The Generation Gap: Youth Organizing and the Blogosphere
by Mike Connery, Sat Jun 30, 2007 at 06:58:57 AM EDT
On Tuesday I attended the Campus Progress National Student Conference. One of the panels I attended was "Starting an Online Revolution." It was not a well-attended panel, perhaps because it was the end of the day, or perhaps because Millennials are so immersed in online media that most people felt their time was better spent elsewhere. One thing that struck me, as I listened to the speakers and their student questioners, was that not a single person - panelist or student - mentioned the blogosphere.
This wasn't entirely shocking. According to the latest Blogads survey, 14-30 year olds make up just 16% of the blogosphere, and I've long noticed that most blogs run by youth organizations are disconnected both from each other and from the larger blogosphere. Campus Progress and Young People For both operate their own internal blog communities, but the content on these blogs frequently runs days (sometimes weeks) behind the regular blogosphere chatter, and rarely responds to what the larger blogosphere is discussing or writes in any way that would indicate the users even read the major progressive blogs.
In some respects, the lack of interest and effort is understandable. More young people are politically engaged online through social networks than through blogs. Students and other young organizers need to go where their peers gather, so much organizing takes place on those sites. By working on and through social networks, youth organizers are building another branch of the netroots and bringing their fellow Millennials politics. That is good, and nothing I'm writing here is meant to denigrate that or suggest that it is work that should not be done, or even made second horse to greater blogosphere participation.
On the other hand, the disadvantages are readily apparent. Youth organizations are not adequately preparing their members for participation in the new political landscape. There is a political literacy level that is not being met. Local blogs are increasingly an important piece of progressive infrastructure, and if young organizers aren't reading the major blogs, I'm guessing they're even less likely to know about (let alone how to approach and partner with) local blogs that might be an information resource and outlet for their local activities. These organizations are also losing the valuable echo chamber/media amplifier and (psychological, intellectual, monetary, volunteer) support network that blogs can provide.
In short, the progressive youth movement is almost completely disconnected from the progressive blogosphere. There is very little (it would be hyperbole to say "none") connective tissue between these two subsections of the netroots.
From my observations, the only youth group that seems to get this is the Young Democrats, whose individual chapters do seem to understand the utility and importance of integrating local blogs into their work. Otherwise I can think of very few places where youth organizing and the blogosphere meet (Young Philly Politics, Future Majority, Forward Montana/Left in the West are the few that come to mind).
At the "Starting an Online Revolution" panel, I was given the opportunity to ask the last question of the afternoon. I asked how the blogosphere fit into youth organizing. The panelists, who had mostly discussed social networks or website construction, didn't have an answer. Here's my answer:
Right now, the blogosphere really doesn't fit into progressive youth organizing. But it should, as there are a number of holes it can fill:
- Provide a stepping stone for young organizers into the larger blogosphere.
- Hand in hand with that comes basic literacy about the new progressive political playing field: who the players are, how it operates, how you can integrate your work into what is already going on.
- Tap into a vast array of resources - a local and national media echo chamber, a wealth of experience/ideas/mentorship, potential volunteers, new partnerships, potential financial support.
- Not discussed in this post, but just as important, a healthy youth blogosphere can serve as connective tissue between youth organizations, offering reporting on what each sector of the progressive youth movement is doing. Right now, many youth organizations (at the member level) are siloed from each other. Blogs can help break those silos and educate members about the larger progressive youth movement. (I hope to explore this particular point more in a future diary)
I'm sure I left something out, so please post your own ideas as to how youth organizing could benefit from greater interaction with the blogosphere in the comments.
50 million Millennials (pdf) will be eligible to vote in 2008. Our influence should be felt beyond the ballot box. The blogosphere has invented new ways for regular people to leverage power in politics, and as a substantial and growing portion of the electorate, Millennials should help guide that power.
These are the things to be gained by engaging the blogosphere, but there's another (darker?) side to this as well. In light of the rise of social networks and new tools like the FaceBook Causes application - and many new versions that are sure to follow - what if Millennials never engage the blogosphere to the degree that Xers and Boomers have? Will the blogosphere age into obscurity over time, with Millennials and the next generation participating online through social networks or other outlets that have not yet fully emerged? And what will those networks look like? Online social networks offer ways to organize volunteers and collect donations, but they do not offer anything even closely resembling the robustness of Scoop or Drupal or even WordPress for deliberation and conversation. Will such a shift inevitably be a further improvement in participatory politics, or might something be lost in the translation?