In this article, the authors examine how American youths’ contributions to three online worlds — participatory culture, political consumerism, and civic engagement function as possible gateways to their increased political participation. Youth involvement in these three online worlds suggests that the Internet creates opportunities for youth involvement in politics and provides a measure of motivation, facilitation, and invitation for that involvement. Nonetheless, for reasons discussed, it remains an open question whether youths will take full advantage of these opportunities.
Longterm declines in voter turnout in American elections seemed to end after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks . In particular, youth voting rates increased. Approximately 36 percent of 1824 year olds cast ballots in 2000, but more than 42 percent voted in 2004 . While it is uncertain if youths online involvements contributed to this increase, it is evident that young Americans presence on the Web has the potential to enhance their engagement in public life. In this article, we examine how American youths contributions to three online worlds participatory culture, political consumerism, and civic engagement function as possible gateways to increased political participation. We suggest that Americans youths have never before had so many lowthreshold opportunities for political participation, although we are uncertain whether, over time, substantial numbers will take advantage of those opportunities.
Science-fiction author and Alist blogger Cory Doctorow offers two definitions of participatory culture. The first focuses on fans as more than passive consumers in their relationship to the media they love. His second definition, drawn from the Participatory Culture Foundation, is more multifaceted . It spans individuals listing their favorite music on their Facebook pages to antiwar activists posting photos of flagdraped coffins on the Web. Here, participatory culture is an online world, such as YouTube, where anyone can share nearly anything with nearly anyone.
With a sales price of US$1.65 billion, YouTube received Time magazines Invention of the Year award. For all the careerending gaffes, graphic cell phone hanging videos, and exploding diet coke fountains that it has hosted, nothing has been more popular on YouTube than The Evolution of Dance, a sixminute, single camera video of a man dancing to a medley of songs . As of this writing, this video has over 47 million views, more than twice the number of any other YouTube video. A critic looked at the videos mass appeal and commented, Its a stunning shift when a single lowbudget viral video can reach roughly the same number of people as an episode of ‘Seinfeld.  Let us suggest four possibilities for how this world of participatory culture has the potential to increase youth involvement in public life.
First, online participatory culture promotes values that are conducive to democracy. A fundamental democratic value is citizen involvement, the basis for consent of the governed, the exercise of popular sovereignty, and vigilance against tyranny. Henry Jenkins suggests that youth involvement in participatory cultures social networking sites produced higher levels of political engagement. He reports that, among MySpace participants, Only 21 percent of poll respondents ages 18 to 24 said they had voted for an American Idol contestant. But 53 percent said they had voted for a candidate for public office.  Apparently, young online social networkers care less about who America loves and more about who governs.
Another democratic value advanced by participatory culture is openness. Appeals Court Judge Damon Keith notes, Democracies die behind closed doors. Involvement in participatory culture may motivate youths to keep the doors open . Consider Video the Vote, a group of citizens armed with video cameras and YouTube accounts. Members shoot videos of polling places and interview disenfranchised voters for immediate Web posting. Someone in Los Angeles can find out about an Ohio voter who faced a faulty voting machine the same day . By monitoring and documenting election practices, Video the Vote strengthens electoral openness and honesty.
Second, youths involvement in participatory culture teaches citizenship skills. For example, participatory culture generally exposes young people to political information and ideas. A Pew Foundation study questioned whether people use the Internet merely to reflect and reinforce their own preconceived views. Its conclusion was that the opposite is true: It is clear that their Internet use alone is a factor in their wide exposure to political arguments.  This conclusion applies particularly well to the world of participatory culture, where many political advocates use culture as a means to disseminate their particular viewpoints.
Participatory culture also teaches youths to apply knowledge to political problemsolving. Jenkins examines the world of Massive Multiplayer Online Role Playing games and identifies a knowledge culture where players cooperate to solve problems in a fictional universe. When someone encounters a dilemma, he or she consults with other online participants for help and technical support. Jenkins suggests that we apply the same strategy to politics. He writes, If we learn to do this through our play, perhaps we can learn to extend those experiences into actual political culture.  Here, the line from participatory culture to participatory democracy is a relatively straight one.
