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Youth Online: Identity and Literacy in the Digital Age

Author: Angela Thomas
Publisher: New York: Peter Lang Publishers, 2007
Review Published: January 2008

 REVIEW 1: Alison Harvey

A recent study from the Pew Internet and American Life Project estimated 93% of Americans teens aged 12-17 were online in 2007, the majority on a daily basis. Angela Thomas' work seeks to discover what this time online means for the identity development and literacy practices of these youths. Youth Online is hinged on the examples of a sample of young people from five nations with relatively high Internet adoption rates -- Canada, the United States, Australia, The Netherlands, and Switzerland -- and describes the practices of several young teens, including writing fan fiction, engaging in role-playing, and administrating sites for youths with similar interests to gather. Thomas captures the vibrancy of these activities and of the youths she interviewed, coming to the conclusion that these young people are transforming literacy practices online in brilliant ways. Unfortunately, the material that leads up to this utopian finale does not adequately convince the reader that its engaging but still rather narrow examples comprise the majority of activities of teens online.

Thomas positions the book quite clearly and appealingly in her introductory and second chapter, and elegantly clarifies the complex theories that make up her conceptual framework. Books that explore the activities of youth in relationship to online communities and technological tools rarely engage with Judith Butler, Donna Haraway, or Jacques Lacan. Youth Online, however, skips the typical introductory statistics and delves immediately into the exploration of how identity may be authored online, using concepts such as metaxis, embodiment, and desire to persuade the reader that the self may be virtual rather than inherently tied to a physical body. Thomas tightly weaves together theoretical evidence of the suitability of her foundational understanding of a semiotics of identity convincingly, linking Foucauldian subjectivity and Butler's understanding of performativity to argue that a virtual self may exist. Some of the theory included is not entirely relevant or even explored further in the book. For example, Thomas uses the concept of the panopticon to ask whether the Internet is surveilled, a question she never explores later. She also spends a bit of time explicating Jacqueline Rose and Laura Mulvey's debates around the male gaze in film, theories that only indirectly apply (and are never explicitly associated) to the subject of children developing identities online.

Despite Thomas' clarity on what theories underlie her approach, readers are still left filling in the blanks when it comes to her ethnographic methods. Thomas claims to use "textual, visual and socio-psychological analysis" (1) as well as "linguistic, sociological, and psychological perspectives" (5). In terms of understanding the texts of her subjects, she employs a method called "lived experience," which allows the researcher to interpret everyday life with a conscious understanding of the emotions, values, impressions, and perceptions of the lived experience. Thomas summarizes the common objections to the way this method does not address its own subjectivity. She does not, however, clarify how she came upon her subjects, how she solicited them, the inherent biases of her sample, or any of the elements of the basic methodological flaws in this type of ethnography. For instance, Thomas uses her subjects' online pseudonyms without explaining why she chose to do so, or even why she chose that name over another (as these youths all have more than one.) As we shall see, Thomas' lack of methodological transparency becomes problematic as the relatively unique nature of her examples is revealed.

Thomas moves from her chapter on the book's theoretical scaffolding to the accounts of the children and youth that make up her textual analysis. This chapter contains a creative reconfiguration of a variety of communiqu�s and fictional works that Thomas calls narrativized accounts. Rather than introducing the five subjects, their backgrounds, and their activities, Thomas merges together the text generated by each youth over time into a quasi-biography. This is an interesting approach that allows the reader to develop an immediate impression of each subject and see the diverse ways each uses language to convey their identity. Narratives here are an imaginative way of allowing the reader to meet the subjects, and to develop some of their own ideas about the performative nature of these text-based communications. Cobbled together in this way, the confessions of these youths become totally immediate and raw, allowing the reader a sense of intimacy.

As an organizational strategy, however, segregating and aggregating these accounts falls flat. Others, most notably Sherry Turkle (1995), have interwoven accounts of online activity with analysis and theory, which tends to lead to a deeper understanding in the moment of the weight and importance of these accounts. I believe that Thomas would also agree that as a writing tactic this is effective because, later in the book, when Thomas reviews her analysis and conclusions, she includes portions of the relevant account. Thus, we read nearly all of the parts of the narrativized accounts for a second time later in the book. This redundancy detracts from the pleasure the reader takes in both the vivid accounts and the author's succinct analysis. Furthermore, reading the accounts in context later in the book leads the reader to understand just how far at times the narrativized chapter decontextualized some of the subjects' words.

The chapters that follow the narrativized accounts do as mentioned knit the words of the subjects with Thomas' observations. Confusingly, however, they introduce other subjects and realms, without necessarily linking them to the narratives we have read. Indeed, subsequent chapters highlight how stand-alone Chapter 3 is. They provide background on some of the spaces the children discussed in the narratives and flesh out some of the practices that were unclear previously. It is in these chapters we begin to get the sense that Thomas did not base her samples on the users of popular social networking websites or successful registration-required game worlds. These children engage in highly involved and specialized practices in what Thomas calls "palaces," which are 2-D graphical chat worlds. The reader begins to understand that these are rarely mainstream, commercial worlds but rather those created by children who have learned how to program, operate, and popularize them. The behaviors and activities Thomas details are amazing and do indeed ignite feelings of wonder and awe. Who can resist the image of the child who builds and administrates one of these palaces around the principles of democracy? The children that comprise Thomas' sample write 50,000 word novels in one month, use poetry to work out their angst, role-play as historical Chinese heroes, and ask their parents how to get out of online squabbles. It is easy to be seduced by these young people, until we read Thomas' conclusion, which associates these intensely creative activities with those undertaken by the millions of users of MySpace and YouTube. Writing fan fiction certainly does involve transformational literacy practices to be celebrated; creating a MySpace page for you to display the number of your friends does not. The cases Thomas has highlighted are unique and do indicate that the internet need not solely be a commercial repository or danger zone for children. They do not, however, provide conclusions that can universally apply to the online activities of the average youth.

Despite these cautions, Youth Online is an essential read for anyone doing research on the activities of children and young people on the internet. The accounts Thomas has elicited, especially the lengthy transcript included as an appendix, are some of the most detailed I have ever found. The appendix especially will tell any adult more about what young people do online than any second-hand report. The girls that are corresponding digitally move fluidly from the perspective of the narrator, to the characters of the story, to their "real-life" personae, revealing the amazing ease with which they work with fictions, social exchange across networks, and with different identities. All that Thomas has to say about youth participation, identity, literacy, and socialization are encapsulated in the exchanges she was able to capture.

Though Thomas' examples are not necessarily generalizable, her samples and analytical passages both reveal new facets of the broad range of activities undertaken online by young people. Though it is likely the number of children engaged so dedicatedly to these kinds of literacy practices is small, Thomas' work indicates that a much larger number are becoming involved to a limited extent, and that these kinds of activities closely mirror those that neo-Luddites revere about the time before internet -- creating, socializing, and defining a sense of self.

Pew Internet and American Life Project. (2007) "A Timeline of Teens and Technology." Last accessed September, 2007.

Turkle, Sherry. (1995) Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet. New York: Simon & Schuster.


Alison Harvey:
Alison Harvey is a PhD student in the Joint Programme in Communication and Culture at York University where she researches video games, virtual communities, mobile technologies, and youth culture. She recently completed a Master's thesis on video game theory and epistemology at Concordia University.  <alison1harvey@yahoo.ca>

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