Television…Gone With the Web

21 Jul

“Take a good look my dear. It’s an historic moment you can tell your grandchildren about – how you watched the Old South fall one night,” – Rhett Butler to Scarlett O’hara in Gone With the Wind.

Substitute “television” for “the Old South,”  and “night” for “decade,” and you’ve pretty much summed up what appears to be happening to the ole’ boob tube.

Remember when the big media complaint about children had to with the amount of hours watched per day, or week? We would role our eyes, and the cultural snobs among us would declare how we don’t understand the appeal of cable television among the masses (we of course didn’t own a cable box – just a widescreen TV and DVD player to watch foreign and independent cinema) and our future children would never be subjected to the likes of the Teletubbies or (shudder) Barney.

Well, I think it’s safe to say that the traditional medium of television is on its way out. I’m not saying there won’t be television shows or that kids won’t watch videos anymore. But I am saying the longtime dream of convergence is sure to take over the traditional format of TV we’ve become accustomed to.

And while many will continue to decry the amount of screen time children experience, we should keep in mind that much of this “screen time” is incredibly intellectually active, what Henry Jenkins calls “participatory culture” in his white paper, “Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century.

This reminds me of Don Tapscott’s book, Grown Up Digital, a hyperbolic ode to all things new media, but one that has some interesting points. He makes this observation about today’s youth versus their parents’ generation when it comes to “screen time:”

“The second critical period of brain development occurs roughly during the adolescent and teenage years. During that period the boomers as kids were watching a lot of television – between 20 and 30 hours a week. Contrast this with Net Geners, who spend an equivalent amount of time as active users of media rather than as passive viewers. It’s logical to hypothesize that this affects brain development, because how one spends one’s time during this period shapes one’s brain.”

Unfortunately, Tapscott doesn’t provide any hard evidence to prove this is so. I’m also dubious of the idea that teens are replacing TV watching with participatory social media use… I tried to find statistics on this but could not. (If anyone has any they’d like to share, please let me know).

Jenkins asserts that this participatory culture has fostered the development of new skills in this “net generation,” including play, appropriation, multitasking, distributed cognition, collective intelligence, judgement, transmedia navigation, networking and negotiation. (See page 5 of the pdf  for descriptions of these concepts). I agree with most of this, although I’d like to share some caveats.

First of all, he describes appropriation as “the ability to meaningfully sample and remix media content.” I wonder if he thinks this means legally and with an understanding of copyright issues. Now, I’m not going to pretend I don’t occasionally abuse copyright law, but at least I know what I’m doing when I do it. I fear most youth don’t have a good grasp on copyright, and therefore likely don’t know much about the current push to completely revamp it.

As for multitasking, (“the ability to scans one’s environment and shift focus as needed to salient details”). It seems we are finding more and more that “multitasking” is really just a form of distraction, and that when youth (and adults for that matter) think they are multitasking effectively, they are really working at a lower capacity. (See Frontline’s recent documentary Digital Nation).

So while we may relish the fact that our children are no longer slack-jawed zombies parked in front of a flickering traditional television screen, we need to recognize that many new issues arise with new media.

Frankly my dears, I give a damn. Do you? Are today’s youth changing the future f television? How, as information professionals, do we foster the positive skills youth are developing from the participatory culture of media that is replacing television, and curb the negative ones?

*Gone With the Wind image courtesy of Living Read Girl


4 Responses to “Television…Gone With the Web”

  1. Dean Giustini July 22, 2010 at 5:41 am #

    This is a very creative post. I enjoyed the way you introduced Gone with the wind, discussed themes, and then returned to it near the end. I was pleased to see you look critically at Jenkins and the appropriation of media. Both the US and Canada will need to have copyright laws that permit creative repurposing of content (but we will never completely remove the barriers to participation due to copyright).


  2. Jon Strang July 22, 2010 at 5:06 pm #

    The copyright discussion is important. I think there’s a growing gap between what people do and what copyright law actually permits. Are people fighting the system or is does government and business need to realize that the system is really the people and they are the ones that are fighting it.

    I don’t need to remind you about Rip: A Remix Manifesto ( or how mash-ups fall afoul of copyright law. Increasingly, people are discovering that they are having to give away their work for free (see the animated film Sita Sings The Blues as an example) and learn how to make money off of alternative marketing strategies. In the case of Sita, that included selling drives with the full content of the film for remixing.

    I like Jenkins writing for coming up with characteristics of the generation that are actionable. It remains, however, to see what kind of action will be taken.

  3. Amy Ashmore July 24, 2010 at 7:52 pm #

    A really interesting post, Heidi. I like that you problematize the concept of “new media = active = good” while still pointing out some of the important affordances of participatory culture.

    As information professionals, I think one of the most important things we can is actively recognize that critical media literacy is a significant skill (or set of skills), and not necessarily something naturally learned, but something that can be taught. Of course, schools have an important role to play in this, but I think that libraries can be significant actors here as well. Many libraries offer computer classes for children, and media literacy skills certainly have a place in such instruction as well as in reference interaction.

  4. Shawna July 29, 2010 at 5:10 am #

    Hi Heidi,

    While I agree that the Internet and the use of computers is not the same as the “idiot box” television set, I am not yet convinced that using the Internet is not a mind numbing practice. You say that “we should keep in mind that much of this ‘screen time’ is incredibly intellectually active.” Once again, I agree with this in comparison to television, but its scary for me to think of how much time teens spend using digital media. You may have seen this New York Times article, where it discusses that between cell phones, Internet, and music, the average teen spends 11.5 hours “consuming” digital media. Not all of this screen time will be intellectually engaging.

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