Mimi Ito: Meeting the Kids Where They Are

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Mimi Ito at her Los Angeles home

Mimi Ito is a Los Angeles-based cultural anthropologist and MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” recipient whose research is focused on new media use by children and youth.

You’ve done a lot of research on how young people use technology and social media. How could that research help achieve the goals of education and journalism, in particular arts journalism?
Ito: That’s really the million-dollar question right now. New technologies are giving kids an unprecedented opportunity to exercise agency and voice and engagement with media, knowledge and culture, but how do you take that engagement and channel it in ways that are going to be helpful and productive for kids in their adult lives? A lot what happens in their new media engagement centers around popular culture and social peer relations, which isn’t necessarily setting them up into pathways that are going to be productive for them as adults. The three areas we worry about are civic and political engagement, academic outcomes and career-relevant outcomes. So the question is what kinds of programs—adult interventions, mentorship, ways of engaging—are going to meet kids where they are in terms of their interests, and help channel that in ways that are going to help them in their adult lives.

So what are some of the mechanisms that can allow that to happen?
First we should talk about what historically doesn’t work, and what people have done in the past, which was to take the genres of popular and youth culture and sort of slap them onto educational content. We saw that in edutainment software, wherein, for example, you do math problems and then you get to shoot monsters. Or, “Oh, kids like blogging, so let’s do blogging in the classroom”—simple transpositions of what people see as a genre of culture that kids like and try and use that as a wrapper for content that they might not otherwise be interested in. My colleague Jim Gee calls this the “chocolate-covered broccoli” phenomenon.

What’s the alternative?
It’s more about how do you change the social relationships that are meaningful for kids in ways that help reframe their personal interests, proclivities and peer supports as a means of fostering the sort of relationships that are going to bring them into these directions we’re interested in. One example of that is YOUmedia, a new program at the Chicago Public Library. It’s about taking young people who have a creative, intellectual or specialized interest and putting them into a context where they can be with peers who share and support those interests, and also be connected with adults, experts and mentors who represent that interest domain. At YOUmedia, the focus is on media production. The kids might get one class on that subject in school, but what YOUmedia provides is both a peer and mentor context, where they can immerse themselves not just in formal instruction but in a peer culture, which creates an intergenerational set of relationships that supports the development of that interest.

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Sharing interest at YOUmedia at the Chicago Public Library

It’s interesting that at first, YOUmedia debated whether to incorporate their teen and young-adult book collection into their physical space. They decided to do so, and discovered that the use of those books increased tenfold.
That’s right, and it shows that when kids have a passionate and specialized interest in a topic, it’s not about the new vs. traditional media. If it’s something they’re passionate about, kids will consume all kinds of information, regardless of platform. What new media provides is the ability to specialize and drill down and really be able to go into depth into an area of interest. When that happens, they’ll be reading in print, they’ll be going to YouTube, they’ll be on social networking sites and specialized interest communities of all kinds. That’s where you see that virtual cycle where they’re creating their own content and at the same time consuming a lot of professional content. They have a deep appreciation for specialists and high-quality curatorial work in their domain. That’s where we’re trying to figure out more opportunities for kids to experience what it means to have that rich knowledge community around a particular passion—as opposed to other forms of online engagement, which, frankly, is mostly just social, hanging out with the peer group that you happen to be with in school. Places like YOUmedia are really designed to immerse kids in contexts where knowledge and expertise and specialization are really rewarded. Now YOUmedia is scaling to a bunch of other centers around the country, with 10 more opening each year in Chicago, New York and elsewhere.

What’s another mechanism for enabling that kind of immersion?
The Quest to Learn program, which is a network of middle schools in Chicago and New York based on game-based pedagogy. The focus is not so much on the idiom of gaming per se, but on gaming as a mode of inquiry, as a form of problem solving and working collaboratively as a means of figuring out how to get things done. Kids learn fractions or language arts, for example, in the process of moving forward on a shared problem, the way they’re used to doing in gaming.

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Children engaged in learning by the quest-model.

