Even Without Technology Youth Media Thrives
In May of 2006, while presenting at a conference hosted by what some consider the top university (Harvard) in the country, the question that makes the list of “most dreaded in youth media” was asked to virtual audience of mostly graduate students and young people.
“Why would youth media organizations be necessary in this age of technology? Young people now have access to the means of production at home—doesn’t this make youth media organizations redundant?”
It was not the last time the question has been asked about the relationship between youth media and developing technologies. To begin to address this question as a field, we must first examine the precise concept of what youth media is. In the growing pantheon of youth media scholarship fine distinctions exist, but at its core, youth media is a process of engaging young people in an artistic enterprise that is based in young people’s experience and exploration of the world. Young people endeavor to carve a space for real participation in the public sphere, and forge more balanced meaningful relationships with the larger community—skills necessary for successful participation in civil society.
No young person exists in isolation. Regardless of the means of transmission, youth media practitioners create an infrastructure of support, bringing layered expertise and insight to the practice of educating youth media producers.
Youth, Media & Technology
While the past decade has nurtured an exciting growth in youth media, it reflects only part of the rich youth media history, these golden years should not simply be defined within the context of rapidly evolving technologies. Field builders Steve Goodman and Diana Coryat maintain, “young people have been making media for almost forty years—since the mid-1960s, when portable, lightweight video and film cameras became available in the U.S. and in other parts of the world.” (Coryat & Goodman, 2004) These scholars provide greater context, asserting, “in addition to the anti-systemic struggles of the 1960s, other influences include public access and community television, the media arts field, popular education in the U.S. and Latin America, media education, cultural studies, community organizing and the youth development field.” Indeed, the thunderous force of social change created a perfect Petri dish for the emergence of youth media. Even as we witness the evolution from analog to digital, there are greater forces still at work that inspire a community, a culture, a collectivism to take root; technology is one our most powerful tools, yet the motivation that drives the field runs deeper. Young people, as with all historically disenfranchised groups, clamor to be part of something bigger. Again, according to Booker, collective resistance to established system, in the short run at least, connects youth to something greater and more meaningful than individual paths from school to work.
Looking at youth media in this multi faceted context, we begin to see that when executed with the essential ingredients of authentic youth participation and a strong intergenerational dynamic, while youth media may be outside the mainstream (if even such a thing exists anymore), it is not amateur practice. What separates more than thirty years of practice in the field from youth who experiment and examine the function and facility of technology in the family computer room is this: Youth media values the equitable balance of power between adults and the young people we serve, coupled with an inquiry led approach, with youth voice as a guide.
Technology as Resource
The technology boom accompanying youth media into the 21st Century brought with it a perceived leveling of access and engagement, courtesy of the “digital revolution.” “Affordable” personal computers were shipped with free or inexpensive editing software. Digital Video (DV) cameras entered retail chains. DV features screened in mainstream movie theaters. And yet during this radical transformation of media technology, youth media drew steadily from its foundations—community media, democratic free expression, and radical education reform—evolving and expanding techniques and concepts from before the revolution proved digital. Revised lesson models swapped Hi8 with mDV, iMovie/Final Cut Pro succeeded analog editing decks and Media100, DVDr eliminated VHS tape, but the field was not, as assumed by those noticing youth-authored video for the first time, born in this century.
We run the risk of deifying the technology we use through the language to describe it to those outside our field, risking the focus on the critical processes defining youth media practice. We could say: “We are in a ‘process of engaging young people in an artistic enterprise that is based in young people’s experience and exploration of the world’.” Instead we say: “We help youth create digital video” or, “We teach them to edit video using nonlinear editing software,” or, “We share our work online,” or, “We enter film festivals.” These statements aren’t untrue, but they run counter to our self-definition as a ‘youth media’ field, and risk subordinating the institution of “youth media” under the rubric of “digital media” and “DIY” —its youngest, noisiest nieces.
