Expressing, Engaging, Reacting: Civic Engagement in an Online Community of Young Creators | MIT Center for Civic Media

Expressing, Engaging, Reacting: Civic Engagement in an Online Community of Young Creators

This collaborative blog post summarizes the project Ricarose Roque and I have been working on for the Introduction to Civic Media class (CMS 860).


As young people flock to social networking sites and digital media as a medium for expression and discourse about issues in their communities, new forms of civic engagement and citizenship have emerged. Online content sharing sites have made it easy for youth to not only express themselves and their ideas through digital media but to also connect with large networked communities. Within these spaces, young people are pushing the boundaries of traditional forms of engagement such as voting and joining political organizations and creating their own ways to discuss, connect, and act in their communities. In this paper, we describe what this online civic engagement looks like, using the setting of the Scratch Online Community, a community of young digital media creators. We present five case studies of children working to connect and engage with community issues. Some of these issues focus on the Scratch Online Community itself, while the others have a global scope. We discuss these case studies of civic engagement, examining how the Scratch members express themselves, engage with their peers, and the resultant reaction of the community. Finally, from these case studies, we formulate a set of guidelines for educators and designers of online communities who are interested in supporting civic engagement in their environments.

Evolving Forms of Youth Citizenship

With the emergence of participatory culture in digital spaces (Jenkins, 2009), scholars have tried to understand the evolving nature of citizenship and civic engagement in its new context. danah boyd (2006) introduces the idea of “digital publics” where “digital technologies allow youth to (re)create private and public youth space while physically in controlled spaces”. W. Lance Bennett (2007) brings forth two models of citizenship: dutiful and actualizing. In the dutiful model, he points out, people are engaged in their communities through formal political organizations or parties and remain informed about their communities through the news. By contrast, in the actualizing model, people participate through social technologies that enable individual expression and there is a preference for loosely connected peer networks for information and engagement. While the two models are distinct, Bennett argues for the need to create a bridge between them, as in the actualizing model, there is a danger of becoming too individualized from the general concerns of a community, while in the dutiful model, there is a danger of being too distant from emerging youth practices. Bennett also highlights the fact that a typical civic education curriculum is often very top-down and “stripped of independent opportunities for young people to embrace and communicate about politics on their own terms.” In our study, we try to understand what happens when a young demographic is given such independent opportunities to pursue matters that align with their own interests and passions. We specifically chose the Scratch Online Community as our test-bed, exploring how members of the community participate in various forms of civic engagement.

Research Questions

Before we state our research questions, it is important to understand what we mean when we say “civic engagement”. We define civic engagement as working to improve one’s community (Ehrlich, 2000). Members of the Scratch Online Community work to engage with and improve their community in a variety of ways, depending on how they appropriate the functionalities offered by the website. Our paper focuses on three questions:

  • When children use a media creation and sharing community to engage in civic discourse and expression with their peers, what does that look like?
  • How do these expressions of civic engagement effect this sharing community of digital media creators?
  • What lessons can we distill from these narratives for educators and designers to engage children in civic life?

We explore the first two questions in the form of five case studies of civic engagement in the Scratch Online Community. Launched in 2007, the Scratch Online Community enables children, primarily between the ages of 8 and 16, to create and share their interactive media such as games, stories, and animations (Resnick et al., 2009).

A Sample Case Study: Lobbying for Community Improvements

Members of the Scratch community have adopted a variety of practices to lobby for changes in how the online community functions. The tools and practices for lobbying vary considerably, ranging from emails to the Scratch Team to forum threads.

In certain cases, Scratch members have created projects to help illustrate their points - this is especially true for "feature requests" for the Scratch website. These projects typically have elaborate mock-ups of interface and interaction designs, demonstrating how the new feature can look and function. Figure 1 shows a Scratch project that is an interactive mock-up illustrating how an improved and customizable Scratch member page may look like.

Figure 1: Scratch project showing a mock-up design of the Scratch member profile page

To explicitly support this kind of engagement, and to have a dedicated space for discussing ideas, the Scratch Team launched an additional website in 2010 called Scratch Suggestions (Figure 2), where Scratch members could submit suggestions, and others could vote and comment on the suggestions. Soon, this site became one of the primary avenues for Scratch members to voice their ideas and demands. However, a significant amount of activity continued to happen in the main website, where members with suggestions would campaign for votes for their ideas on the Suggestions website.

Figure 2: The Scratch Suggestions website, showing the high activity of suggestions

As an example of how members have lobbied for community improvements, we present the following case study of a suggestion to improve one of the biggest community spaces: the Scratch homepage. For many Scratch members, being the author of a project shown on the homepage is seen as way to earn reputation within the community. This became especially true as the community grew, and Scratch members with multiple projects featured on the front page started to have what could be described as celebrity status within the community. Many Scratch members considered this to be a disproportionate distribution of front-page “real estate,” and they demanded an increase in the number of projects that were visible in the front page. In late 2010, a Scratch member created a forum thread for other members to voice their opinions and discuss how this change can be implemented. Over a year, the thread’s creator maintained it actively, engaging in discussions, and even highlighting comments from others that she thought were important. There was also an entry in the Scratch Suggestions website, which pointed to the forum thread.

