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Abstract

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. An ethnography of place in san francisco
  5. Introducing the internet as an object of play
  6. Conclusion: the lessons and implications of play
  7. Acknowledgments
  8. References

This article reports an ethnographic study of a subsidized computer center for children in an inner-city library. Unsurprisingly, young children play with the Internet. Surprisingly, this creates conflict with the justifications given for such centers by adults and public policy, leading to an atmosphere of tension between differing understandings of the Internet’s purpose: as a place for ritual and play vs. as a place for the transmission of information and for work (Carey, 1989). Theories of play based on Huizinga (1950) and Gadamer (1989) are used to explain Internet play. The study finds that the narrowly instrumental rationales of public policy about the digital divide are rehearsed and repeated in everyday conversation at the center, even to the extent that child’s play is denaturalized and seen as a problem that must be corrected.


Introduction

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. An ethnography of place in san francisco
  5. Introducing the internet as an object of play
  6. Conclusion: the lessons and implications of play
  7. Acknowledgments
  8. References

In the late 1990s, subsidized computers and Internet connections in public places were often proffered as an answer to the “digital divide,” the concern that in an information society those without the economic resources to access information technology are disenfranchised from participation in public life. A variety of projects and people worked within this rationale to provide the public free access to computers and Internet connections at schools, libraries, and community centers. Yet, despite large public investments and a small amount of public debate about these centers, little is known about exactly how they have been used. In place of this knowledge there is a vague overarching narrative of technological progress and the preconception that “public Internet access remains in the realm of the educationally and economically disadvantaged” (Lee, 1999, p. 346), at least where free public computers are concerned. More specifically, the typical rationale for free computer centers in public places presumes that the Internet is essentially a transmitter of important information that is to be learned and that this justifies its subsidy. This is sometimes called the “digital library metaphor” for the Internet (Stefik, 1996, p. 6) or the “library model” of public Internet provision (Dobscha, 2004). This vision of Internet use underpins the policy mechanisms that produce and subsidize publicly-funded computer centers.

This article describes a study that employed ethnographic methods to examine a computer center reserved explicitly for children in a socioeconomically depressed area of San Francisco, California. As this article will show, the details of public Internet use by young children stand in contrast to the public rationales and cultural justifications that are usually given for Internet use. Children, as any parent could guess, play with the Internet. Carey’s (1989) useful distinction between transmission vs. ritual communication suggests that the idealized vision of the Internet as a transmitter of information (the “library metaphor”) weighs heavily on the minds of the users and providers at these centers. Children playing with the Internet do not look up facts. Their play does not resemble the transmission of extrinsically useful information and the closing of the “digital divide.” This leads to surprise, anxiety, guilt, and even despair among adults, despite the expectation common to other circumstances that young children like to play.

There is a well-developed interdisciplinary literature that would predict and explain this symbolic and “ritual” (using Carey’s term) Internet use: interdisciplinary theories of play (Gadamer, 1989; Huizinga, 1950). However, due to the ideological baggage accompanying “play,” a play-theoretic approach to subsidized public Internet access is likely to remain unpalatable among policymakers and some researchers. While it is acceptable to use public funding to build children’s playgrounds, playing with public computers is not yet as respectable. This article draws on the literature on play to explain children’s use of public computing in San Francisco and to show how play inverts much of what is known and expected of computer use. It also investigates the way in which the idealized notions found in public policy and law about the “digital divide” and the information economy become fodder for everyday arguments among parents, children, teachers, and librarians about what Internet use ought to be like.

The dominant approach: public internet access as transmission

Some technologies readily suggest their uses, the way that a glove looks like it will fit your hand. Computing is not so simple since it consists of radically multipurpose devices that could be put to a variety of ends. Stefik (1996) explains that metaphors and stories used to describe the Internet are as important to understanding it as the capabilities of the technology itself. Metaphors about the Internet such as “electronic library,”“virtual reality,” and “electronic marketplace” contain lessons: Some uses are always valued and others are devalued. For instance, historically the computer has been readily acceptable as a device of production, and the appropriation of public funds to support access to it has been appropriate when couched in terms of creating productive members of society or moving society as a whole toward an information economy (Castells, 1996). Across the developed world, major policy initiatives in the 1990s sought to subsidize computer-mediated communication for these and other reasons. The United States passed the Telecommunications Act of 1996 and expanded the concept of publicly-subsidized universal telephone service (“universal service,” see Mueller, 1997) to include new technologies like the Internet (Aufderheide, 1999; Hammond, 1997). Unlike prior telephone subsidies, the 1996 Act proposed an institutional model in which schools and libraries are the chief access point for otherwise disenfranchised Internet users, and they receive substantial public funding to provide free Internet service. In the U.S., this program cost from $2.25 billion to $4.6 billion per year from 1998 to 2004 (for estimates, see Ellig, 2006; Hausman, 1997; Jaeger, McClure, & Bertot, 2005).

The concept of universal service is uniquely American in that rationales for it are unlikely to be based on equity or welfare (Rapp, 1996). Instead, U.S. policies employ economic rationales and focus on system benefits. In this manner American arguments for universal service are very comparable to those for universal education (Sawhney, 1994). These policy goals map to the “transmission model” in Carey’s understanding of communication as ritual vs. communication as transmission (Carey, 1974, 1977, 1989). The notion of communication as transmission is premised on the archaic use of the word “communication” to mean physical movement, and in this sense communication is meant to be the transfer of some discrete thing (such as news, information, or knowledge) between otherwise disconnected entities (such as minds, people, or computers). This sort of communication echoes the high value placed on rationality since the enlightenment (for more detail, see Peters, 2001, ch. 2). Carey argued that transmission is a privileged idea of communication.

Public policy and culture generally reward what Carey might term the “secular” use of a computer to retrieve information over a distance. This is the “library model” of the Internet mentioned earlier. Public Internet access as transmission is an instrumental use of a computer to seek and deliver information. It is consistent with rationales both to realize economic and efficiency gains as compared to other forms of communication and to develop a more productive workforce. Consistent with current policy’s emphasis on the school and library (both well-established sites for the transmission of knowledge via books), subsidized access to the Internet in public places can be rationalized as granting the ability to transmit skills and information to the poor and uneducated.