Third, participatory culture invites political mobilization. Doctorow notes, Theres a bunch of costs incorporated with political action ... and the Internet is pretty good at knocking the hell out of those.  Participatory culture facilitates efforts to bring people together for political action. For example, when social networking site Facebook decided to change its interface and add a feed that was widely condemned as invasive, more than 750,000 students used Facebook to organize a protest against Facebook . Time magazine reported, Gen Y has unexpectedly found a way to organize.  Participatory culture facilitates political mobilization.
Perhaps the most famous usage of the Internet for political mobilizing was Howard Deans 2004 presidential campaign. Joe Trippi, Deans campaign manager, summarized the impact of participatory culture on politics: There is no way to understate the importance of what MoveOn and its members proved that the net can be used to mobilize huge numbers of grassroots to take local action beyond their monitors.  Trippi saw the Internet as a means to mobilize youthful, grassroots coalitions for a political cause. Although Deans campaign had a spectacular crash, accelerated by Internet remixes of his infamous Dean Scream, the impact of participatory culture persists in the 2008 presidential election cycle. Leading candidates announced their presidential bids over the Internet . Virtually every presidential campaign employs online participatory culture and doityourself toolkits to gain supporters, interact with them, and motivate them to organize and act in behalf of their particular candidate .
Fourth, we should acknowledge that, for the moment, participatory culture tends to favor progressive or liberal politics. A survey of the YouTube homepage on 18 September 2006, offers an indication of political bias. YouTube highlighted a video of Ted Kennedy speaking about Internet neutrality as protection for freedom of speech.  Certainly, an Internet culture that favors free expression, if not anarchist disdain for all restraints on liberty, lends itself to leftofcenter politics. Note, however, that rightwing bloggers and faithbloggers have done their part to adapt participatory culture to conservative politics .
Participatory culture also lends itself to gotcha politics. In the 2006 midterm election, the balance of U.S. Senate power came down to a seat in Virginia. Incumbent Republican George Allen was certain to defeat former Navy Secretary (and former Republican) Jim Webb as a steppingstone to a bid for the White House. However, participatory culture trumped certainty. University of Virginia student S.R. Sidarth videoed Allens speeches for Jim Webbs campaign. At one rally, Allen pointed to Sidarth and referred to him as macaca.  Sidarth uploaded the clip onto YouTube, where it became a nationwide phenomenon. Sidarth later recalled, Nothing made me happier on election night than finding out the results from Dickenson County, where Allen and I had our encounter.  Allen lost that county, lost the Senate seat, and lost the Republican majority in the Senate.
When asked about the online potential for Internet mudslinging, Doctorow responds, Dont focus on the mudslinging! Focus on the mud! The problem is not that leaders are being outed as scumbags, the problem is that leaders are scumbags.  One democratic hope for participatory culture is that by surveilling public officials, it can drive corrupt politicians out of positions of authority and, by implication, reward political honesty and integrity.
In sum, participatory culture has the potential to enhance youth participation in politics. It promotes the key democratic values of involvement and openness. It teaches young citizens vital skills involving the acquisition of knowledge and collaborative problemsolving. It facilitates political mobilizations. And it tends to favor a progressive politics that values free expression and public integrity. Participatory culture provides both motives and opportunities for political engagement.
Political consumerism is a political manifestation of participatory culture. It involves purchasing or refusing to purchase goods and services based on political, social, or ethical considerations rather than solely on price and quality. Dietlind Stolle, Marc Hooghe, and Michele Micheletti highlight three components of political consumerism: behavior, motivation, and frequency . Behavior refers to the actual act of purchasing or refusing to purchase a product. The motivation component requires the behavior to be based on political, social, or ethical values as opposed to traditional consumer considerations. Frequency demands the behavior be repeated, ensuring its relevance and durability. Defining political consumerism in practical terms, the Organic Consumers Association (OCA) wants members to ask several questions before making a purchase:Who profits from this sale? Are you buying this product from a national chain, or buying locally from an independent business, coop, or family farm? ... Were farmers or workers rights protected? Did the producer receive a living wage? Is it certified organic or fair trade? Is the company making or selling this item socially responsible? 
