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Digital Natives Return, or How the Web Became Your New Civics Class

With Berkman’s summer term in full swing, the Digital Natives blog is back! Check regularly for more thoughts from our principle investigators, fellows, research assistants, and (a new cast of) interns. Also in store for the summer: a slew of audio and video podcasts, as well as the publication of John Palfrey and Urs Gasser’s Born Digital. For the time being, enjoy this post.

Now that much of the initial press reaction to Barack Obama’s Democratic nomination has surfaced, it seems time to offer a perspective from the Digital Natives Project, one informed both by youth culture and by contemporary academic theories of citizenship and education. Obama’s appeal is frequently discussed in terms of the former – his message of change, his success as a brand, his youth – but rarely is it explored simultaneously from the standpoint of a young person and of an academic (though I’m admittedly still pretty green).

Digital Natives are different from their parents not only because of what they do online but because of the way they learn, and this affects their political involvement directly. Henry Jenkins of MIT’s New Media Literacies Project writes that Digital Natives engage best in “participatory cultures” fostered by the web, environments

with relatively low barriers to artistic expression and civic engagement, strong support for creating and sharing one’s creations, and some type of informal mentorship whereby what is known by the most experienced is passed along to novices. A participatory culture is also one in which members believe their contributions matter, and feel some degree of social connection with one another.

Clear examples of participatory culture include SNSs, like Facebook and MySpace, and content-sharing websites such as Flickr and YouTube. My.BarackObama, a campaign-supported SNS that lets supporters form groups, blog, plan events, and raise money, is built on this model. I do not bring up My.BarackObama to rehash discussions of how it capitalizes on the social networking trend; that has already been addressed both by youth and by the press (as a quick Google search of “Obama youth appeal” reveals). Rather, I urge you to pay attention to a specific characteristic of participatory culture that Jenkins names — the aspect of “mentorship” – and consider its implications here. Participatory culture is, among many things, educational. Perhaps Obama’s campaign is appealing not only for its style, but also because it encourages a learning-by-doing approach to civics, aided by interaction with peers and more experienced political activists, that engages DNs with the topic in a way their school programs may not.

This is not to say that all Digital Natives are consciously seeking lessons in politics. Instead, DNs are most likely drawn to the sense of empowerment that comes in gaining such knowledge. This stands in sharp contrast to the civics education offered in most public schools. As Lance Bennett of the Center for Communication and Civic Education at the University of Washington points out, mainstream civics courses are often taught in a rote, top-down fashion, rather than in the peer-oriented, interactive style Digital Natives prefer. The testing-driven environment of public schools also inhibits civics education. Consequently, 27% of students failed a national civics test administered in 2007 (the test is given every five years). Princeton professor Theodore K. Rabb told the Times this was “not anything to break out the Champagne over[.]” It appears mainstream civics education is outdated – with an emphasis on mainstream news over citizen journalism, voting over activism – and as such, does little to introduce students to the process of political involvement in a digital age, let alone instill them all with permanent knowledge (Bennett writes about this in the aforelinked essay). Movements like Obama’s, on the other hand, transform students into learners and activists immediately by allowing them to engage online. Obama’s SNS has become a new kind of civics instructor, and as November approaches, McCain would be wise to heed the shift as well.

Nikki Leon