Creating Technology for Social Change

Interactive Literacy

What does it mean to be truly literate with new media?

Certainly, it means more than the ability to send email and browse websites. Recent commentaries on new media literacy have emphasized the importance of the ability to analyze media critically and the ability to participate actively in online communities. Those abilities are clearly important. But I feel these commentaries haven’t paid enough attention to another important aspect of new media literacy: the ability to express oneself with new media.

This aspect of literacy is sorely lacking in today’s society: very few people are able to express themselves fluently with new media technologies.

That assertion might take you by surprise. Hasn’t there been a rapid rise in “user-created content”? Aren’t lots of people using new media to create content and express themselves online?

Yes, but in a very limited way. Sure, more people are creating content. But most are using very traditional forms of expression. Many people are blogging, but blogs are typically based on written text, a form of expression that’s been around for thousands of years. Sometimes they include photographs, a form of expression that’s been around for more than 100 years.

For me, the most important and distinguishing property of new media is interactivity. But how many people can actually create interactive games, animations, or simulations? Not very many. So, in my mind, very few people are truly literate with new media. Would we consider someone literate with traditional media if they could only read but not write?

The problem is that creating interactive media requires some form of computer programming, and traditional programming languages have been very difficult for most people to learn and understand.

That’s why my research group at the MIT Media Lab created Scratch, a new programming environment that makes it far easier for people to create their own interactive stories, games, and animations – and share their creations on the web. With Scratch, you create computer programs by snapping together graphical programming blocks, much like LEGO bricks, without any of the obscure syntax and punctuation of traditional programming languages.

After creating an interactive Scratch project, you can share it on the Scratch website, just as you would share videos on YouTube. Since the launch of Scratch in May 2007, people around the world have shared more than 200,000 projects on the Scratch website. A new project appears on the site every two minutes, on average. People can also embed Scratch projects on blogs or other websites. Most Scratchers are between the ages of 8 and 15, but quite a few adults are using Scratch too.

We’ve been amazed at the diversity of projects that people create with Scratch. For example, a 9-year-old created a project called SNN – for Scratch News Network. The project featured the Scratch icon (a cat) delivering news about the Scratch community, much like a CNN anchor. At first I thought: “That’s cute. It’s a simulated newscast.” Then I realized: It wasn’t a simulated newscast, it was a real newscast. It was providing news of interest to a real community – the Scratch online community.

Other children and teens have used Scratch to create interactive science simulations, multi-episode soap operas, online tutorials, and community service announcements. In one initiative organized by three graduate students at the MIT Center for Future Civic Media, middle-school students created interactive Scratch projects as part of a curriculum aimed at fostering mutual understanding and civic engagement.

Our society expects that everyone should learn to write, even though very few become professional writers. Similarly, I think that everyone should learn how to program, even though very few will become professional programmers. In my mind, the ability to create (not simply interact with) interactive content is essential to becoming truly literate with new media and becoming a full participant in today’s interactive world.