'Social Citizens' is a really fascinating paper from the Social Citizens project, sponsored by the Case Foundation. It's about young people (Millennials’) and how they are using online tools to connect to, initiate and run causes — the flip-side of the MSMs obsession with the negatives about the young and the Internet:
In October 2007, Thomas Friedman wrote in The New York Times that young people are members of Generation Q. He meant “Q” for quiet, and inactive, on the important social questions of the day. The celebrated American globalist could not have been more wrong. This generation is making noise, whether adults can hear it or not.You may have read echoes of this attitude in the tabloids (the 'hoodie' image above features prominently in the Daily Express).
The authors are very impressed with the scale and depth of youth engagement with change using the new technology in what they report on - just think of their impact on corporate behaviour. They go so far to compare them to the 'greatest generation' who fought WW2, and I don't think that's over the top given what we face with climate change:
One example of Millennials’ online activism is Causes on Facebook. In the spring of 2007, Project Agape posted its “Causes” application on Facebook. Within six months, more than 30,000 Causes were created on the social networking site, supporting over 12,000 existing nonprofit organizations. A brief survey of Causes on Facebook reveals an array of mainstream, apple-pie efforts, typical of Millennial activism. They are more practical than poetic, more passionate and less ideological in their activism efforts. Few could argue with the worthiness of helping orphans in China, trying to find a cure for AIDS and ALS, eradicating breast cancer, and helping underprivileged children learn to read.
However, the Causes application is different from traditional approaches because users are drawn to the cause first, then the institution (or group of volunteers if no formal institution exists). Joe Green, CEO of Causes on Face-book, describes the network interaction for causes this way: “There could be 1,000 causes aiming to help SaveDarfur.org with lots of different leaders and networks and lots of people reaching out in many ways.”
The paper documents a stack of other examples; 'Invisible Children' is one, which grew from four young guys' visit to Northern Uganda.
[55' Movie on Google. 'In the spring of 2003, three young Americans traveled to Africa in search of such as story. What they found was a tragedy that disgusted and inspired them. A story where children are weapons and children are the victims. The "Invisible Children: rough cut" film exposes the effects of a 20 year-long war on the children of Northern Uganda. These children live in fear of abduction by rebel soldiers, and are being forced to fight as a part of violent army. This wonderfully reckless documentary is fast paced, with an MTV beat, and is something truly unique. To see Africa through young eyes is humorous and heart breaking, quick and informative - all in the very same breath. See this film, you will be forever changed.']
This is one of the most moving documentaries I've seen in years.
The authors see a flip side though, and speculate that this mightn't all be good:
Speciﬁc policy outcomes are not a signiﬁcant component for most Millennial activist efforts. Social capital is the new commerce and the end result of many cause-related efforts spearheaded by young people.
Social action is a safe place to express a personal identity, and is much safer and easier than in the political arena with its inherent conﬂict and most often less-than-lofty outcomes. Danah Boyd (UofC Berkeley) explains, “We are living in a time of the elongation of childhood where kids are kept out of public life and only glimpse it through the mass media. Their lives are so heavily regulated and controlled, they don’t see a public world outside of the celebritization of political candidates.”
Is it possible to envision a very large generation of citizens who lead their lives at a great distance from government, even lives infused with causes, volunteering and a hopeful outlook about the world. Can government really be irrelevant to their lives, and, if so, is this a good thing for society? Is it important that young people are engaged in public policy advocacy? Is our tendency to connect only with like-minded people using our on line and on land social networks a good thing for activism or a critical bottleneck to the effective scaling for causes? Are social change institutions critical to the future of Social Citizens and their causes or are they becoming old-century anachronisms of top-down hierarchies that can’t survive much longer?What draws their involvement? Conflicts like Israel/Palestine get less attention from this group as they're less clear, more grey, than ones like Darfur.
But one thing the authors don't do in discussing negative disengagement from 'government' is make the connections with the Obama campaign — perhaps because it's partisan or just because the campaign's happening now — which exists because of a/the Internet and b/the same sort of new bottom-up/shared/devolved organisations which young people are establishing. This has seen an enormous increase in active political engagement by young people - and voting - though what will happen to 'the movement' once he's elected President is a moot point.
What they do have is some ideas:
Political participation can and should be more meaningful than political campaigns, such as the possibility of careers in public service and policymaking, including serving on committees and task forces for local government efforts.Now there's a big take-away for the oldies. And don't think this is just America. Most UK young people use social networks.
A major cautionary note for anyone interested in engaging young people in conversations about the role of government and policy issues is that these conversations must be authentic and spin-free, or youth will quickly tune out.
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