The new generation of digital natives are not apathetic about politics, but they see online campaigns as more effective than lobbying a politician or joining a party.
Like most Americans of my generation – born in 1973 – I learned about civics from television. On Saturday mornings, our diet of cartoons was regularly interrupted for Schoolhouse Rock, three-minute animated musical lessons on science, grammar and the workings of government. I know that a bill can die in committee before coming to the House for a vote because I can still sing «I’m Just a Bill», an incurable earworm and a pretty thorough overview of America’s federal legislative process. We don’t teach civics this way anymore and that’s probably a good thing. Today’s Schoolhouse Rock would have to explain why part of Congress shut down the US government in a tantrum over a law they didn’t like, which is hard to accomplish in three stanzas, and worse, «intransigence» doesn’t rhyme with anything.
It’s hard to teach civics in three-minute snippets because the way we participate in civic life is changing shape – and changing very quickly. The vision of participatory citizenship that I grew up with – read a newspaper, vote in elections and if you’re really incensed, write to your congressional representative – is utterly unpersuasive and unappealing to the students I teach. Digital natives, born and raised in an atmosphere of interactivity, they are acutely aware of how insensitive most governments are to participation and how little meaningful interaction they can expect from their elected representatives and other government officials.
This distaste for participation in dysfunctional political systems is easily misread as apathy, leading legislators and educators to declare «a crisis in civics» as young people participate in elections at a much lower rate than their parents. But that misses a key shift: digital natives are participating in civic life in ways where they feel they can have an impact and these points of impact are often outside government.
Take Carmen Rios, 22, a student who became incensed by sexual violence in American high schools when she read about a young woman in Steubenville, Ohio who was raped by her peers, who posted photos and videos of the incident online. She decided to work with athletes, notably a Colby College football player, to address concerns that high-school athletic culture was breeding a sense of entitlement and domination that could lead to rape. They petitioned high-school sports coaches to teach sexual assault prevention as part of their work with athletes. After obtaining 70,000 signatures through online campaigns, the National Federation of State High School Associations, a national association of coaches, telephoned Rios and her fellow activists to seek their help in implementing a plan.
Or consider The Harry Potter Alliance, a group of teen and twenty-something fans of JK Rowling’s books and movies, who are organising online, and search for ways to live out the values of Harry Potter and Dumbledore’s army here in the muggle world. Their past campaigns have purchased thousands of books for underfunded public libraries and sent planeloads of health supplies for Haitian crisis response. Now they’re working to persuade Warner Bros to buy Fairtrade chocolate for the sweets sold as tie-ins to the movies, bombarding the company with «howlers», open, digital letters that demand it consider the ethical concerns of Harry Potter’s fans. Or look to the «Dream» activists, who’ve responded to congressional inaction on immigration reform by personalising the issue, «coming out» as «undocumented and unafraid». YouTube is filled with videos of young activists telling their stories – one young woman explains that she learned she was not a US citizen only when she applied to college and discovered she would need to pay an out-of-state fee as she was a citizen of Guatemala, a country she left in infancy.
The little progress the Obama administration has made towards creating a path to citizenship for involuntary immigrants has come through the steady pressure of the Dream movement, not just on government officials, but on news and cultural media, demanding a fairer narrative about immigration. Not every digital native is an engaged, active citizen (and not every young person is a digital native) and not every online campaign has an impact. But it’s too easy to dismiss digitally rooted activism as naive «slacktivism». Online activism is having an impact, but it often focuses in areas outside formal political participation. Civic participation of the young uses a broad suite of tools to affect a wide range of targets. Coders write open-source security software in the hope of frustrating NSA surveillance, while community organisers fund neighbourhood gardens through Kickstarter. This emergent civics targets governments, corporations, communities and the media. It harnesses social media, crowdfunding, social entrepreneurship and open-source software as well as law and politics, to bring about change.
No wonder it’s hard to get our heads around it. We’re moving from a vision of civics that’s party-based and partisan to one that’s personal and pointillist. Parties offer a way to have an opinion (often an ill-informed one) on every issue, while participatory civics centres on issues that people are passionate about. While my generation tends to see the world in terms of issues important to Republicans or Democrats, my students often see the world in terms of the issues their friends care about, a political identity built on the passions of people important to them.
This isn’t civics in crisis – it’s civics in flux, civics that’s changing with the people who practise it. My generation is learning about civics from the generation following ours and I’m grateful that digital natives have not given up either on changing the world, or teaching their parents and professors how it works.
Ethan Zuckerman directs the center for civic media at Massachusetts Insititute of Technology and is a principal research scientist at MIT Media Lab and co-founder of citizen media community Global Voices and author of Rewire: Digital Cosmopolitans in the Age of Connection, published by WW Norton