I had a chance recently to talk with Omar Gallaga, the technology and culture reporter for The Austin-American Statesman. You may be familiar with Omar if you listen to All Things Considered on National Public Radio. He’s usually featured in their segment, “All Tech Considered.”
Omar was writing a piece on what he calls “Facebook activism.” If you are active on Facebook you likely know what he is referring to. There are a growing number of cases in which people are using social media tools like Facebook to express their interests in a variety of social and political causes. Maybe it’s signing up as a fan of an environmental or local community cause. In several other instances Facebook users are creating groups finding that it is an effective and efficient way to coordinate their efforts, share information, and generate momentum for their respective causes.
During our conversation Omar asked me if I saw any evidence of this type of activism in our research. “Absolutely,” I said. Not to surprisingly this is one of the ways in which the thirty and under set are coming into their own politically. In other words, social media will be more than a complement to how they express their political engagement; It will be a dominant aspect of their involvement in political life.
The final chapter in The Young and the Digital is about this very issue. Specifically, I focus on the use of social media by Barack Obama’s campaign. Much has been made of how effectively Obama used the universe of social media–Facebook, MySpace, Flickr, YouTube, Twitter, LinkedIn–to differentiate his campaign from his rivals. He even hired Chris Hughes, one of the co-founders of Facebook, to build his own social network site, MyBarackObama. It was no great secret that the Web would play a role in the 2008 presidential election. In truth, much of the attention of the press and Obama’s Democratic and Republican party rivals focused on the Web as a cash machine–a way to raise money.
Obama raised historic sums of money via the Internet. And yet his new media team understood better than anyone else’s that it was not simply the money making capacity of the Web that was important but the social and communal capacities of digital media, too. All of the candidates he faced in 2008 used social media, but Obama used it the way young people do–casually and socially. By enlisting young technology users to lead his new media strategy, Obama came to understand the things we are learning through our research with young technology users. Technology, first and foremost, is social and communal in their world. In regards to social media, Obama did not create a movement, he joined one.
I told Omar that in our research young people are, in fact, using social media as a way to stay informed and connected to the issues that they care about. A 2009 report from The Pew Internet & American Life Project titled, The Internet and Civic Engagement, finds that young Americans–thirty and under–represent a significant portion of what it calls the “online participatory class.” Pew writes, “Some 37% of internet users aged 18-29 use blogs or social networking sites as a venue for political or civic involvement, compared to 17% of online 30-49 year olds, 12% of 50-64 year olds and 10% of internet users over 65.”
The key question, as Omar and I discussed, is whether or not all of the online activity is replacing good-old fashioned political engagement–knocking on doors, signing petitions, attending political events and community meetings, and, of course, exercising the right to vote.
Omar invoked the term, “Click-through activism”, while we were talking. “How much real action do you think is coming out of this type of activism?”, he asked me. In other words, does social media make it easy to sign up for a group or send a friend an interesting news article without any further involvement? There is no denying that social media activism can represent what scholars Michael X. Delli Carpini and Scott Keeter call “thin citizenship”, a reference to low time and energy investments in civic matters. But, as I told Omar, “we don’t really know the answer to this question.” The truth is, what it means to be an engaged citizen is changing in the digital age.
Since the 1980s political scientists and sociologists studying political participation trends in America have warned that civic life in America is dying. Fewer and fewer people are getting involved in the issues that determine the quality of our schools, health care, environment, and international relations. In particular, the data has suggested that across some of the most important measurements of civic engagement young Americans fare the worst. Young people do not read the newspapers or watch television news. They do not join civic or political organizations or take the time to write government officials. Most troubling, they do not vote. There is a growing body of evidence, however, that suggests some of these decades long trends may be reversing. And social media is, in all likelihood, playing a role. The size of that role is certainly up for debate.
Both the anecdotal and empirical evidence from 2008 suggests that voting, public expressions of engagement, and communal involvement in politics may be on the rebound. I told Omar that, “Young people are using Facebook, using YouTube, using a variety of online media tools – distributing photos, videos, news links and joining groups online.” I continued, “there are different ways people might express their political engagement.” Our challenge is to better understand how online political participation relates to offline political behavior.
One phase of the new research initiative we are about to launch investigates to what degree social media has emerged as a civic tool in the lives of the young and the digital by influencing the issues they talk about, share with each other, and invest in offline.
You can read Omar’s article here.