College Students’ Social Media Use and Implications for Millennial Activism and Citizenship

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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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Millennial Activism: The Quiet Revolution

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Andrew Sullivan’s coverage of the Iran election mess has been fantastic. One of his posts touched on something I’ve addressed before in many a blog post, and that’s the comparison of Millennial activism to the Boomer activism of the 1960s.

Sullivan put forth the observation that Millennials are revolutionary – causing healthy societal turmoil when needed – and doing so quietly, with the use of technology. Tom Friedman – eat your heart out:

It’s increasingly clear that Ahmadinejad and the old guard mullahs were caught off-guard by this technology and how it helped galvanize the opposition movement in the last few weeks. That’s why they didn’t see what those of us surgically attached to modems could spot a mile away: something was happening in Iran. If Drum is right, the mullahs believed their own propaganda about victory until reality hit them so hard so fast, they miscalculated badly and over-reached.

The key force behind this is the next generation, the Millennials, who elected Obama in America and may oust Ahmadinejad in Iran. They want freedom; they are sick of lies; they enjoy life and know hope.

This generation will determine if the world can avoid the apocalypse that will come if the fear-ridden establishments continue to dominate global politics, motivated by terror, armed with nukes, and playing old but now far too dangerous games. This generation will not bypass existing institutions and methods: look at the record turnout in Iran and the massive mobilization of the young and minority vote in the US. But they will use technology to displace old modes and orders. Maybe this revolt will be crushed. But even if it is, the genie has escaped this Islamist bottle.

Maybe that’s what we’re hearing on the rooftops of Tehran: the sound of the next revolution.

Somewhere around 2008 folks began to understand what this quiet revolution meant. No longer do revolutions solely consist of walking the streets of our small towns and big cities with placards while chanting. No longer do revolutions solely consist of conducting sit-ins and supplanting order with chaos. Instead, this new revolution transforms the subculture from within. Millennials actually trust institutions to make change. And in Iran, perhaps this whole election debacle wouldn’t be so alarming to us in the West if the youth hadn’t turned out in such record numbers. But they did. And they were able to partly because of their knowledge of and proficiency in using technology.

Yes, this is the same technology many a critic has lambasted as ineffective, because it seemed so passive to them. Perhaps they should take a note from the past year and a half and read Sullivan’s coverage of Iran’s election this week.

This is a quiet revolution. But be assured – the transformation will be breathtaking. And Sullivan’s right – we owe a big thank you to technology.

Technology versus Security

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A profound post by Matt Compton at Democratic Strategist questions whether the Presidential Records Act that Congress passed in 1978 is applicable in today’s internet-based office environment.

Email had been invented seven years earlier in a project funded by the Department of Defense, but it’s hard to imagine that the authors of the Presidential Records Act could have foreseen a government which put instant, electronic communication into widespread use. To ask anyone at the time to imagine the sprawling, interconnected world of the Internet as it is today would have been laughable.

And yet this 1978 law still dictates how the executive branch does business.

During the election, the Obama campaign was deeply immersed in the world of the Internet, and we’ve spent a lot of time talking about the brilliance of the external online strategy. But much less has been made of how well Obama for America as an organization used the Web internally.

Staffers used online tools to share documents, built wikis to train volunteers, used Facebook to build get to know each other. And throughout it all, the staff — from David Axlerod on down — maintained a continuous conversation through instant messenger.

It now looks, however, like that practice will be put to an end.

Citing both the requirements of the Presidential Records Act and security concerns, lawyers for the incoming administration have told staffers that they will not be able to use instant messenger in the White House. They will forgo the use of an official Facebook account as a tool to communicate with supporters. They won’t be allowed to bring in USB drives to take work home. Access to many websites will be restricted. And in many cases, the computers at their desks will be dated and running old Windows software.

