April 9, 2008
NCAA/NBA Social Network for Youth Basketball

I was contacted by a reporter on Monday with The Chronicle of Higher Education about a decision from the NCAA to work with the NBA to develop a company to help cultivate the organization of youth basketball in the U.S. Prior to the request, I hadn't heard about the announcement, but there was particular interest in the Comparative Media Studies/Convergence Culture Consortium perspective because of the centrality of social networking at the center of the initiative.

I had a 10 or 15 minute conversation with a reporter who was contributing to the article, Catherine Rampell, in which we talked about the positives and negatives of such a decision, particularly how this approach has much promise but also plenty of potential stumbling blocks. You can see the full article here.

My appearance comes in the article's conclusion, in which they propose that reaction is mixed. As evidence of the mixed reaction, Brad Wolverton picks out mine as a positive response to the decision, saying "A project like this really catches my eye," and noting I thought it had "much potential," while Eric J. Anctil was quoted as saying that it's hard to get kids to "do what you want them to do" and that this "sounds like a good idea to people who are in their 40s and don't know what kids like."

Being a journalist myself, I know how the construction of articles goes, and perhaps it set Eric and I up as being on two opposite sides of the article, myself the CMS optimist and Eric the cynic. But, and perhaps Eric would agree with me, I'm both optimist AND cynic when it comes to announcements like this.

As I told Catherine in our conversation, I feel that we are at a stage of understanding online culture that we are no longer fascinated with the separation between the "real world" and the "virtual world." There's an increasing realization that online culture exists with the same people and in the same world as our physical surroundings, so there are real-world, hyperlocal benefits to these technologies. If it goes well, a project like this--linking a national site to local youth action--could be a great success, or at least of great interest.

On the other hand, I think the biggest danger for this project is one that Eric might be alluding to as well: the biggest danger is if those who create the site have too narrow of an assumption as to what that site must be. If the NBA and NCAA want a social network built around youth basketball culture to succeed, there needs to be quite a bit of room for agency on the part of the kids who would theoretically sign up for this site. The creators of the site might just find that, in execution, there are all sorts of other reasons teens might want to use a site like this.

The other part of the discussion Catherine and I had was about the negativity of not using a site like Facebook or MySpace, where people already go and spend specific amounts of time, to launch this sort of initiative. There's some danger of cyberbalkanization in this mindset, where every activity is secluded from one another and every narrow interest creates its own separate social network. As much as we want to talk about "the youth of today" as multitaskers, there's only so many sites people are going to regularly spend time at.

I wanted to use this entry to both direct attention to the new NBA/NCAA initiative and elaborate on my thoughts on the matter. Thanks again to Catherine for the enlightening conversation and for making me part of The Chronicle's piece on the subject, and I look forward to seeing what might become of this initiative and whether the NBA and NCAA are going to live up to some of that potential the site has--or whether it will be another generation's misconception of what the U.S. youth want.