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Affinity Online: How Connection and Shared Interest Fuel Learning

reviewed by Tobin Lopes - July 24, 2019

coverTitle: Affinity Online: How Connection and Shared Interest Fuel Learning
Author(s): Mizuko Ito, Crystle Martin, Cody Pfister, Rachel, H. Rafalow, Matthew, Katie Salen, & Amanda Wortman
Publisher: New York University Press, New York
ISBN: 1479852759, Pages: 256, Year: 2018
Search for book at Amazon.com

Learning online has been a reality for almost two decades. As a summative piece bringing two years of ethnographic research together, the authors of Affinity Online present compelling tales about the positive effects of our 21st-century digital communication habits. The book covers the forces at play in online affinity networks and the positive impact these networks have on their members.

In the 21st century with connection to others at our fingertips, when people discover or rediscover something that they like, they often go online to find kindred spirits or, as the authors put it, affinity networks. These are open online spaces focused on a shared interest or practice. When people find something new that they love, one of their first impulses is to seek out like-minded people. In many cases covered in the book, these folks went online because they didn’t know anyone in their physical communities (family, friends, neighbors, schoolmates, coworkers) who shared their passions.

The authors structure the book so that each chapter covers how affinity networks impact various forces at the individual and societal level; e.g., connecting to meaningful opportunities, and social and cultural capital. Following the first four chapters are two focused presentations of case studies on particular affinity networks. Such a structure allows the reader to see the bigger picture and then dive into interesting examples, bringing the larger ideas to life.

Chapter One introduces the structure of the book and the aims of the research projects covered, Chapter Two addresses bonding through shared cultures, Chapter Three deals with social and cultural capital, Chapter Four discusses connecting to meaningful opportunities, and finally, Chapter Five discusses how to move forward with practice and design. If there’s one common thread throughout the book, it’s that members of these online affinity communities often feel like their leading double-lives; one within their online networks, and the other in their real-world communities.

The cases covered seem to break down into one of two groups: communities that look to develop members’ skills in their subject and communities that look to blend their fandom with a hobby. In the former, there are communities centered on Starcraft II and LittleBigPlanet 2 (both video games) as well as Bollywood dancing. In the latter are communities blending the Harry Potter universe and fiber-crafting (Hogwarts at Ravelry), anime and music videos (animemusicvideos.org), the boy band One Direction and fan fiction (1D on Wattpad), and professional wrestling with fan fiction-based wrestling leagues. One case does not really fit into either group; it is centered on following the videos of two brothers who are self-proclaimed nerds (Nerdfighters).

As you might expect, because the authors have studied these groups closely, they make each case interesting in its own right. Besides the obvious differences in the affinity interest in each community, the most significant difference in the two groups mentioned above is that members of the second group are less likely to share their affinity with their in-person friends, family, and communities. Many of the individuals said something to the effect of “I’m scared people will think I’m weird for writing about wrestlers who don’t exist.” This is where the larger discussion of engaging with other like-minded people through online communication technology finds its footing.

Before the advent of the internet, people who enjoyed writing fan fiction about their favorite band were either relegated to a lonely passion or risked revealing such passions and being socially ostracized because of them. Affinity Online details how people can avoid such a decision as well as develop themselves and others by joining online communities. The diversity of cases discussed yields a robust if not generalizable view of the myriad positive effects affinity networks can have on their members and their members’ in-person communities.

One important item to note is that the authors deliberately took a specific approach to their examination of these networks; they chose to look for the positives. Although the authors were aware of the pitfalls and critiques of online groups, they chose to focus on networks that, because of how they are operated, manage to avoid many of the negative aspects of online interaction. This approach is not unlike appreciative inquiry, the central tenet of which is to identify what groups and organizations do well, determine how to replicate those behaviors, and follow with ideas for social and cultural change.

Structurally, the book works well. The rhythm of each chapter, starting with the overarching theme and then presenting further specifics with each case study, made for a book well-suited to be part of an education course at the undergraduate or early graduate level. There was, however, some repetition in later chapters.  

In the final chapter, the authors make a reasoned and passionate call to educators and communities to reach out and push past comfort zones in order to consider the positive impact that online affinity networks can have. They acknowledge the challenges across cultures, generations, and access, and ask us to push past them in a deliberate way so that people can find additional paths to develop themselves in ways previously not possible. Affinity Online represents a call to action for anyone in education to be open to the myriad possibilities of 21st century learning.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: July 24, 2019
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 22994, Date Accessed: 1/27/2022 8:56:53 PM

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About the Author
  • Tobin Lopes
    Colorado State University
    E-mail Author
    TOBIN LOPES is an assistant professor in the Adult Education and Training specialization in the School of Education at Colorado State University. He has been practicing and studying the field of workforce education and development since 1995.

    Dr. Lopes holds a Ph.D. in workforce education and development with a minor in applied statistics from Pennsylvania State University. His research interests include evaluation and assessment, hybrid learning and teaching methods for adults, career development, and quantitative research methods. His most recent work has focused on using large data sets to study workplace behaviors and social justice trends.

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