C. J. Pascoe: Social Literacy and Mediated Authenticity

C.J. Pascoe’s research, like danah boyd’s, frames teens’ usage of digital and new media as developing a critical brand social “literacy” which complicates traditional models of youth affiliation, creativity, and intimacy (Hanging Out, Messing Around, and Geeking Out, 118). Now Assistant Professor of Sociology at Colorado College, Pascoe’s doctoral study on masculinity and sexuality in high school, Dude, You’re a Fag, won the American Education Research Association’s Outstanding Book Award in 2008. Her newest project, co-authoring a book entitled Anas, Mias, and Wannas: Identity and Community in a Pro-Ana Subculture, examines the formation of an isolated but “thriving” and overwhelmingly female pro-eating disorder community through online discussion groups. In “‘You’re Just Another Fatty:’ Creating a Pro-Ana Subculture Online,” an article outlining her research for UC Berkeley’s Digital Youth Project, Pascoe interprets the groups’ users compulsive posting of bodily data in the form of photographs or frequently updated vital statistics onto the sites’ otherwise disembodied and potentially anonymous forum format as a fraught performance of physical “authenticity” motivated by separating “hard core” or “committed” anorexics from “[un]disciplined…wannarexics.” Pascoe identifies the anorexic/wannarexic distinction as the primary axis of inclusion and exclusion within these sites, and notes a hypothetically anonymous user’s credibility hinges fundamentally on bodily evidence of “authentic” anorexic commitment. She reflects on the discussion group format’s dual potential for extending communication and a sense of community between isolated and marginalized individuals, while simultaneously exerting a normative influence on these individual’s means of self-identification and contesting their “right” to claim the “Ana” label.

The importance of perceived authenticity manifests itself differently in Pascoe’s “‘You Have Another World to Create:’ Teens and Online Hangouts,” a brief study of role-playing sites. Rather than fashioning characters who directly mirror the realities of their offline lives, the study’s teens often create characters who respond to familiar challenges in ways which may not be possible outside the context of the site. One teen Pascoe interviews channels her frustration with the conventional gendered expectations of her offline social setting into crafting new adventures for an online character who, while female, “seek[s] her fortune in the wider world” by spending her daylight hours as a man. The site’s administrators, who must approve new characters before allowing them to interact with others online, lauded the “authenticity” and “relatability” of her character. Though she does not cross-dress or attempt to pass as male in her offline life, this teen uses new media as a creative outlet to draft possible means of overcoming dissatisfaction with her own “authentic” lived experience.

In her chapter in Hanging Out, Messing Around, and Geeking Out, Pascoe further examines the way teens have incorporated new technologies such as mobile phones, IM services, and social network sites as integral to their intimate relationships and not as peripheral or exterior to their offline lives. The new media Pascoe focuses on  complicates expectations of mutual “monitoring, privacy, and vulnerability” within a relationship (118). While teens may spend less time “monitoring” their intimate relations in person, new media like cell phones contribute to the expectation one’s boyfriend or girlfriend should be “always-on” and capable of maintaining “constant (if passive) contact” (120). Because of the possibility of a near-constant stream of communication between teens, some intimate relationships may enjoy a level of privacy outside the awareness of others (often, and notably, beyond parents’ knowledge). At the same time, social pressure to make relationships “Facebook official” by posting images and publicly exchanging romantic messages may place couples under greater scrutiny and infringe upon their senses of privacy. This exposure may make teens feel vulnerable, yet the asynchronous nature of Wall posts, texts, and IM technologies alleviates some of the pressure teens may feel when approaching a potential love interest in person. Because teens are not expected to respond to messages as immediately as they would to a spoken remark, they may feel less vulnerable to social blunders and may expend energy typing a carefully composed response nevertheless designed to appear casual and offhand. Pascoe argues that teens learning to navigate new media and incorporate them into their intimate relationships are acquiring a new type of social literacy, much as danah boyd highlights the centrality of social network sites in developing “peer-to-peer sociality.” Like boyd, Pascoe maintains that future research into youths’ use of new media and social media should not be “[guided] by adult anxieties” (121) which focus on intimacy and “teen sexuality as out of control and dangerous,” but rather endeavor to better understand this social literacy in order to provide “more nuanced forms of guidance” in the place of “blanket prohibitions” to facilitate the transition from youth to adulthood (147).

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One Response to C. J. Pascoe: Social Literacy and Mediated Authenticity

  1. Pingback: Online Multitasking and Tween Social Development | Social Media Project of the Center for the Study of Gender and Sexuality

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