Kids Sharing Earbuds and “Social Media”

I’ve been circulating my piece about kids sharing earbuds since 2009. I’m very pleased to say the volume it was slated to appear in has finally been published: The Oxford Handbook of Mobile Music Studies. The whole volume (two volumes, in fact!) is excellent. At $150 it’s much too expensive for individual purchase, but you might encourage your library to purchase it, if you have such influence. My understanding is that a cheaper paperback version should come out in a year.

Here’s the abstract:

“Earbuds Are Good for Sharing: Children’s Headphones as Social Media at a Vermont School.” In The Oxford Handbook of Mobile Music Studies, vol. 1, edited by Jason Stanyek and Sumanth Gopinath, pp. 335–55. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014. [pdf]

Working from ethnographic research with K–8 schoolchildren at a small public school in Vermont, this chapter examines one of the central practices of music listening of contemporary U.S. children: splitting the cheap earbuds that lately accessorize many consumer devices in order to share them and listen jointly with friends. At Heartsboro Central School, students used their portable music players to move through space, tuck into clothes, and link friends from ear to ear. MP3 players bundled with headphone cables circulated among lockers, desks, pockets, and backpacks. Wires threaded under clothing and tangled across crowded lunchroom tables. Hanging from a shoulder or shirt collar, maxed-out earbuds strained to liven up group spaces with portable, lo-fi background music. In class, students listened surreptitiously to earbuds concealed in sleeves and under the hoods of sweatshirts. Most often two friends would share a pair of earbuds—one for me, one for you—listening together with one ear as they participated in the dense overlap of talk, touch, and gesture that characterized their unmonitored peer interactions. By sharing earbuds kids activated and delineated relationships, and they solidified certain types of social bonds. With the same actions they enforced and regulated status hierarchies, excluding certain children from listening even while expanding access for others who might be limited by parental resources or restrictions. While a complex logic of genre, celebrity, and consumerism informed HCS children’s musical tastes and habits, most prominent was the intimate embedding of earbuds as social anchors among the complex networks and hierarchies of these elementary- and middle-school children. This chapter argues that through their listening practices children’s upset the rationalizing logics of privatization and isolation that accrue to headphones and portable music, as they creatively reimagined their music devices to fit within the persistent and densely sociable cultures of childhood, as tangible technologies for interaction and intimacy that traced out bonds and tethered friends together in joint activity.

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