Previous scholarship and the problems with transmission

To date, there are only a few other studies of free public Internet access points, and they have been largely exploratory. Only one comparable study was observationally based; it considered a free library setting and discussed children (Balka & Peterson, 2002, 2004). Research in the community informatics tradition has considered free community technology centers, but has not considered children (for a review, see O’Neil, 2002). The conclusions of these studies are not yet coherent, although Balka and Peterson (2004) suggest that free computer users in Vancouver, Canada were often children and some already have access to the Internet via other means. Additionally, a research brief about libraries generally noted that public Internet access points often manage to reproduce oppressive limits on the groups they are designed to help, specifically women and the elderly (Dobscha, 2004).

Communication in Internet cafés has received more attention, but this research is less relevant in that what motivates users to pay for Internet access has been a primary concern. Studies of cybercafés have found that each café can evolve a particularistic local culture (Miller & Slater, 2000; Wakeford, 2003). One early study rejected the notion that “public” use in a café involved the positive features usually associated with publicness, or that public use was that different from solitary private use (Lee, 1999).1

Some of the previous studies of Internet access in public places are vulnerable to Carey’s critique, introduced earlier, that researchers privilege transmission-related rationales for communication. For instance, using a similar research design to the present study, Balka and Peterson (2004) found that “current use of the Internet in libraries is inconsistent with the goals articulated in current public policies” (p. 152; see also Balka & Peterson, 2002), and Dobscha (2004) found that “[p]ublic internet spaces…do not seem to be serving the needs of those they were initially supposed to be serving” (p. 161). This sort of conclusion in policy analysis research depends upon a false sense of surprise. In fact, one should expect an examination of any law or public policy’s enactment in everyday life to be substantially different from the ideal representation of behavior made by a statute or a speech. Whether jaywalking or Internet access is at issue, the law and policy about a topic is a special kind of value-laden language often used to specify ideals and norms; it is never a description of what actually happens in the street (Moore, 1978). A number of researchers (including the author) have made the mistake of expressing surprise that subsidized Internet connections do not actually result in a disenfranchised child ready to sit down in front of the computer for an afternoon of job training to better herself. As Lee (1999) notes, an unnecessary focus on “governmental rhetoric characterizes much of the work in this area” (p. 346).

The study described here began as an exploratory study with a theoretical framework that emerged inductively. Early in this research, the relevance of play theory became clear, and the question of what users “ought” to do with the Internet emerged from a disproportionately large number of the conversations observed in San Francisco. As this study will explain, users largely did not conceive of the Internet as the transmission of economically valuable skills and information. However, children expend considerable effort to demarcate and defend their non-instrumental use, while adults worry and feel guilty about the fact that the use of these centers does not fit the ideals specified by policy to address the “digital divide.”

Why this should be so surprising is one of the puzzles this study addresses. Other communication media are readily acceptable as sites for play. In the context of communication research on children co-viewing television with siblings and adults, television has been found to be a stimulus to imaginative play (Singer & Singer, 1976) and an object around which play is actively organized (Reid & Frazer, 1980). Earlier research which focused exclusively on online discourse (Danet, 2001; Ruedenberg, Danet, & Rosenbaum-Tamari, 1995) also explained the Internet in terms of play. Even newspapers, a communication medium often associated with the transmission of information (news), have been studied as objects of play (Glasser, 1982, 2000).

Play and a relational technology

In contrast to the idea of transmission, one might expect that children not yet familiar with the connotations of computing and these debates in public policy would be free to justify the computer as not merely useful for transmission, but also for what Carey terms “ritual” communication, a relational use of computers as a way to maintain society across time rather than exchanging messages across space (Carey, 1989). In ritual communication, it is not the exchange of information that is relevant, but the cultural understandings developed through an interaction. As early as 1974, Carey criticized communication scholarship for its lack of interest in symbolic and ritual communication. However, a wide variety of interdisciplinary scholarship outside of communication has considered ritual communication within theories of play (for a comprehensive review, see Sutton-Smith, 1997). As Huizinga stated flatly in 1950, “ritual is play” (p. 5). In the years since Carey’s critique, communication scholarship has begun to address this issue in research on a variety of media and is beginning to incorporate the link between ritual and play. Understanding communication as play invites us to “…think beyond the rational, utilitarian, extrinsic, and almost always instrumental reasons individuals give for their attention to, and interest in, the programs and publications—and now Web sites—of their choice” (Glasser, 2000).

In other words, while computers, televisions, and newspapers may transmit skills and information, people also play with them with little expectation of acquiring anything from them directly (cf. Glasser, 1982; Stephenson, 1964, 1967). While this approach has also been used to understand computer-mediated communication (see, e.g., Danet, 1995, 2001), the most widespread work on computer-mediated communication is largely from a functional psychological perspective (e.g., Turkle, 1984, 1995) or focuses on play within the topic of maintaining ties within virtual communities (e.g., Jones, 1995, 1997, 1998; Smith & Kollock, 1999).

When considering play, a large, diffuse literature from a number of fields proposes functional understandings of specific kinds of play at the level of the individual. While play may be non-instrumental from the perspective of the player (play may seem useless), a great deal of scholarly effort has been expended to demonstrate that play is adaptive and useful. This approach is a straightforward evolution from the earliest writing about play (see Rubin, 1982). In the 18th century, Friedrich von Schiller envisioned play as the necessary expenditure of surplus energy. Karl Groos in 1901 found play to be the elaboration and perfection of learned behaviors. Genetic psychologist G. Stanley Hall envisioned play as useful catharsis in his recapitulation theory. Since it is in fact quite difficult to demonstrate that most play is functionally useful and adaptive, other literature instead takes the approach that the word “play” is “a linguistic waste-paper basket” for activities that are mistakenly grouped together in common speech, but should be theoretically distinct (Millar, 1968, p. 11). Individual approaches most common in social psychology have the positive effect of then being able to functionally explain some play forms as need satisfaction, social learning, socialization, or personality development, but this leaves a wide swath of what is usually termed “play” embarrassingly unconsidered.

