Representations of Digital Communication in Young Adult Literature:
Science Fiction as Social Commentary
In this article, we explore adult authors’ representations of how characters in young adult literature (YAL) use digital communication such as text messaging, blogs, instant messaging (IM), social networking websites, and email. We argue that digital communication is a new feature of YAL that has not yet been adequately explored. We examine how the prevalence of digital communication in contemporary society is represented in texts developed for the teen market by describing the who, what, and why of digital communication found in the novels. We also examine meta-themes present in the novels as the characters themselves reflect upon how digital communication impacts their lifeworlds.
Digital media are everywhere. Young people are “growing up in an era where digital media are part of the taken-for-granted social and cultural fabric of learning, play, and social communication” ( Ito, Davidson, Jenkins, Lee, Eisenberg, & Weiss, 2008a, p. vii ). Literacy practices of today’s adolescents are different from teens of previous generations ( Gee, 1987 ; Alvermann, Hinchman, Moore, & Phelps, 1998 ). Through new media, today’s teens are discovering new ways to communicate and express themselves ( Bruce, 2004 ), and the explosion of teen participation on the Internet and through mobile technologies has affected ways in which they read, write, and socialize ( Rheingold, 2002 ). New types of reading and writing, online and offline, through different digital devices (IM, email, text messaging) create new literacy practices. Even rules and conventions are changing, such as the increased use of “chatspeak” (e.g., abbreviations, emoticons). Teens use new media as extensions of themselves—embodied tools for telling others who they are in that instant and who they might like to be ( Weber & Mitchell, 2008 ). As a result, they are spending more time presenting and re-presenting themselves to others through digital communication. But what types of identities are they presenting, to whom, and for what purposes?
When adults write about the online habits of youth, they often make them out to be victims of predators (i.e., Dateline NBC’s “To Catch a Predator” series, Corvo, 1997 ), lonely geeks walled up in their rooms playing violent video games, or illiterate socializers destined to forget how to spell, write, and shake hands ( Herring, 2008 ). However, most youth use online digital media as extensions of their offline lives. They talk to the same people online as offline, and they talk about the same topics: friendships, romance, and their daily lives ( Ito et al., 2008b ). In the case of social networking sites, the difference is that such communication is now perpetually inscribed for the world to see. What had once been private is now public, searchable by an audience invisible to the authors ( boyd, 2008 ). As in their offline worlds, youth take great care in presenting who they are, first figuring out what the rules of engagement in a given group might be, and then experimenting until they find an acceptable online persona. Teens’ use of digital media should be conceptualized as a continuous part of their lives, and their time online as a part of their fluid and dynamic identity development. How then, is this represented in literature about and for young adults?
One aspect of teen’s lives—the daily use of digital communication—is appearing in YAL as both part of the setting and through “faux computer-mediated messages and texts as part of the story” ( Gardner, 2005, para. 1 ). Such texts are situated in a cultural-historical time and place, but a constantly evolving time and place. Ironically, paper-based books are static snapshots of organic and dynamic social practices, not representative of the diverse whole of adolescents’ daily lives. For instance, the explosion of Myspace, Facebook, and Youtube-type social networking sites is just beginning to appear in YAL. Perhaps most important, YA texts that portray digital communication tend to represent certain types of adolescents using such digital communication. And these characters are constructions of possibilities for young people.
The Research Study Parameters
The study asks, in YA realistic fiction novels that incorporate digital communication: 1) Who are the main characters and in what settings do they use digital communication? (2) What types of digital communication are being integrated and what writing conventions are being used? (3) What is the content of the digital texts that characters produce? (4) How are characters in such novels positioned as purposeful types of people? (5) What meta-discussions of digital communication practices are present?
In order to examine how digital communication is being represented in YAL, we compiled a list of 125 YA contemporary realistic fiction novels published between 2000–2009 that incorporated digital communication in daily lives of adolescents. Our sources were: a) The Horn Book Guide , b) online children’s literature databases, c) the authors’ personal collections, and d) queries to children’s literature focused listservs. We acknowledge that our list is not comprehensive, but we believe it provides a representative sample. Thirty-one titles (25%) of the books were read and coded by the authors to complete the content analysis (see Table 1).
