the Internet and youth civic engagement

The Summit Collaborative’s Marc Osten and Katrin Verclas have written an important new paper entitled “The Power of the Internet to Engage a Generation.”

The paper provides a bold vision for how to use digital networks to encourage civic participation–although the authors note that “technology alone will most often not motivate young people to become deeply engaged. Any initiative that relies upon technology as a tool for engagement requires complementary offline components as well.”

Many young people have grown up online and “staked out the Internet as an alternative space for socializing, communicating, and information sharing–away from the eyes of parents and other adults.” The voluntary network of the Net fits many young people’s “anti-institutional” ideals. In some ways, their values are new (radically libertarian), but in other ways, their “ideas are a return to earlier concepts of grassroots politics. … David Weinberger suggests, ‘That is why the web, for all its technological newsness and oddness, feels so familiar to us. And that is why it feels like a return even though it is the newest of the new. The web is a return to the values that have been with us from the beginning.”

However, the potential of the Web for reinvigorating citizens’ networks is partly unfulfilled. Various advocacy groups use data mining and tailored messages to mobilize people, but these techniques (even when entirely well-intentioned) can be manipulative and can segment people into narrow, unreflective groups. There are tools for “augmented social networks” that give users more flexibility and discretion to find others with similar–or different–views and to develop reputations for tustworthiness. However, these tools tend to be proprietary, which means that they don’t work together and they cannot be adapted for new social uses.

Thus Osten and Verclas call for a new suite of open-source tools for strengthening diverse networks among young people. These tools would help youth to create discussion spaces and self-publish; to identify other people by interest; to contribute to large stores of data (such as maps); and to meet one another offline. Osten and Verclas also discuss the need to identify and support youth who are serving as leaders or “network nodes.”

A longer paper could go into much more concrete detail, but this is a great outline for further discussion.