A distinctly different approach that will be employed here developed in the literature of sociology: an approach that “proceeded without much regard for either the general conception of play used by the [earlier] philosophers and psychologists, or for their conclusions” (Giddens, 1964, p. 80). This view begins with the idea that the assignment of the signifier “play” to diverse activities in diverse contexts is no accident. The most frequent contemporary starting point in this tradition is Johan Huizinga (1950), who articulated play as an activity that is freely chosen, bounded, outside “ordinary” life, and totally absorbing for the player (p. 13). Huizinga argued that some play is present in all elements of life across history. Indeed, cross-cultural examinations find remarkably parallel evolution of concepts for play (Huizinga, 1950) and games (Csikszentmihalyi & Bennett, 1971) in different societies. Huizinga defined play in opposition to seriousness, a limiting formulation that seems true only for contemporary society, and perhaps not even then (Anchor, 1978). He also defined play as “an activity connected with no material interest” (Huizinga, 1950, p. 13). A somewhat modified approach recalls Veblen (1899) and understands play as leisure and class signification (Hearn, 1976/1977), or as a way for society to “[leave] hope in the dispossessed that free competition is still possible in the lowly stations of life” (Callois, 1961, p. 115).

The present study, following Glasser (2000), follows this broader approach and employs Gadamer’s relatively recent philosophical analysis of play (1989) with the theoretical framework introduced by Huizinga (1950). In this thinking, “every game presents the [person] who plays it with a task…the purpose of the game is not really solving the task, but ordering and shaping the movement of the game itself” (Gadamer, 1989, p. 107). Gadamer argues that it is an error to consider play at the level of the individual (p. 104). Instead, play is fundamentally relational; it is a “mode of being” subsuming both the object of play and the consciousness of players. This mode requires, “not necessarily literally another player, but something else with which the player plays” (pp. 105-106). Play is then “experienced subjectively as relaxation” or pleasure, even though it may require considerable effort, because it “absorbs the player” and in this way frees her from the burden of initiative (p. 105). The player makes decisions, but their consequences are limited to the game. Play requires a demarcated space to play (a playing field, explicit or implicit) and may be limited in time. Play is “ordered” and has rules, although the rules may not be written down (Huizinga, 1950). While play may involve a task, it has no external goal as such, and is often self-renewing or repetitive (Gadamer, 1989, p. 103). Finally, games are voluntary, and playing a game can be a way to express freedom (Huizinga, 1950).

An ethnography of place in san francisco

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. An ethnography of place in san francisco
  5. Introducing the internet as an object of play
  6. Conclusion: the lessons and implications of play
  7. Acknowledgments
  8. References

This study investigates the meaning and use of public Internet access via ethnography of place at Electronic Discovery Centers (EDCs) in the San Francisco Public Library System. “Public” in this case refers both to a resource available to anyone (not even a library card is required), and also to a service supported by government funding. EDCs are clusters of computers in library branches throughout the city equipped with high-speed Internet access and children’s software titles. These clusters are available to use for no charge and are reserved exclusively to serve children under the age of 14 and the adults who accompany them. In the mid 1990s, programs similar to the EDC were ascendant as the preferred way to provide universal Internet access across the country.

Fieldwork for this project consisted of four parts. Most central are (1) non-participant observation and (2) open-ended interviews with children, parents, librarians, and library volunteers at the Electronic Discovery Center. In addition, this project draws from (3) analysis of internal library documents such as sign-up sheets and (4) internal and external documents published by the library to describe and evaluate library programs (such as San Francisco Library Commission, 1998a, 1998b). Fieldwork began in January 1998 and continued for two years.

Non-participant observation and open-ended interviews were conducted at EDC locations over a six-week period from May to June 1998. Primary data collection was spread over 20 sessions averaging four hours each.2 Observation/interview sessions occurred at various days and times. Children’s librarians at the center reported the times when the EDCs were busiest, and observations were then made during a variety of days and times within this subset.3 Secondary data collection involved follow-up visits to the Main Library EDC at various days and times to answer specific questions that arose during later analysis. Concurrently, a quantitative study of Internet traffic was also conducted, the results of which are reported elsewhere (Sandvig, 2003).

Children generally are required to sign up for 30-minute time slots on the computers in the EDC. In order to gain an (admittedly rough) estimate of EDC use, in addition to the observation and interviews detailed above, the children’s librarians stringently required that all users sign up and were extremely careful that all use was recorded for a 10 day sample period (six days during the week and two weekend days). The sign-up sheets during this period were then used to estimate traffic.

Setting: the electronic discovery center

Most observations took place at the Main Library, a recent and striking addition to the landscape of the Civic Center area of San Francisco. In 1988, San Franciscans approved a $109.4 million bond measure to construct a new main library building and renovate aging branches. Facing City Hall across Marshall Square, the seven-level result is an example of ultramodern architecture. Off-white tones and metallic colors highlight the wide, arching stairways that enjoy natural light from skylights above the central atrium. Truly impressive in scope, “New Main” contains 11.4 miles of open stacks and 24.6 miles of closed stacks (City and County of San Francisco, 1995).

Nearly as impressive as New Main itself is the startling contrast of the pristine library building and the adjacent neighborhood of the Tenderloin, one of San Francisco’s poorest. Although as the flagship of a large library system New Main draws patrons from throughout the city, those living near the library had a per capita income of $14,556 in 1999, with 20% of residents below the official poverty threshold (U.S. Census, 2006a, 2006b). Income levels were similar in five of the six surrounding census tracts. In comparison, the per capita income in San Francisco as a whole was $34,556 (U.S. Census, 2006a).

Beyond simple motives like the addition of much-needed space, the construction of the new main library was an attempt to give a modern face to an institution created over 100 years ago. The Fisher Children’s Center is the location of New Main’s EDC, and the EDC is an example of the effort to modernize the library’s mission and services. The Fischer Center is an airy, brightly-colored series of rooms on the second floor providing comfortable furniture sized to the dimensions of small children, exhibition space for reading stories and meeting authors, large windows, and sunny spots to play and read. The Center houses New Main’s collections of books, periodicals, and videos for children in several languages, presided over by a long, curving wooden librarian’s desk at the center, usually occupied by two children’s librarians.