This form of political participation is enticing to youths, a demographic group commonly distrustful of government, because it is a less institutionalized, nongovernmental approach to addressing public goals and grievances .
Youth engagement in online political consumerism has several focuses. The most prevalent involves labor practices and human rights issues. Many students have formed activist groups, for example, urging their universities to ban CocaCola due to allegations of mistreatment of workers . Youths have targeted Taco Bell for exploiting the labor of the Immokalee American Indian tribe in Florida . A studentled boycott of Nike spawned a broad Internet protest against sweatshop labor . Youths are also active in online political consumerism for anticorporate, proenvironmental causes. They have boycotted Starbucks (on grounds of globalization and food safety), and supported organic foods (for benefiting the environment and public health) .
The Internet lowers the threshold for consumer participation. At the organizational level, the Internet facilitates dissemination of Action Kits and Starter Resources for initiating local campaigns. It also makes accessible articles and data for posting on blogs and Web sites as well as email reminders about meetings, actions, and so forth. At the individual level, the Internet provides access to buying guides and email listservs that educate participants and sustain their involvement in the movement. Note that these Internet tools make it easier for people to get involved but they do not independently generate involvement.
Typical Action Kits provide students useful resources for organizing a consumer group. One of the nations largest youthled political consumerism organizations, Sweatshop Watch, offers an online Action Kit for a nominal cost. The kit includes pamphlets, posters, and flyers as well as guidelines and tips for everything from maintaining intragroup communication to obtaining recognition from universities . Another youthled consumer organization is the StudentFarmworker Alliance, which maintains an online information kit with similar materials. It also provides links to a grassroots activism Web site which has a local media finder, organized by zip codes, that churns out the names of local newspapers, political publications, columnists, magazines, radio and television stations, and news services . The Campaign for a CocaCola Free Campus publishes a detailed online action guide that spells out the case against CocaCola (including CocaColas response and the Campaigns rebuttal) plus a guide for taking action, for example, by locating the universitys contract with CocaCola, contacting competitors, and providing viable options .
More examples include a studentled effort to foster university divestment from corporations that support the crisis in Darfur. The students Web site offers a customizable proposal for use at any college. New student groups simply download the proposal, replace the generic YOUR INSTITUTION with the name of their own school, and the rest is prepackaged . In effect, online action guides lower the threshold for student involvement in the consumer movement by demystifying the process of creating new, studentled boycott organizations. With online resources, almost any student who is passionate about the issue can become a campus leader for the cause and network with other groups pursuing similar causes.
The Internet also lowers the threshold for individual youth engagement in political consumerism. Consider Internet access to buying guides. Buying guides are databases of manufacturers, producers, and stores that have met the criteria of online consumer groups. For example, an organic food site might include in its database farms that do not use hormones or pesticides. Many buying guides are searchable by zip code, making it easy for consumers to determine what they can ethically purchase in their area. Sweatshop Watchs Web site features a buying guide based on four Shop with a Conscience criteria . While this guide is not searchable by zip code, it is differentiated by types of goods and features links to stores Web sites. Young political consumers can use their home computers to research and purchase goods based on political considerations. A striking example of anticorporatism aimed primarily at the Starbucks franchise is the Delocator. By typing in a zip code, the Delocator generates a list of cafes, bookstores, or cinemas not owned by the corporation. The site also contains information on why Delocate, decrying the corporate invasion of American neighborhoods . A growing trend on college campuses is a Fair Trade Certified online movement that urges fair prices for growers of coffee, tea, chocolate, and tropical fruit. The movement Web site prominently features a Where to Buy section that allows users to input a zip code and locate Fair Trade Certified retailers in their area . These buying guides lower the threshold for youths political participation in two ways: they allow users to participate by making ethical online purchases and they help youths identify and locate nearby retailers that sell ethical goods.
