Hanging out, Messing around, Geeking out – connecting the dots

I’ve just been watching this interview by Howard Rheingold with Mimi Ito. Ito was one of the lead researchers on the MacArthur Digital Youth project which published it’s findings in book form at the end of last year, and has a wealth of insights into the different ways American, and Japanese, teenagers engage with the Internet and mobile phones. In the interview (embedded at the bottom of this post) Ito outlines the different ways in which young people engage – using the: ‘Hanging out’, ‘Messing about’ and ‘Geeking out’ framework that the Digital Youth Project developed.

Hanging Out, Messing About, Geeking OutThe framework offered gets us beyond talk of ‘digital natives’ to an understanding that there are many different patterns and levels of youth engagement with the Internet. Young people’s uses range from a majority predominantly using the Internet to keep in touch with friends or for accessing entertainment content – chilling and killing time, rather than seeking opportunities to engage (the hanging out group) – through to a smaller group who are using the Internet to explore existing interests and new interests, experimenting with creating content or engaging in community online in a fairly light way (the messing about group) – and those who are using the Internet to really go deep into their interests, creating content, participating in communities and more (the geeking out group).

Awareness, Use, OutreachI was struck by how the framework of ‘hanging out, messing about, geeking out’ (and thinking about the relative numbers of young people at each layer of the model) fits with the framework I’ve been using in training with youth services around levels of professional engagement with social media. We’ve been talking about three levels in which youth services can engagement with social media:

  • Awareness – all staff need to be aware of how social media affects young people’s lives – and to understand that young people’s lives play out in both online and offline environments. Staff need to be able to identify risks and respond to them; to be sensitive to the role of the Internet and social media when supporting young people’s personal and social development; and to be able to identify and encourage young people to explore positive online opportunities.
  • Use – some staff should have the skills to use social media and other online services as youth work tools – whether to promote, extend or enhance face-to-face work; to equip young people with critical skills in making greater use of social media; or for promoting young people’s participation in projects. There are a wide range of different ‘use’ roles – and no single member of staff will be suited to them all. Use of social media in youth work builds upon existing practice and starts from established activities or groups.
  • Outreach – some services will want to consider creating new models of online working – reaching out to new groups of young people and providing online-only support and projects, or projects that start online, before leading to face-to-face and blended work.

(Drawn from the Youth Work & Social Networking Project final report (PDF), Davies & Cranston, 2008)

Awareness of social media for all workers ensures that youth services can provide support to the young people ‘hanging out’ online. The use of social media as a youth work tool either helps some of those ‘hanging out’ to move to stages of ‘messing about’ and exploring the possibilities of the Internet in more depth, or encourages young people to ‘geek out’ and get involved in-depth in an issue (and not necessarily a ‘geeky’ issue…).

When it comes to promoting the safety of young people online – we can reasonably expect that having a supportive youth work presence in young people’s exploration of the web as a space for messing about/exploring interests, or geeking out, and getting in-depth into an activity – can help young people to develop the critical skills to interact safely when they are exploring the web without youth work presence.

Combining these two frameworks also helps make sense of digital youth work in another practical way. Whenever planning a project, and thinking about whether it’s focus is on ‘awareness’, ‘use’ or ‘outreach’ – think as well about the young people you are trying to reach. Are they young people whose experience of the web is a place to ‘hang out’ only? Do you need to both show that the issue you’re trying to work on is important and that the Internet can be used for group-work, collaboration, campaigning and other community/civic tasks? Or are you trying to attract the attention of groups who are already ‘geeking out’ on other issues they already care about? In that case – you’ll need to really show how your project could use their existing skills, and could be fun/worthwhile/etc.

The interview