Codes were created to identify which characters were using digital communication, how and why they were using it, and how digital communication was represented overall. Setting and Character categories have long been used in content analyses in children’s and YAL (e.g., Galda, Ash, & Cullinan, 2000 ) to provide an indication of the “content” of books. Race, Gender, Sexual Orientation, and Religion were included because of the significance of diversity in current discussions of literature and literacy education ( Temple, Martinez, & Yokota, 2006 ). The inclusion of Book Category, Text Type, and Writing Conventions stemmed from constant comparative note-taking and category making as a result of the authors’ wide reading of YA books ( Glaser & Strauss, 1967 ). The authors each read and coded 15% of the texts independently. We achieved approximately 92% agreement. We then discussed and resolved any discrepancies before coding the remainder of the texts.
We examined the representations of digital communication discourse along Halliday’s (1978) three meta-functional planes of communication: a) textual– structural forms the discourse takes in terms of writing convention and global organization (e.g., IM, email); b) ideational content discussed by characters; and c) interpersonal–social identities set up for characters as users of digital communication, and how these identities juxtaposed with other characters. Analysis of textual communication included: type of book (e.g., epistolary), type of digital texts used (e.g., email), writing conventions (e.g., emoticons), and change of font, color, or structure. Analysis of ideational communication included: content of communication (i.e., school assignments, social events), as well as name-brand references to popular culture and product placement.
We also coded characters’ discussions of their own practices with digital communication, along with the affordances, constraints, and general discourses they raised. Analysis of interpersonal communication included categories such as Friend or Student, as well as the purposes of their communication (e.g., romantic interests, identity creation). Finally, we open-coded characters’ “meta-statements” about digital communication to develop themes from characters’ expressions of beliefs and values around digital tools. Themes from the meta-statements included the use of writing in digital vs. nondigital texts, and the veracity of information, danger, and identities on the Web.
|Big Mouth and Ugly Girl||Oates, Joyce Carol||2002|
|Bloggrls: nugrl90 (Sadie)||Dellasega, Cheryl||2007|
|A Bottle in the Gaza Sea||Zenatti, Valerie||2008|
|ChaseR: A Novel in e-mails||Rosen, Michael J.||2002|
|Click Here (To Find Out How I Survived the Seventh Grade)||Vega, Denise||2005|
|Code Orange||Cooney, Caroline||2005|
|Confessions of a Boyfriend Stealer [A Blog]||Clairday, Robynn||2005|
|The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big Round Things||Mackler, Carolyn||2003|
|Entr@pment: A High School Comedy in Chat||Spooner, Michael||2009|
|A Fast and Brutal Wing||Johnson, Kathleen Jeffrie||2004|
|From E to You||D’Lacey, Chris, & Newbery, Linda||2000|
|The Kingdom of Strange||Klinger, Shula||2008|
|Kiss & Blog||Noël, Alyson||2007|
|Little Brother||Doctorow, Cory||2008|
|M or F?||Papademetriou, Lisa, & Tebbetts, Chris||2005|
|The Market||Steele, J. M.||2008|
|Miss Misery||Greenwald, Andy||2006|
|An Order of Amelie, Hold the Fries||Schindler, Nina||2004|
|Remote Man||Honey, Elizabeth||2000|
|rob&sara.com||Peterson, P. J., & Ruckman, Ivy||2004|
|The Secret Blog of Raisin Rodriguez||Goldschmidt, Judy||2005|
|serafina67 *urgently requires life*||Day, Susie||2008|
|Snail Mail No More||Danzinger, Paula, & Martin, Ann M.||2000|
|Something to Blog About||Norris, Shana||2008|
|Sun Signs||Hrdlitschka, Shelley||2005|
|Top 8||Finn, Katie||2008|
|The Year of Secret Assignments||Moriarty, Jaclyn||2004|
The majority of titles (84%) were set in large cities or suburbs (see Table 2). Furthermore, 93% of the books were set in upper middle class or middle class neighborhoods, with only 7% of the books representing other populations.
Approximately 75% of the books used high-school- aged main characters who were White. Of the books where race was unclear, character descriptions such as “. . . shiny blond hair, big blue eyes, golden tan . . .” ( Noël, 2007, p. 2 ), caused us to infer that the books likely had White characters. It is significant to note that each book that included multiple ethnicities was primarily set in a “White world,” and non-White characters tended to be culturally generic ( Sims-Bishop, 1995 ).
