Dan Perkel's Stuff on the Web

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A young artist’s take on copyright over on the Digital Youth site

I just posted a short “Story from the Field” over on the Digital Youth site called “No, I don’t feel complimented: A young artist’s take on copyright.” It talks about the experience of 15 year-old Sharon, an aspiring photographer, and the tensions she experiences as she posts work to various online art websites and then grapples with the consequences of having her work available for people to repost, reuse, and “remix” on their own sites, blogs, or other places. The scenario I describe shows that the notion that all teenagers have radically different take on copyright than the rest of us is (as if the rest of us have a uniform take) is not necessarily the case. As I conclude in the article, I can’t claim that Sharon is representative of all teenagers or all artists, but that I suspect there are others dealing with the same conflicts.

Spring semester is underway

Spring semester started this week at Berkeley. But, if most of last fall felt like Spring and Summer, Spring semester feels like winter. It’s no snow belt (though there is snow on Mt. Diablo), but I felt almost as warm in Dayton, Ohio a few weeks ago as I do now.

I don’t update this blog very much as my two readers are aware. But every semester I try to start up again, so I thought I’d do a little update to kick this one off. For me it’s the beginning of my last phase of grad school. I’ve been here longer than I spent as an undergraduate. But last semester, I passed my qualifying exams, which ended a not-so-fun semester of working seven days a week and missing most of my friends (who work strenuous days jobs, but get paid and get to take most weekends and evenings off).

To give you a picture of what last semester felt like, picture poor Smeagol:

“And we wept, precious. We wept, to be so alone… And we forgot the taste of bread, the sound of trees, the softness of the wind.”

Yep. That was me. Beady eyes and all. (Thanks to these folks for being number one on Google for the search “we forgot the taste of bread.”)

But somehow the worst part was all over by Thanksgiving and by the time I took my quals a few weeks later, I was more Deagol than Smeagol, and by the time I passed my quals, I was more Merry, than Deagol. Now, I’m just me (here endeth the silly LOTR references), ready to finish my dissertation proposal, begin research in earnest, and live a normal life again. Yee-haw.

I’m not supposed to take any more classes (though Berkeley still requires us all to have 12 units of something or other), but I can’t help myself and will try to get some classroom time to help me structure my life a bit. I’m also continuing to work with my research group as we try to figure out what’s going in the everyday technological lives of American youth.

On that note, a couple of my colleagues (CJ Pascoe and danah boyd) were interviewed for last night’s Frontline — “Growing up Online.” It’s all online now and I think it’s definitely worth watching. It’s not the whole story by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s more nuanced and compelling than a lot of the other stuff I’ve seen on TV on this topic. The stories were quite powerful and while I’ve been reading contrasting opinions on the balance of positive and negative portrayals of young people’s engagements online, I found the many of the statements made by the young people and their parents transcended the positive/negative debate. I hope this show sparks more discussions between parents and their children and sets a different tone for discussing these issues.

Copy, Paste, Remix: Profile Codes on MySpace (Talk from ICA 2007)

Back in May I attended the annual conference for the International Communications Association for the first time. It was held in San Francisco, which made it quite convenient. danah boyd and I presented a talk based on some of our research on looking at home kids put together their MySpace profiles. The context for the talk was a panel entitled “The Rise of Remix Culture: Identity, Power, and Imagination.” I wasn’t really a part of the panel organization process, and so going into the preparations for the talk, I found myself wondering what “remix culture” really meant. While I have used the term “remix” in the past as a way of describing some specific practices on MySpace, I wasn’t (and still am not) a big fan of it as an adjective a specific form of culture or as a new form of cultural expression. As it turned out, my co-panelists, Mark Latonero, Aram Sinnreich, and Marissa Gluck, also offered some of their own criticisms of the term, which made me feel a bit less like an outsider.

Here is the text from the talk. It’s not that long, but to make it even shorter here is the basic gist: With respect to the teenagers that danah and I have talked to on our separate efforts, we have noticed a few patterns in how teenagers describe how they first learned to make their profiles and how they put them together. A MySpace profile isn’t really “mine.” That’s not just a cynical way of saying it’s Rupert Murdoch’s, either. Rather, a profile is the product of collective effort and collective technical resources that is ongoing. When teenagers (and adults as well) copy and paste code to create their profiles, they are not really remixing media, at least not in the way many people use the term “remix.” Rather, they are mixing code. This is not a trivial difference.

