Geeking Out with History

I’ve been meaning to blog about this for awhile, but last month the Digital Youth Project released the results of their three-year study: “Hanging Out, Messing Around, and Geeking Out.” The project,  through funding from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and collaborative scholarship between researchers in the UC system, looked to examine young people’s use and interaction with new media in three realms: communication, learning and play. The overall results are both fascinating and encouraging, and I’d recommend at least reading the two-page summary of their findings.

The title stems from the three modes of use the researchers identify. Hanging out is the primarily social interaction between friends and peers, exemplified by social networking sites, instant messaging, or text messaging.  The second mode, messing around, is a form of digital exploration and expression, exemplified by uploading videos or photos, trying out different online applications, or passing along discoveries (think Elf Yourself or LOLCats, for two admittedly trivial examples). The final mode, geeking out, is diving into a specific topic, finding a community of like-minded enthusiasts, and working towards a degree of expertise in the area.

For anyone interested in youth participation in new media, reading the white paper is a must. K-12 educators with even a passing interest in what their students are doing should take a glance at it. Upon first skimming it, I thought it did a great job of refuting several commonly-held perceptions about young people’s activity online. First, under the hanging out topic, of particular note is the refutation of a still-pervasive myth that kids  go online and end up primarily interacting with strangers. Instead, the researchers write, “With these ‘friendship-driven’ practices, youth are almost always associating with people they already know in their offline lives.” For the majority of young people, the idea of going into online chatrooms and striking up friendships with complete strangers is largely a relic of the past. With messing around, the researchers stress the fact that young people are not passive recipients of media, but they are increasingly participatory members of a community. There is a critical element of trial-and-error, as kids explore and incorporate (or reject) new activities. Finally, my favorite mode: geeking out. The authors highlight the important point that “one can geek out on topics that are not culturally marked as ‘geeky’.”

For some reason, this relatively innocuous assertion provoked a lot of thought on my end. “Geeking out” still carries strong cultural connotations, bringing to mind images of traditional nerd culture – see Timothy Burke’s recent post on Batman comics, in which he offers a disclaimer: “This entry is going to be the maximally geeky one.” But  “geeking out” as a verb can increasingly apply to non-“geeky” subjects: sports-obsessed fantasy football participants, any and every kind of music enthusiast, political gossip and speculation, etc. This has been one of the true hallmarks of the internet, by breaking down barriers of entry into extremely specialized fields of interest.

Which leads me to the title of this post: historians need to take advantage of the digital landscape to geek out with history. Without any amount of exaggeration, I can confidently say that my own geeking out with history has contributed just as much to my identity as a “historian” as my semesters of traditional scholarly training. Subscribing to blogs or listening to podcasts will not replace formal instruction. But it can certainly enhance the learning process, and in my mind, offers a higher ceiling for immediate participation and access. If a student writes an essay for a college course, most of the time the only reader will be the professor, and possibly some fellow students if it is a seminar. Meanwhile, if a student takes that same energy and enthusiasm to their subject online, they read related thoughts from scholars around the world, exchange comments and dialogue with some of those scholars, or post that same essay as a blog and receive feedback from a much greater number of readers.

On the research side, I think many academics are awakening to the vast potential for vertical exploration of historical source material. Fifteen years ago, doing research on a historical subject meant countless trips to archives and libraries, excursions that were largely hindered by geographical and financial considerations. Today, digitization projects have greatly streamlined the process of finding and accessing this material. In doing so, it is opening up the door for anyone to geek out with history. Genealogists and armchair historians have always greatly contributed to the field, whether or not academics like to admit it. But in the years to come, the ability of non-professionals to do professional work will grow and grow. This is a double-edged sword, as greater participation enhances the possibilities for collective intelligence and collaboration, while also running the risk of suffering from a “Barnes and Noble Syndrome,” of an environment dominated by cream-puff analysis and a lack of vigorous interpretative context.

Academic historians need to get their hands dirty online. Read (and write) blogs, mine some data, listen to podcasts, enter a virtual world, upload media, explore databases, leave comments, and share your research. Take some chances and make mistakes. In short, geek out.

Go West, Henry

Henry Jenkins recently announced he would be leaving MIT for sunnier and smoggier USC. Jenkins is a pioneer in the field of media studies, having been termed a modern-day Marshall McLuhan for his visionary and highly influential work. Having helped found the Comparative Media Studies Program at MIT, one of the few graduate programs of its kind in the country, Jenkins termed his feelings at leaving for USC as “Brutal-Sublime” (instead of “bittersweet”).

I know very little about Jenkins’ decision to move to Los Angeles, but I do know about him as a scholar and a thinker. He is, in a word that he would probably rightfully view as a compliment, a complete nerd. His blog is titled “Confessions of an Aca-Fan,” he encouraged his son to dictate fan-fiction at the age of 4, and counts a conversation about Star Trek as one of the early formative discussions he had with his wife. However, Jenkins also describers himself as “a humanist with a math phobia.”

And what a humanist he is. He is a prolific scholar, seemingly involved in endless numbers of projects and interests, which he blogs about with a truly jaw-dropping degree of thoughtfulness, eloquence, and creativity. He is even more impressive when speaking, as podcasts of lectures, talks, and presentations aptly demonstrate.

One of my favorite aspects of Henry Jenkins is his willingness to engage with such a wide audience. As the author of Convergence Culture and a proponent of the power of participatory culture, this shouldn’t come as a surprise. Quick story: in one of his talks, Jenkins discusses how pop culture fans remix media. As an example, he pointed to the ability of internet and hip-hop musical phenom Soulja Boy to build a phenomenally widespread fan base through Youtube and MySpace largely through encouraging other users to remix and remash his work. Jenkins somehow managed to discuss it in a down-to-earth, incisive, and unpatronizing way. Too often commentators of pop culture, especially academics, come across as far too removed and clinical. Jenkins managed to turn it into a conversation that beautifully demonstrated the point he was making.

I am a scholar of history, first and foremost. But as one with a strong interest in how technology can enhance our approaches to studying history, I count Henry Jenkins as a strong intellectual influence. In history circles, USC’s graduate program is seen as up-and-coming. While I can’t speak to how accurate this perception is, I can say for certain the school as a whole just landed itself a remarkable catch. I wish Henry Jenkins all the luck at USC, and am confident he will continue his leadership in contributing to how we understand media and culture.