While cybersafety and national security are heavy issues in this debate, isn’t a lack of creativity and transparency a threat as well? As we move into the 21st Century in an unenviable position, shouldn’t we be doing everything we can to do things the best that we can? I don’t think “the best” involves blocking websites and limiting the White House’s access to outside sources and opinions. Certainly, we can’t have a White House haphazardly wading into cyberspace, but, as Compton notes, the NSA and other agencies worked on his Blackberry to make it secure. We should be doing the same with the online presence in the White House.

A Starbucks Observation

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Last February, Starbucks announced a partnership with AT&T to provide free wi-fi access in its stores to Starbucks Card holders. The new policy allowed “members” two hours of access each day.

Over the summer, the fall, and as recently as this past weekend, I’ve taken a seat in a few Starbucks, signed into the wireless access, and got myself a coffee or a latte. Usually, a couple hours later, my drink all gone, I am still connected.

So, while I’m not sure that the policy is a complete sham, I can say that I have not once had my access turned off in the middle of my time at Starbucks, even when passing the two hour limit.

Just thought I’d share.

Tracking Obama’s Appointments

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CQ Politics has a great tool to help track the progress of President-elect Obama’s cabinet appointments.

The chart, found here, gives information like the name of the committee hearing the nomination, the date and time of the committee hearing, the committee’s vote, the floor vote, and any news on Obama’s nominee for each position.

This is another example of technology engaging more Americans in the political process by simplifying it.

The GOP and Courting of the Youth Vote

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As Republicans commence their “rebuilding,” keep an eye on the tendency for conservatives to explain away their lack of success with youth by citing their failure to use technology.

Gov. Haley Barbour (R-MS) and Steve Moore engaged in some of that talk in Moore’s “Weekend Interview” piece in the Wall Street Journal yesterday.

…”We’ve got young people who voted for Obama by better than a 2-to-1 margin. The data is very clear, that when people vote in their first two presidential elections for the same party, more than 80% of those people are going to stay with that party for the rest of their life, barring some big event that changes it.”

This gives the GOP four years to learn to communicate with the iPod generation. The party, he says, must figure out how to tap new media and new messaging to reach out and touch 20-somethings.

Aaron Schock (R-IL), the youngest member of Congress, was elected this past election cycle. In Time’s recent interview with the congressman, Shock, a Millennial, reveals he also has a tin ear when it comes to reading the politics of his generation.

[Y]our generation was very active politically last year. But most supported Democrats. Is there something your party doesn’t get about younger voters?

I think at times elected officials lose sight of the fact that the younger generation uses different means of communications. They don’t necessarily pick up the New York Times to get their news. They may go online, and they may use more things like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube — things that members of the older generation aren’t as accustomed to using to communicate with constituents.

If President-elect Obama’s campaign taught us anything, it was how to use new media to reach out to youth. If your source of information is your iPhone and your Facebook page, then hands down, Senator Obama did a much better job than Senator McCain. Job One is just reaching out and communicating.

(h/t Jesse Singal @ pushback)

As Singal notes in his post, the GOP needs to have something worthwhile and appealing to communicate if it wants Millennials to do anything other than recoil in disgust at their advances.

Here’s an excerpt from John McCain’s speech at the Republican National Convention:

We believe in a strong defense, work, faith, service, a culture of life, personal responsibility, the rule of law, and judges who dispense justice impartially and don’t legislate from the bench. We believe in the values of families, neighborhoods and communities.

We believe in a government that unleashes the creativity and initiative of Americans. Government that doesn’t make your choices for you, but works to make sure you have more choices to make for yourself.

I will keep taxes low and cut them where I can. My opponent will raise them. I will open new markets to our goods and services. My opponent will close them. I will cut government spending. He will increase it.

Emphasis added.

The problem is that that’s simply not what Millennials want to hear:

If the GOP keeps insisting its ideology is not the problem and opts to work on their Twitter and Facebook skills instead, not only will they lose even more of the youth vote; they’ll lose nearly all of their political relevance.

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