To provide a fuller description, we examined characters’ gender, religion, and sexual orientation. There was a fairly even split in the gender of main characters, and many books had main characters of both genders. In 97% of the books, we coded characters as having either a Christian or unmarked religion. We also noted that 97% of the characters were heterosexual. Only one book portrayed a gay character.
A typical book in our study would most likely take place in a middle class suburban area, with White, straight, Christian main characters. Yet, these characteristics do not adequately represent the diverse nature of the greater American population. It is statistically documentable that use of the Internet or email is widespread throughout multiple demographics. A nationwide Pew Foundation survey ( Lenhart, Arafeh, Smith, & Macgill, 2008 ) of teens between 12 and 17 found that 96% of Whites, 92% of African Americans, and 87% of Latinos said they used the Internet or email. Eighty-six percent of respondents whose families earned $30,000 or less also affirmed use of Internet or email. As for religion, about 79% of the U.S. population claims some form of Christian denomination ( Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, 2008 ). It seems that current YAL over-/under-represents youth digital communicators, as described above, in ethnic, religious, and socioeconomic categories.
Upper Middle Class
Textual Dimensions of Communication
YA text types that incorporated digital communication were books that: a) consisted solely of digital communication; b) included digital communication within traditional narrative structure; or c) were written as epistolary novels. The characters in these novels rely on digital communication as a part of their daily lifeworlds, much as digital technologies are integrated into adolescents’ lives and identities in real life ( Leander & McKim, 2003 ; Lewis & Fabbos, 2005 ). (See Table 3.)
|All dig com, one type||4 (13)|
|All dig com, multiple types||4 (13)|
|Dig com imbedded, one type||3 (10)|
|Dig com imbedded, multiple types||15 (49)|
|Text messaging||10 (32)|
|All caps||22 (71)|
|Word variations||16 (52)|
|* * [representing sounds, such as giggles]||7 (23)|
|Use of phrases||19 (61)|
|No punctuation||14 (31)|
Types of Digital Communication Texts
Digital texts in the books consisted of emails, IM conversations, text messages, blog entries, website pages, chat room conversations, and social networking sites (see Table 3). Email and IM conversations were the most prevalent text types, but blog entries and text messaging also appeared regularly. Lenhart, Madden, and Hitlin (2005) found that 89% of Internet users ages 12–17 sent or read email, 75% sent or received instant messages, and 38% sent or received text messages. These numbers have increased, with text messaging fast becoming the preferred method of communication. In another Pew Report ( Lenhart, Madden, Macgill, & Smith, 2007 ), 28% of teens have their own online blog, 27% have their own personal webpage, and 55% have a posted profile on at least one social networking site. Thus, the text types prevalent in YA novels closely parallel teens’ real lifeworlds, yet have not caught up with current social networking technologies.
Some forms of digital communication have different writing conventions than paper-based texts. A variety of writing conventions common to digital technology were found, including the use of all caps to equate shouting, emoticons, abbreviations, acronyms, and a lack of capitalization and punctuation usage (see Table 3). Authors and publishers made attempts to make the digital texts simulate digital formats as much as possible, with fonts and structures that set the digital text apart from traditional narrative text.
Ideational Dimensions of Communication
Content of Communications
The content of the digital texts tended to relate to school assignments, social events, friendships and arguments, romantic relationships, and chronicles of teen characters’ daily lives. The focus on daily, personal lives is commensurate with research into students’ online habits. In fact, some characters mentioned that they were not “computer geeks,” did not spend all of their time online, and primarily used digital technology for social purposes (e.g., Top 8, Finn, 2008 ; Something to Blog About , Norris, 2008 ). (See Table 4.)
|Discussions of school assignments||19 (61)|
|Daily life events||28 (90)|
|Social events—school||21 (68)|
|Social events—out of school||25 (81)|
|Arguments between friends||18 (58)|
|Romantic relationships||18 (58)|
|Relationship issues—boy/girl||12 (39)|
|Relationship issues—girl/boy||3 (10)|
|Relationship issues—mixed sex friends||13 (42)|
|Relationship issues—partners||14 (45)|
|Historical reference||1 (3)|
|Current event||5 (16)|
Commercial and Popular Culture
References to popular culture in the books often seemed to be product placements. References to Krispy Kremes and Starbucks in ttyl ( Myracle, 2004 ), for instance, both set up the characters’ world and acted as de facto or deliberate advertisements for these products. Most books used sporadic references to commercial products, as in The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big Round Things ( Mackler, 2003 ), which included mention of products such as Diet Pepsi and Doritos.
