Writing the Next Generation: The Digital Divide, Literacy, and Activism

By Casey Wilson

About two weeks ago now, an article started making the rounds of the various young adult authors that I follow on Twitter. Called “A Generation of True Writers”, its author Lili Wilkinson makes the following claim right off the bat: “Kids today are not the same as when we were young. They are a generation of true writers and readers, and they’re using books to save the world.” What follows is a thoughtful piece on the ways that teenagers are using their relationship with literature in new ways thanks to the internet, which Wilkinson seemingly views as a seismic shift. On the whole, I tend to agree with her. Much of my own work has tackled this very issue, attempting to explain just how online community has transformed the way teenagers read and the larger context within which that transformation exists. In fact, one of the communities that she cites – Nerdfighteria – has been the central case study at the center of my research.

But because I have been so deeply entrenched in this conversation, I would like to spend some time with Wilkinson’s essay. Rather than actively disagreeing with it – because as I said, the thrust of her argument is useful and interesting – I would like to try to add a little nuance to the terms and situations she is describing. This is a conversation worth having, but I think it’s worth having without the hyperbolic tendencies inherent in the title of the article.

Kids These Days

In Wilkinson’s list of the wonderful opportunities available to “kids today”, she says, “They have access to the Internet in some form or another – in Australia the digital divide has all but been erased.” This is actually a point on which I have to disagree with Wilkinson. Now, I am obviously writing from here in Florida instead of Australia; perhaps Australia has mastered what the United States has not and provided internet access to everyone. But even if this is the case, it’s important to remember that this only applies to a very small portion of the world’s population. I turned to the International Telecommunication Union – an agency associated with the United Nations – to get some statistics on internet access. According to their estimate for 2011, only 35% of the world’s population qualify as internet users. Just a hair over one third. So despite our natural inclination to discuss “kids these days”, we’re really only discussing a select portion of kids in the world today, most of whom are in developed nations.

We also have to remember that internet access alone does not abolish the digital divide. In Laurie Gries’s Fall 2011 Digital Research seminar, we read Neil Selwyn’s 2004 article “Reconsidering Political and Popular Understandings of the Digital Divide”. In the article, Selwyn cautions against the popular habit of breaking the digital divide into “haves” and “have-nots” and suggests that we need to be aware of “what is meant by ‘access’” (347). He quite correctly notes that there is a significant and meaningful difference between someone having access to an internet-connected computer at school or in a public library, for example, and having access to a personal computer at home. The digital divide exists between a student who only uses an old desktop computer for homework and one that spends hours a day online on their phone. It exists between children with iPads and children with laptops. The digital divide is far more complicated than a government providing infrastructure. It extends into usage habits, too.

So when Wilkinson asserts that “Text is their [teenagers’] primary mode of communication”, she glosses over the fact that not every teen has the same access to the devices that make such textual communication possible. There’s no denying that teenagers across the world are glued to their cell phones and computer screens, but if we are to have a genuine conversation about those teenagers, we need to acknowledge the teenagers that we leave out by doing so.

True Readers and Writers

I’m just going to jump in with this one: what, exactly, is “true” reading and writing? Wilkinson seems to cling to the prevalence of both acts for teens as the basis for calling them “true readers” and “true writers”. She asserts that teenagers “construct their identity through text and image” and that “their most intimate of social interactions…are conducted using the written word”. This is closely followed by “Young people read more, and more widely, than any other generation gone before. They read all sorts of things – newspapers, magazines, comics, graphic novels, and websites”. Teenagers, then, are “true” readers and writers because of the extent and variety of their exposure to both reading and writing.

I shared Wilkinson’s article on Facebook as I began constructing my own thoughts, asking for responses from my friends. One – the inimitable Hilary Jacqmin – pinpointed Wilkinson’s rhetoric here as her primary issue with the essay. I wonder if she would have had the same reaction if Wilkinson didn’t insist on using “true” as the descriptor. By using that phrasing, Wilkinson effectively dismisses any act of reading and writing that came before the generation in question. It presents the idea that we were all on hold, waiting for the internet to make us as a species into the right kind of readers and writers. I don’t think that’s Wilkinson’s intent – or I at least hope that it isn’t.

There’s a potentially productive moment here, however, in the attempt to place a name to the work being done by teenagers today. While I personally think “true” is ineffective and problematic as a descriptor for the kind of reading and writing being done by these mythical “internet natives” that we hear so much about, Wilkinson is not wrong to note the difference between these internet-savvy teens and those that came before. Their experience of reading and writing is unlike anything we, as their predecessors, know. But that doesn’t have to make it more “true”. It just makes it different.

Saving the World

Wilkinson ends her essay by recounting a number of instances where avid readers have turned their love of books into a desire to improve the world. She recognizes that “this link between fandom and social activism isn’t guaranteed”, but easily rattles off a half-dozen examples of that link in action. I could double that list without blinking, but will control myself in the interest of space. What I think is especially notable about her discussion of this collision of readers and activism, however, is a word she uses again and again without ever really exploring its implications: community.

All of the examples she cites – and every other example I can think of – are entirely dependent upon a community of readers and writers brought together on the internet. A teenage reader isn’t trying to change the world – communities of teenage readers are trying to change the world. That’s a nuance that shouldn’t be ignored. Their experience with these texts becomes communal when they find fellow fans to engage with online; they are then able to turn that shared set of interests and purpose to other tasks. Their sense of community doesn’t have to be based in a particular real life location or even a particular text. Given enough time and the right circumstances – as in the case of Nerdfigteria – it can become centered on a set of ideals, a certain like-mindedness that is not always found “in real life”.

With this in mind, I would like to offer two terms that may be a bit more tangible than “true” when it comes to describing the reading and writing experience of today’s teenagers. (And again: we are only talking about a select few. Many teenagers don’t care for pleasure reading. Many who do will never be as actively engaged with the books or fan communities as the teens in question.) If Wilkinson is right that many teens jump from texts to books to online videos to music to graphic novels to video games – and I think she is – then maybe we should embrace that tendency in our terminology. Drawing on the various connotations of “hyper” – both regarding excess and hypertext/hyperlinks – perhaps we might call them “hyperliterate” readers and writers. (Please note that I am aware that this term existed before me; I’m not claiming the notion as new or as mine, but simply want to place it within this particular context.)

The second term is less catchy and precise, but gets at another important facet of teenagers’ online (and offline) experience. They are what I would call “communal” readers and writers. They read knowing they will discuss the novel online; they write knowing that their friends and family will read their Facebook status update. Obviously this is not new, in and of itself. Although reading is traditionally thought of as a solitary activity, we have always shared and talked about what we read. And writing generally implies an audience, even if it’s just a note to remind a future version of ourselves about something important. But the blessing and the curse of the internet is that all of this is foregrounded by the ease with which we – and teens in particular – can access and create communities.

I’m not going to pretend that either of these terms is perfect or don’t bear their own oversights and complications. In fact, I rather hope anyone who has made it this far will chime in down in the comments with their own ideas of how to identify and name this trend that Wilkinson identifies. But I offer them as starting points, and as a way of dodging the value judgment that comes from labeling the actions of any group as “true”.

I don’t know if these teenage readers will succeed in saving the world, but they certainly are changing it. We’re just going to have to watch and wait, trying and trying again to figure out just what it all means.

Casey is a PhD student who is excited that this conversation is being had in the media right now.

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