Teen creators

The latest Pew Internet & American Life study of teenagers and their online habits (“Teen Content Creators and Consumers”) has been out since November, so in our speedy echosphere it qualifies as old news. But I see that this report is getting cited at ALA Midwinter, particularly during the OCLC-sponsored meditation on library “extreme makeovers.” And in its blunt, schematic fashion, based on interviews with over 1,000 kids, the Pew report makes some claims that are well worth keeping in mind.

The study’s headline finding is that 57% of teens online (that is, over half of all kids aged 12-17 in the continental U.S. living in a household with a telephone) have actually created content in some way for the internet. What entails creation?

  • creating & maintaining a blog (19%)
  • creating a personal webpages (22%)
  • creating a webpage for others (32%)
  • sharing their creations online (33%)
  • remixing content online into new creation (19%)

This is moving and intriguing information, of course, and so is this particular chart from the Pew report:

The desire to share self-created media seems to be remarkably universal here: note how gender, age, and income differentials don’t make much of a difference. The only real distinction is in locale. You might think that more isolated teenagers (in the country, in the suburbs) might want to interact online all the more, but actually creative content generation depends on broadband access to the “highly wired” environments that highly wired teens respond to.

The question that I’m sure is been being pondered in San Antonio: how do libraries, highly wired as they are, respond to all this burbling creativity? When academic libraries confront this netgen 2.0 digicultivated fill-in-your-tagline-here generation, how is that meeting of the worlds handled?

If sternly, if pedantically, if methodically: get ready for slack jaws (“With throats unslaked, with black lips baked, / Agape they heard me call…”). If there is no personal space designated, no playpen, no peer to peer connection, no manipulation of digital objects: get ready for glazed eyes. Your most careful demonstration of how to search a database, your most elaborately crafted pathfinder for a course, your most heartfelt testimony to the conveniences of unlimited access to a universe of resources: none of this will tap into the interactive instincts charted by Pew.

Case in point: suppose you’re a library and you ‘get it’ and you set up a blog — latest happenings in your library, any comments? Not enough. Though a good third of teens read blogs regularly (and remember that a fifth of them are actually writing them), don’t think that just publishing a library blog is enough: “for teens,” Pew finds, “blogs are much more about the maintenance and extension of personal relationships.” If it’s too hard to think about an academic library coming into “personal relationship” with its users, perhaps one might consider hosting and featuring personal blogs, integrating with the college’s file-sharing networks, encouraging personal collections of assets, becoming the space identified with creative and personally-motivated digital work.

I’ve heard much heralding of tech-savvy teens, a rising generation weaned on IM and blogs and cellphones and music ripped from everywhere. So I’ve always been amused by the hesitancy and sometimes outright consternation that can greet the introduction of something like a wiki at a univeristy. It’s not that kids don’t find an interactive tool like that easy to use after a while, even second nature. It’s that they don’t expect it there.

We’re at an awkward stage, when the sophisticated interactive techniques and attitudes cultivated in a kid’s ‘real’ life are somehow supposed to get checked at the academic door. On the other side of that door: directed attention … traditional communication … passivity. I’m painting in broad strokes of course, but I think it’s nonetheless broadly true — if you want kids to make something of the educational resources through which they swim, if you want them to energize their study with the habits charted by Pew, rework the class to require interactivity, and rebrand the library as the place to create.

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