In her unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, Dr. Angela Booker defines technology, in part, as a human-designed tool that organizes the activity of the user into a particular structure of use and meaning. While the tool is essential, it is not elemental, as the equipment is rendered useless in the absence of the craftsman. As humans evolve, so do our tools, becoming more ideally suited to their purpose. But it is always the motivation of the user, which ultimately uncovers more precise mechanisms for negotiating the world. As it relates to youth media, Booker asserts that “social technologies extend the means by which we can engage audiences and producers in the practices of shaping and interpreting ideas, but the process is not automatic. Technology tool and practice must meet for the social communication to take off.”
The resources of our field include more than the products of media technology: records of practice, process and production in multimedia learning, media history, media literacy, media arts, and more. And unlike the subsection of youth-generated, DIY video outside of our field, we share these collective resources with other organizations, political affiliations, and nations. As global youth media practitioners, we have the opportunity to review, support and present media made by young people all around the world. And with the videos we share, organizations and networks we introduce to each other, workshops we host, film festivals we support and promote, Listen Up! participates in disseminating these far richer assets liberally and agnostically while providing and curating “content.”
The Global View
At Listen Up!, we have been working to connect youth media makers, practitioners and allies with support, funding and training since 1998. As part of that work, we have provided training to young people inside and outside the borders of the United States. For example, the Listen Up! youth media network has archived and curated youth media for the past decade, streaming media online and live in communities from Espanola, New Mexico to Bangalore, India. While technology enables access for all independent artists, our network focuses on building and maintaining dynamic learning, process and communication in the field of youth media.
The rate of technological change that has transformed media and communication structures globally has meant that product life cycles are continually decreasing, while the value of bringing products to market (especially young people) is continually increasing. Youth media’s ongoing investments between MAC & PC are less an expression of brand loyalty than the greater cultural economics of youth access.
Technological convergence specifically taps into the movement of telecommunications, print, broadcast and computing, creating products that accelerate new forms of communication and information storage. Young people today are eager to decide for themselves what is credible or worthwhile and what is not. They will have plenty of help. Sometimes they rely on peer editors of their choosing; at other times they rely on collective intelligence in the form of new social technologies. Dr. Booker aptly distinguishes the dynamics of participation and institutional access for young people:
Participation rights are often hard fought rather than being marked by invitations and openness. The people in a society who do not hold the political or economic power face an uphill climb in attempting to participate in civic life. Youth in our communities represent such a group. In addition to the racial, ethnic, class and gender stratification that permeates our social structures, young people are also restricted by age and public perceptions of their lack of “readiness” to participate in powerful ways. They are very much on the sideline in terms of institutions that structure their civic lives.
Distinguishing access as a participatory practice creates a global framework for how youth engage in civic life at large. The importance of technology in youth media also strikes the global citizen as particularly US-centric. While it may be true that the falling costs of the means of production creates greater access at home, young people who are outside our borders have not been as fortunate.
Case Study: Bangalore
In Fall 2006, our team traveled to India under the auspices of Adobe Youth Voices to train young people to create media and to help establish communities of practice abroad. Our goal was to create media in a school where the electricity was not guaranteed for the entirety of the school day and where the booming of a nearby quarry interrupted the sleep of napping pre-scholars at 2 pm every day. Students eagerly, though shyly awaited instruction, many vaguely expressing that they hoped this training would help prepare them for jobs as computer programmers when they grew up. We showed up with our colleagues from Animaction (Awareness through Animation) youth media program, with thousands of sheets of onion paper and multiple sets of coloring pencils in every shade imaginable. This was to be the foundation of our media instruction? This was the reason we had about 100 years collective training experience in a dim, hot room on the outskirts of Bangalore?
Over the course of several days, young people created stories about their lives by defining themselves and what they wanted to tell the world. What were the most pressing things they wanted to communicate? How would they make their stories appealing to young people and adults outside of their hometown, their country? These teenagers, not all sharing a common language, worked collaboratively in groups of ten to decide which story among the scores of selections would be chosen.
