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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Rethinking the Redistricting Process

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Given the high levels of partisanship and dysfunctionality in our Congress, perhaps Thomas Friedman is right to suggest a new way of drawing Congressional district lines, thanks to inspiration from a leader in the field of democracy studies, Stanford scholar Larry Diamond.

Diamond suggests two innovations. First, let every state emulate California’s recent grass-roots initiative that took away the power to design state electoral districts from the state legislature and put it in the hands of an independent, politically neutral, Citizens Redistricting Commission. It will go to work after the 2010 census and reshape California’s state legislative districts for the coming elections. Henceforth, districts in California will not be designed to be automatically Democratic or Republican — so more of them will be competitive, so more candidates will only be electable if they appeal to the center, not just cater to one party. (There is a movement pressing for the same independent commission to be given the power to redraw Congressional districts.)

As I see it, this has two benefits.

1.) This puts one of the republic’s responsibilities (defining constituencies for representatives) back into the people’s hands. Thus, ordinary folks not only get to choose their representatives, but they also exercise more power in reconstructing that process.

2.) It leads to more honest electoral races. With the elections constructed by the people themselves, campaigns have more incentive to focus on the common good as opposed to the interests of elite insiders (notice I didn’t say they will be exclusively focused on the common good — more needs to be done).

It’s not often I agree with Friedman, but I concur with his endorsement of Diamond’s proposal. The people need to reassert their will on our governing processes. Taking over redistricting is one way of doing so.

Friedman Insults Youth Activism Again

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What is it with Thomas Friedman and his insults? First, he wrote that Millennials were too quiet, too wrapped up in the internet to care about the country’s direction. He then came back last December and tried to argue again that because we’re not chaining ourselves to bulldozers, we’re not doing anything and thus don’t care about the trajectory of the country.

Yesterday, Friedman again assailed millennials, equating Facebook and other social network sites with laziness and apathy. The offending passage is in the last paragraph:

And then there is We the People. Attention all young Americans: your climate future is being decided right now in the cloakrooms of the Capitol, where the coal lobby holds huge sway. You want to make a difference? Then get out of Facebook and into somebody’s face. Get a million people on the Washington Mall calling for a price on carbon. That will get the Senate’s attention. Play hardball or don’t play at all.

Emphasis added.

The Energy Action Coalition pieced together a response it blasted to its e-mail list. I’ve provided it below:

As a young person, you care about global warming. You know that a clean energy economy will create millions of jobs and pathways out of poverty, reduce pollution, and save the planet. And you are willing to do whatever it takes to make that happen. Right?

Well, Thomas L. Friedman, the popular New York Times columnist, isn’t convinced. In fact, Friedman concludes his latest column* by calling us out! He writes:

“Attention all young Americans: your climate future is being decided right now in the cloakrooms of the Capitol, where the coal lobby holds huge sway…. Play hardball or don’t play at all.”

Does Friedman have a point? Do we need to be bigger and louder?

I think the answer is yes.

Don’t get me wrong — I know that thousands of young people across this country are working tirelessly to usher in a clean and just energy future for us all. But if we want to truly achieve our goals, we need our elected officials to know that we are watching closely as they debate the climate policy that will shape the rest of our lives.

Take the first step. Let President Obama and your Senators know that you demand bold, just, and science-based climate solutions, and ask your friends and family to do the same.

Let’s send a strong message to our President and Senators that we’re here, we’re watching, and we’re ready for action. And let’s ask our friends and families to do the same. It’s going to take big numbers to fight back against the thousands of letters and calls generated by the dirty energy industry (not to mention their well-paid lobbyists).

Send a message to the President and your Senators, and forward this email to everyone you know.

But we know that sending email isn’t enough. In order to drown out the voice of the dirty energy industry, we’re going to need to mobilize in unprecedented numbers. Tom Friedman isn’t kidding when he suggests we should have a million people marching in the streets.

Ready to take a bigger step? Sign up to be a leader in your community, and to help get millions of feet in the streets for climate solutions.

We’ve gone big before, but now we need to go bigger. And the only way we will get there is if people like you do more. Ready to take a bigger step? Sign up today to get active in your community, to get in the faces of our elected officials, and to recruit the huge movement it will take to win.