How is that not chocolate-covered broccoli?
A lot of what we’re calling the chocolate-covered broccoli model is the behaviorist model, in which you do something you don’t like and then get a reward. The quest model is more of an inquiry-based, progressive educational model in which you’re trying to give kids a shared purpose and a set of problems that they’re authentically engaged in. It isn’t framed as entertainment; in fact, often it doesn’t even resemble the idiom of entertainment at all. It’s really modeling that form of learning that you see in really complex and strategic kinds of gaming, where you’re trying to succeed in a complex task and mobilizing knowledge and resources as a way of getting there.

What can news organizations learn from your research?
It’s a real question, because as we know, young people today don’t tolerate advertising in the ways that earlier generations did, which is a big challenge to the business models of news organizations. The role of professionals in youth culture, whether it’s in journalism or the academy or any other knowledge or cultural domain, is as important as ever. But that role needs to be reframed, to some extent, to reach young people in terms of the patterns of knowledge and cultural consumption they’re engaging in. When I watch how young people circulate information—especially the kind of information that has currency among youth peer networks—there’s really an absence of adult and authoritative intervention within that flow. I think we have to be a little more creative in how we think about that. It isn’t about just broadcasting and publishing along the traditional channels, but really intervening in the flow of communication that’s happening on the peer-to-peer level, and understanding how to create focus and attention within those communities. How do we start inserting adult authority and expertise within that framework of young online communication? Well, you can’t just say, this is important because it’s from the New York Times or Yale University Press or whatever; that’s not going to function as a magnet for them as it once did. At the same time, kids are very aware of how reputation and status and circulation function in a much more peer-based and networked environment. We need to find models that can be more effective at getting educational or academic or journalistic content inserted into those environments.

What might those models be?
First we have to understand the genres of engagement that youth have online. There’s the kind of friendship, peer, status, popularity dating stuff, and adults are not particularly welcome there. Most of that happens on Facebook, text messaging and instant messaging. But there’s this whole other domain of interest-driven activity, and that’s where we’re focusing our educational interventions. It’s also where kids absolutely want adults represented. If you look historically at how online youth platforms have stratified, there’s always been the lowest common denominator, which five years ago was MySpace and now is Facebook. It’ll probably stay Facebook awhile, but kids are migrating to Twitter and text messaging. That’s the lowest common denominator, and most of what circulates there is food, sex, popularity and status. But then there’s a whole plethora of sites that cater to particular interests, whether it’s sports or entertainment or creative pursuits. There are also aggregated sites. Five years ago it was Live Journal; right now it’s Tumblr. Every interest community has its own little silo, which is very challenging for people dealing with professional content. It’s not like you can just go to one single place. But in those places it’s very intergenerational, and expertise is highly valued. In fact, kids really want to connect to the professionals, the curators, the content makers, the athletes or whatever. They’re desperate for connection to those people.

So if you were an arts journalist and wanted to communicate with a youth audience, what would you do? Where would you go?
The first thing I would do is try to find those online sites and communities that young people who have that interest are connecting to. Then I’d try to define some channels so that that content becomes relevant and embedded within those existing social communities. For every interest, there’s going to be an existing social community that is supporting young people’s interests and pathways into those interests. My most recent project is on Japanese popular culture, and within that domain, you see hugely mobilized youth fandoms around video, art, anime and so on. But for the most part, I don’t see professional content creators—the anime companies, the musicians—or the journalists covering those areas engaging with those spaces. There are fan sites like the Anime News Network that are constantly pulling all the professional news and then introducing it to the fan community, and there’s a ton of fan engagement around that content. But the professional creators and journalists tend to be at arm’s length from that communication. So there’s sort of an amateur news layer that has stepped up to fill the void. But I’ve always wondered what it would look like if the professional creators actually met them halfway. You see that a little bit at fan conventions, like the Anime Expo here in L.A. every year, which include a mix of industry and professional news people and fans. It’s sort of the one time that fans can connect directly with the professional content creators. But for the most part, those links are almost always initiated by the fans, not by the professionals. There’s still a real divide there. The professional content creators seem to feel they have existing distribution channels: Look for it in the newspaper, on television, in the movie theater, on the CD or DVD that’s coming out. And they see their job as stopping there.

Maybe there’s a lack of knowledge about how to take that next step toward meeting the audience halfway.
And there’s not a business incentive to do it.

Or so they think.
Or so they think.