The EDC consists of three islands of computers in the Fisher Center. These islands are located on one side of the wide entryway and fenced by a wall to one side (containing the Fisher Center’s bulletin board), half-height book stacks to the front (picture books and videos) and rear (foreign language books), and the librarian’s station. Each square pedestal supports four computers arranged in groups of two, and each group of two computers has an attendant collection of three child-sized chairs.4 Filtering software is not employed by the library. Two round child-sized tables are nearby, as are two adult-sized well-cushioned chairs for larger visitors. The space of the EDC is loosely demarcated by half-height shelving and not closed off on any side. If the library has any visitors at all, there is always a steady flow of people moving near and sometimes through the area (see Figure 1).

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Figure 1. The Electronic Discovery Center (EDC) in the Fisher Children’s Center, San Francisco Main Library. Two of the three “islands” of computers are visible. Notice that more than one person typically uses each computer.

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Observations were generally done from the child-sized tables in the EDC with a laptop computer. While at the EDC, the researcher attempted to be unobtrusive, but sat close enough to patrons to overhear conversations and to observe details of computer use. During later sessions, non-participant observation was occasionally interrupted for brief, open-ended interviews with children, adults, librarians, and library volunteers. The open nature of the EDC made obtaining informed parental consent impossible, as many children visit the library without a parent. As a compromise, printed notices informing visitors that they may be observed as part of a research study were posted prominently. The researcher dressed professionally, wore a library ID card at all times, and carried a clipboard when present in the Center—similarly equipped library staff members are a common sight there. In addition, in follow-up visits some patrons at the center who consented were photographed.

Introducing the internet as an object of play

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. An ethnography of place in san francisco
  5. Introducing the internet as an object of play
  6. Conclusion: the lessons and implications of play
  7. Acknowledgments
  8. References

From 110 to 200 children used the EDC each day. Each child signed up for about 50 minutes on weekdays and about 30 minutes on weekends. Collaborative use of one computer among several people is a common tactic at the EDC, so these figures underreport use. About one child in 10 also brought along an older child (such as an older sibling or babysitter) or adult (such as a parent or grandparent) who used the computer with the child. On average, children probably remained in the Center for at least one hour.5

The EDC computers were intended by the library not simply as a means to access the Internet, but also as a vehicle to provide an “extensive digital collection” (City and County of San Francisco, 1996). A large list of children’s software titles on CD-ROM is available from a customized menu interface that users see when they sit down. Internet access from these computers was a single menu item out of 36 total items, but it was the most popular activity at the EDC, especially for older children, and it accounts for approximately half of all computer use.6 The three most frequent uses of the Internet at the EDC were (1) participating in text-based real-time chat, (2) playing arcade-style games,7 and (3) playing multi-user dungeon games (MUDs/MOOs).8 Note that playing MUDs and MOOs was not a popular activity in society generally during the fieldwork done for this study, yet MUDs and MOOs were regularly played as late as 2000 in the EDC. Their popularity here indicates the degree to which users of the EDC have managed to form their own local ideas about Internet use.

Viewing static Web pages about any topic was much less popular than any of the three above activities encapsulated within a Web browser. When Web pages were viewed, there often did not seem to be a goal in mind that predated the immediate interaction with other children. While center administrators and parents often explained the use of the center by saying that children could “look up” resources on the Internet that would help them with their homework (invoking the “library metaphor”), in the author’s two years of fieldwork there was only one occasion in which a child came to the EDC with a specific information need already in mind and then looked up web pages about it. A separate quantitative analysis of Web traffic at the EDC (see Sandvig, 2003) found that when Web pages were viewed, they were designed to convey information about a specific topic or subject about 12% of the time. However, watching the children use the EDC demonstrates that they use a variety of strategies to choose which Web pages to look at, and these rarely (if ever) resemble the transmission of information. For example, one common technique to choose Web pages is free association, where children type words like “coke,”“pokemon,” and “backstreetboys” into the URL box of the browser, hoping that something will appear. Yet, when a page does appear, the child does not pause to read it. Instead, they free-associate another topic. “Browsing” itself is made into a game where the goal is to load a variety of colorful web pages quickly. That is, games are usually sought as the content of choice in the EDC, but even when they are not, the Web itself is easily transformed into a game.

Children and adults carry on simultaneous, complex interactions with each other while using the EDC. In chat and dungeon systems, they consider the EDC to be what Goffman (1959) would call the “back region” relevant to the mediated interaction, and several children participate in staging what should be done in the “front region,” that is, the chat or game system, through advice, discussion, and negotiation. In this fashion, children were typically simultaneously engaged in face-to-face interaction with peers, parents, and library staff, while engaging in mediated interaction via MUDs, MOOs, chat, and computer games. Even email composition is accompanied by interpersonal interaction in the form of advice and collaboration.

Identity play and conversation play at the EDC

As noted above, web-based chat and visits to MUDs/MOOs were very popular ways to use Internet connectivity at the EDC. Children were drawn to conversations where they could pretend to have other identities and interact in situations that they would not encounter face-to-face. These acts of masquerade and identity play online were the focus of much early research about Internet communication (e.g., Turkle, 1995) and come as no surprise here. However, online identity play in the EDC is complicated by the motive to interact socially face-to-face with friends while interacting socially on another level (or in another frame; see Danet, 2001) while using the computer.

To elaborate, children from 13-14 were drawn to chat about otherwise forbidden topics. One child repeatedly visited several chat rooms and offered (by typing) to, “give you a long, kinky massage.” Despite this, they often appear unfamiliar with the meaning of their words. Another child filled out a personal profile on Yahoo! chat, using the menu of choices to indicate that he is an “Executive” in the “Finance/Banking/Insurance” industry. He then visited several chat areas for his 30-minute session, pretending to be this imaginary person. “I do insurance,” he typed. He masqueraded as an adult primarily to watch other conversations without participating, except to comment on his mask. Voyeurism and role- or identity play are common play forms among children; however, even when the purpose of Internet use was “ordinary” conversation, this was managed as play.