The result is that they are mixing pointers to other people’s materials, or at least materials that are technical managed and perhaps even “owned” by others. And this leads to some interesting tensions when savvy, snarky, and irritated media hosters have to deal with those who are stealing their bandwidth (see this guy and this guy though both contain some not so pretty pictures including a quite disturbing one in the second). Presidential hopeful John McCain ran into some trouble on his MySpace page this past March.

Given the nature of the practices and the tensions that come as a result, I don’t feel that comfortable simply lumping what teenagers are up to on MySpace and the resulting network of media into some unknown concept of “Remix Culture.” Rather, I’d like to understand what is different about MySpace profile customization than other cultural practices, such as remixing music or video.

Text from the talk.

Peter’s Memorial Service – September 11, 5pm-7pm, Doe Library

Peter Lyman’s memorial service is going to be held on on Tuesday, September 11, at the Morrison Reading Room in the Doe Library, from 5pm to 7pm. Everyone is invited to attend (Map of campus with Doe Library).

Big kids vs. little kids at a Pokemon tourney

Ryan forwarded me these two links regarding an adult’s (Gabe) participation at a Pokemon tournament (courtesy of Penny Arcade). Gabe wrongly suspected that there would be other adults there also and his reflections on participating, not just watching, are quite interesting, especially with regard to the different reasons people seemed to have for choosing their Pokemon teams (“cute” vs. powers and strategy) and also his battle with a slightly less big kid.

What I really liked though is 12-year-old Nausica’s response to his story.

Says 12-year-old “Nausica”:

Then the older guys came, I dunno how old they were but they were much older then most of the other kids there, they pretty much ruined the fun of it for everyone else there. I guess they weren’t really mean, but how they acted sounded alot like the boy you described…

So afterwards I really didn’t wanna play pokemon very much, and I thought I was gonna stop playing, cause I only really play to have fun, not to beat everyone else. Then today my mom (who is a big fan) showed me what you wrote, and it made me feel a million times better!!!

I couldn’t believe I almost let some jerks take away my love of pokemon!

It reminded me something that I’ve heard repeatedly from a few of my colleagues in the Digital Youth project: that we can’t idealize or romanticize kids’ social worlds uncritically. Kids have to grapple with politics and power in out of school, out of home, activities as well.

Gabe noted that he’d be “smiling for the rest of the week.” I think I might also!

On a related note:

I know someone who has either Asperger’s syndrome or high-functioning autism (not quite sure which and the Wikipedia article on Asperger’s notes some controversy on how to classify). He’s now an engineering undergrad at a large state university, but when in high school he loved playing Pokemon tournaments. I haven’t seen him in a few years, but he was (and I assume is) a really nice kid who I think probably loved to play with kids who were younger than him.

I remember him playing in a local tourney in Dayton, OH (at a card store?) when he came for a vacation; he was proud that he won the tournament and I couldn’t understand at the time why he would be excited about being kids who were several years younger. But, I think he saw them as social peers and there was nothing strange about it. Just yesterday, a friend of mine mentioned the amount of high-functioning autistic kids she has worked with in various internships who loved playing in Pokemon and Yu-Gi-Oh! tournaments because it didn’t require eye contact, but I barely know what I am talking about here. I’d be curious to read more about this.

What can we do with this story?

I have been (barely) using this blog to talk about things related to my academic interests. But, this bothered me so much this evening that I felt a need to do anything I can to get this story in front of more people.

This movie shows some footage of the LAPD breaking up what appears to be a rather peaceful protest two days ago. Please watch this movie in its entirety. It gets worse and worse as you go through it.

(Also can be viewed here.)

There is a police investigation underway. Apparently, some journalists from a public radio station and a Fox affiliate were among those injured.

As of this posting, there hasn’t been much media attention on this story. Hopefully, things will change as people’s videos get uploaded (where you at, Digg people??).

Creativity and gaps in participation

I wrote up a “Stories from the Field” for the Digital Youth Research website regarding my recent interactions with two teenagers. One came from a couple of hours interviewing in his home. The other from participant observation, which involved many hours of interaction and discussion. Here’s the teaser:

Michael and James. Two teenage boys in the Bay Area, James from a poor area of San Francisco, Michael from a wealthier home in Oakland. Each uses the Interent and other digital technologies as a part of their social lives and their interest in art and technology. Like most of their friends, each has a MySpace profile, though their use of the site differs dramatically and can only be understood in light of their other hobbies. Their differing levels of access to social and technical resources is in line with what some call a “participation gap,” but as I describe in detail below, this might run the risk of, at best, an over-simplification of their digitally-enhanced creative interests, and at worst, a privileging of the value of one of the boy’s interests and activities over the other’s.

