I published my first book, Affinity Online: How Connection and Shared Interest Fuel Learning, with an interdisciplinary team of researchers as part of a MacArthur Foundation-funded research initiative called Connected Learning. With Mimi Ito, Crystle Martin, Rachel Cody Pfister, Katie Salen and Amanda Wortman, I conducted a comparative ethnographic study of different social environments online where youth interact, pursue their interests, and develop digital skills.
In doing this work, we discovered complex social environments online centered around young folks’ interests in particular topics (like video games, fan fiction writing, and even knitting). We found that these environments – what we call online affinity networks — provide digitally-mediated support systems for digital skill development. Youth who join these affinity networks meet peers who share their interest, encounter high status participants who exemplify mastery over this interest space, and identify and develop skills required to “level up” in stature among the thousands that inhabit these networks online.
The book has significant ramifications for the study of youth participation online and learning science approaches to digital skill development. First, we show where and how youth can develop digital skills among peers, even absent local supports like parents or schoolmates. Second, we bolster work on informal learning by showing the profound impacts that online affinity networks can have on learner efficacy and skill acquisition. Third, we show that online contexts can operate much like other face-to-face learning environments in that inhabitants build a social order organized around shared interests in a given subject. Youth are not simply at-risk children who roam around aimlessly online; rather, we find vibrant examples of young people participating online with purpose, developing meaningful friendships, and learning valuable digital skills.