How online affinity networks expand learning and opportunity for young people

Boyband One Direction fanfiction writers, gamers who solve math problems together, Harry Potter fans who knit for a cause. Across subcultures and geographies, young fans have found each other and formed community online, learning from one another along the way. From these and other in-depth case studies of online affinity networks, Affinity Online considers how young people have found new opportunities for expanded learning in the digital age. These cases reveal the shared characteristics and unique cultures and practices of different online affinity networks, and how they support “connected learning”—learning that brings together youth interests, social activity, and accomplishment in civic, academic, and career relevant arenas. Although involvement in online communities is an established fixture of growing up in the networked age, participation in these spaces show how young people are actively taking up new media for their own engaged learning and social development.

While providing a wealth of positive examples for how the online world provides new opportunities for learning, the book also examines the ways in which these communities still reproduce inequalities based on gender, race, and socioeconomic status. The book concludes with a set of concrete suggestions for how the positive learning opportunities offered by online communities could be made available to more young people, at school and at home. Affinity Online explores how online practices and networks bridge the divide between in-school and out-of-school learning, finding that online affinity networks are creating new spaces of opportunity for realizing the ideals of connected learning.


"Reminds us that education is not just learning, it is learning embedded in systems of institutional organization, cultural capital, and peer networks. Drawing on a multi-year research project into young people's behavior online, the book traces student interest in a remarkable range of topics—fabric arts, professional wrestling, Bollywood dance—to make a lucid and compelling argument that participation in affinity networks can have a critical and positive effect on student learning and life chances. Affinity Online is that rare scholarly work that is as interesting to read for the closely observed detail as for the sweep of its larger argument."

Clay Shirky, author of Little Rice: Smartphones, Xiaomi, and the Chinese Dream

"Helps those of us who are no longer kids to understand how their online and offline worlds connect. These global case studies give us insights into youth at the same time that detailed notes about how the authors themselves used their online tools to collaborate help researchers understand what is possible in a truly connected world. "

Cathy N. Davidson, Founding Director and Distinguished Professor, The Futures Initiative, Graduate Center, CUNY



Amy was 17 years old when she was interviewed as part of Pfister’s (2014, 2016) study of, an online community for knitters and crocheters. Amy is an avid fiber crafter and pattern maker, and she is also active on Hogwarts at Ravelry, a group within Ravelry focused on Harry Potter–related creations (the case study appears at the end of chapter 4). Amy first learned to crochet from her grandmother and picked up knitting with her sister. Eventually she started to look online for designs and inspiration, and one of her friends introduced her to Ravelry. There she found a wealth of resources, new designs, and kindred spirits, including the subcommunity of Harry Potter fans. One of Amy’s hat designs, inspired by a hat in the sixth Harry Potter movie, has been “favorited” by 1,100 people and is in the queue of more than 400 people as something that they would like to make. She has begun selling her patterns on Ravelry and, with the support of her father, is planning to launch a blog and expand her business online. Her passion for the fiber arts has even sparked a similar interest in her parents. Her mother has started to crochet, and her father has picked up knitting.

Although Amy’s story has much that is familiar to earlier generations, it is worth noting some important differences. In an earlier era, Amy would have pursued her interest in knitting and crocheting with her family, friends, and possibly eventually a local knitting circle or related group. She may have been able to find others in her Colorado community who could have introduced her to the intricacies of pattern design, but it is unlikely that she would have found a critical mass of knitters who are also Harry Potter fans. While she might have designed a Harry Potter–inspired hat based on her personal interest, she would not have connected with thousands of other Harry Potter fans who also appreciated her design. It is also unlikely that she would have been able to sell and market her designs, given the niche nature of the audience and the lack of distribution channels in local communities. The online affinity network of Ravelry, and opportunities for online distribution and sales, vastly expanded Amy’s ability to pursue a specialized interest, develop expertise, and connect this interest to future opportunities.

Young people such as Amy are growing up in an environment of abundant connection to information, knowledge, and social interaction that offers new opportunities for learning and pursuing interests. Activities such as quickly googling for information, posting questions on specialized online forums, or publishing creative work online are now commonplace. It is easy to forget that it has been less than a decade since these kinds of interactions became widespread in the United States. And while these practices have been spreading with breathtaking speed through the everyday social exchanges of teens, our schools, policies, community institutions, and workplaces have been slower to respond. Many young people are taking to digital tools and networks to connect with communities of interest, gain specialized skills and expertise, and engage in shared projects and causes, but in our research we found relatively few instances of young people connecting these activities to economic opportunities or school. Examples such as Amy’s, in which parents are actively supporting the connection between online interests and other opportunities, were relatively rare. The majority of young people we spoke to did not find ways of connecting the learning in their online affinity networks with in-school, civic, or career-relevant opportunities.