And, here’s the story.

As I’m not much of a blogger, I didn’t know if it was bad form to post the same thing in two places or to even point this post over to that one. Maybe it depends on the genre of the blog or even the subject matter?

Anyhow, if anyone is out there reading this and wants to comment, it would be great to hear your thoughts and would be even better to see them on the Digital Youth site rather than here. I am much more into the idea of contributing more regularly to a group blog than this one.

UPDATE: Turns out the comments are turned off on the Digital Youth site, so for now, if you do have any comments, post them here!

What 21st century debates regarding literacy could learn from 19th century ones

I recently read Jenny Cook-Gumperz’s historical account of the relationship between schooling and literacy (“Literacy and Schooling” in The Social Construction of Literacy*). Drawing on the work of other historians of literacy, Cook-Gumperz argues that history shows that widespread reading and writing in Europe and the U.S. occurred prior to the advent of schooling and formal institutions to teach them. There are two components to this account that I found particularly surprising and compelling because they directly speak to some of the contemporary debate and discussions–both in academia and in school policy makers’ offices–concerning the role of new media, schooling, and what might be meant by “new literacies.”

The first has to do with the scope of the term “literacy.” There are a number of research traditions concerning literacy, such as information literacy, media literacy, and others. Researchers over the past few decades have started to take note of the emergence of multiple forms of literacy, rather than just one. Furthermore, even outside of research people have started to talk about “visual literacy,” “media literacy,” “math literacy” (or numeracy), “computer literacy,” “web literacy,” and others. So today we have a sense that literacy should be always thought of as literacies, in the plural. There are multiple forms of literacy and depending on local contexts, the skills, knowledge, and tools that people bring to the practice of literacy are also multiple. What Cook-Gumperz shows in her work is that prior to “professional schooling,” almost 200 years ago, there was also a sense that “literacy” meant many things. In other words, it was schooling, or “schooled literacy,” that prior to the last couple of decades that gave us the sense that literacy was just about the abstract ability to read and write, a unitary thing.

So what were people reading and writing in the centuries prior to schooling? This question of form and content of reading and writing practices leads me to the second part of Cook-Gumperz’s overall argument that is key in light of today’s discussion of new media and literacy. Widespread literacy in Europe and America centered around multiple forms of popular culture: “broadsheets, ballads, and political tracts provided a key means for political discussion and recreation…” (p. 24). In fact it was the perceived fear of dangerous effects of popular culture by the elite coupled with the perceived liberating and empowering effects of reading and writing by others that paradoxically came together to fuel the movement towards the establishment of schools that would teach literacy.

In contemporary debate, especially regarding the internet, media production software, and other tools in the hands of public, many have noted the relationship between these new forms of media and popular culture and have hoped to find a way to harness the enthusiasm for popular culture and somehow institutionalize it through schools. The goal: find a way to incorporate what motivates young people outside of the classroom into the classroom, both in terms of the kind of subject matter and the technologies that young people today are interested in.

My point here is not to comment on whether or not this mission can be successful or not, or even if it’s a good approach to thinking about learning. Rather, the point is to raise the question of whether or not we are a semblance of repetition of history. Certainly, many are concerned and afraid of what negative effects new media and technologies are having on today’s youth. And others laud the possibility that new technologies and popular culture can and will unlock their creative imaginations. Finally, there are others that will see the use of these new media as critical to the skills required to compete in the so-called “new economy” workforce. I can’t help read Cook-Gumperz’s account of the Western history of literacy and wonder: if these interests all align and particular uses of new media become validated by society through institutionalization and schooling will we see a return to a more singular view of literacy, one that broadens the acceptable tools of literacy but not the acceptable social practices, that some scholars have been fighting for decades?

*Note, I read the chapter in the first edition. Apparently, she has spent some time re-writing the version for this second edition, but my understanding is that the basic argument is the same.