Popular culture references also served as configurations of identity signifiers. For instance, in Donorboy ( Halpin, 2004 ), a book in which a girl’s lesbian mothers die and she is forced to live with her sperm-donor dad, the mainstream heavy metal interests of the father were juxtaposed with his daughter’s more esoteric rock choices. These types of references set up the positionings of the parent and child, at first to indicate their separate worlds, and later to symbolize the relatively new closeness of their relationship. References to the Internet or specific websites, such as Google, were mentioned more frequently in books published after 2006. The majority of popular culture references tended to make connections to television, movies, or fashion.
The “composite” ideational content of digital communication texts in YAL would most likely be the daily lifeworld of the affluent White suburban teen in platonic social interactions with peers. Texts they write include information about relationships, friendships, families, and entertainment. What is less explored is the extent to which youth are being marketed to, both online and off ( Herring, 2008 ). There is little, if any, critique in YAL of the creation, saturation, and exploitation of the youth market by big business.
Interpersonal Dimensions of Communication
Communication always positions those involved in the communicative act, both in terms of who they communicate with and for what reasons. In our analysis, we only included main characters’ use of digital texts and their positionings through their use of such texts.
Characters primarily used digital tools to communicate with friends and significant others or to meet new people online. Only occasionally did teenage characters email, IM, or text-message adults in their lives. Rather, they communicated as students, friends, children, boyfriends or girlfriends, and siblings. In 42% of the books, characters used digital communication to create different identities, depending on who they were talking to or trying to meet and what purposes they had for partaking in the communication.
Research has found that youth actively explore identity online, either to see how others might react, to overcome shyness, or to make friends ( Valkenburg, Schouten, & Peter, 2005 ). In The Kingdom of Strange ( Klinger, 2008 ), for example, a girl wishes to form a friendship during an online class assignment. She incorrectly assumes her partner, who does nothing to correct this misconception, is a girl, and a growing friendship is shattered and repaired as their genders are revealed. In some digital genres, such as blogs, teens are more truthful about themselves in their online communication than they might be in real life ( Huffaker & Calvert, 2005 ). This was represented in numerous titles, including serafina67 *urgently requires life* ( Day, 2008 ) and Something to Blog About ( Norris, 2008 ), in which main characters revealed intimate details about their personal lives in their online journals.
Meta-Discussions of Digital Communication
Beyond the digital texts themselves, many titles included commentaries on the use of digital communication, usually in the form of characters’ writings about some aspect of the topic. From these meta-discussions we created a few prominent themes.
Several novels discussed how digital communications were bringing about the loss of paper-and-pencil writing and the “butchering” of the English language through the use of “chatspeak.” For example, in The Year of Secret Assignments ( Moriarty, 2004 ), an English teacher requires his class to write paper-and-pencil letters in a pen pal project. Within the text, he gives a speech to his students lamenting the loss of the formal letter. In A Fast and Brutal Wing ( Johnson, 2004 ), teens are aware of different usages and vary their emails based on the recipient. For instance, when Doug writes an email to an adult, he includes a discussion of using proper grammar and sentence formation rather than chatspeak; however, in emails to his friends, he uses chatspeak, including smileys, abbreviations, and lowercase letters. Lenhart and colleagues (2008) found that although 85% of all teenagers were engaged in some form of digital communication, 60% of those teens did not think of those digital texts as writing. Fifty percent said they used informal writing styles in school, 38% said they used shortcuts, such as LOL, and 25% said they used emoticons in school writing. A majority said they regularly used chatspeak out of school.
