Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century
According to a recent study from the Pew Internet & American Life project (Lenhardt &
Madden, 2005), more than one-half of all teens have created media content, and roughly onethird
of teens who use the Internet have shared content they produced. In many cases, these
teens are actively involved in what we are calling participatory cultures.A participatory culture is
a culture with relatively low barriers to artistic expression and civic engagement, strong support
for creating and sharing one’s creations, and some type of informal mentorship whereby what
is known by the most experienced is passed along to novices.A participatory culture is also
one in which members believe their contributions matter, and feel some degree of social connection
with one another (at the least they care what other people think about what they have
created). Forms of participatory culture include:
Affiliations — memberships, formal and informal, in online communities centered
around various forms of media, such as Friendster, Facebook, message boards,
metagaming, game clans, or MySpace).
Expressions — producing new creative forms, such as digital sampling, skinning and
modding, fan videomaking, fan fiction writing, zines, mash-ups).
Collaborative Problem-solving — working together in teams, formal and informal,
to complete tasks and develop new knowledge (such as through Wikipedia, alternative
reality gaming, spoiling).
Circulations — Shaping the flow of media (such as podcasting, blogging).
A growing body of scholarship suggests potential benefits of these forms of participatory culture,
including opportunities for peer-to-peer learning, a changed attitude toward intellectual
property, the diversification of cultural expression, the development of skills valued in the modern
workplace, and a more empowered conception of citizenship.Access to this participatory
culture functions as a new form of the hidden curriculum, shaping which youth will succeed
and which will be left behind as they enter school and the workplace.
Some have argued that children and youth acquire these key skills and competencies on their
own by interacting with popular culture.Three concerns, however, suggest the need for policy
and pedagogical interventions:
The Participation Gap — the unequal access to the opportunities, experiences, skills, and
knowledge that will prepare youth for full participation in the world of tomorrow.
The Transparency Problem — The challenges young people face in learning to see
clearly the ways that media shape perceptions of the world.
The Ethics Challenge — The breakdown of traditional forms of professional training and
socialization that might prepare young people for their increasingly public roles as media
makers and community participants.
Educators must work together to ensure that every American young person has access to the
skills and experiences needed to become a full participant, can articulate their understanding of
how media shapes perceptions, and has been socialized into the emerging ethical standards that
should shape their practices as media makers and participants in online communities.
A central goal of this report is to shift the focus of the conversation about the digital divide
from questions of technological access to those of opportunities to participate and to develop
the cultural competencies and social skills needed for full involvement. Schools as institutions
have been slow to react to the emergence of this new participatory culture; the greatest opportunity
for change is currently found in afterschool programs and informal learning communities.
Schools and afterschool programs must devote more attention to fostering what we call
the new media literacies: a set of cultural competencies and social skills that young people need
in the new media landscape. Participatory culture shifts the focus of literacy from one of individual
expression to community involvement.The new literacies almost all involve social skills
developed through collaboration and networking.These skills build on the foundation of traditional
literacy, research skills, technical skills, and critical analysis skills taught in the classroom.
The new skills include:
Play — the capacity to experiment with one’s surroundings as a form of problem-solving
Performance — the ability to adopt alternative identities for the purpose of improvisation
Simulation — the ability to interpret and construct dynamic models of real-world
Appropriation — the ability to meaningfully sample and remix media content
Multitasking — the ability to scan one’s environment and shift focus as needed to salient
Distributed Cognition — the ability to interact meaningfully with tools that expand
Collective Intelligence — the ability to pool knowledge and compare notes with
others toward a common goal
Judgment — the ability to evaluate the reliability and credibility of different information
Transmedia Navigation — the ability to follow the flow of stories and information
across multiple modalities
Networking — the ability to search for, synthesize, and disseminate information
Negotiation — the ability to travel across diverse communities, discerning and respecting
multiple perspectives, and grasping and following alternative norms.
Fostering such social skills and cultural competencies requires a more systemic approach to
media education in the United States. Everyone involved in preparing young people to go
out into the world has contributions to make in helping students acquire the skills they need
to become full participants in our society. Schools, afterschool programs, and parents have
distinctive roles to play as they do what they can in their own spaces to encourage and nurture