Fall 2006: Denmark, Informal Learning, Quality, and more Literacy

At the end of last semester, Ryan, Megan, and I sat around and talked about how it would be useful to write a nice semester recap, a chance to reflect on what we’ve been up to. I usually do this as a sort of “progress report” for my advisors, but Ryan said that he was thinking about blogging his, and I found what he wrote really interesting; even though I thought I knew everything he did this semester, it’s a lot different to read someone’s reflections than just hear what they have to say everyday about what has been going on. So, I thought I’d follow suit and write my own Fall 2006 recap.

When classes started again, it didn’t feel like I was at a beginning. I was in the middle of writing human subjects proposals for various Digital Youth projects and preparing for my first conference presentation at the DREAM Conference of Digital Media and Informal Learning. The conference was held at the University of Southern Denmark in Odense, the birthplace of Hans Christian Andersen. It was attended mainly by Europeans, the majority of whom were from Scandanvia. It was a great experience for me, because I was so unfamiliar with most of their work. I also met many interesting doctoral students, some with work that surprisingly similar to mine, such as Oystein Gilje’s, and others that were quite different. I really enjoyed the presentation of this paper on game design and toy theater by Jacqueline Reid-Walsh.

My presentation on my “Copy and Paste Literacy” paper went well, in that I got some good feedback from people with a lot more experience than I do. Some people really liked the ideas presented, some people didn’t get it, and I think some people thought that I was kind of out of my element. I’m trying out Slideshare and thought I’d include my presentation (warning: without notes, I’m not sure how useful it is…):

(As an aside, the “Copy and Paste Show” on Rhizome decided to include my paper on the reading list. The rest of the show is a bit more interesting, though. Check it out…)

Usually people say that the best part of a conference are the conversations that happen in the halls and the connections you can make between your work and others. That was a great part of my time in Denmark, but I have to say that my favorite moments were hearing some of the keynote talks, especially the keynote roundtable where James Gee, Julian Sefton-Green, Sonia Livingstone, and Glynda Hull spoke very candidly about their views on topics. One of which took aim at the title of the conference.

Already, I had begun to pick up a lot of chatter of people questioning the continuing usefulness of the distinctions between “formal learning,” “informal learning,” and “non-formal learning.” Julian Sefton-Green (author of the 2004 Futuralab report on the topic of informal learning outside of school claimed on his blog before the conference that he would be arguing that the term “informal learning has become a way of describing the value of digital technologies but that the term has no real meaning—there is only learning” (

This issue was the first on the table at the Keynote speakers’ roundtable. When asked to comment on the usefulness of the distinction, Hull argued that that we should just toss out the distinction. I think she said something to the effect that looking at contexts for learning doesn’t include or exclude either informal or formal. Sefton-Green followed up by saying that the term came out of a perceived historical necessity: people had been focusing so much on learning in classrooms that they had been completely ignoring learning everywhere else. But now, what difference does it really make? Now, there is only learning or not learning. Livingstone argued that we should be looking at what kinds of institutions organize learning. Finally, Gee weighed in by acknowledging that while the concept of “informal learning” may have had some value, we also can’t ignore some of the problems it has caused, primarily that for a while people had ignored all of the teaching that goes on between people in “informal learning.” He argued that “teaching is always going on.” The literature on informal learning, he claims, has largely ignored the parents’ “curriculum.” Livingstone later said that an important question may be to look for what is continuous across a range of contexts.

I had already been a bit concerned about the notion of “informal learning” going into the conference, but this conversation and others at the conference made me really concerned. It’s a term that seems to resonate in many circles, and was a part of the thinking behind the Digital Youth project. So, I don’t know if it’s worth trying to change people’s minds about it. But how should I use it, if at all, in my own work? In response to one of Gee’s point above, we probably have a valuable contribution to make in thinking about the teaching between peers, “technementors” (see Freshquest by Megan Finn et al.), parents, and siblings. Many of our projects are trying to address this issue and have been from the start.

