In 2001, as a columnist for ABC-News.com, I interviewed a 13-year-old girl whose AOL screen name was UWannaLoveMe7. I asked the obvious question: Why would a nice girl like her adopt a screen name like that? "I have different screen names for when I am feeling different ways," she explained. "I use that one when I want more attention." I called UWannaLoveMe7's mother, who was unaware that people employ pseudonyms online or that her daughter was trolling virtual space in search of "more attention." "My Melissa?" she squeaked. "UWannaLoveMe7? Are you sure?"
That was five years ago, an eon in Internet time. Since then, I've devoted much of my professional life to exploring the experiences and identity development of kids in virtual spaces. UWannaLoveMe7, a member of the first generation of digital natives, spent hers growing up in a virtual world.
That world changed permanently the year she was born, the same year that CERN (1) and Tim Berners-Lee launched the World Wide Web. She and her peers were fourth-graders when Shawn Fanning's Napster upended our notions of copyright and intellectual property; fifth-graders when Wikipedia replaced the Encyclopaedia Britannica as the source of universal knowledge, and high-school juniors when YouTube became the site of all-things-video and MySpace the glorification of all-things-me.
This fall, UWannaLoveMe7 and her friends will arrive on our college campuses. They'll come to us as eager as freshmen always are. But it's a watershed, nonetheless, one as worthy of note as the relative trends in their collective SAT scores and high school GPAs. For these are the kids who grew up online, whose childhoods evolved in a virtual universe as interactive and age-blind as it was dynamic and immediate. That experience exposed them early to pornographic images and sexual advances.
It also prepared them to be journalists in a digital age.
Participatory Culture and Journalism Education
Henry Jenkins at MIT has proposed a new definition of literacy appropriate to our "participatory culture." It privileges play, negotiation, transmedia navigation, and collective intelligences over reading, writing, arithmetic and iconic deconstruction. In fact, it captures precisely the characteristics of our class of 2011:
* They're information junkies who define knowledge production in terms of access rather than storage.
* They're multitaskers who process input at broadband speed, who assume that content morphs easily from one medium or platform to another, and who are certain--always--that the answer is out there somewhere, waiting to be discovered. By them.
* They're bricoleurs, (2) who grew up playing with technology (and are perplexed, therefore, by journalism education's collective obsession with the tools of media production: If you need to learn Photoshop, you learn Photoshop. What's the big deal?).
* Many are garners, masters of collaborative engagement and targeted outcomes; all have performed multiple identities in virtual spaces and understand intuitively how to tailor a message to a particular audience.
Contrary to our persistent (and self-righteous) complaint that they cannot discern credible from incredible content, they value truth and accuracy--and a decade of virtual experience has produced in them the ability to recognize both. And they operate from a set of assumptions that defies the premises of our journalism schools and the profession it serves: In the worlds they inhabit, online and off, content is free, knowledge production is collaborative, and media are participatory.
That means they'll listen to us talk about intellectual property, the authority of the "professional" journalist (not to mention the professional faculty member), and the inherent credibility or value of longstanding journalism traditions and structures (like the inverted pyramid, for example, or newsrooms). They may even nod and take notes (it could be on the test). …