National Writing Project

Book Review: Hanging Out, Messing Around, and Geeking Out: Kids Living and Learning with New Media

By: Thomas Maerke
Date: January 28, 2010

Summary: Thomas Maerke, a teacher-consultant with the Ozarks Writing Project, recommends this book as a way of developing awareness of the ways new media affects students and their learning.


Think about how you connected with your family and friends when you were growing up. You probably didn't use camera phones, instant messaging, MySpace, or Facebook—simply because they weren't around. Now, consider how your students stay connected with their families and friends.

According to the book Hanging Out, Messing Around, and Geeking Out: Kids Living and Learning with New Media , "Contemporary social media are becoming one of the primary 'institutions' of peer culture for U.S. teens, occupying the role that was previously dominated by the informal hanging out spaces of the school, mall, home, or street" (347).

In this book, which represents the culmination of a three-year ethnographic study funded by the John D. and Katherine T. MacArthur Foundation as part of its Digital Media and Learning initiative , fifteen authors and seven contributors have collaborated to present twenty-three case studies that examine how youth are living and learning with new media.

Genres of Online Participation

The context in which youth in the United States learn, develop identity, and express autonomy is ever changing owing to digital media and online communication. The authors of Hanging Out identify genres of participation with these media. The main genres are "friendship-driven" (online practices of youth as they go about their day-to-day negotiations with friends and peers—think Facebook) and "interest-driven" (what youth describe as the domain of the geeks, freaks, musicians, artists, or dorks—a different network of peers that is created exclusively through interest-driven engagement).

Exchanges that once occurred on school yards or in malls now happen through social network sites.

Youth may also navigate fluidly among other participatory genres identified as "hanging out" (e.g., gaming with friends), "messing around" (e.g., looking for information online, experimenting, and playing), and "geeking out" (a more intensive and frequent use of new media that requires higher levels of specialized knowledge). Naturally, there can be overlap between these genres.

After defining the changing contexts and the genres of participation in detail in the first chapter, "Media Ecologies" (PDF), the authors analyze contexts in which youth participate with digital media. Although each chapter is interesting in its own right, I found the chapters on "Friendship," "Intimacy," and "Creative Content" the most informative.

C.J. Pascoe and danah boyd, lead authors of the chapters on "Intimacy" and "Friendship," respectively, emphasize that young people negotiate similar aspects of life to those of previous generations—gossiping, sharing information, flirting, dating, and breaking up—but instead of these exchanges occurring on school yards or in malls, they happen through social networking sites.

Just as some adults feared the old settings and contexts and legislated to control youth interaction at schools and in public places, so some adults fear the new settings and contexts and attempt to place restrictions on youth interaction through monitoring of media and online communication use or outright denial or cancellation of services.

No chapter more explicitly addresses media literacy than "Creative Content." Lead authors Patricia G. Lange and Mizuko Ito frame media education within the context of the changing media ecology resulting from the increased availability of media production tools.

Their conclusion presents a strong argument for new-media-based instruction: "When the initial impetus for media production comes from family, school, or after-school programs, a prime motivator for improving the craft lies in the network of peers who serve as audiences, critics, collaborators, and coproducers in the creation of media. . . . When youth have the opportunity to pursue projects based on their own interests, and to share them within a network of peers with similar investments, the result is highly active forms of learning" (291).

Each of the seven chapters is supplemented with sidebars providing qualitative testimony "documenting youth practices of engagement with new media" (3). In the sidebars, twenty-five in all, the researchers topically address the broader issue of the chapter through an intimate look into youth culture.

For instance, the sidebar "The Public Nature of Mediated Breakups," from danah boyd, tells the personal story of two teens' relationship (with each other and with online communication) as they dated and through their breakup. Another sidebar, "Making Music Together," from Dilan Mahendran, reveals one teen's experience at the Rap Project in the Mission District of San Francisco.

An Educator's Role

Now consider how your students stay connected with family and friends using camera phones, instant messaging, MySpace, or Facebook, and other examples of digital media and online communication. Imagine taking all those tools away from your students. For most, that's what happens in an average school day.

The authors of Hanging Out speak directly to this issue and those responsible for making this decision: "Educators and policy makers need to understand that participation in the digital age means more than being able to access 'serious' online information and culture; it also means the ability to participate in social and recreational activities online. This requires a cultural shift and a certain openness to experimentation and social exploration that generally is not characteristic of educational institutions" (347).

We can take a cue from our students: we can stay connected by using digital media.

As educators, each of us has a role to play in seeing that this cultural shift takes shape in our institutions. As we go about our daily duties, we can take a cue from our students: we can stay connected by using digital media and online communication as we also live and learn with this new media.

And if we're not quite sure what that looks like, we can read Hanging Out; the authors have done an amazing job of making it quite clear.

For those who are sure what this looks like I would still propose that it is important to read this book because it presents in extensive detail the diverse learning opportunities available to young people during informal occasions of interaction with peers and new media.

Our response, as educators, to the transformational power of new media is dependent upon our awareness of this moment in time and the changes that are already having an effect upon learning and our students. I have found no other study more current or extensive than this one.

The book's findings demand that we rethink education and the use of new media, or we will find ourselves at odds with the growing cultural shift taking place every day outside our institutions.

About the Author Thomas Maerke, an eighth grade communication arts teacher at Pleasant View Middle School in Springfield, Missouri, is a teacher-consultant with the Ozarks Writing Project.

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