Beyond Kim Kardashian on the Middle East: Patterns of Social Engagement among Civically-Oriented Youth
In November 2012, in the midst a particularly tumultuous time between Israel and Palestine, Kim Kardashian tweeted, “Praying for everyone in Israel.” Boasting more than 15 million followers, Kardashian is one of the 10 most followed people on Twitter (at one point in 2012 she had more followers than President Obama, though he has now surpassed her). A number of her followers responded emphatically with angry tweets and, allegedly, even death threats. She responded with another tweet: “Praying for everyone in Palestine and across the world!” Again, her tweet was met with an onslaught of criticism and outrage. By the end of the day, she had deleted both tweets and sent a formal apology to her followers.
Though few social media users garner the attention of millions, Kardashian’s Twitter snafu illustrates the challenges that anyone entering the online sphere can experience related to their civic expression. Contemporary teens and young adults increasingly occupy digital spaces and, consequently, must grapple with decisions about whether – and, if so, when and how – to express the civic facets of their identities online. Twenty-five year old Ana* told us that when she worked on the Obama campaign in 2008 she valued the opportunity to efficiently connect with members of her network and share her work over Facebook. But, when her political views became more “critical” and controversial in subsequent years, she experienced off-line tension with several friends and decided to suspend her online civic expression. Twenty-one year old Jal* told us that he appreciates the ability to easily circulate information on Facebook related to his work on AIDS awareness, but worries about whether a steady stream of posts will desensitize his peers to the issue he cares about.
Even for teens and young adults who are less actively engaged, social media platforms provide unprecedented opportunities for civic expression. On Election Day, Facebook prompted users to “Tell friends you’re voting in the election.” According to a report from the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life project, almost one-quarter of registered voters shared on their social networking sites not only that they were voting but who they were voting for.
But what does “good” participation – participation that is high quality and related to the development of a robust and responsible civic identity – look like in these spaces?
Based on our interviews with 70 civically engaged young people between the ages of 15 and 25, our team is investigating the nature of online civic expression. We explore whether youth who are civically engaged offline express civic facets of their identities and participation in their online lives, and what motivations underlie their expression patterns.
Our emerging findings indicate three major patterns of civic identity expression. Fully 50% of the participants we interviewed describe a “blended” pattern of expression: their offline participation and passions are integrated in their online lives. In contrast, approximately 20% of the participants describe a “fragmented” pattern of expression: they are civically-engaged and active in their offline lives, but they do not share their civic views or participation on social media platforms. Another group – also about 20% of our sample – is “bracketed” and describes distinct patterns of expression across different platforms. For example, they may be “blended” on Twitter but “fragmented” on Facebook. Others describe generally low media use or shifts in their expression patterns.
Further complicating the picture, we observe salient differences in the motivations underlying expression patterns. Two participants may similarly describe a blended pattern of expression, but may cite different reasons for engaging in this expression pattern – one may lament sharing online but feel a sense of responsibility to share information with his peers, while another may share because she is proud of her participation and sees Facebook as an opportunity for a semi-public resume. Correspondingly, one person may be fragmented because they are worried about desensitizing peer networks to the issue they care about while another may simply want privacy and still another may fragment as a response to social media policies of the organizations with which they are affiliated.
By characterizing and exploring both expression patterns and motivations of youth who are already engaged in the offline context, we hope to contribute to a fuller portrait of the opportunities and challenges for developing engaged citizens in the digital age. As we envisage contemporary civic education, we must acknowledge that social media platforms represent important contexts for expression and participation in the public sphere. However, there are both rewards and risks that accompany the expression of civic and political ideas online. As Ana described, online behavior can have offline influence – and may even have lasting consequences. Youth need support for reflecting on these implications of their online expressions and for managing the “digital afterlife” (Soep, 2012) of what they say online. Certainly, the digital context offers tremendous opportunity for civic participation and expression, but in order to develop a responsibly engaged citizenry, youth need opportunities to thoughtfully consider their online expression – otherwise they’re just trying to keep up with the Kardashians.
This post shares findings from an ongoing analysis conducted by the Good Participation team in concert with the Youth and Participatory Politics Network, funded by the MacArthur Foundation. My colleague Margaret Rundle and I look forward to presenting our findings and engaging in further discussion about these nascent frameworks at the upcoming Digital Media and Learning conference in Chicago, where we will join YPP network colleagues Chris Evans (Mills College), Neta Kligler-Vilenchik and Liana Thompson Gamber (USC).