Young people’s spaces as networked spaces
In 2006, the wall of a large apartment building in Jyväskylä was decorated with a large photograph of a child with a glazed look in her eyes and soft bluish light falling on her face. The piece, Absent Minds by Fotofinlandia 2006 finalist Renja Leino, was part of a larger series with which Leino wishes to encourage people to discuss the ways in which digital content affects their ability to be present. The name of the piece refers to this very theme. The body is there, but the mind is absent The person is far away from here. (www.renjaleino.com/texts.htm)
I made a similar observation last winter when stepping in the lobby of a youth centre. The room was silent, its edges dappled by splashes of light illuminating human faces. At the same time, a coffee machine gurgled softly nearby and the overall atmosphere was expectant, full of life.
We are connected online and offline
My experience of the youth centre and the small lights scattered around it is a revealing allegory of our use of time. We spend a great deal of time looking at various screens and participate in various social media. The use of social media by Finnish young people and young adults was recently studied in a survey whose results were published in early May. The survey was conducted by ebrand Suomi Oy in cooperation with the Educational and Cultural Services of the City of Oulu. The results suggest that young people aged about 20 spend an average of 13–17 hours per week using services, both at home and elsewhere.
Just like Leino’s artwork, the survey on young people’s use of social media distinguishes between different ways of being present – it categorises young people’s use of time and pays attention to the amount of time used on social media, and the time left for other interaction and leisure activities. Such thinking is also demonstrated by the way we talk about the Internet. Adults view the web as a realm that one visits, while children and young people are online. To them, the Internet is just one medium among others. Similarly, we either leave this place behind and go somewhere else, or we are already there.
We understand places differently. For some, they are clearly demarcated spaces with walls and three metres of open grass outside the walls. Others see places as broader wholes. For example, social scientist and geographer Doreen Massey not only studies places as a natural scientific phenomenon, but also approaches them through the ways in which they are experienced, used and interpreted by people. Tiina Mahlamäki (2009) has summarised Massey’s views by suggesting that, in her thinking, place and time are intertwined, forming a multidimensional whole. In Massey’s opinion, space is not static and time is not non-spatial. Spatiality is also strongly intertwined with sociality; the latter is not a separate phenomenon. All social activities inevitably have a spatial component. I have always been fascinated by the Finnish word “nuorisotila”, literally “young people space”, used for youth centres, youth houses and other similar premises. The word “space” illustrates the multilayered nature of these spaces that young people both create and spend time in, and where youth workers work.
Another question is the extent to which online and offline spaces are actually separate. In her article Conceptualizing social interactions in Networked Spaces (2011), Swinburne University researcher Jenny Kennedy examines the construction of social space and its relationship to different communication technologies, because spatial research also suggests that the construction of social spaces depends on whether we are online or offline. Her article sets out to challenge conventional thinking and suggests that we should not regard online and offline as opposites but as relational phenomena. Together, they produce the space in which our interaction occurs. As a consequence, she proposes that the new concept of “networked spaces” refer to spaces that are neither online or offline, but mixtures of both, woven from both and connected to both. Networked spaces interweave narratives from different sources, creating the new kinds of social spaces in which we live and act.
It is easier to understand Kennedy’s ideas when we read about young people’s uses for social media. They watch, read and give ‘likes’ to content produced by others. They also find it important to keep up to date with what their friends are getting up to and stay in touch with them in real time. Since our social media behaviour resembles our behaviour around campfires, it is slightly odd that these two worlds have been considered separate.
We are sitting around a gigantic campfire
Our presence has changed in the last decade: we are now present in several spaces at once, and even when other human beings do not share the same space with us, they are never far away. It is interesting to regard youth centres (“young people spaces”) as nodes in a network. Young digital natives represent a generation that is at home with videos, games, computers and social media. Youth centres are consequently built as comprehensive wholes that surpass the limits of their walls; they are intersections between globally constructed stories, experiences and social relationships that converge in a certain space for a while, only to disappear and then be reborn.
The girl in Renja Leino’s Absent minds and the faces illuminated by glowing screens in the youth centre lobby are not absent. Instead, they are active and continuously recreating the “young people space”. They may be chatting with friends who are physically elsewhere or in the same room, or representing the place through Instagram photos, sharing their experience of participation with friends who have never visited the youth centre.
Like many others working with young people, I participated in the SomeCamp event organised by Verke, the National Development Centre for Online Youth Work, where we formed small groups to brainstorm about the future of young people’s spaces. Understanding youth centres as abstract, networked spaces will help us to build the future, because such spaces are not defined by walls. Instead, people and stories can be taken to where young people are, enabling them to participate by means of different communication technologies. Virtual headware and other technologies will lower this threshold further. What would be a better vision for our future activities than to work within this network, generating incredible interwoven spaces to create new vistas, ideas and dreams?