Online youth civic attitudes and the limits of civic consumerism: The emerging challenge to the internet's democratic potential
This source preferred by Roman Gerodimos
Authors: Gerodimos, R.
Start date: 25 June 2010
This paper draws from the findings of an in-depth study of youth attitudes towards online civic engagement and NGO websites (conducted between 2004 and 2009) to consider emerging challenges to the internet’s democratic potential. The study was conducted within a community of internet-literate media students and included a user evaluation of civic issue websites, as well as qualitative and structured investigations of the participants’ online civic behaviour.
The main conclusion of the study was an emerging paradigm of youth engagement – a quite coherent mode of a consumerist (as in market-oriented, rather than socio-consciously consumerist) approach to online civic participation that is subject to caveats on the part of the user/citizen/consumer. In practice this is expressed through a series of demands on the part of young people, or “terms and conditions”, that need to be met in order for them to engage online: the benefits of civic action must be highlighted and they must be tangible; the reasons for engaging in such action should be transparent and relevant; the act of participation itself should not stress the individual’s resources; the user-citizen-consumer should be able to choose why, when and how they will engage with a public affair or cause.
A narrative of choice and convenience was dominant in our participants’ responses, while collectivism, duty and civic rituals were virtually absent. This was coupled with quite close-ended, instrumental and functional uses of the web that did not leave much room for reflection, content creation and political participation. However, other crucial components of our civic culture, such as the need for emotional engagement, empathy and willingness to engage with public issues and to make a difference, as well as the need to see that others care and are joining in, were also part of youth narratives. This does indicate that youth empowerment and mobilisation via the net are possible, although important tensions and paradoxes arise between the medium’s culture of instant, individualised gratification and democracy’s painstakingly long-term, collectivist processes.
Therefore, the challenge facing political institutions and civic organisations is not a technological one – it is a political one. If the internet is to be used as a means of youth engagement, then some of the assumptions and principles upon which our understanding of democratic participation is based may need to change. Modern democracies heavily depend on the aggregating, mediating and scrutinising roles of the media. Yet, the simultaneous multiplication, segmentation and convergence of channels, genres and platforms challenge the influence and role of political leaders and institutions; not necessarily, as it has often been argued, in order to give way to active users/content creators, but to commodified spaces and privatised media platforms. The paper reviews key limitations of this emerging paradigm of civic consumerism, such as socio-cultural barriers, new forms of exclusion and issues of democratic accountability and legitimacy.
It is argued that political organisations are facing the challenge of conceding the special role that they have traditionally enjoyed in the national public spheres. Engaging with the digital environment involves treating core values, ideas, issues and policies as products that need to be sold in a competitive market populated by demanding consumers. The implications for democracy ought to be carefully considered.
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Authors: Gerodimos, R.
Journal: Information Communication and Society
This paper examines young people's civic motivations in conjunction with their expected gratifications from, and evaluations of, civic websites. Fourty-six young people took part in this qualitative study, which included individual written evaluations as well as group reviews of the websites of four civic organisations (Fairtrade Foundation, Soil Association, Friends of the Earth, The Meatrix). The key finding of the study is that young people are willing to engage with civic websites as long as a series of 'terms and conditions' are met that would make that engagement meaningful to them, such as a link between the issue and the individual's lifeworld and the benefits of civic action. These conditions constitute a coherent paradigm of civic consumerism, although the evidence strongly suggests that this is due to a sense of civic loneliness and widespread scepticism about the relevance of collective action. Furthermore, the study highlights the importance of the emotional dimension of civic engagement, which recurred consistently in these young people's narratives. The implications and limitations of this paradigm of civic consumerism are examined, along with the ensuing challenge to the internet's democratic potential. © 2012 Taylor and Francis Group, LLC.
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Authors: Gerodimos, R.
Journal: INFORMATION COMMUNICATION & SOCIETY