The week after returning from Denmark seemed like the real beginning to my semester as I scrambled to catch up on classes and start new stages of my research. The smartest decision I made was to add Paul Duguid’s and Geoff Nunberg’s class on the “Quality of Information” to my schedule, despite having to play major catch up. There are very few people that I have met who can deliver 2-3 hour lectures that are incredibly interesting and entertaining, yet each of them did an amazing job. I ended up writing a paper on the search for quality information about the video game Bully, which launched last October but was on some people’s radar for much of the year and half between the actual release date and the original game announcement way back in May of 2005. The original focus of the paper was on how members of a Bully fan site negotiated and made sense of the variety of rumors and misinformation, but I slowly turned to pouring through the version history of the Wikipedia article on Bully and noting how the article evolved with respect to a few pieces of information, including the release date, the rating, and the game’s presmise. I didn’t reach any grand conclusions, but I did get the sense that on Wikipedia the model is that information is assumed to be quality until someone makes an edit. Lack of discussion, verification, or change over time implies quality. However, on the fansite, lack of verification, comment, or discussion usually seemed to indicate a lack of quality. The notion of “quality” comes only from interaction, discussion, and active verification. I can’t generalize to other Wikipedia articles, but my research left me a bit more confused and ambivalent about the site (despite the fact that I still use it). I think that someone needs to do a detailed study on the site by looking at how people actually read and use Wikipedia articles in their everyday practices, not by studying what is in the articles themselves.

Another class I took last semester was my second on the topic of literacy. Taught by Laura Sterponi, this is one of the core classes taught in the School of Education for their doctoral program in Language, Literacy, and Culture and consists of a heavy dose of theory and writing on a range of literacy related topics. The class had many small writing assignments and no major project to complete the semester, but I wrote a paper for my third class on Computer-Mediated Communication, that tried to show the relevance of the study of literacy to thinking about CMC. The basic point of the paper was to argue that scholars who have been researching literacy have been studying “mediated communication” in the form of writing (and more recently other media). In my CMC class Coye Cheshire and Andrew Fiore repeatedly made the point that it’s important when thinking about CMC to think about the “mediated communication” part of the acronym and to not get too distracted by the “computer” part. Therefore, the relationship between literacy and CMC seemed clear to me, but required a lot of thinking and writing.

All of this has helped me think about my ongoing work on literacy practices on MySpace, though I don’t have any grand statements to make here. I spent roughly ten hours a week last semester doing participant observation at a youth and technology center where I had a chance to watch how some teenagers use MySpace in their “natural” environment for using it. My thought is that one way, by no means not the only way, to understand online social networking is not by just studying online interactions, but by talking to people and observing them and their tools as the use them. This isn’t that novel a proposition, but it is challenging to make it all work. The jury’s still out for me on where this research is taking me.

One place where I hope it’s taking me is the development of a good dissertation topic. I feel myself playing the role of a stereotypical PhD student in this regard…where everything is fairly interesting, but nothing seems captivating enough to want to spend years on, only to one day suddenly realize that there is life after dissertation, so I might as well just pick something…anything. My plan is to find that something soon. This semester will be difficult, but fun, I think.

However, I am refreshed after a great winter break. I’m glad I took some time off over break to learn to ski (it’s taken me way too long to get off the little bunny hills. Now I have to get off the slightly bigger bunny hills.). I also had a first trip to Hearst Castle and a first time attending an Indian Wedding. Each of those firsts have its own stories for my friends and family.

Well, maybe something for this site as well. The most fascinating part of my Hearst Castle trip was learning more about the working relationship between Hearst and architect Julia Morgan. While I recognized her name from various Berkeley sites, I didn’t know much about her. The tour guide talked mostly about Hearst, while the exhibits and other materials talked a great deal about Morgan as well. However, what I saw is how much Hearst Castle is a product of the their collaboration. The creativity and “genius” was not so much in the vision of Hearst or the execution of Morgan, but in the interplay of their ideas and work over the course of many years. And of course, it is likely that there are others in this story who are critical but who remain nameless. If I were to do a historical paper on collaboration and creativity, I might start with the building of this castle.

Why is collaborative media production for kids important?

A (former) colleague of mine, noting what I write on my bio, asked me the following question:

“In three sentences of less – ‘Why is collaborative media production for kids important?'”

My response:

I think it’s important for kids to have opportunities to learn to produce media, beyond film and text, because it provides another outlet for creative expression and a hook into participating in various communities outside of their classrooms. Not only might they learn technical skills that prove useful down the road, they learn how to learn, and potentially engage in a deep committed learning. Doing all of this with other people, kids or adults, provides three additional benefits: a) some research in learning argues that people learn better when working with others; b) it provides a social experience that may be increase motivation and desire to participate; and c) perhaps most importantly, I think that working with others help spark some who are not the “solo genius type” to be more creative and actually produce better quality work (not to mention other benefits of just learning how to work with others and experience a chance to understand diverse view points).

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