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New Media, New Citizens: Youth Attitudes Towards Online Civic Engagement

Gerodimos, Roman (2009) New Media, New Citizens: Youth Attitudes Towards Online Civic Engagement. In: Proceedings of the WebSci'09: Society On-Line, 18-20 March 2009, Athens, Greece. (In Press)

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Recent research on online youth engagement has suggested that political and civic organisations may not be exploiting the internet's democratic potential to empower and mobilise young people. Given the "pull" nature of the web, user-oriented research is vital in order to understand young people's motivations, gratifications and needs - both in terms of civic participation, and in those of online everyday life. Furthermore, while young citizens have traditionally been seen as disengaged and apathetic, there is evidence to suggest that they may be engaging in their own ways and with issues that they consider as relevant to their everyday lives. The aim of this paper is to bring together two elements that have traditionally been examined separately, i.e. youth civic attitudes and patterns of internet use. The paper reports on the findings of a qualitative, user experience study involving 46 UK-based young citizens who evaluated four civic issue-oriented websites (Fairtrade Foundation, Soil Association, Friends of the Earth, "The Meatrix"). This paper focuses on young people's own civic narratives and compares their initial expectations of issue-oriented NGO websites with their post-exposure evaluations. Employing individual open-ended questionnaires, participants were initially asked to reflect on the factors that motivate them to (or de-motivate them from) being active citizens and consumers. They were then asked to apply these factors by stating their expectations and needs from civic websites in terms of site content, design and interactivity. Participants were then assigned two "issue" websites based on their stated interests, which they reviewed over the course of a 30' session. Their evaluation was based on a semi-structured sheet, which allowed them to develop their own narratives, as well as respond to specific criteria. Four focus group discussions followed these user evaluations, which allowed for a deeper exploration of these young people's civic and internet narratives. Overall, the data suggests that these young people are instrumental users of the net, who spend very little time browsing aimlessly or in an open-ended way. In other words, they have a clear idea of what they are looking for on the internet, and they report using the medium only to complete specific, practical tasks associated with their everyday realities. Their online narratives rotate around the concepts of convenience (easiness of navigation, accessibility, transparency) and awareness (plurality of ideas, clear separation of facts and opinion). The role of design, and in particular of emotive visuals, is prominent throughout our participants' responses. There was not enough evidence in our study to support the view that young people are active content creators who engage politically through innovative ways. While they are keen to engage with issues that they personally care about, these young people do not see the internet as the natural medium for civic engagement. The role of the mass media in bringing issues and potential solutions to their attention was reaffirmed. Reputation, credibility and, subsequently, branding emerge as key factors in their perception of civic organisations, which poses a real challenge for small or medium bodies attempting to break into the "static" of the new media. Our respondents' civic attitudes were very oriented towards their individual lifeworlds and there were very few references to collective engagement. Many participants took a consumerist approach to online engagement, i.e. demanding tangible benefits for their own actions, although several also expressed a need for emotional engagement through poignant hard-hitting online material (e.g. shocking images). This mode of citizenship may be at odds with the traditional conceptualisation of democratic participation, which is oriented towards the collective, rather than the individual. A common thread emerging from the data presented in this paper is that political practice seems to be losing its special, insular and authoritative role in citizens’ everyday lives. The collapse of traditional social cleavages, ideological divides and other constitutive factors of political culture is not a new phenomenon. Yet, in an increasingly competitive public sphere of converged media, multiplied channels, information saturation and segmented consumer choices, there is a real danger of politics becoming irrelevant to the lifeworld of – particularly younger – people. Listening to their narratives and needs is critical in order to reform the institutions of politics and the tools of public communication and ensure their continuing engagement. The paper ends with a set of practical recommendations for civic organisations and NGOs aiming to use the internet in order to mobilise younger citizens.

Item Type:Conference or Workshop Item (Poster)
Uncontrolled Keywords:civic engagement, young people, user evaluations, democracy, issue politics
Subjects:Web Science Events > Web Science 2009
ID Code:182
Deposited By: W S T Administrator
Deposited On:24 Jan 2009 08:45
Last Modified:16 Mar 2009 23:42

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