8. searching for a public of their own

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Not far from my hometown of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, I met a white, middle-class sixteen-year-old named Emily. As she told me about her life and what she liked to do, I couldn't help but feel nostalgic. Although she lived in a different town and went to a different school, so many of her cultural touchstones were familiar to me, including the Turkey Hill convenience stores that dotted the area and Park City, the shopping mall that attracted people for miles around. Emily told me that she loved the mall and attended many school sporting events. But as I probed, I also learned that she didn't particularly care about shopping and that she had never watched a football game or wrestling match in her life, even though she had attended many such events.

For Emily, going to places where her peers gather is a freedom — even if she isn't actually watching the game or buying clothes. When she's out in public, "It's a time when you can just fool around and be free and do whatever you want. It's not fair to be tied down to chores or school. You need that little bit of freedom." Her younger brother prefers hanging out at friends' houses, but Emily would much rather gather in public places because these settings expand the social possibilities. "If you go [out] with your friends, there might be other people you run into that are your friends too. I would say it's more of an opportunity to see more of your friends than just going over to a friend's house. Going over to a friend's house, there might be one friend or maybe three. Whereas going to the mall, it can be seven or twelve." Emily told me that she takes any opportunity possible to gather with friends in public settings. She attends basketball games, track meets, and any other school sports event that her friends might attend. She goes to the movies whenever she can get a ride, even if the film her friends choose doesn't particularly excite her. She wants the opportunity to hang out in the theater before the show.

Emily looks for places where she can hang out, joke around with friends, and simply be herself. Park City is one place that offers her this freedom. That very mall was the go-to place for my peer group as well. Back then, we never had any money to buy anything more luxurious than an Auntie Anne's pretzel, but shopping was never the point. We wanted to go to the mall because the people we knew went there. Unlike Emily, I was often forbidden from going to Park City. When I was in high school, the local business community had teamed up with the school district to create an alternative high school for students who were not succeeding in traditional schools. They decided to place this experimental school at Park City because that's where so many of the students they were seeking to attract were hanging out. Those kids — and, by extension, the mall — had a bad reputation for violence, truancy, and delinquency more generally. Park City has changed tremendously in the twenty years since that school first opened; it is now considered an upscale establishment with both midrange and high-end brands. Although Emily and her friends meet up at the food court, the presence of teenagers there pales in comparison to what I remember growing up. Whenever I go home, I'm always surprised at how pristine, respectable, and boring Park City feels. As I talked with other teens in the area, I learned that the mall was still seen as dangerous even though it had none of the grime or grit that was present in my teen years. Most teens were allowed to hang out there.

Many of the teens that I met — both in Pennsylvania and elsewhere — craved the freedoms that Emily had. They were desperate for the opportunity to leave their homes to gather with friends. Although not universal, most could attend school functions. Some could get together with friends in public venues on weekends. Yet over and over again and across the country, teens complained to me that they never had enough time, freedom, or ability to meet up with friends when and where they wanted. To make up for this, they turned to social media to create and inhabit networked publics.

The Creation of Networked Publics

The topics addressed in this book often hinge on teens' interest in getting meaningful access to public spaces and their desire to con- nect to their peers. Rather than fighting to reclaim the places and spaces that earlier cohorts had occupied, many teens have taken a different approach: they've created their own publics. Teens find social media appealing because it allows them access to their friends and provides an opportunity to be a part of a broader public world while still situated physically in their bedrooms. Through social media, they build networks of people and information. As a result, they both participate in and help create networked publics.

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