Blog Post

Is Online Activism Good for Social Change? A Prompt from NetSquared

This is my first attempt at answering a prompt from NetSquared, which provides a monthly question called the NetSquared ThinkTank. You can find more questions and their corresponding answers aggregated on their website.

The full prompt reads: "Allison Fine, author of Momentum: Igniting Social Change in the Connected Age, has authored a report for the Case Foundation called Social Citizens about "Millenial" activism. The paper describes how, "the largest living generation, out-numbering living Baby Boomers 77.6 mllion to 74.1 million," is changing the meaning of civic engagement with its interactive, collaborative, entrepreneurial and social networked activism. (For purposes of the report, Millenials are defined as people born between 1978-1993).

On the Social Citizens Blog, Fine asks one of the key questions that arose from the report: "Is our tendency to connect only with like-minded people using our online and on land social networks a good thing for activism or a critical bottleneck to the effective scaling for causes?" Marnie Webb, TechSoup's Co-CEO who was interviewed for the report, asks a question along the same lines, "What, if anything, does all the clicking, blogging, and 'friending' add up to in the end?"

What do you think?"


My response is grounded in the ways that young people, the so-called Millenials, use online tools in their lives, because the realm of online activism has grown as we have grown up (and yes, I am included in this group). The report from the Case Foundation sums up well what we all basically know: as a generation that was "born digital," young folks (the not-so-technical term I prefer over Millenials) use the internet, social networking and other Web 2.0 tools almost constantly, in every aspect of their lives. I will detail this and then address specifically the implications for activism.

It's clear to me that young folks are learning valuable skills from their use of the internet, video games, mobile phones, and so on. Putting aside for the moment the time that is diverted from other activities, I see clear benefits from these practices. For example, the many youth that utilize Youtube to post video blogs are learning video editing skills, and those that build their own websites or modify templates to house their blogs are clocking hundreds of hours in web development. Too many cultural critics have focused on the (largely fluffy) content produced by young folks and not enough on the skills they hone in the process. But when they apply for jobs, these folks can and do include them on their resumes, and positions that require this knowledge will pay relatively well. What prior generation was able to market what they learned from hobbies when seeking employment? If you're curious to read more, Stephen Johnson's excellent 2005 book, Everything Bad is Good for You: How Today's Popular Culture is Actually Making Us Smarter, addresses the benefits of participating in (and not just passively consuming) television, video games, and other media.

However, the criticism of young folks' media-heavy lives is legion, and more vehement than I have ever seen in an upcoming book, The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future (Or, Don't Trust Anyone Under 30) by Emory University English professor Mark Bauerlein (whose website for the book, perhaps not coincidentally, doesn't appear to be search engine-optimized and didn't appear in 7 pages of Google search results for "Dumbest Generation"). He believes that young folks' constant engagement with social networking sites, video games, blogs, and Twitter hasn't fulfilled the promise outlined by Johnson, of making us smarter, and will lead to serious societal troubles. Indeed, Bauerlein doesn't appear to believe that we (I'm including myself in this group, because I apparently am "not to be trusted" solely due to my age) actively engage with much of anything. I'm curious to read the book and get a better idea of why he is so disappointed in young folks, but for now I will say that he is simply misguided. He has said that we are using the internet as "just a delivery system" and not retaining any of the knowledge we retrieve. But wait: using the internet as a means to get young people involved in extant activism is a creative and effective endeavor. Young folks who may not attend a face-to-face meeting to volunteer for a political campaign can still be recruited if they can sign on via mobile phone or e-mail. The medium very much matters; this is discussed in depth in Allison Fine's report for the Case Foundation. Perhaps Mark Bauerlein was simply not looking in the right places when he researched his book, not clued in to the channels that hold the creativity and engagement of young folks.

Another important factor that is likely not addressed in The Dumbest Generation is the use of the internet to form communities where they are unwelcome in real life. As Fine's report states, "[m]illenials are drawn to online social communities because they are shut out of public life in many ways. As a result, online social networks are popping up across all sgements of society, geography, causes, and ideologies ... each [network] has within it the culture of transparency and connectedness initiated by young people." What this means for older generations is that they won't see young folks at the proverbial town-hall meeting and may assume that means they don't care. Instead, I propose that this means that we don't feel connected to a gathering with a top-down structure and no one in our age group anywhere near the top, and we're going where our voices will be heard: online. This can take many forms; consider it from a financial standpoint. After the initial investment of hardware and connectivity, participation in online networks is largely free, and the proliferation of internet access in schools and libraries makes it accessible to even more youth. If, then, young folks have the internet at their disposal for learning but not the money that older generations often do, they are simply less likely to amass collections of great literature, see performances and exhibitions at cultural institutions, and so forth.

However, there is one arena of activism where I think young folks are largely lacking and need to step up: voting. There is no substitute for getting to the voting booth, and not enough young Americans do it. Particularly when our elected officials will decide our fate on issues like net neutrality, we need to get involved. I wrote in a previous entry about the title of my blog that people who have long been in office, like Senator Ted Stevens, age 84, and Senator Pete Domenici, age 76, are the "deciders" running our country, and they have barely any knowledge of the operation or importance of the internet (a series of tubes, not a big truck; thanks, Ted Stevens). Get out the vote activism does proliferate online, but part of the problem is convincing young folks that not going to the voting booth can jeopardize the freedom and power inherent in our online lives.

Lest I blog all night, I will wrap this up now. I think, though, that I've imparted my basic point that online activism is ubiquitous among the Millenials generation and should absolutely continue, in spite of perceptions that our lifestyle is a waste of time that shields us from real issues. There is misunderstanding and animosity between younger and older folks occurring, a digital divide of its own. I'll close with an excerpt from last week's commencement speech here at Duke, given by author Barbara Kingsolver. In the words she offered on building a sustainable world, Kingsolver shows a keen understanding of young folks wanting to direct anger at the generation that raised them, for passing off so many problems that we will have to solve while criticizing the means we propose:

"Imagine it: we raised you on a lie. Everything you plug in, turn on or drive, the out-of-season foods you eat, the music in your ears. We gave you this world and promised you could keep it running on: a fossil substance. Dinosaur slime, and it?s running out. The geologists only disagree on how much is left, and the climate scientists are now saying they?re sorry but that?s not even the point. We won?t get time to use it all ...

How can we get from here to there, without burning up our ship? That will be central question of your adult life: to escape the wild rumpus of carbon-fuel dependency, in the nick of time. You?ll make rules that were previously unthinkable, imposing limits on what we can use and possess."


I do agree; young folks can do it, and we'll be using the online world to get there.


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