Monday, October 8, 2007

Social Networking Sites Aren't for Civic Engagement....Or Are They?

A recent New York Times op-ed sparked some controversy by suggesting that attempts by adults to use Facebook and similar social networking sites to nudge young people toward civic and political pursuits were misguided. Why? Because Facebook, Alice Mathias writes in "The Fakebook Generation," is a form of entertainment and shouldn't be taken seriously. And contrary to popular belief, she adds, these kinds of sites aren't necessarily about building networks as much as they are about escaping to another reality--one that's user-generated.

Some have suggested another reason these attempts may fail: Adults who use social networking venues to encourage more youth volunteering or other civic activities, well-intentioned as they are, may have forgotten what it's like to be young. And when you're interacting everyday with extremely civic-minded people, both young and old, it's easy to forget that not everyone's as engrossed in "doing good" as are those who've made it their life's work. The reality is that most people just aren't as into it. And others may not want something that they see as enjoyable and fun turned into something that's "good for them." Further, they may see those of us preaching about civic engagement as prissy "do-gooders"--the kind of kids, as one friend recently commented, "who were running for Student Council president or analyzing election returns in the womb." You know, the "nerds" who grew up and continued to do what they did in high school. And who wants to be a nerd? (Yet another painful example of how high school does permeate the rest of life--unfortunately).

This isn't easy to hear because it diminishes the dedication and passion of those working to promote and increase civic engagement as something that's tangential or irrelevant. But it's important to turn the tables once in awhile and see these efforts as others may seem them--and in ways that may not sit comfortably with our own images of ourselves. Otherwise, we risk becoming smug and self-righteous in admonishing people to "get involved." After all, if we're being seen as a "bunch of nerdy do-gooders" who've forgotten what it's like to be young, can we expect anyone but the younger version of ourselves--a very small percentage of the population--to
participate? Something to keep in mind when talking about, doing, and encouraging civic engagement more broadly.

1 comment:

Thaddeus Ferber said...

I must say I disagree with the author of the NYT article for the following reason: Facebook is a flexible enough tool to meet the needs of youth and adults to simultaneously use it in different ways for different purposes. There are clear differences that I find fun to watch and would be interesting for someone to study. The college kids on my friends list use their status updates for almost exclusively humorous purposes. The adults on my friends list use it sometimes for humor, but more often for real updates (which are decidedly less interesting – do I really care that my friend just got home and is cooking dinner?) I tend to use mine as a uber-minimalist work blog, letting folks know what key meetings I am going to.

The core functionality “Thaddeus is. . .” is so basic, that different audiences can peacefully co-exist, using it in different ways. And I don’t think one group’s use of it in one way impinges on the enjoyment of others using it a different way. Would my friends and I stop using status updates for more serious purposes just because younger people use it for more humorous purposes?