Arguably, much of human conversation is playful in some way, yet users of the EDC went to some effort to ensure that their conversations were playful. The Internet was used conversationally in the EDC via chat and instant messenger software. Groups of children that know each other often sat together and, from separate computers, accessed the same chat area. They spoke out loud to coordinate their actions in the chat (“You tell him!”) and to confide insights about the other users (“Do you think he’s old? I think he’s old”). This is again a way to increase the complexity of a conversational situation by adding frames and complexity.

Email is often emblematic of a transmission view of communication since it involves the delivery of information or messages. Yet even the majority of email use was best interpreted as play. Children tended to send email to other children, and overall composed short emails that in content were very similar to chat conversations, such as discussion of shared events that resembled communication-as-play. The body of some email messages contained only nonsense words or gibberish, making the game of email simply the sending and receiving of the message. The opening of free Web-based email accounts was a favorite topic of conversation, especially among children around 10 who usually lacked the knowledge of how to open an account, yet desired access to the “game” of composing, sending, and receiving email that the older children played. Both younger and older children conceptualized email in this way, sometimes referring to their desire to “play mail” or “play email.”

“Producing unusuability” in a fundamentally social context

As can be seen so far in this description, children’s use of the EDC at the public library is fundamentally social, in contrast to Lee’s (1999) earlier findings from an Internet café. In the atmosphere of a library, most children are not shy about mingling with strangers of similar age. Groups of children use several computers at once and shout questions and advice to each other. Novices stand by and observe those who are more skilled, adopting successful Internet search strategies and noting interesting URLs (see Figure 2). Parents often accompany children into the EDC and watch or use the computer with their child. A volunteer explains, “parents and children will come [here] together, especially with the small ones.”“Usually the child will know more about these things than the parent.” (This was observed to be true in perhaps half of the parent/child pairs.)

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Figure 2. A young child offers unsolicited advice to a stranger, speaking loudly so as to be heard over the headphones.

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Children will often look at the computer screen of the child next to them and ask questions like, “oh, you got that? I didn’t get that,” and, “how did you get in there?” Children that have already had 30 minutes on the computers will linger in the EDC to give advice to other patrons like, “use bombs!” and “you have to use shields now or you“ll die!” These catcalls can be more distraction than help, but they sometimes produce questions like, “what next?” Children were clearly engaged in “over the shoulder learning” (Twidale, 2005) in these interactions, but the topics learned were most often the user interface features of games.

However, collaborations often inverted the usual idea of how people share computers. Multiple children (or children and a parent) often used one computer at the same time. These pairs devised sharing arrangements that turn the computer’s user interface into a game, such as, “you use this part of the keyboard and I’ll use this part,” and “I’ll do the mouse and you do the keys” (see Figure 3). These arrangements are not about learning to use computers efficiently. Typing while sharing a keyboard is quite difficult! But setting goals such as keyboard sharing during an arbitrary task is a way to produce a game. This generates a large amount of discussion between users: “Go up!”“Go down!”“Don’t read it ALL!” recalling Carey’s admonition that one purpose of ritual communication is to produce interaction. In an extreme example, a mother and child used a drawing program together by sharing the trackball at the child’s insistence. They turned the drawing program into a game by attempting to draw a particular form (a house) while both of them simultaneously used the device, each person with one hand overlapping the other (see Figure 4). Drawing a house with the predefined shapes available in the drawing program is a task that either the child or the adult could easily accomplish alone, but they chose instead to perform this task together even though that made the task very difficult.

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Figure 3. Two children make a game of using the computer by dividing responsibility for the input devices: “I’ll do the mouse and you do the keys.”

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Figure 4. A mother and daughter add a level of complexity and structure to an open-ended drawing program by attempting to draw a house by both guiding the trackball at the same time.

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In instances like these, children and adults worked to produce unusability if it seemed like it might lead to more social interaction. In this, the structures of play as recognizable from Gadamer and Huizinga were deployed by EDC users to create opportunities for ritual communication in which the content and the transmission of information were not particularly relevant. The production of unusuability is a widespread tactic used to turn the computer from a device understood instrumentally as something useful for the end of “looking things up” into a device useful for creating the means of interaction toward no particular end. Tactics like the production of unusability were particularly worrisome for some adults at the EDCs who had the transmission model in mind, as will be explained later.

Collaborative play as a motive for use

Children are drawn to use public access computers that have connections to the Internet regardless of their access to Internet connections in the home. Children report social motives for Internet use and they enjoy coming to a public space to use this communication technology. While it might be expected that publicly available free computers connected to the Internet are a powerful draw for those without access to these resources elsewhere, in fact children are drawn to the collaborative, social atmosphere of the public access computer center regardless of their availability at other locations. Children request to be driven to the Tenderloin (the economically depressed neighborhood adjacent to the New Main’s EDC) from the more affluent suburbs. Thus, this setting draws patrons with no computer at home, but it also draws those with other access. It is true that other motives exist as well, including faster Internet connectivity at the library, more software titles to choose from at the library, and other activities at the library that are complementary to Internet/software use.

“My dad works at the Internet,” a 13-year-old boy said. When asked if he has access to the Internet at home he says yes. When asked if he comes to the EDC because of the speed of the computers, he replies, “no, it’s the other people and stuff,” (he looks around the room) “you can talk to them.”“It’s fun.”

Even apparently solitary use of the EDC computers generally occurs with an audience. In Figure 5, a child playing a game “alone” with headphones on completes a level successfully, and moves her hands and body in a playful dance to celebrate, while others look on.

image

Figure 5. A child successfully completes a level of a “learning game” and celebrates by dancing with hands and torso while others look on. She experiences this as play and ritual, while adults tend to define this game as the transmission of important information.

Download figure to PowerPoint

Further evidence that collaborative play is the mode of use in the EDC can be found in the amount of effort that children spend bracketing Internet use in the EDC as different from “work,”“school,” or even other situations of Internet use elsewhere. For example, relevance to a child’s school curriculum is an important consideration weighed when he or she decides what to do with the EDC computers. In most, but not all, cases children make a clear distinction between work and leisure time, and the time spent at the EDC is considered to be leisure. Although there are school field trips to the EDC, the majority of traffic at the EDC occurs after school, on weekends, and during the summer, times usually reserved for leisure.

