Can the Internet Save the World?

Guest-blogger Tyler Goulet explores how social networking sites may be the key to increasing civic engagement among youth

The wonders of the World Wide Web have been talked about for years now. The internet has evolved from a media similar to T.V. (one way interaction) to a media where content producers can interact instantly with the audience. This type of interaction has never been made so easy. In fact, the instant interaction between people hundreds of miles away is making social networking sites like MySpace and Facebook explode in popularity. Anyone who uses the internet can see the benefits of joining social networking sites. The question must be asked. Can social networking sites be used to leverage political power?

More and more people are starting to believe in the power of social networking sites. Some would argue that our most recent President-Elect, Barack Obama, would not have been elected if it hadn’t been for his use of social networking sites.

Using social networking sites to communicate and organize has proven to be very effective in many campaigns. We at the Center for Communication and Civic Engagement (CCCE) are trying find a solution to the downward trend in youth civic engagement. We believe that social networking sites may be the key to defeating this downward trend.

Professor Lance Bennett, the director of the CCCE theorizes that there has been a fundamental generational shift in how today’s youth view civic engagement versus past generations and how they have viewed civic engagement. His paper on this topic can be found here.

In summary, he argues that today’s youth “see [his]/her political activities and commitments in highly personal terms that contribute more to enhancing the quality of personal life, social recognition, self esteem, or friendship relations, than to understanding, support, and government” which is how previous generations have viewed civic engagement (Source p. 6).

What does this mean? Well, it means we need to stop telling the youth what political issues to care about, let them choose what interests them (aka what would enhance the quality of their personal life), and teach them how to become involved. We need to give them, and teach them how to use, the tools to create and implement a plan to solve issues they care about. A little spark of confidence and help in getting the project off the ground would help too.

In order to ensure that they have social recognition from their community and to increase their friendship relations, the project they work on should be local. That would make recognition easy and simple because their impact could be seen easily. If the project they are working on is local than they can include their friends and have them help which would increase their friendship relations. A local project will also show more immediate results than a large scale project. Once a youth has complete a local project and sees positive results their self esteem will increase and they will be more likely to continue down the civically engaged path they have stumbled down so far.

Currently the CCCE is working on a project that will allow the youth in the Puget Sound area of Washington State, which includes Seattle, to do all of the above.

www.PugetSoundOff.org is a social networking site designed to connect teens with similar political passions so that they can easily organize and communicate with each other in order to solve problems they care about in their communities.

The site was recently launched at the beginning of September. We currently have about 500 members. The website is a revolutionary experiment in youth civic engagement. Stay posted for more blog posts about the future of PugetSoundOff.org and how it relates to Digital Natives.

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Tyler is a Junior at the University of Washington, Seattle, where he is currently triple majoring in Communication, Political Science, and Community Environment and Planning. He has been a Research Assistant for the CCCE for nearly a year. For more information on Tyler Goulet check out www.tylergoulet.com.