The essay below examines the phenomenon of ‘fandom’ under the heading of Youth, Popular Culture and Activism. The essay was written to give hope and encouragement to adults who feel jaded or ambiguous about youth and popular culture.
Youth, Popular Culture and Activism
The life of a young person in the developed world in the 21st century is complex: they are avid users of digital technology, are trans-literate, have a global perspective and are consumers as well as producers of content. If the life of a teenager is complex and multifaceted in the modern era, spare a thought for the adults whose lives intersect with youth. Teachers, parents and adult relatives of youth are faced with a conflicted representation of youth and of the popular culture they consume and produce. Narcissism and introspection are the wolves howling outside the door, promulgating fearful thoughts in adults that they are growing children into adults with little regard for those around them. In this context, it seems that the adults need some guidance and support to ameliorate their fears and justify the seemingly obsessive use of popular culture by young people. Academics, authors and social commentators such as John Fiske, Steven Johnson and Henry Jenkins provide adults with a way to understand the behaviour of youth and the meaning of popular culture. In addition, reading and reflecting upon the works of Fiske, Johnson and Jenkins can provide adults with a beacon to help young people navigate their way from popular culture to engagement and activism in global issues. This essay posits that an exploration of youth and popular culture through the prism of authority and power can help adults understand the nature of popular culture and how it can be used to develop an active global citizen.
The following discussion will be tackled in three parts. Firstly, I will examine the concept of youth, defining who they are and focusing on the challenges they experience and their use of digital technology. Secondly, I will explore the concept of popular culture and how academics define and conceptualise it. Finally, I will look at the role of popular culture to engage young people in active forms of citizenship around the world.
The concept and definition of youth is slippery. For the purposes of this essay, ‘youth’ will be defined loosely, spanning the ages of 13-25. At various times within the essay, the focus will be on the younger years, classified as ‘teenagers’ or ‘adolescents’ (13-18). At other times, the focus will be on ‘young people’ or ‘young adults’ (18-25). Although ‘youth’ spans a wide age range, this time in a person’s life is characterised by profound physical, emotional and social change. In a developed, industrialised democracy like Australia, Davies and Eynon (2013) describe three conflicting experiences for adolescents and youth: institutionalisation, familialisation and individualisation. With regard to institutionalisation, Davies and Eynon (2013) found that young people were spending more time in formal spaces. These spaces include the school environment, as well as organised after-school activities such as sports or cultural lessons. Familialisation refers to the trend in modern society where young people are remaining economically dependent on their families for a longer period of time than in previous generations. Individualisation is the process by which young people form an identity through consumerism (buying, producing or consuming commodities to create an identity) and activism (participating in society). Engaging in popular culture is one way that young people create an individual identity. In the 21st Century, an increasing amount of popular culture is delivered through the Internet. Therefore, adults require an understanding of popular culture and the Internet, as they spend more time with young people than in previous generations.
Young people in a developed democracy are avid users of online digital technology. Studies and surveys conducted in Australia (Australian Communications and Media Authority, 2008), point to a ubiquitous use of the Internet. In Australia, the Internet was found to be pervasive in households with young people aged 14-17 years, at 96 per cent. Almost three quarters of young people aged 8-17 years reported using the Internet over the three days of the study. 15-17 year olds spent an equal amount of time on the Internet than watching television, nearly two hours per day. Social networking took up most of the time spent on the Internet (78% of the time for 15-17 year olds). Games, online messaging and chatting took up the remaining time. Many young people contributed their own self-authored material online and watched video content from the Internet. Knowing the quality and quantity of online use in youth is important, as it gives and understanding and context to this emerging vehicle through which popular culture is expressed.
Youth and Popular Culture
If the definition of youth is slippery, then definition of popular culture is equally difficult to grasp. However, just like the term ‘youth’, ‘popular culture’ can be conceptualised. This conceptualisation will be explored through the works of John Fiske, Steven Johnson and Henry Jenkins. These three scholars conceptualise popular culture through the prism of authority, power and pleasure.
John Fiske (2011) conceptualised popular culture as distinct from mass culture. In his conceptualisation, mass culture is imposed from the top down, ‘producing a repertoire of texts or cultural resources for the various formations of the people to use or reject…’ (p. 19). In order to become popular culture, individuals must rework mass culture. This re-working opposes or subverts the ‘power bloc’: corporations or companies who create mass culture (Fiske, 2011, p. 24). His seminal example is that of the clothing item, jeans, which became items of popular culture when they were torn, ripped or defaced. The power structure of popular culture is ‘bottom-up’, not imposed ‘top-down’. The people decide what commodities will become objects of popular culture.
In Fiske’s conceptualisation, it is easy to see why popular culture is associated with youth. As discussed, young people go through a process of forming an identity, which is distinct from adults. Through embracing popular culture, they are able to form a distinct identity within the mass culture. Fiske (2011) describes popular pleasure as being aesthetic, political, discursive, physiological and disciplinary. Young people gain various forms of these types of pleasure through their engagement in popular culture.