Another online tool to encourage consumer participation is the email listserv. A listserv is a simple way for organizations to email people. This mechanism makes it easy for organizations to remind members about meetings or forward news clippings and newsletters. Perhaps the greatest effect of the listserv is to boost viewership of the organizations Web site and thereby remind users of the ease and necessity of their participation. OCA distributes a biweekly newsletter called Organic Bytes. According to an OCA staffer, the groups Web site receives a boost in traffic by as much as 33 percent in the days immediately after the newsletter is sent out . Other organic food Web sites, such as Local Harvest and Eat Well Guide, report similar increases in Web traffic following distribution of their newsletters . By using listservs for periodic communications with members, listservs lower the threshold for participation, actively engage members in the movement, and link them to resources intended to promote further participation.
In sum, at both the organizational and individual level, the Internet lowers the threshold for youth participation in political consumerism. Action guides and blogs assist student organizers in creating and managing local movement chapters while buying guides, searchable databases, and listservs make it easy for individuals to find ethical products and sustain their involvement in the politics of the marketplace. The Internet also has the potential to increase youths engagement in other aspects of civic life.
Digital technology can facilitate innovative forms of civic engagement. Political text messaging is a new version of the old tradition of persontoperson politics. This type of interpersonal political communication/conversation may soon surpass email in its effectiveness in connecting with young citizens. Only 15 percent to 25 percent of solicited political email messages are opened but approximately 95 percent of text messages are opened . This suggests that young people, our primary text messagers, may be more receptive to receiving and responding to political text messages from friends than to email messages from political organizations. This practice has already having a discernible effect in participatory culture. When the television show American Idol first asked viewers to vote for their favorite contestant by text message at the end of the 2004 season, 13.5 million people obliged. One year later, the number text message votes soared to 41.5 million . Conceivably, a text messaging option could also increase young voter registration and turnout. Several youth voter registration efforts through text messaging appeared in 2006. For example, Voto Latino emerged from immigration protests that were organized through text messaging and social networking. The group is working to register 50,000 young Latino voters through text messages .
Only 15 percent to 25 percent of solicited political email messages are opened but approximately 95 percent of text messages are opened.
Meanwhile, the Internet has helped revive the concept of the town hall meeting, the public square, and public discourse. The Democratic and Republican National Committees have embraced the idea of online communities as a means to disseminate their messages, engage citizens in dialogue, and expand the universe of potential voters through innovative outreach efforts. For example, Republicans MyGOP facilitates online user efforts to plan a house party, conduct surveys, contact elected officials, call talk radio shows, help register voters, draft letters to local newspapers, and raise money . By joining old political methods with a new technology that is more familiar to younger citizens than to older ones, both political parties are hoping to attract young Americans interest, support, and loyalty.
Nonpartisan Web sites also have experimented with online public discourse. Both Essembly.com (http://www.essembly.com/accounts/login?) and Hotsoup.com (http://www.hotsoup.com/) invite virtual contact between users to promote political engagement. Essembly was founded by a 23yearold staffer from Senator John Kerrys presidential campaign. It invites users to generate debate topics. Hotsoup uses the lure wellknown political figures to entice users to engage in online debate. Senators John McCain and Barack Obama agreed to create profiles prior to the sites launch . Young people now have the ability to communicate with policymakers and power brokers. Potentially, Essembly and Hotsoup could serve as robust conduits for public discussion.
Leading social networking sites Facebook and MySpace now allow political candidates to post their profiles. They also host advocacy and issueoriented groups for discussion, organization and mobilization. This merging of social networking and online politics has the potential to integrate political discourse into youths everyday lives. Democratic media strategist Chris Lehane comments, Campaigns are still finding ways to tap the sites potential. He claims that that the marriage of social networking and electoral campaigns may revolutionize politics .
