The Politics Of Social Networks And Keeping The Youth Vote Plugged In

we.govYesterday I had the pleasure of attending the sixth annual Personal Democracy Forum here in New York. The overarching discussion addressed how technology has and will continue to affect politics in terms of participation and collaboration, but the thread I found most interesting was who often gets left out of the conversation…

danah boyd breached the subject in her keynote, expanding on some observations she made in a controversial blog essay she wrote two years ago based on her ethnographic research with teens across the country: that the ongoing racial and socio-economic stratification within social networks, specifically the divide between MySpace and Facebook, are in boyd’s words “a modern incarnation of White Flight.”

Effectively waving a red flag, boyd quoted the language of condescension invoked by high school students from privileged backgrounds, who characterized MySpace as “ghetto” and “cheesy” and “less safe” than Facebook, a notable echo of the sentiment that we’ve heard expressed by the media with varying degrees of tactfulness.  While these divisions were not born on the net, they continue to live there, passively creating a new manifestation of  “second class” citizens. The message to politicians thus being twofold—that speaking only through Facebook or Twitter or any one social network limits the conversation to a certain segment of their constituents,  and that the opportunity to create a meeting point, while a formidable challenge, still exists.

The topic was picked up again later in the day at a panel on empowering the youth vote by Maria Teresa Peterson from the Latino voter activist group Voto Latino. Peterson pointed out the top two reasons Latino youths had historically refrained from participating in political activities were they didn’t feel smart enough, and no one was asking them.

In Voto Latino’s effort to address these issues and engage the young Latino population during the election— the fastest-growing minority group in the U.S. with 50,000 Latinos turning 18 every month, 92 percent of whom are eligible to vote— MySpace played a crucial role as a platform for public service announcements that spoofed telenovelas and featured celebs like Rosario Dawson and Wilmer Valderrama.

Offline these efforts continued with the help of “ShoBoy,” a popular Bay Area DJ who hosts a bilingual show and partnered with the organization to host monthly registration drives at concerts, colleges and malls in the area and pre- and day-of-election text message blasts reminding people to go out and vote. Peterson also made the point that with many young Hispanics acting as the gatekeepers within their home, direct mail, done right, may also prove to be an effective strategy.

In the wake of November 2008, the emphasis for all of the youth-centric groups is on identifying best practices like these and maintaining the momentum that lead up to a phenomenal finish on election day.  Now that they’ve been activated and are ready to be engaged, what’s the next step?

Author and youth vote activist Mike Connery observed, that despite ongoing efforts such as the redesign of and the recent launch of  the “craigslist for service site” All For Good, “No one has found silver bullet yet.”  A symptom, fellow panelist Greg Miller of the Open Source Digital Voting Foundation, identified as part of a larger issue of lack of structural support for civic engagement with high school students only having to take a course or less to get by. According to Miller, engaging the youth vote in a sustainable durable conversation requires a mechanism that starts with voter registration (which he proposes should be automatic for U.S. citizens from birth) and continues from there. Continues to where exactly? Well, hopefully that’s the question on PDF attendees’ minds.

For more coverage of urban/multicultural youth culture, check out the new Ypulse Urban Channel.


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