Youth and Greek tragedy
The MacArthur Foundation published a report recently on the so-called Digital Natives (young people who have grown up with digital technology and media). Over three years, researchers conducted an ethnographic study. They interviewed over 800 young people and their parents (in the US); they spent 5000 hours observing teens on sites such as MySpace, Facebook, YouTube and other networked communities; and conducted diary studies to find out how young people engaged with digital media. I don’t think the results are surprising but perhaps put into context recent events in Athens, which I’ve been monitoring with interest.
The study identified two distinct categories of youth engagement with digital and social media – friendship-driven and interest-driven. Friendship-driven is all about socialising with your friends on Facebook or making new friends. Interest-driven involves seeking out information online that goes beyond the interests of a person’s peer group or extends what is learnt at school. So it’s self-directed and peer-based learning.
But consider this excerpt from the report:
“Through participation in social network sites such as MySpace, Facebook, and Bebo (among others) as well as instant and text messaging, young people are constructing new social norms and forms of media literacy in networked public culture that reflect the enhanced role of media in their lives.”
In other words, participation in the public space of social networks is a precondition for participation in the public spaces of adulthood – politics, commerce, adult relationships and so on. Personal and amateur media like blogs, mashups, podcasts, videos and fansubbing not only allow for self-expression and creativity, they prepare today’s youth for more active civic engagement. Armed with pretty sophisticated literacy and technical skills, young people are in a position to take centre stage in political life. Because they are deeply engaged in friendship-driven and interest-driven online activities, they are exposed to far more complex information structures, which leads to them taking on the roles of journalists, authors, distributors, political and social commentators and artists.
It’s the roles of political activist, political commentator and citizen journalist that I think were seen very clearly in the recent riots in Athens, Greece. While 500 journalists were holed up in a hotel in Athens contemplating the crisis in professional reporting due to the rise of citizen journalism, the city was witnessing riots and protests organised mainly by young people who had gathered together via Twitter, Facebook and other social media. The urban violence erupted following the shooting of a teenage boy by a policeman on December 6th. We saw similar youth mobilisation in Egypt in April when disaffected youth rounded up 80,000 supporters via Facebook to protest rising food prices. And of course, citizen reporters were on the spot taking shots from their camera phone during the London bombings.
But with this empowerment comes the responsibility to be accurate. Initial reports seemed to suggest that the teenager was shot in cold-blood, whereas the coroner’s report showed that a warning shot the policeman said he’d aimed into the air had ricocheted and caused the tragedy. However, a witness to the shooting captured the incident on her mobile phone and it does not appear to show the policeman and his colleagues being threatened or attacked by the teenager (who allegedly hurled a petrol bomb).
Alternet is right in commenting:
“It is a dangerous world, indeed, when citizen reporters are completely trusted, both by the media institutions that incorporate them and by the audience who consume that information. The role of the mature news organization, one should think, is to filter real news from pseudo news, rather than treating all content as equal.…In an age when serious journalism is on the retreat …… and the world is awash with rumors and misinformation, one cannot help but think that the much touted “Information Age” is not what it’s cracked up to be.”
Indeed, the Athens riots (and violence in other Greek cities) is probably a boiling over of far deeper issues – anger with the Conservative Government’s economic policies; a chasm between rich and poor; corruption and scandals; strikes; a dismal job market.
So whilst the MacArthur Foundation report speaks of empowerment of youth and social mores that emerge from social networks, digital media extends this empowerment to politics and citizen journalism. But rather than cause the demise of professional reporting, how can amateur and professional reporting live side by side and honour the rigours of professional journalism?
Image credit: Economist.com