In it to win it,

Whit Jones
Acting Field Director
Energy Action Coalition

While the e-mail was inspirational enough, the problem with Friedman’s column is that he once again lacks the understanding that change can be accomplished through a variety of means. Friedman (and there are many more who think just like him) discounts activism through institutions as nothing. In doing so, he insults those youth already busting their ass for this legislation and movement. For instance did Friedman say anything when Powershift ’09 brought 11,000 youth activists to DC urging the government to act? Who was quiet then?

Granted, Whit’s right — we all can be a little louder on the issue, but it doesn’t have to be limited to getting in the streets. We can continue our own brand of activism by using our technological proficiency and collaborative skills to push for the bill’s passage. Yes, the bill’s important (even if it has been watered down); but the 1960s are over. Youth have a plethora of tools at their disposal to create the change they wish to see. Unfortunately, Friedman either doesn’t understand that, or doesn’t want to.

Friedman’s Epiphany – Shedding the ‘Quiet’ Label

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Future Majority has cited Thomas Friedman’s attack on the Millennials, which he labeled “Generation Q,” many a time. Young people today are too quiet, Friedman wrote, arguing that our timidity is a sign that we’re apathetic and not concerned with the world around us going to hell in a handbasket.

But Generation Q may be too quiet, too online, for its own good, and for the country’s own good. When I think of the huge budget deficit, Social Security deficit and ecological deficit that our generation is leaving this generation, if they are not spitting mad, well, then they’re just not paying attention. And we’ll just keep piling it on them.

[…]

America needs a jolt of the idealism, activism and outrage (it must be in there) of Generation Q. That’s what twentysomethings are for — to light a fire under the country. But they can’t e-mail it in, and an online petition or a mouse click for carbon neutrality won’t cut it. They have to get organized in a way that will force politicians to pay attention rather than just patronize them.

Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy didn’t change the world by asking people to join their Facebook crusades or to download their platforms. Activism can only be uploaded, the old-fashioned way — by young voters speaking truth to power, face to face, in big numbers, on campuses or the Washington Mall. Virtual politics is just that — virtual.

Then, on December 7, 2008, Friedman again pricks young people, labeling our generational philosophy as “quietism” in the context of arguing for responsible spending in the stimulus bill.

Our kids should be so much more radical than they are today. I understand why they aren’t. They’re so worried about just getting a job or paying next semester’s tuition. But we must not take their quietism as license to do whatever we want with this bailout cash. They are going to have to pay this money back. And therefore, we have an incredibly weighty obligation to make sure that we not only spend every stimulus dollar wisely but also with an eye to creating new technologies.

So today, Friedman’s piece is written about an experience he had in India with young American women while attending the Energy and Resources Institute Climate Conference. While there, two young Americans and one of their mothers asked Friedman to take a ride with them in a plug-in electric- and solar-powered car. Friedman, impressed, says yes, and away they go.

Friedman learns about the friends’ partnership with the Indian Youth Climate Network, which now connects climate leaders from across the country, and he’s amazed. The women tell him of their “climate caravan,” which they organized to spread the message of energy conservation. Environmentally-friendly solar-powered and electric cars were donated by an Indian electric car company (one of the women knew the CEO), and the women then hopped inside them, traveling 2,100 miles across India, organizing entertainment at each stop to attract interest. The women trained local youth to begin their own initiatives.

Friedman sounds verklempt as he wraps up his column.

I met Howe and Ringwald after a tiring day, but I have to admit that as soon as they started telling me their story it really made me smile. After a year of watching adults engage in devastating recklessness in the financial markets and depressing fecklessness in the global climate talks, it’s refreshing to know that the world keeps minting idealistic young people who are not waiting for governments to act, but are starting their own projects and driving innovation.

A couple possibilities here.

1.) Friedman has seen the light, realizing that Millennials aren’t “quiet,” but have a different way of going about things than Friedman’s generation.

2.) Millennial activism in America doesn’t count for anything in Friedman’s eyes, but in India — it’s worth a few hundred words in the New York Times.

I’m hoping it’s numero uno, and that Friedman never uses the word “quiet” again.

And let’s get something else straight — the reason I write about Friedman is not a demonstration of the vanity that sometimes is ascribed to Millennials. I really don’t care what Friedman himself thinks about young people. But I do care about others being fooled into thinking young people aren’t doing anything simply because Friedman can’t handle the philosophical discrepancy between the way his generation did things and the way ours does. Hopefully Friedman took care of that with his trip to India and his car ride.

Friedman aside, kudos to those young women — Caroline Howe and Alexis Ringwald — for doing their part by piecing together a great program that is truly making a difference.