Steven Johnson’s book, Everything Bad is Good for You (2005), can be viewed through the aesthetic pleasure described by Fiske (2011). In this type of pleasure, popular culture is viewed as ‘low-brow’. Johnson (2005) provides a justification for engagement in popular culture, from gaming to television programs. This justification seems necessary for adults, who embody ‘the conventional wisdom that …things are getting worse: the pop culture is on a race to the bottom…’(2005, p.132). Johnson’s argument overturns this conventional wisdom. He argues that popular culture is becoming more complex, from highly inter-textual movies and television programs to nested computer games which require gamers to probe, hypothesise, re-probe and rethink (Gee in Johnson, 2005 p. 45). Although young people do not require any justification for their engagement in popular culture, adults, who represent authority, require this justification to counter claims of an ‘…increasingly infantilised society’ (Wills in Johnson, 2005 p. 184) and to understand that popular culture is a legitimate and interesting object of analysis. This adult need for justification and legitimisation sounds very similar to historical popular recreations which the aristocracy attempted to discipline, in order to make them ‘respectable’ and thereby ‘…exert the same control over the conditions of leisure as it did over those of work’ (Fiske, 2011 p. 76). Popular culture is highly political.
Within this highly political framing of popular culture, Henry Jenkins (2008) offers some insight. Jenkins conceptualises the popular culture phenomenon of fandom within the social media context. His main contention is that the emerging media ecology is redefining power and control in ‘…contradictory pulls and tugs within our culture’ (Jenkins, 2008 p.6). On the two sides of the contradictory pulls and tugs are the creators of content and the owners of social media companies. The creators represent the popular culture producers of fandom and other participatory content. The owners represent the media companies who have to redefine the traditional role of gatekeepers and agenda setters. These two descriptions mirror Fiske’s (2011) definitions of mass culture as opposed to popular culture. The corporate driven process of social media companies is a top-down model of mass culture. Youth, representing ‘the people’ have re-worked this mass culture into the popular culture phenomenon of fandom and other sites. Jenkins attempts to redefine this landscape by describing it as a ‘Convergence Culture’, ‘…where the flow of media content is shaped as much by decisions made in teenagers’ bedrooms as it is by decisions made in corporate boardrooms’ (2008 p. 7). Jonathon Gray (in Fiske, 2011) comments on this interplay and shifts in authority, stating that Fiske ‘…would be quite interested in pursuing the contradictions in new media between the appeal of unregulated self-expression and the more stealthy and covert degree of surveillance and corporate control that goes widely unperceived by users’ (Gray in Fiske, 2011 p. vi). This interplay is evident in the use of social media in active citizen participation.
Youth, Popular Culture and Global Activism
Using popular culture with youth to engage in global activism is not new. In books such as Rethinking Globalization (2002) and Rethinking Popular Culture and Media (2011), teachers help young people explore issues of global social justice through the exploration of popular culture commodities such as clothing, food and toys. Nike shoes, brand-label clothing and chocolate are some of the popular culture commodities whose trail can be followed to the source of production, in order to expose sweatshops, child-labour or environmental degradation.
While this method of ‘top down’ engagement in social issues is not new, what is new in this field is the way young people are creating online fan communities to galvanise and internationalise global activism. This represents a ‘bottom-up’ movement on two levels. Firstly, the fan communities in themselves are a representation of popular culture. One example, ‘The Potter Alliance’ is a popular culture fandom based on the Harry Potter series. Secondly, these communities represent the popularisation of global activism. Therefore, rather than a teacher or not-for-profit organisation encouraging membership or activism, young people are creating these activist sites: they are created from the bottom-up, not from the top-down. Kligler-Vilenchick (2013, p.7) states that two particular communities, the Harry Potter Alliance and Nerdfighters, ‘…build young people’s passions around popular culture and their sense of shared cultural identity as an entry point into cultivating civic identities, encouraging political expression and supporting political action’.
These sites and this general popular culture movement have advantages in raising awareness of global ethical issues on a transnational scale and generating feelings of interconnectedness (Torrenueva, 2011; Reitan, 2007). The internet’s ability to deliver multi-modal representation and interactivity both synchronously and asynchronously promotes feelings of ‘…genuineness, people power and grassroots involvement…’(Tatarchevskiy, 2011 p. 309).
Despite the positive outcomes of using popular social media to engage in activism, there are some cautionary notes. Tatarchevskiy (2011) warns of the commodification of social activism, which can occur through the heavy marketing of socially just products and celebrity ‘branding’. She asks whether this movement could be regarded as ‘post-bureaucratic democracy or communicative capitalism’ (Tatarchevskiy, 2011 p. 307). John Fiske would most likely have had confidence that the commodification of this form of popular culture would move it back into the realm of mass culture. If this were to happen, young people would surely find a way to subvert this authority and create a new form of popular culture. As an adult, the hope would be that youth engagement in global social activism would remain, even if it moved out of the popular culture realm of fandom.
In this essay I have outlined the characteristics of youth and popular culture. An understanding of youth and popular culture can help allay the fears of adults and provide them with justification on the worth of popular culture and an appreciation for the emotional, physical and social challenges which face young people. In this essay, popular culture was conceptualised through and exploration of John Fiske and Steven Johnson’s work. The discussion then turned to the Internet and social media, where Henry Jenkins provided insight into ‘convergence culture’. An exploration of social media is important due to the fact that in the current era, much popular culture is delivered or created online. Despite the perceived risks or disadvantages of Internet use, there are many advantages to the Internet. One great advantage is the ability to connect youth globally to create popular culture spaces, which enable active global citizenship. From an adult point of view, this is popular culture at its best: engaging youth through their own initiative to create a space that benefits our global community in meaningful and tangible ways.
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