The Internet also facilitates and hastens growing rates of youth participation in service learning, community service, and national service programs. We have seen soaring rates of volunteerism among high school and college students in the new century . The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics finds that 15.5 million teenagers volunteered for some cause in 2004 . Institutions of higher education such as Arizona State University provide academic credit to college students who tutor and mentor elementary school children and incarcerated young women. In 2005, some 32 percent of American elementary and secondary schools incorporated service learning into their curricula . Young peoples applications for national programs, including Teach for America, Peace Corps, and AmeriCorps, have risen dramatically in recent years . The Internet has been useful in publicizing these programs and in allowing online applications, which lowers the threshold for youths civic engagement.
An interesting program that promotes civic engagement is Wall Street Volunteers, an online clearinghouse for connecting young professionals to nonprofit volunteer opportunities . What distinguishes this program from other volunteer vehicles is its Internet component. The Wall Street Volunteers, in effect, have created a social networking site to connect young professionals to volunteer opportunities that fit into the demands of their personal lives and careers. The better the fit, the lower the threshold for participation, the more likely the civic engagement.
Let us emphasize that the Internet enhances the potential of young people to develop an interest in politics, take part in public discourse, show support for causes and candidates, and contribute to the public good by means of service learning or community and national service. It enhances this potential by opening up innovative means to pursue old political strategies and by lowering the threshold for youth engagement. To an extent, we expect young people to fulfill that potential. One of the most important means for increasing young peoples political involvement is to invite them to participate (rather than to write them off as nonparticipants) . Because youths disproportionately participate and congregate online, and because the cost of contacting them (through Web sites, email and text messages) is quite low, we are just beginning to see more cultural activists, consumer organizations, citizens, and candidates use digital technology as a means to promote political participation. The outstanding question is whether increased youth participation will be more or less robust, widespread, and significant.
Hope for a new age of youth participation in American politics, spurred by the growth of the Internet, must be tempered by the fact that virtual space is not actual space. Online activism indeed, digital democracy amounts to very little without manifestations of political activism in street demonstrations, polling places, political commissions, and the halls of government. Familiarity with online participatory culture, low thresholds for online political consumerism, and invitations for online civic participation do not address problems related to youths political alienation and apathy or their relative lack of concern and commitment to the public realm. Nor does youth familiarity and facility with digital technology and the Internet address social, racial, and economic inequalities that have a dramatic influence on the distribution and application of power in the United States today. That said, we believe that youth participation on the Internet does have some potential to increase young peoples political involvement.
Participatory culture allows and encourages the creation of media and meanings. It provides youths with the opportunity to become directly and immediately involved in public discourse. Political consumerisms online manifestations dramatically lower the costs for acquiring political information and testing the waters of participation. Additionally, the Internet broadens the field of civic engagement. Young people from across the nation are invited to engage in community and public service and they do so in significant numbers. Taken together, these three modes of online participation suggest that the Internet creates opportunities for youth involvement in politics and provides a measure of motivation, facilitation, and invitation for that involvement. Ultimately, however, the responsibility rests with young people themselves to determine whether to take advantage of online opportunities as well as to explore offline politics.
About the authors
Mark E. Kann, Professor of Political Science and History, holds the USC Associates Chair in Social Science at the University of Southern California. Jeff Berry, Connor Gants, and Phil Zager are undergraduate students and research assistants who collaborated on the research and writing that went into this article.
Please direct all correspondence to Mark E. Kann, mkann [at] usc [dot] edu
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Paper received 10 May 2007; accepted 16 July 2007.
Copyright ©2007, First Monday.
Copyright ©2007, Mark E. Kann, Jeff Berry, Connor Gant, and Phil Zager.
The Internet and youth political participation by Mark E. Kann, Jeff Berry, Connor Gant, and Phil Zager
First Monday, volume 12, number 8 (August 2007),
A Great Cities Initiative of the University of Illinois at Chicago University Library.
© First Monday, 1995-2016.