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.
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“Helps those of us who are no longer kids to understand how their online and offline worlds connect. These global case studies give us insights into youth at the same time that detailed notes about how the authors themselves used their online tools to collaborate help researchers understand what is possible in a truly connected world.” – Cathy N. Davidson, Founding Director and Distinguished Professor, The Futures Initiative, Graduate Center, CUNY
“Reminds us that education is not just learning, it is learning embedded in systems of institutional organization, cultural capital, and peer networks. Drawing on a multi-year research project on young people’s behavior online, the book traces student interest in a remarkable range of topicsfabric arts, professional wrestling, Bollywood danceto make a lucid and compelling argument that participation in affinity networks can have a critical and positive effect on student learning and life chances. Affinity Online is that rare scholarly work that is as interesting to read for the closely observed detail as for the sweep of its larger argument.” – Clay Shirky, author of Little Rice: Smartphones, Xiaomi, and the Chinese Dream
“We can thank the authors of Affinity Online for providing research evidence of the positive, inspiring work and play of young people in the affinity networks of their choosing. The book shines a light on how parents and teachers can support this powerfully beneficial and self actualizing kind of learning, whether or not it improves kids’ grades, civic engagement or future prospects. So the good news and bad news about this book is that it’s scholarly. These young people’s stories need to be even more accessible to the adult public.” – Anne Collier, Founder and Executive Director of The Net Safety Collective
“This book makes a number of remarkable contributions…[among them] to illustrate empirically the huge potential of the social online networking communities, as a public space for socializing, interaction, creation, and diffusion of culture and identity; a place where people can participate, learn, and bring about social transformation.” – Javier González-Patiño, Autonomous University of Madrid, Madrid, Spain and Moisés Esteban-Guitart, University of Girona, Girona, Spain