Based on these discussions and inputs, the Scratch Team decided to change the front page algorithm according to the suggestion in late 2011. Instead of showing only the top three projects in a given category at a given time, a random selection of three from the top ten projects can be shown. Scratch members happily received this new implementation, with one particular member expressing satisfaction with the fact that an actual Scratch member's idea got implemented.

For most community-related lobbying actions by Scratch members, an interesting mix of peer-to-peer mobilization with targeted content production emerge. Members try to explicitly target and engage the Scratch Team, but they also understand that to attract attention, they need to mobilize a large crowd. This works in a way that is very similar to grassroots political processes in offline spaces. Coleman (2007) describes the first form of engagement as happening through “horizontal channels”, where “networks and collective associations can be formed”, and the second form as happening through “vertical channels”, which provide “dialogical links to various institutions that have power and authority.”

When responding to Scratch member suggestions, a challenge for the Scratch Team is prioritizing which suggestions to review, implement, or reject. Sometimes this prioritization can lead to tensions within the community, as the Scratch Team may not see a given suggestion being as important as the member who submitted it may think it to be. In some other cases, a popular suggestion may go against a core value of the Scratch Team, leading members to express dissent in various forms and degrees, an instance of which is described in another case study in the paper.

Summary of Case Studies: Expression, Engagement, Reactions

In investigating the first two questions, we found Scratch members creatively expressing issues that were meaningful to them and engaging with other members of the community around these issues in various ways. Together with these forms of expression and engagement, we also saw that the reaction from the community spanned from amplifying a Scratch member’s message through remixing to the Scratch Team having to intervene when activities went against community guidelines. We summarize these case studies across the forms of expression, engagement, and reactions from the community in Table 1.

Table 1: A summary of our five case studies across the expressions, engagement, and reactions from the Scratch community

Recommendations for Designers and Educators

The Scratch website was not specifically designed to encourage children to participate in civic action. It was targeted towards members of a young demographic who wanted to easily share creations that were personally meaningful to them with other creators from all over the world (Resnick et al., 2009). This design was influenced by Seymour Papert’s concept of Constructionism (Papert, 1980), where Papert argues that learning happens best when people are actively building things that are personally relevant to them, especially when they are building with or for others (Papert, 1993). When members do decide to participate in civic engagement within and beyond the Scratch community, members express and engage on their own terms, creatively using the features of Scratch.

For designers, educators and other people want to engage youth in civic life, we distilled the following lessons from our five case studies:

Connect to where they are and what they are doing
In these five case studies, Scratch members expressed their views on issues that were personally meaningful to them and shared these expressions through their social connections. By encouraging young people to connect to personally meaningful topics, and enabling them to express their opinions and actions through tools and practices that they are comfortable with, designers and educators can create an environment that is conducive to civic engagement.
Facilitate rather than dictate
Coleman (2007) proposed that environments that tried to engage youth in civic actions either took up a managed or autonomous model. In the managed model, youth were trained to become informed and practicing citizens, whereas the autonomous models sees youth as people to be empowered. However, we believe that an environment should merge these models and try to facilitate and enable rather than dictate (or not dictate) structure.
Foster a sense of ownership
We found that Scratch members who participated in activities to improve the Scratch community had a strong sense of ownership. Being able to influence, even in part, the community’s mechanism and the infrastructure can lead to more engaged and “genuine” civic action. This can be established both by policy (encouraging feedback and input from members), and by design (affordances for suggestions and ideas). The community governance model can also be modified so that members can participate in roles with increased responsibility and influence (elections for moderators).
Support channels for dutiful citizenship
Explicit systems channels for dutiful citizenship are useful to scaffold traditional civic engagement processes such as voting. On the other hand, systems that support actualizing citizenship by enabling individual expression can foster more personalized civic engagement. However, these spaces of personal expression can also be opportunities to connect young people to dutiful practices. Having structures set in place for members to engage in traditional civic practices (such as voting and suggestions) while supporting ways for members to engage in personally relevant topics can help bridge the two models of actualizing and dutiful citizenships.


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Coleman, S. (2007). Doing IT for Themselves: Management versus Autonomy in Youth E-Citizenship. The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Series on Digital Media and Learning, -, 189-206. doi:10.1162/dmal.9780262524827.189
Ehrlich, T. (2000). Civic Responsibility And Higher Education: Greenwood.
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Resnick, M., Silverman, B., Kafai, Y., Maloney, J., Monroy-Hernández, A., Rusk, N., Eastmond, E., et al. (2009). Scratch: Programming for All. Communications of the ACM, 52, 60. doi:10.1145/1592761.1592779

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