Beyond "Boxers or Briefs?" New Media Brings Youth to Politics like Never Before

Phi Kappa Phi Forum, Summer 2008 | Go to article overview

Beyond "Boxers or Briefs?" New Media Brings Youth to Politics like Never Before


In 1992, the country was taken aback by the vision of then-presidential candidate Bill Clinton answering the age-old "boxers briefs" question with a straight face while fielding questions from young voters in a series of televised "town hall" meetings.

HESE PSEUDO-INTIMATE GATHERINGS were heady stuff for voters feeling marginalized by domestic politics--an opportunity to feel that the common American once again had the government's ear in our political discourse.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

The carefully vetted Q-and-A sessions also played another role: they were the first modern instance of politics as "infotainment," a phenomenon now almost de rigueur in today's near-constant scrabble of candidates, pundits, and every other Joe who can get face time on the nightly cable news shows.

However, in coffee shops, university libraries and local campaign headquarters across the nation, a movement is taking place, tearing the veil between polities and young American voters. It is called "New Media," and it is changing the political landscape for good.

"What we've seen in 2008 is an explosion of the possibilities of town hall discourse," says Joshua Levy, a writer, editor, activist, and political junkie who monitors the crossroads of technology and politics. He writes for a number of online political sites and is associate editor of www.personaldemocracy.com, an online melting pot of political perspective and opinion that transcends party affiliation.

"Say I'm home watching Barack Obama speak to a roomful of college students," Levy explains. In past elections that might be as involved as he could get. But today, "because I'm streaming the speech on my computer, I also can participate, asking questions via Instant Message or participating in real-time polls.

"Now you have all these young people who can participate in the process rather than just watching and going to vote every four years," he says.

Tools such as Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, and YouTube allow individuals to become part of the larger political process just by using their laptop or PDA.

"Built into these applications is an awareness of group activity and networked communications," Levy says. "That's how you organize people for politics, advocacy groups, or anything where you want to build groups of people and create community awareness. But instead of networking with a few dozen people, you can quickly grow groups to thousands, or even hundreds of thousands of people, because of the way information on these sites spreads like wildfire."

Levy said young people instinctively understand they are networking in a larger sphere, but may take it for granted and not consider the political ramifications of their actions.

"They may not even know that they are engaging in politics when they 'friend' Barack Obama on Facebook or MySpace," Levy says. "But I think they most certainly are, and are increasing political awareness among their network through that act."

Young voters' blend of idealism, politics, and savvy social networking has made them a very attractive demographic in this election cycle. According to www.civicyouth.org, youth turnout has been much higher in the 2008 primaries than in recent years. In some states, youth turnout has tripled or quadrupled. More than three million young Americans (1) voted on Super Tuesday, and studies by the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning & Engagement (CIRCLE) show that young voters usually become repeat voters. (2)

Young adults are linked through social network technology to a degree that should give campaign managers shivers of delight. Facebook, one of the Web's top social networking sites, has more than 69 million active users; (3) YouTube, the popular online video-sharing site, is estimated to have nearly 60 million users. (4) So reaching those young potential voters is like having the keys to the kingdom--or the White House. …

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