They’re seventeen or eighteen years old. They don’t consider the internet and cellphones to be new media, but just another integral part of their lives ― so integral, in fact, that they’re nearly invisible. They’re not gadget lovers, and they don’t spend every moment of their free time in front of their computers. They prefer to go out with friends, go to parties, and flirt. But new communication technologies are with them wherever they go, intensifying their interactions and helping them stay in contact with friends while spending time with the family, going to school, or attending after-school activities. Their world is partly our world. But the sense that we understand their world perfectly is just an illusion.
Stories of teenagers from three Polish cities were described in the research project “Youth and Media”, which I had the pleasure of leading. Anthropological research conducted by our team aimed to answer questions such as: what do young people do with media? How do new communication and content-sharing tools affect the social lives of the high school students we talked to? How do they affect their hobbies, the circulation of knowledge and cultural texts, and how do they affect the way young people think about themselves? The following article is not an attempt to summarize the report. I would rather consider the challenges that our observations pose to cultural institutions. And there are quite a few of them.
The world that emerges from over one hundred interviews conducted by our team in the field is an overwhelmingly digital one. Culture is unanimous with a file: an article, a picture, a movie, or a song, all of which can by copied and shared ad infinitum. Even pictures taken on film never make it onto paper ― rolls of film are developed and scanned, and the resulting images make the round on blogs and social networks, as e-mail attachments, on CDs and DVDs, and flash drives. That which is analog, bound to a physical medium with reduced mobility, is nearly useless. It isn’t until content is digitised that it acquires new life. Content in this form is the staple fuel of social networks, where separating the social from the cultural has become nearly impossible. In the social micronetworks that we found, sharing cultural content was the basic form of social activity. That observation should be regarded as good news, considering how often we bemoan the dropping interest in culture and how we hear that the lack of social trust hinders all exchange and cooperation.
The richness of content available online makes it easy to find, but it also causes fragmentation in cultural experiences. For those that want to know the same films and music as their friends, it is no longer enough to just sit down in front of the television at the same time, or to read the magazines that “everyone” reads. Young people need to share links and spread their knowledge among their peers. In a culture of surplus, that knowledge means more than content itself. Content is available at the click of a mouse ― all you need to do is know what to look for (or whom to ask for help with downloading). The possibility of run-ins with the law isn’t something too many of them worry about.
The internet has also lowered the threshold of entry for content creators ― not only is it relatively easy to create and transform content, it is just as easy to share the results. However, our research has shown that while the line between the amateur and the professional is increasingly blurry, this claim has kept us from noticing another problem: the lack of a language with which to describe the full spectrum of activities found between these two extremes. Most of the young people we talked to were not creators, but it would be unfair to describe them as mere consumers. They put significant time and energy into acquiring knowledge about music and films, commenting and reviewing them online, and sometimes transforming and redistributing them. They put a lot of work into finding inspiration, and were supported in these quests by friends, anonymous internet users, as well as search engine algorithms.
This, of course, is neither the first nor last cultural shock of its kind. Most of the phenomena described here were not born along with the internet ― they are part of a process with a much longer history. But they are gaining strength now, and become the norm, rather than the exception. Meanwhile in Poland, these issues are only discussed on the sidelines of the cultural debate. The question remains unanswered: where do institutions fit into this equation? How do they determine their role in a situation where the proliferation of both content and knowledge about that content occurs without the help of these institutions? How are appointed entities to build their authority in a situation where society has decisively broken the hold of their monopoly? Of course, a passionate teacher, an inspiring drama club leader, or a well-run cultural center are all irreplaceable from the point of view of young people. But the high school students we talked to also realize that their options are not engraved in stone ― they have a choice. Their interests bloom without the help of institutions, and that’s become easier than ever before. The internet offers numerous shortcuts to acquiring knowledge. In the online world, communities are growing in which the participants exchange information and acquire competencies incidentally, often not as a goal in itself, but as a side effect of being in contact with people who share similar interests. To make a competitive offer, members have to have vision and ideas that go beyond just linking to other websites. I get the impression that the debate on these topics has been severely lacking. No one has the answers, but it’s high time we started asking the questions. And it’s time we gave up our patronizing attitude towards the very people that cultural institutions have been created to serve.
We need to treat the cultural activities of young people as a “bellwether of change”, as Barbara Fatyga once put it. Let’s start a serious debate on the changes underway in culture and the vision that should be followed by institutions that now need that need to reinvent themselves. These institutions need to find a new purpose in a world where creativity and distribution have become democratized, and where recommendations and cultural content itself comes from other internet users; where online communities, YouTube, and the Pirate Bay are the “institutions” of culture. I’m not talking about a revolution, an absentminded race to adapt to every internet novelty. Let’s start with discussions like the one in the “New York Times”, whose editors recently asked “Do school libraries need books?”. I’m sure they do, but the difference is that this is no longer a question that can be silenced with a sardonic grin. Justifying our answer demands that we consider the changes in the foundations of culture, a culture that hasn’t been a literature-based one for quite a while.
That’s just one example ― the list of problems is long: copyright (and ― I’m not afraid to write this ― the social benefits that stem from practices that the law, in its current form, qualifies as a crime), the role of school, the legal status of plagiarism, the growth in collective authorship, the downfall of institutional legitimation for what is considered “worthy”, the standards of online debates… From this perspective, disputes over financing models for cultural institutions, school reading lists, or ― forgive me ― the Chopin Year promotional campaign seem to be significantly less urgent.
There are too many changes to made for us to rely on momentum itself. In order to co-create the future, we need to take part in the process of its invention. The climate is changing, and we can’t afford to ignore the bellwether. Our reaction today will shape the direction these changes will go in tomorrow, and will decide whether they bring more harm or more good.
The “Youth and Media” report was created as part of a project financed by “Observatory of Culture”, an operational program of the Ministry of Culture and National Heritage coordinated by the National Centre for Culture. The research team included: Michał Danielewicz, Mirosław Filiciak, Aleksandra Gołdys, Mateusz Halawa, Paulina Jędrzejewska, Paweł Mazurek, Agata Nowotny, Agnieszka Strzemińska, Jacek Szejda, and Tomek Ratter.
translated by Arthur Barys