When Ben, a 14-year-old boy, sees that the researcher is interested in what he is doing on the Web, he confides, “I’m working on a Web site for my school.” The researcher mistakes his volunteered statement to refer to what he is looking at on the Web right now, a Web site for Acura enthusiasts, and asks him what part of the Web site he is working on right now. He is visibly surprised and immediately corrects this misperception, speaking with exaggerated patience: “Nooooo! I found out about Web sites and stuff in a class, but I come here for …fuuun.” When asked if he uses the computers in the EDC to work on school projects, he realizes that he is not getting his point across, and speaks very slowly to clarify this distinction: “No, that is school, I come here for fun.”

Behaving as anyone would who has been released from work during a given time period by social convention, the children at the EDC are very careful to separate the spheres of leisure and work as much as possible and use a variety of tactics to protect the leisure sphere from encroachment. Chief among these is a comparison of Web and software activities to the school curriculum they have experienced. If the activity seems too similar, it is rejected (and frequently tarred with the epithet “learning game” as in, “hey, that’s a learning game!” spoken as criticism by observing children).

As noted above, this is not to say that children do not learn; learning is acceptable if it can be justified as leisure. In the minority of interactions in which a child performs an information-seeking task on the EDC computers, it is usually justified in this way. Over a span of two sessions at the EDC, Eric searched a variety of educational resources on the Web and used the library’s CD-ROM encyclopedia to find out about Honduras, from which his family immigrated. This was leisure because he “liked it,” it wasn’t required, and it was open-ended. Thus the use of the EDC meets another requirement of play: It is voluntary.

Masking learning with ritual

The EDC allows us an opportunity to understand our interaction with the Internet as a medium by exploring the contrast between adult and child. Because it is frequented by young children and the adults who accompany them, the EDC represents a liminal zone in which those who bring a strong predisposition about the purpose, use, and meaning of the technology (the adults) attempt to negotiate a shared understanding with those who have had no formal introduction to the technology and may have little in the way of preexisting schema with which to understand it (the children). It is from this confrontation that the meaning of public Internet access can be distilled. Children realize they can leave work (or for them, school) outside the EDC because it is defined symbolically as a place for “fun” by previous experience, bright colors, loud children, and, most important, absence of the structure often associated with time spent using a computer in a classroom or a school computer lab. Adults have the opposite reaction to an activity’s relevance to school curriculum, and are engaged at combating the demarcation of the leisure sphere to exclude learning.

Librarians combat this distinction by attempting to label certain time periods as work. They have set up specific times devoted to “homework help” and as an incentive they provide double the amount of time normally allowed. Parents combat this distinction by using mild deception. Parents encourage their children to visit Web sites and use software that they recognize as educational in the hopes that the child will not recognize that it is. One parent describes the computers at the EDC with the following statement, intended as praise: “they’re great! I don’t think [my son] really notices that they are learning games.” If children persist in using the computers in ways that are obviously not educational, some adults become very distressed. Library staff who learned that the researcher was working on this ethnography frequently tried to break the news gently by saying with pained expressions and guilty voices, “they use it for games, you know.” One volunteer told me in an angry voice, “the Internet, it is good for nothing. I don’t show them those games, but they find them somehow.”

The tug-of-war between work and play is particularly interesting because a two year ethnographic study like this one is certainly not required to produce the conclusion that young children play. It is self-evident that young children play, but something about the EDC creates an environment where the opposite meaning is the prevalent common sense. Adults are genuinely surprised that children play and criticize their use of the EDC as “an arcade.” In this research project, it is tempting to outline the ideal goals of public policy that centers like the EDC ought to produce, then express surprise that this does not happen “in reality.” But the reality of the EDC in San Francisco is one where the ideal goals for public Internet centers are present and rehearsed in everyday interaction. Some of these derive from people who are well acquainted with the idealized narratives of the technology. Commenting about the children’s use of the EDC, one librarian commented to the researcher, “don’t tell the funders!” But even adults who likely had no familiarity with public policies about the digital divide still had strong opinions of what the Internet connections ought to be used for.

In the EDC, children valued communication that they saw as ritual (play), while adults valued communication that they could justify as transmission (learning). A “learning game” succeeds in the EDC to the extent that it deceives the child into experiencing it as ritual communication while simultaneously presenting enough clues for the adult to understand it as the transmission of valuable information. Transmission must be masked as ritual through the introduction of rules and the freedom to choose some paths within them. The valence of the most common uses of the network as perceived by both children and adults is summarized in Table 1.

Table 1.  Valence of Internet uses at the EDC, by point of view
Point of viewValence
PositiveNegative
Childexplorationrelevance to school
noveltydifficulty
interactivity
unpredictability
collaboration
Adultrelevance to schooloverplaying
exploration of knowledgeexploration of culture
predictabilitycircular interactivity
solitary work

Many items in this table are self-explanatory, but of note are the activities characterized by adults as negative: “overplaying” and “circular interactivity.” As Sutton-Smith notes, “[p]aradoxically children, who are supposed to be the players among us, are allowed much less freedom for irrational, wild, dark, or deep play in Western culture than are adults” (p. 151). Overplaying refers to the feeling, expressed by parents, that it is possible to become “too involved” or “lost” in play, as well as to experience “too much” play. Overplaying then consists of too much play, or becoming over-involved in play, and it was stigmatized and guarded against at the EDC. Sometimes adults did not seem concerned that these behaviors were damaging, but rather objected to their pointlessness, as in “let’s get you something useful to do.” Any play not tethered to learning might be bad, but ecstatic, wild, or irrational play was worse. Circular interactivity is the ecstatic experience that is partly what play theorists have called “dark play” (Sutton-Smith, 1997, p. 56). Circular interactivity refers to the regularly observed behavior of repeating a very simple action over and over, such as alternating in pressing the “back” and then the “forward” button on the Web browser endlessly, or playing an “overly” simple game (such as a Java-based version of the paddle game Pong with the paddle set to the same width as the field). While children accepted these activities as a structured, self-renewing game, adults found the lack of complexity and irrationality distressing. Any tolerance they might have for play was in this way reserved for games involving at least a modest complexity of task.

