The Young and the Digital: Interview with S. Craig Watkins, Part II

Wednesday, March 02, 2011 at 3:32 pm


This post is part of a series of interviews highlighting leaders in the field of New Learning (what we call “NLI at Inquiry”). Recently, we interviewed University of Texas at Austin Professor S. Craig Watkins on subjects including his research and his thoughts on the future of social media. Here, in Part II of the interview, he discusses the participation gap, social media in different contexts, and the quality and consequences of young people’s media engagement.

Professor Watkins, please discuss the digital divide in the context of social networks.

My background and training is in the field of Sociology, so I bring those kinds of inclinations, those kinds of questions, those kinds of inquiry, into my investigation of digital media. I’m always interested in the context in which people are engaged with digital media — how factors such as gender, race, geography, class, and education impact the ways in which people participate in the social media universe.
One of the things we pay close attention to throughout our research is how these markers of race and class do indeed influence what is happening in the digital world. There have been some amazing changes just within the last five to ten years. Ten years ago, there was a great concern about the digital divide — where it really began to establish itself as a formidable story about the technology-rich and technology poor divide; the technology haves and the technology have-nots. What has happened since then, over the last five to ten years, is a kind of a transformation of how we now think about technology and social inequality. Rather than thinking about it in terms of an access gap (those who have access to technology and those who do not have access to technology), we tend to now think about it in terms of the participation gap — that is, looking at the quality of engagement with technology, the quality of engagement with the Internet, the quality of engagement with mobile media platforms — because communities and populations that just five years ago were rarely, if ever, discussed or mentioned in debates and public conversations about technology are now very central to how technology is being adopted, how it’s being used, the kinds of innovations that are happening around technology.
Just to give you one clear example: black and Latino youth are quite robust in terms of their engagement with social and mobile media. So there’s all kinds of empirical evidence and data that’s been coming out of the last four to five years that suggest black and Latino youth are much more actively involved than their white counterparts on social network sites; they’re much more robust in terms of how they’re engaged with mobile media; they’re doing a wider range of things with their mobile phones; there’s a lot of recent data that suggests they’re just as active, if not more active, on Twitter.
So it seems to me that, as everyday realities have changed around who is adopting technology, the context in which they’re adopting technology, and the ways in which technology matters in their lives, it’s really necessitated a different set of questions that we should be asking as it relates to the issue of technology and social inequality. It’s not so much that the issue of inequality and the kinds of issues of diversity that the digital divide narrative generated have necessarily been erased — but I do think that how we think about these issues needs to seriously be modified in relation to the kinds of cultural realities that are happening in the world today. We spend a lot of time trying to explore that area. I’m working with another team of researchers who have been funded by the MacArthur Foundation to look at young people, to look at how they’re creating these new kinds of informal learning ecologies, new modes of learning through technology. One of the key variables/sets of factors that we’ll be looking at [is] race, ethnicity, geography, class — how those things impact how different types of kids engage with technology in different ways.
You mentioned that the way technology is adopted and used today is creating a different set of questions that people should be asking. Can you elaborate on that?
The questions ten years ago primarily pivoted around the issue of access: for example, how do we create more access to technology for low-income kids? How do we build spaces where kids can get access to computers, or where they can get access to the Internet? Those questions, though they aren’t completely erased from the conversation, they’re not nearly as significant as they were ten years ago. The questions today are more likely to be about the quality of engagement with technology — in other words, how do we create ecologies, spaces, and environments that encourage kids to expand how they think about the technology that they own?
I mentioned, for example, that black and Latino youth are much more robust in terms of the range of activities that they participate in with mobile media. However, we are at a point now where we are beginning to think about mobile and social media as tools of empowerment and civic engagement, and as resources that kids can use to engage their communities, their lives, and the world around them. How do we begin to foster environments, create conversations, and create spaces that really encourage kids to see these tools — the tools that they have access to, the tools that they use, and in many cases the tools that they now own — in that way? So, the questions are not necessarily about access but about quality of engagement and participation, about how technology is actually being used, and what technology can possibly mean in people’s everyday lives.
Can you describe the use of code-switching between different types of social networks — for example, switching between Myspace and Facebook? Do you see it happening in both kids of lower and higher socio-economic status? Why is it important?
[Currently], even among black and Latino youth, Facebook is clearly the preferred social network to use… Where I’ve talked about code-switching — and I’ve borrowed this from linguists and from urban sociologists of decades ago, who really try to grapple with the issue of social mobility and how, in particular, populations or individuals on the social and economic margins develop different modes of communication, different modes of personal expression, different mannerisms, different styles of expression — [I’ve looked at] how that can oftentimes stand in the way of their social mobility. It limits their opportunities for meaningful employment. It makes them less of a viable option for certain kinds of opportunities because of what researchers call “soft skills.” Soft skills are not necessarily those things that can be quantified, but those things that can be observed, in terms of mannerisms, self-presentation. Historically, researchers have argued — for example, for young African American men — that among the reasons that they find getting access to meaningful forms of employment difficult has to do with this belief amongst managers and employees that they don’t have those soft skills, in terms of how they express themselves via language, dress, their mannerisms.
What I’ve argued is that if you look at the ways, for example, in which teenagers in general, but particularly black and Latino teens, and black and Latino males specifically, create, construct, and perform their identities via social network sites — first primarily Myspace but now increasingly via Facebook and Twitter — these issues really continue to come into play in some ways that are quite new and distinct today.
This is all connected to this growing recognition that how we behave in the social media world has consequences for our lives outside of that space. We know that teachers, admissions offices, and employees now look at, evaluate, and make judgments about people based on the things that they say and do in their social network profiles. So, part of what I’ve talked about is helping to educate young and Latino youth about the consequences of participation in social media; specifically, the consequences of the kinds of pictures that they post, conversations that they participate in, and things that they use to represent themselves, their identities, and the things that they value. It’s a challenging issue, but it’s one that increasingly needs to be addressed effectively in many ways.
To be continued...
What will social networks look like in the future? For youth specifically?
Next time we will publish Part III of our interview with Professor Watkins, focusing on his thoughts on future social media trends.


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