They assigned roles—since this was animation, it needed to be decided who would draw, color in, write scripts and edit. They worked with instructors to learn the simple mechanics of 2D animation and watched examples of other work, including pieces recently created by their teachers in their own trainings. The project’s youth-led inquiry and critical decision-making exemplifies promising practices of youth media; technology is simply a tool used in their multi-tiered process.
A small group of youth wanted to experiment with the video cameras we brought along to be left at their school. They spent four days with our intrepid Creative Director Austin Haeberle, who spent the majority of time pushing young people to ask the same basic questions about themselves and their community while instructing on the finer points of storytelling. The camera was to be seen as a useful appendage, but not central to the art of powerful storytelling. These ambitious young people stopped talking about future careers in computer programming and began to talk about themselves and their environment; about school, what life at home, the dowry system still entrenched in their community and the decimation of local trees. They began to engage as creators and leaders of their world, not just as eager recipients of adult held knowledge.
At the end of our stay, young people had produced several pieces of animation and one five-minute documentary and expressed wonder at learning in this new way. The creative process enthralled them. It was no easy task hand-drawing thousands of scenes on onion skinned paper, but each expressed great pleasure at being able to draw on their own expertise—about life as a young person in Bangalore, a desire to communicate with youth from around the world, and using media as a tool. A few months later, with the help of local teachers, these young people produced four more brilliant animations, each one-minute in length. Their short documentary has been screened all over the world, and some of the producers of that short, “Rakshita’s Story,” traveled to Naples Italy, presenting at Kids for Kids International Film Festival.
Interactive media, unlike mass media, features abundant bandwidth, diverse programming, and increased control by users worldwide. These attributes of new media increasingly debunk past rationales of the commercial content restrictions that have dominated 20th century mass media. 21st century media requires alternative means-often relying on technology rather than content and perspective to accomplish public ends. Youth media has provided a brilliant interactive media model through collaborative leadership, inquiry based learning and self-sustaining growth, in spite of technology’s treadmill sprint.
When asked to justify our existence, “Why would youth media organizations be necessary in this age of technology?” we can simply and confidently reply, “Well, Yes.” Youth leading peers through the multi-leveled process of creating media—from premise to post production and ultimately exhibition and distribution—integrates each aspect of interactive modeling. Youth media processes extend far beyond the technology tool itself—determining the need for youth media organizations to preserve and facilitate these cultural practices. Indeed, technology is not the end goal, but rather the means of greater expression for young people defining next decade of collective learning.
Rhea Mokund is the director and co-founder of Listen Up!, a global youth media organizations, whose mission is to help youth be heard in the mass media and to encourage a culture of free speech and social responsibility. As Listen Up!’s Director, she focuses on securing access for young people to speak out while ensuring a place in the mainstream media for authentic youth representation. Rhea also serves on the Board of Directors for Manhattan Neighborhood Network, the country’s largest Public Access Station.
Sharese Bullock is the strategic partnerships and marketing manager at Listen Up!. She leverages over 10 years of creative management experience in brand building, production, sponsorship marketing and community organizing to pioneer partnerships. Sharese serves on the board of directors for the National Alliance for Media Arts and Culture (NAMAC).
Adobe Youth Voices is a global philanthropic initiative that empowers youth worldwide to comment on their world using multimedia and digital tools to communicate and share their ideas, demonstrate their potential, and take action in their communities.
Booker, Angela. (2007) “Learning to get participation right(s): An analysis of youth participation in authentic civic practice.” Unpublished PhD dissertation, Stanford University, 2007.
Coryat, Diana and Steven Goodman (2004). “Developing the Youth Media Field: Perspectives from Two Practitioners.” A White Paper distributed at the OSI/Surdna youth media convening, New York City, March 2004.
Goldman, S., Booker, A, and McDermott, M. (2007). “Mixing the Digital, Social, and Cultural: Learning, Identity, and Agency in Youth Participation.” In David Buckingham (Ed.) Youth, Identity, and Digital Media. The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Series on Digital Media and Learning. Cambridge: The MIT Press, pp. 185-206.