Applying the perspective of adults in Table 1, the uses of the Internet that adults preferred were activities like storytelling software for younger children and Web sites that seemed to have direct relevance to school topics for older children (such as the content for kids at http://www.nasa.gov).

Public internet as a playground

One final piece of evidence completes the case that the EDC is best understood using theories of play. On one visit to the library, the researcher was leaving the library building and saw a group of three children who appeared to be about 12 standing outside the library entrance discussing whether or not to go in. It was a sunny day in San Francisco, and they were debating whether they should go “do the computer” or “play ball in the lot:” two activities that were to them somewhat substitutable. When considering what place visiting the EDC occupies in the greater framework of the lives of its users, children were asked, “what did you do just before coming here?,”“where are you going after you leave here?,”“what do you usually do at this time every day?,” and “if you decided not to come here, what would you do instead?” Overwhelmingly, the EDC serves as a setting equivalent to other sites for unstructured play leisure activities in their lives. The children answered: “watching TV,”“just stuff around the house,”“playing with my friends,”“playing ball,”“playing outside,” and (most common) “nothing.” Additionally, after school when it is raining is the busiest time for the EDC; the library staff believes that the EDC is a substitute for playing games outside. Adults, in contrast, frequently bring children to the EDC and leave them while they perform other tasks; for adults the EDC can be the functional equivalent of babysitting.9

Conclusion: the lessons and implications of play

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. An ethnography of place in san francisco
  5. Introducing the internet as an object of play
  6. Conclusion: the lessons and implications of play
  7. Acknowledgments
  8. References

This article presented details from an ethnography of a free public Internet center. It set out to investigate how children use the Internet when it is given to them in public places, especially near an economically disadvantaged area where few other avenues to access the Internet were available. Ethnography revealed a number of interesting features of children’s Internet use. First, the public Internet studied here was fundamentally social and collaborative, in contrast to adult use at paid Internet cafés studied in other research. Even apparently solitary activities in the EDC had a performative dimension (recall Figure 5). The most common applications used by children were gaming and chat, but activities that were not labeled as games were transformed into games.

In other research, a reasonable way to answer the question “what do children do with public Internet connections?” has been to examine what Web pages the children chose to look at, as was done in another study of this center (Sandvig, 2003). However, this ethnography demonstrated the problems with that approach. Children were often indifferent to the content of communications, and turned the user interfaces and applications themselves into interactive games by inventing new rules about how computers ought to be used. While Web page choices by children weren’t random, Web pages were not used to retrieve and learn the information they contained. Children transformed serious activities like reading Web pages into play by free-associating search terms and then not reading the results, “playing email” to send Web-based emails without any content in the body of the messages, and “producing unusability” by sharing user interfaces in ways that make them dramatically less efficient (recall Figures 3 and 4). While this well-equipped computer center served children from the poor neighborhood nearby, it also drew affluent children to visit the neighborhood for the purpose of using the computers, resulting in a diverse mixing of race, class, and skill demographics that could be seen as a prosocial feature of the program (recall Figure 2).

The persistence of an ideal internet use in local internet culture

Perhaps the most significant finding of this study is the degree to which the computer center itself became a discussion area for competing meanings of Internet use, as evinced by Table 1. Previous scholarship has presented the political and social rationales for subsidized Internet access as standing apart from and in opposition to actual Internet use. This is fair to a point, but in this study, the users of the EDC were well aware of what they “should” be doing online, and adults rehearsed the rationales of telecommunications access subsidy every day when trying to control their children. It is easy to acknowledge that policy statements about topics like “the digital divide” present idealized, unrealistic scenarios. In the rhetorical frame of public policy, this computer center should be full of nine-year-olds using tax-subsidized Internet connections to somehow transform themselves into white collar, information-age workers. In policy, the route to this transformation is admittedly unclear. Yet, these idealized narratives of the Internet do not sit apart from actual use. Instead, the Internet was a loaded object discussed with terms like “ought” and “should.” The transmission narrative was so persuasive that a certain kind of progress-oriented, information-seeking Internet use was thought by adults to be the correct kind of Internet use. Outside the EDC, it is obvious that children play, but inside the EDC child’s play is cause for surprise and alarm. Child’s play was thus denaturalized when brought into the setting of public Internet use. Any particular Internet use was seen as a success if it could pass as ritual (and play) to children while passing as transmission (and learning) for the adults. Which audience was the one being fooled by this passing is an open question.

The relevance of play theory to the study of communication

An explanation for this struggle over the meaning of Internet use was found in Carey’s (1989) distinction of the privileging of communication as transmission as opposed to communication as ritual. Carey called for more studies of communication as culture and ritual. While ritual communication has motivated a wide body of research in communication (e.g., see Hughes-Freeland, 1998), Carey’s initial distinction between transmission and ritual only suggested broad avenues toward which scholars might turn for a further theoretical apparatus. Play theory may be of help here. Play as an academic concept is now entering a moment of new popularity among some communication scholars (see Glasser, 2000; Myers, 2006). This study asserts that play theory adapted from Huizinga (1950) and Gadamer (1989) is a useful theoretic approach to apply to Carey’s conception of ritual communication, as the communicative behavior found here in the EDC enacts their characterization of play as a mode, explaining the motivations of children that would otherwise seem opaque or absent (as in, “children just like to play”).

More specifically, play may be a useful way to consider Internet communication, even beyond children. Miller and Slater (2000) have said that the Internet is embedded in particularistic local cultures and should not be considered independently of local social relations. Wakeford (2003) noted that Internet cafés are local achievements that produce particularistic spaces, cultures, and norms that surround and encompass Internet access. With this in mind, the findings of this study should not imply that all children play the specific games of the EDC or that children’s public Internet use uniformly matches the definitions of play theorists introduced here. Still, it is striking that the features of play theory were so widespread in the EDC, but that this way of conceptualizing children’s Internet use is usually unacknowledged in the scholarly literature on Internet communication, with a few exceptions (including Danet, 2001). In addition, while adult activities are rarely named using the derogatory term “play,” it is seems likely that communication behavior among adults could be just as playful if researchers paused to look. This understanding of media use has already been explored for older media forms (such as television) by other scholars (e.g., Stephenson, 1964, 1967; Sutton-Smith, 1997, pp. 144-147).