Identity Constructions, Safety, and Privacy
Another theme was the idea of being able to construct or hide one’s identity in online communication and the relative perceived safety of online identity practices. Sun Signs ( Hrdlitschka, 2005 ) includes a significant focus on online identity construction and how one never can be sure about who is on the other end of an online communication. In one series of emails, the main character learns that three of her online friends have been lying about their identities. She also realizes that she herself was omitting a major aspect of her life and only shared selected parts of herself. In the end, there was discussion of how easy it was to alter one’s identity when solely communicating through email. This idea of hiding one’s identity or creating an altered online identity was found in a number of the novels, including From e to You ( D’Lacey & Newbery, 2000 ), rob&sara.com ( Peterson & Ruckman, 2004 ), The Kingdom of Strange ( Klinger, 2008 ), and A Bottle in the Gaza Sea ( Zenatti, 2005 ).
An additional aspect of identity construction depicted and discussed was how easy it is to misunderstand intentions over cyberspace. This perspective was exemplified by explicit discussion in The Secret Blog of Raisin Rodriguez ( Goldschmidt, 2005 ) on how blogging only shows one side of a person, the side the blogger wishes to put forth. Similarly, the creepiness and/or value of being a “lurker” (not identifying oneself or participating) in chat rooms ( M or F? , Papademetriou & Tebbetts, 2005 ; Remote Man , Honey, 2000 ) or a commenter on others’ blogs ( serafina67 *urgently requires life* , Day, 2008 ; Miss Misery , Greenwald, 2005 ) were discussed. This secretiveness could lead to harmful events if the characters’ personal information (i.e., name, address) were revealed. On the part of the lurker, this could be seen as brilliant and resourceful, but on the part of the participant, it could be perceived as harmful or creepy. Overall, it seemed to be a double standard; it was okay for one to lurk, but one had to be wary that others could and would be doing the same thing.
Notions of safety and privacy were addressed in relation to conceptualizations of identity, lurking, and lying on the Web. Privacy was examined in terms of characters being warned not to put identifying information into emails or websites, since so much personal information is available on the Internet and individuals’ rights to and assumptions of privacy are changing. In The Kingdom of Strange ( Klinger, 2008 ), students were required to do an online class pen pal assignment. Instructions warned against posting identifying information, such as last names, phone numbers, or addresses, and prohibited the posting of photos. Students were to either post on the school-created website or via the exchange of emails created specifically for the project. In serafina67 *urgently requires life* ( Day, 2008 ), the main character starts a blog and random strangers read it and post comments, leading to a discussion of people not being who they say they are and possible negative consequences. Toward the end of the novel, an entire blog entry was devoted to the dangers of posting personal information on the Web. Sexual predation was also a concern in books such as Big Mouth and Ugly Girl ( Oates, 2002 ).
Terrorism was also a theme, either in terms of terrorists gaining information online or teens communicating online in order to subvert acts of terror ( Code Orange , Cooney, 2005 ; Big Mouth and Ugly Girl , Oates, 2002 ; Little Brother , Doctorow, 2008 ). In Code Orange , terrorists who wish to develop a biological weapon kidnap the protagonist after he posts a message on several websites about possibly finding a smallpox scab. In Big Mouth and Ugly Girl , digital communication is used between two characters to develop a friendship. When one character is accused of trying to blow up the school after joking with friends, he compares his own (unfair) predicament to real terrorist actions by referring to the Internet as a place where Toward the end of the novel, an entire blog entry was devoted to the dangers of posting personal information on the Web. the 9/11 suspects obtained information and planned the attacks. Little Brother focuses on the aftermath of a terrorist attack. W1n5t0n, a teen male expert hacker and technological whiz, is caught near the site of a terrorist attack in San Francisco and is arrested and tortured by the Department of Homeland Security. When he is finally released, w1n5t0n devises plans to subvert the newly imposed big brother surveillance and security measures. He creates an underground teen online network of subversion designed to encourage teens, whom the book purports are more knowledgeable about technology than adults, to use their technological capabilities to communicate and expose government surveillance and oppression. Through these books, the Web was characterized as both a personal tool for social communication and a global tool for social subversion or destruction.
