-year old college students are very different than eighteen year old college students. It speaks to how quickly engagement with digital media evolves. We’ve been tracking this in our own research. Three years ago when we started collecting survey data from college age persons about their use of social network sites we asked this question: “How often do you check social network sites?” When we launched a new national survey two months ago (November 2009) we realized that the question–just three years old–appears outdated.
The question assumes that there are times in the day when young collegians are not connected, not updating their status, or not looking out for new content posted, for example, in their Facebook news feed. Young people are “always on,” that is to say, always connected to a device and their peers no matter if they are at school, work, the gym, bar, or even while driving. They are always connecting, sharing, and communicating. Today, the more relevant question might very well be, “when are you not on a social media platform?”
The survey project that we recently launched is designed to probe how the use of social media changes in a relatively short window of time. We know from our previous research that teens use of social media varies significantly from the college students usage of social media. Our latest project is designed to produce an evidenced-based portrait that compares and contrasts the social media practices of current college students with recent college grads. One of our hypothesis is that the motivation for using social media is marked, in large measure, by the various stages of the life-cycle. We believe that the intensity and types of participation in the social media world are constantly evolving in relation to external factors like work, family, and geographical mobility.
So, are college grads more or less likely than current college students to share personal information about themselves in Facebook? Do college grads find themselves using social media more or less often than college students? And does the composition of their network change in the transition from college to the professional world? These are just some of the questions that our research is poised to address in an effort to further illuminate the mini-generational distinctions that are part of social media world.
We will be posting some preliminary results and data points from the survey in the next few weeks.
Diversity and the Digital Media Participation Gap
In February, the MacArthur Foundation and the Digital Media and Learning Hub at the University of California, Irvine are hosting The Digital Media and Learning Conference. The theme for the inaugural event to be held in La Jolla, California is, Diversifying Participation.
Fifteen years ago the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) released the now famous report Falling Through the Net: A Survey of the “Have Nots” in Rural and Urban America. That report along with additional research from scholars, community activists, and policy makers established the framework for what is now known as the digital divide, a reference to the rise of the technology rich and the technology poor. The original digital divide narrative focused primarily on who did and did not have access to computers and the Internet. The belief, of course, was that those on the digital margins, often the poor, the rural, and less educated would fall farther behind their more affluent, suburban, and educated counterparts.
It did not take long for researchers to expand the focus of digital media and diversity beyond the question of access. More recently researchers have explored what is typically referred to as the participation gap– a recognition that as a more diverse population engages the digital media world they bring different skills, competencies, and interests to their online experiences. As the organizers of the Diversifying Participation conference write in their announcement, “Young people have differential access to online experiences, practices, and tools and this has a consequence in their developing sense of their own identities and their place in the world.” Trying to identify, document, and comprehend these different experiences and practices and what they mean for achieving a more equitable digital world represents an exciting stage of research.
One of the assumptions that accompanied the original digital divide narrative is that black, Latino, and working class communities, for example, were not engaged with social and mobile media technologies. The data that we have been collecting demonstrates just how wrongheaded that assumption is. Still, even as black and Latino youth are using technology their participation in the digital media world produces notable perils and possibilities.
I’m giving one of the keynote addresses for the Digital Media and Learning and Learning Conference. My presentation considers how the social media practices of black and Latino youth compel us to rethink the participation gap and the emergent issues surrounding their immersion in the digital world. I’ll also be talking about these issues at conferences at Ohio St. University, a community organization in Washington DC, and another MacArthur funded event at Morehouse College in Atlanta.
As these and other events approach I will be sharing my observations and presentations on this website.