These findings are consistent with findings from our prior fieldwork in 2006–2007 for the Digital Youth Project, which cast a wide net in documenting young people’s new media practices during the first large wave of social media adoption in the United States. We documented how gaming and social media were becoming primary vehicles for social hanging out, and we also found many examples of young people mobilizing online tools and networks to “geek out” with others online and go deep into areas of interest. While we recognized how these settings were enabling new and powerful forms of interest-driven, informal, and social learning, we also noted how relatively few young people were taking full advantage of the learning potential of digital networks. Even fewer were going on to connect their informal learning to future opportunity in academic, civic, and career-relevant settings. This disconnect between the tremendous opportunity for learning that the online world offers and the relatively low uptake, particularly among less resourced and less tech-savvy young people, is cause for concern (Ito et al. 2013).

Building on the Digital Youth Project, the Leveling Up study was designed to focus on online practices and networks that could bridge the divides between in-school and out-of-school learning. For our case studies, we sought out online communities that are both highly engaging to youth and also tied to academic, career, and civic practices. We also tried to include interest areas that attracted youth historically underrepresented in technology-related areas, specifically girls and youth with lower socioeconomic status. Our case studies include tech-savvy groups of gamers as well as less stereotypically “geeky” communities, such as knitters and fans of boybands and professional wrestlers. Through these cases, we investigated the supports that connect young people’s interests to opportunity—such as Amy’s father supporting her emerging online business—as well as missed opportunities and disconnects that inhibit this kind of connection and brokering.

To understand the implications of these points of connection and disconnection, we draw from the model of connected learning. Connected learning is a “synthetic model of learning” (Penuel et al. 2016); it both describes a form of meaningful and opportunity-enhancing learning and guides design and policies that expand access to this form of learning. The model grows out of an expanding body of evidence that learning is resilient and meaningful when it is tied to social relationships and cultural identities, and when it spans in-school and out-of-school settings. As a model for design and social change, connected learning focuses on connecting young people’s interests and peer culture to opportunity and recognition in academic, civic, and career-relevant settings. Connected learning strives for equity by embracing the cultural identities of diverse young people, meeting them where they are in their communities of interest, and building points of connection and translation to opportunity in schools, employment, and civic and political institutions.

Connected learning differs from more traditional learning and reform approaches in that it is centered on young people’s interest-driven learning and is agnostic as to the types of relationships and institutions that can support this learning. While teachers and classrooms are critical in the learning of most young people, we also see online communities and communication, and caring adults at home and in their local communities, as valuable supports for learning. By focusing on shared interests and social practices, connected learning draws attention to how social relationships and networks fuel learning and broker opportunities in varied settings, including online affinity networks.

The Leveling Up study was designed to investigate the role that online affinity networks play, and could potentially play, in connected learning. We are still far from realizing a world where all young people are able to fully engage in learning and opportunities tied to their interests and passions, but we see the potential for online networks’ playing a larger role in making this happen. Our decision to focus on practices and communities that embody this potential comes from our commitment to engaged scholarship. This book is an effort to make this potential more visible to educators, parents, and policy and technology makers who are seeking to expand educational opportunity. Our approach is animated by challenges that educators and technology designers face, and in turn, our findings are targeted toward insights that can be of value to researchers as well as practitioners. We orient our questions and methods to problems in practice as much as to scholarly debates.

We ask questions that social scientists have asked of social networks more generally, keyed to problems in educational practice. How do relationships and networks provide social support, information, and connections to opportunity? We probe more specifically into questions of learning and affinity. What kinds of relationships and networks support connected learning? Can online affinity networks help develop social capital, learning, and opportunity? And finally, what kinds of additional relationships and supports do young people need to connect their learning in affinity networks to academic, civic, and career opportunities?

Affinity networks provide a lens through which to deepen our understanding of social networks and learning. Our analysis pivots around how online affinity networks open unique avenues for young people to find “their people”—peers and mentors who share an identity or interest. While sharing similarities with other hobby and sports groups, the relationships that young people develop in online affinity networks differ in important ways from those developed through families, in schools, and in extracurricular activities. They are both more limited—tailored to bonding around a specific interest—and more expansive—more accessible across time and space. They are “intentional” or chosen networks that can result in a strong sense of affiliation and social bonding. These networks are not layered with the same status hierarchies as young people’s school peer culture, or the accountabilities of teachers and parents. Young people described this aspect of online affinity networks as liberating. Conversely, this means that these networks are thin along measures we traditionally associate with strong social ties, such as face-to-face interaction and institutional embeddedness. The intentional and self-contained aspects of affinity networks are also the features that limit their ability to connect to broader learning and civic and career opportunities. Investigating youth online affinity networks enables us to understand how online networks are changing how young people shape their social relationships, identities, and learning in ways that inform educational practice.

After introducing the broader social, cultural, and economic climate that frames the agenda for this research, we describe the research study. We then describe the conceptual framework for this work and how it organizes the chapters to follow.