Problems with the internet playground in public policy discourse

The story of public Internet access told here might be taken to be very discouraging. If consulted as a taxpayer or policymaker, anyone surveyed might be reluctant to invest large sums in providing a technology that substitutes for more inexpensive forms of play (like “play ball in the lot”). The computer has spread into almost all parts of modern society, except that of the lowest socioeconomic status. The unpleasant reality hidden behind appeals for “electronic literacy” that are quickly replacing the pleas for “media literacy” of times past is that familiarity and skill with the personal computer at its present level of development is an individual’s insurance policy against having to resort to the lowest rungs of the occupational ladder. To what extent public access points could act to restore equity in this situation on a large scale is unclear. The data presented here show unexpected uses for unexpected reasons that do not map well with the transmission-oriented goals of policy. One response is to offer weak functional explanations of the benefits of computer exposure familiar to scholars of electronic games. These are benefits like “computer literacy” and “hand-eye coordination” that sound suspiciously like apologies for play.

Considered from another perspective, public policy is itself a game people play. Streeter (1996) explains communication policymaking as occurring inside an interpretive community subject to strict discursive rules. Certain justifications, like “economic efficiency,” may be the price of participation in the communication policy of a given moment. Policymaking is serious talk, while play is often popularly defined as useless, in opposition to seriousness. We shouldn“t be surprised that the EDC doesn’t slavishly perform ideal statements specified in policy discourse about the digital divide. One would never expect an ethnographic study to yield a description of behavior identical to a statute’s. Instead, the interesting point is that policy and law provide a kind of moral language of what ought to be done with computers (Moore, 1978) that seems pervasive, not distant. Rather than the “top-down” policy sitting “above” and in contrast to the users of this center, the economic rationales for subsidized public Internet use could have been drawn from a survey of the parents here, despite the difficulty of describing actual Internet use by their children in terms of efficiency.

It is true that all humans engage in play, and that they will continue to do so regardless of any cultural privilege given to work, “productive” activity, and the goals of policy initiatives. Study of play can lead us to understand behavior as valuable in new ways, or at least it can portray what actually happens in these settings, regardless of assessments of value. In Carey’s words, with other technologies of the past “…large numbers are spoken to but are precluded from vigorous and vital discussion” (Carey, 1989, p. 168). Internet use is too varied a phenomenon to describe accurately with a single broad statement. Yet the tendency observed here at the EDC was not one of monolithic institutions appropriating knowledge and reducing discussion, but rather a picture in which interpersonal interaction was generally preferred by users.

While communicative play may not be formal or explicit, the data given here indicate that a large percentage of computer and Internet use by children at public centers takes the form of play. While this study focused on children playing with new communication technologies, an interesting question for further research would be the application of play theory to adults. That children play is no surprise, except to those convinced by the value of the transmission model of Internet communication. Public policy and some scholarship will continue to ignore or deride Internet use it if it is characterized in playful terms. To conclude, in recognizing the primacy of productivity narratives and in finding resistance to them, in joining theories of play and Carey’s distinction of ritual vs. transmission in communication, and in applying Gadamer and Huizinga’s theories of play, we embrace a powerful analytic describing a broad sweep of human activity, as has been seen in the small crucible of the EDC.

Acknowledgments

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. An ethnography of place in san francisco
  5. Introducing the internet as an object of play
  6. Conclusion: the lessons and implications of play
  7. Acknowledgments
  8. References

The author would like to thank the staff and patrons of the San Francisco Public Library System for their assistance in this research project. Additionally, Emily Murase, Theodore L. Glasser, François Bar, Robert E. McGinn, Byron Reeves, and the anonymous reviewers provided very valuable comments on this article. An earlier version of this article was presented to the 2000 annual meeting of the International Communication Association, and a small portion of this material was presented with Emily Murase and Sybil Boutilier in “Strategies for Promoting Access to the Internet Among Children and Youth: A Case Study of the San Francisco Public Library’s Electronic Library Project” at the 1999 annual summit of the Internet Society. This material is based on work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. REC 9603344.

Notes
  • 1

    Lee asserted that “public internet use…[can be] an atomized and profoundly uncollective experience” (Lee, 1999, p. 346).

  • 2

    Data were mainly collected from the Fisher Center in the San Francisco Main Library, but also at the Chinatown Branch (1 session), and at the Mission Branch (1 session).

  • 3

    As school was in session during this period, no sessions were scheduled for weekday mornings.

  • 4

    When ordering chairs for the center, library planners toured another nearby computer center at the San Francisco Exploratorium (a hands-on museum of science and art) and noticed that groups of children tended to cluster around the few available computers. Anticipating this demand, they placed three chairs in front of every two computers at the EDC (Boutilier, personal communication).

  • 5

    Although children waiting for a computer are not required to remain in the Center, they overwhelmingly do so. In addition, the majority do not visit other areas of the Center while waiting (e.g., to read books), but wait in the EDC itself, interacting with other computer users.

  • 6

    Younger children may not be able to operate the menu system at all, and are often put in front of a software title chosen by a parent, librarian, or volunteer.

  • 7

    These are often remarkably simple. One favorite is a version of “Pong” written in Java that runs within the Web browser and is free. Several other older action games are also popular, including “space Invaders.”

  • 8

    MUD may stand for Multi-User Dungeon or Multi-User Domain. MOO stands for MUD, Object-Oriented.

  • 9

    A similar childcare purpose was found in a study of an expensive, high-status public Internet access center in Trinidad (Miller & Slater, 2000).

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  6. Conclusion: the lessons and implications of play
  7. Acknowledgments
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About the Author
  1. Christian Sandvig is Assistant Professor of Speech Communication at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Associate Fellow of Socio-Legal Studies at Oxford University. His research investigates the development and use of new communication technologies and their relationship to law and public policy.

    Address: Department of Speech Communication, 244 Lincoln Hall, University of Illinois, 702 S. Wright St., Urbana, IL 61801 USA