Civic Life Online: Learning How Digital Media Can Engage Youth

I’ve been making my way with care (and great pleasure) through the fine series of books that the MacArthur Foundation and MIT Press have put together on Digital Media and Learning. There are six in total, each worth reading. (I previously blogged about the volume on Youth, Identity, and Digital Media.)

I’m trying to finish the edits on Born Digital, the book on related themes that Urs Gasser and I are writing. The sticky chapter for me at the moment is called “Activists.” It will probably end up as the next-to-last chapter. I think it’s crucially important as a topic. A few weeks ago, our wonderful-and/but-tough editor at Basic Books said the chapter had to be rewritten from scratch, starting with a blank, new page (she doesn’t like Microsoft Word much). As I’ve gone through the rewrite, I am working in inspiration from another of the DM&L books, Civic Life Online. As I’ve felt about the others, it’s a great contribution to our understanding of a critical topic. The entire collection of essays is worthy of a read; I point out just a few things that jumped out at me, but I don’t mean to imply that other segments aren’t helpful, too.

The opening essay, by editor W. Lance Bennett, sets the frame for the book. He looks at “Changing Citizenship in the Digital Age,” and compares two paradigms: one of young people as engaged and active in civic life, the other as disengaged and passive. He argues that we need to “bridge the paradigms” or else our youth, digitally inspired or not, will continue to get disconnected from formal civic life. He argues in favor of a better approach: show young people how, through their use of new technologies and otherwise, they can have an impact on the political process (p. 21). In the process, we ought to enable young people to “explore, experiment, and expand democracy.” Sounds quite right to me.

Kathryn Montgomery traces a growing youth civic culture in the second chapter. Her emphasis is on the 2004 get out the vote (GOTV) efforts. She challenges the movement toward the insertion of corporations and their brands into the Rock the Vote process and other online communities. This strand of argument brought to mind the core themes of Montgomery’s recent book, also by MIT Press, called “Generation Digital: Politics, Commerce, and Childhood in the Age of the Internet,” in which she builds out further on the issues of corporate branding in the online space and marketing geared toward children. To build on the growing youth civic culture, Montgomery calls for “a broader, more comprehensive, multidisciplinary effort, combining the contributions of communications researchers, political scientists, historians, sociologists, anthropologists, economists and young people themselves.” This too sounds right, though I was amused to see us lawyers left out of the mix of who might be useful — especially when the “key policy battles” that she refers to earlier in the chapter include intellectual property, net neutrality, and online safety, which seem to me issues on which lawyers might have something to say. (Perhaps we are indeed more trouble than we’re worth.) Lots of mentions here, too, of the work of danah boyd and Henry Jenkins to keep bad things from happening in the Congress.

In “Not Your Father’s Internet: The Generation Gap in Online Politics,” Michael Xenos and Kirsten Foot take up the fascinating question (to me, anyway) of how young people are getting their news and information about politics. They argue, as many others do, that young people do so in ways that are generally quite different from the ways that older people do. Young people, they find, are more likely to access news and information about politics either online (and in social contexts) or through comedy programs rather than through print newspapers and evening newscasts — which seems true enough. “Clearly coproductive interactivity is foundational to the way that young people, more than any other age group, engage with the Internet,” they claim. (p. 57) They do a nice job also of linking their theories back to the actual uses of the Internet by campaigns and pointing, in the process, to the kinds of interactivity that work for campaigns to engage young people by building a sense of efficacy and trust. (p. 62) They call, in the end, for a balanced approach between “transactional and coproductive web practices.” (p. 65)

Howard Rheingold has a typically (for him) colorful and engaging piece on the bridging of media production and civic engagement. It’s great to have his voice directly in the set of essays, especially since many others throughout the MacArthur series cite or quote him, especially for his work on Smart Mobs. Rheingold, not surprisingly, has the money line of the whole book, perhaps the series: “Talking about public opinion making is a richer experience if you’ve tried to do it.” (p. 102). He then sends the reader through a tour of exercises and points us to a wiki where we can play ourselves. Many of us talk about Media Literacy. Rheingold (like Henry Jenkins and others) is doing something about it. Right on.

Much in the same spirit, I loved the opening line — as well as what follows — in Peter Levine’s essay: “Students should have opportunities to create digital media in schools.” (p. 119) I get teased for this, but I believe it’s true not just for younger students but for law students, too. Levine’s four strategies are convincing. Marina Bers, our neighbor at Tufts, expands on this point. She uses a lively set of examples (including pulling the reader briefly into virtual worlds). Just as helpful, Bers sets the challenge of developing an effective civics curricula into a helpful theoretical framework. Kate Raynes-Goldie and Luke Walker take a deep dive into one of the most promising projects in this space, TakingITGlobal. They also set TIG in context of related sites.

Stephen Coleman, a British scholar and one of the giants of this literature, concludes the book with a short essay that puts the entire work in context for governments themselves. Coleman points to six things (pp. 202 – 3) that governments can do “to promote democratic youth e-citizenship” plus four “policy principles” (p. 204). Coleman links his themes back to arguments by Rheingold, Bers, and Levine in the process, bringing things full-circle.

I put down this volume hopeful again about what we can do to engage young people in civic life. It’s clear, from the work of these scholars, that we’ll have to expand our thinking about what we mean by “civic life” if we mean to engage these young people. It’s clear, too, that experiential learning — learning that is rewarding and fulfilling and encourages them to come back to these activities — is an essential part of what we have to do next, whether that’s something that we structure in the classroom or that we just encourage and promote when young people just do it themselves.

4 thoughts on “Civic Life Online: Learning How Digital Media Can Engage Youth

  1. It is very interesting as is other work you are doing.

    This is why i decided to share here a project I am currently working on. I think it is relevant to the post, but maybe even more so to the courses you’ve taught over the last few years.

    My colleagues and I just launched a website (http://wikicandidate08.com) intended to research the way in which people engage in political discussion online. It’s called WikiCandidate. The site is the campaign website of a fictional presidential candidate running in the 2008 US election. It’s intended to look and feel exactly like a real campaign website (our developers are getting there gradually, but things look similar already), with one exception: all the content on it is tied to a wiki engine and editable by users. Visitors to the site can write up and change this candidate’s bio, issue stances, news from the campaign trail, etc. So, although the candidate is fictitious, the issues that are going to be discussed on the website are real.

    We mostly want to see whether an effort like this can be successful, and how people discuss politics in this non-traditional forum. Could be great to hear what you and others think.

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