If you have followed Future Majority over the last couple years, you will recognize that Thomas Friedman’s hit piece on Millennials, labeling them “Generation Q” for being too quiet, serves as the foundation for many a post. His Boomer paradigm interferes with his ability to understand how Millennial activism differs.

Friedman argues that Millennials may be “too quiet, too online, for its own good, and for the country’s own good.” The problem most of us had with Friedman’s writing was that he was unable to see that one could be mad, could be online, and could be productive all at once. Another issue was the power Friedman ascribed to symbolic and yet meaningless acts. What good is chaining one’s self to a bulldozer actually going to accomplish long-term? Very little.

With that in mind, we now have some more information regarding college students’ heavy use of social media, and it is easy to see how our activism has changed course. The International Center for Media and the Public Agenda (ICMPA) at the University of Maryland released a study revealing the considerable depth of students’ connections to social media.

200 University of Maryland (College Park) students, as part of a class assignment, were asked to abstain from all media for 24 hours straight. Following this time window, they were then asked to describe their experiences in private blogs. Perhaps the most interesting nugget of information this study yielded was just how interwoven social media has become in 18-21 year olds’ lives.

“The students did complain about how boring it was go anywhere and do anything without being plugged into music on their MP3 players,” said Moeller. “And many commented that it was almost impossible to avoid the TVs on in the background at all times in their friends’ rooms. But what they spoke about in the strongest terms was how their lack of access to text messaging, phone calling, instant messaging, email and Facebook, meant that they couldn’t connect with friends who lived close by, much less those far away.”

“Texting and IM-ing my friends gives me a constant feeling of comfort,” wrote one student. “When I did not have those two luxuries, I felt quite alone and secluded from my life. Although I go to a school with thousands of students, the fact that I was not able to communicate with anyone via technology was almost unbearable.”

The student responses to the assignment showed not just that 18-21 year old college students are constantly texting and on Facebook — with calling and email distant seconds as ways of staying in touch, especially with friends — but that students’ lives are wired together in such ways that opting out of that communication pattern would be tantamount to renouncing a social life.

Bringing this back to the Friedman contention that students should cut out the online crap and do something meaningful with their lives, this survey points to how misguided Friedman actually was in his writing. Social media is so pervasive and such a large part of our world that it is rewiring our brains. As the piece argues above, there is no exiting the social media world to “act” in the real world. To the wide majority of young people, social media is reality. If one had to renounce his or her social life in order to please Friedman, the activism would not mean anything.

Another enlightening conclusion was the impact the abstention from media had on these students’ information-gathering capabilities. Participants in the study reported that they normally do not read the newspaper, watch mainstream television news, or listen to radio news, yet they were informed enough to discuss specific news stories. During the study, though, participants remarked on how uninformed they felt.

…”To be entirely honest I am glad I failed the assignment,” wrote one student, “because if I hadn’t opened my computer when I did I would not have known about the violent earthquake in Chile from an informal blog post on Tumblr.”

“Students expressed tremendous anxiety about being cut-off from information,” observed Ph.D. student Raymond McCaffrey, a former writer and editor at The Washington Post, and a current researcher on the study. “One student said he realized that he suddenly ‘had less information than everyone else, whether it be news, class information, scores, or what happened on Family Guy.”

“They care about what is going on among their friends and families and even in the world at large,” said McCaffrey. ” But most of all they care about being cut off from that instantaneous flow of information that comes from all sides and does not seemed tied to any single device or application or news outlet.”

Students clearly rely on social media for information. Given our knowledge — going clear back to Thomas Jefferson — that information is vital in managing our country’s affairs, dispensing with internet-based activism would be foolish and regressive, breeding even more disengagement and misinformation.

Friedman’s Boomer lens assumes that we still have a critical mass of institutions that need tearing down, and that it needs to happen quickly. These Millennial college students, as Morley Winograd and Michael Hais point out, understand how decentralized our lives are, and, in role-modeling their “civic” archetype, they must rely on these anything-but-linear connections and the decentralized flow of information to reconstruct society.

Because idealist generations are unwilling to compromise on moral issues, they’ve always failed to solve the major social and economic problems of their eras. In the decades after the 1828 election, the country was pulled apart over slavery, ultimately leading to the Civil War. After the 1896 campaign, the United States couldn’t find a way to help blue-collar workers and farmers to share fully in the wealth generated by the Industrial Revolution. It took the Great Depression to usher in the sense of urgency that led to Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. Today, issues such as affordable health care or quality education or climate change are endlessly debated but never resolved by two sides unwilling to set aside their ideological agendas for the common good.

But now, with another civic generation emerging, the times, as boomer troubadour Bob Dylan sang, they are a-changin’. Civic generations react against the idealist generations’ efforts to use politics to advance their own moral causes and focus instead on reenergizing social, political and government institutions to solve pressing national issues. Previous civic realignments occurred in 1860, with the election of Abraham Lincoln, and in 1932, when the GI generation put Roosevelt in office. It’s no coincidence that these “civic” presidents, along with George Washington, top all lists of our greatest presidents. All three led the country in resolving great crises by inspiring and guiding new generations and revitalizing and expanding the federal government.

In their book Millennial Makeover, Winograd and Hais describe technology as “[enabling] these changes by creating powerful new ways to reach new generations of voters with messages that relate directly to their concerns” (p. 24). Yes, face-to-face interaction continues to have its place in our society. However, if we were to scrap our reliance on social media, we would be willfully ignoring the new generations of voters Winograd and Hais mention. This study’s results underscore how vital social media is to our generation’s civic health. If we were to purge ourselves of our internet activism, only then could we legitimately be considered “quiet.”

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