Filling in the Gaps
Characters in the books primarily involve affluent, heterosexual, White Christian suburbanites talking to one another about their daily lives, relationships, and families. The few discussions of the uses and dangers of the Internet concentrate on geeks, freaks, and terrorists. The Web helps teens communicate, meet new people, and complete school assignments. It also helps strangers find each other when they cannot be seen together in the real world ( Oates, 2002 ; Zenatti, 2005 ) or when they’re in search of new friends ( D’Lacey & Newbery, 2000 ; Hrdlitschka, 2005 ). The benefits and inherent dangers of online communication are also themes common in current public discourse about uses of digital communication ( CTIA, 2008 ; Herring, 2008 ).
Many books did capture connections and traversals between offline and online realms as two places in one world. New social spaces such as Myspace, Facebook, and Youtube ( Lenhart, et al., 2007 ; Trier, 2007a, 2007b ), and massively multiplayer games ( MacArthur, 2007 ; Steinkuehler, 2006 ) are just beginning to be represented in current YAL. In Top 8 ( Finn, 2008 ) and serafina67 *urgently requires life* ( Day, 2008 ), for example, online social networking sites are considered crucial to a teen’s social life, and how often one posts and how one is presented affects the teens both offline and online. Multiplayer online games are also referenced. In Little Brother ( Doctorow, 2008 ), it is the playing of an online game that causes the main character to be in the vicinity of the fictional terrorist attack upon which the book is based. Little Brother also shows how online games and blogs are means with which teens can communicate and interact with individuals they know in real life or in solely online capacities. These activities are becoming more significant in the lives of today’s teens, and it is unlikely that any static novel can capture contemporary teen life as technology and fads keep changing.
Moreover, Black, Latino, Asian, and Native American adolescents are rarely represented in the novels, and in the few instances where they are represented, they are not using digital communication. The working class and poor are also ignored. If literature reflects society, then these novels reflect poorly on how much (or how little) access to digital communication is given to a wide range of children. If literature is supposed to open new worlds, then there is an almost complete absence of alternative models to White privilege and participation in digital technologies.
Teachers have used blogs ( Witte, 2007 ) and IM ( Albright, Purohit, & Walsh, 2002 ) to engage students in talking about novels that do not involve digital communications. Such learning experiences have allowed students to reflect on their own language practices. Using new technologies to talk about books that foreground digital communications could be an additional way for teachers to engage students in reflecting on language, communication, and identity development. For instance, a unit of study might begin by comparing and contrasting the codes of various textual genres, but would extend to examinations of who uses such texts and for what purposes. But, much of the discourse on youth practices, including this article, is from adult perspectives. Engaging youth in “talking back” to such discourses can empower them to have some influence on how they are being represented.
As digital communication becomes an increasingly salient practice in the lives of young adolescents, we need to think about how digital practices position them as certain kinds of people. Such work must also consider how adolescents position themselves vis-à-vis digital communication. We offer our research as the groundwork for a critical examination of digital communication in YA texts used in and out of classrooms so that teachers and students may become aware of transparent positionings of tools, uses, and users of digital communication. We also hope that publishers, teachers, and students suggest and develop alternatives for the conventions, content, and characters of such books. One such way may be with Little Brother , the text of which the author, Cory Doctorow, made available for free download ( http://craphound. com/littlebrother/download/ ) in the hope that others would “remix” his book to create their own stories. As more novels are written that incorporate digital technologies, and as digital technologies continue to become more prevalent and pervasive in our world, we need to find spaces in which to interrogate who is represented and who is left out, not only in the stories of our students’ lives, but in the types of real access they have to communication and representation now and in their futures.
Melanie D. Koss is an assistant professor of children’s literature in the Department of Literacy Education at Northern Illinois University. She teaches children’s literature, young adult literature, and multicultural children’s literature courses. She has published articles in The ALAN Review , Signal , and The Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy (JAAL) . She is also a book reviewer for Booklist and serves on the editorial board of both T he Journal of Children’s Literature and JAAL .
Eli Tucker-Raymond is a post-doctoral fellow with the Chèche Konnen Center at TERC, a nonprofit science and math education research and development organization located in Cambridge, MA. He explores how multimodality and multimedia can create humanizing perspectives in K–12 Teacher Education learning environments, particularly in the content areas. He has published articles in Cultural Studies of Science Education and Journal of Research in Science Teaching . He serves on the editorial board of Language Arts .
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