Teens redefine media on their own terms

Teens redefine media on their own terms

By Tom Zeller Jr.
Story last modified Sat Nov 05 05:59:00 PST 2005

Paredes, a 16-year-old in Lompoc, Calif., maintains a Web site where
she posts her own poetry and pictures and shares music. So when she was
mourning her stepfather, David Grabowski, earlier this year, she
reflexively channeled her grief into a multimedia tribute.

Using images she collected and scanned from photo albums, she created
an online slide show, taking visitors on a virtual tour of Grabowski’s
life–as a toddler, as a young man, at work. A collage of the
photographs, titled "David Bruce Grabowski, 1966-2005," closes the

"It helped me a lot," Melissa said in an instant message, the standard method of communication among millions of American teenagers who, according to a study released Wednesday by the Pew Internet and American Life Project, are fast becoming some of the most nimble and prolific creators of digital content


For all of its poignant catharsis, Melissa’s digital eulogy is also a story of the modern teenager. Using the cheap digital tools that now help chronicle the comings and goings of everyday life–cell phone cameras, iPods, laptops and user-friendly Web editing software–teenagers like Melissa are pushing content onto the Internet as naturally as they view it.

"At the market level, this means old business models are in upheaval," said Lee Rainie, director of the Pew project. "At the legal level, this means the definition of property is up for grabs. And at the social level, it means that millions of those inspired to create have a big new platform with which they shape our culture."

According to Pew’s survey, 57 percent of all teenagers between 12 and 17 who are active online–about 12 million–create digital content, from building Web pages, to sharing original artwork, photos and stories, to remixing content found elsewhere on the Web. Some 20 percent publish their own Web logs .

That reality is now inextricable from the broader social, cultural and sometimes–as in Melissa’s case–deeply personal experience of being a teenager. And it is one that undoubtedly will have profound implications for the traditional managers of content, including big media companies, libraries, record labels, publishers and Hollywood.

>From school libraries and living rooms, millions of teenagers are staking out cyberterritory in places like MySpace.com, Xanga.com and Livejournal.com, where they matter-of-factly construct their individual online presence, often to the chagrin of parents and schoolteachers who belatedly have discovered whole nations of teenagers churning out content under their noses.

"Ever since 3rd period today, I now know that I have sex appeal," wrote Krista, a 15-year-old bass player from Fresno, Calif., who enjoys dirt bikes, surfing and skateing (her spelling), on her personal Web site at Xanga. "It rox!"

It’s that kind of enthusiastic self-revelation that has begun prompting parents and school districts to begin monitoring–and in some case banning–sites where teenagers have taken up residence.

Last month, Pope John XXIII Regional High School in Sparta, N.J., announced that students who posted on MySpace.com or similar sites faced possible suspension from school, citing concerns that students were unwittingly revealing too much information about themselves to potential cyberpredators.

In September, the Hopkinton Middle High School in Contoocook, N.H., sent e-mail messages to parents warning them about sites like MySpace.

But the Pew survey seems to suggest that concern over the dangers of adolescent activity online–while perhaps well placed–is a mere cul-de-sac in a larger landscape where a new generation, armed to the teeth with digital sophistication, is redefining media on its own terms.

"The more kids are involved with digital content creation, the more thinkers will emerge that will eventually produce tomorrow’s innovative products," said Brendan Erazo, a 15-year-old Seabreeze High School student in Daytona Beach, Fla. Erazo mixes and publishes his own Christian-themed dance tracks under the name DJ Xsjado at the Kids’ Internet Radio Project.

Using an arsenal of hardware and software, Brendan produces pulsating audio files that help spread his devout faith on the Web. "I use two Stanton Str8-80 digital turntables and a Numark DXM01USB digital mixer, housed in an Odyssey battle case," he said in an e-mail message.

"I gear all my music from a faith-inspired, to a faith-produced message," he said, reluctantly adding that he also has a MySpace account. "But I strictly created it to expose my music creations to the world," he said.

The rise of "screenagers" like Brendan cannot help forcing traditional media companies to rethink the creator-audience relationship, says Bernard Luskin, media-psychology program director at Fielding Graduate University in Santa Barbara, Calif.

"These young kids are very sophisticated and phenomenally intuitive," he said. "This is the first generation that’s been born into digital life, instead of transitioning into it."

Most teenagers online take their role as content creators as a given. Twenty-two percent reported keeping their own personal Web page, and about one in five said they remix content they find online into their own artistic creations, whether as composite photos, edited video productions or, most commonly, remixed song files.

The Pew survey shows "mounting evidence that teens are not passive consumers of media content," said Paulette M. Rothbauer, assistant professor of information sciences at the University of Toronto. "They take content from media providers and transform it, reinterpret it, republish it, take ownership of it in ways that at least hold the potential for subverting it."

Professor Rothbauer calls this kind of engagement "emancipatory" because "it helps young people fashion their own identities, on their own terms, using whatever content they choose."

Of course, that includes proprietary content, which remains something of a fuzzy concept to teenagers.

For instance, among the teenagers surveyed who said they had some experience downloading music files, 75 percent thought it was "easy to do" and "unrealistic to expect people not to do it."

On the upside for the recording industry, teenagers are migrating to paid music sites , and about half thought downloading and sharing copyrighted material without permission was generally wrong. Roughly the same number, however, said they did not care about copyright.

"There’s still a long way to go, but we have undoubtedly come a long way," said Jonathan Lamy, spokesman for the Recording Industry Association of America. "To reach this increasingly tech-savvy generation, we must continue to adapt and appeal to their consumption patterns. And music companies are doing just that."

In the end, the survey suggests, they have to.

"Today’s teens are breaking down the traditional barriers of the mass media age that had producers of media on one side of the fence and consumers on the other," Rainie said. And in that respect, he said, teenagers are the agents who will challenge every maker, manager and distributor of content.

Whether bloggers like Brendan and Melissa consider themselves at the vanguard of change, however, is an open question. To many of them, they are just tinkering with the toys that the digital revolution has put before them.

"I taught myself how to use the Internet," Melissa said of her Web site and her photo slide shows, "so basically it was just a step-by-step process that clicked into my head. I just read directions and that’s how I set it up. Pretty simple."


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