I recently joined the MacArthur Research Network on Youth and Participatory Policies (YPP). You can learn more about it at ypp.dmlcentral.net, but in brief, it is an inter-disciplinary group of really interesting scholars and practitioners interested in studying and supporting youth civic and political engagement. Although I got attached to the network through my work on online protest, getting involved in this group has really made me think about the importance of studying youth engagement in the digital age. In short, I think it offers perhaps the best window we may get into what protest will look like in 30 or 40 years. I know this may be a controversial statement, so follow along with me for a second…
Most of my work on Internet activism tends to show that online protest participation and organizing (in some cases) operate via substantially different dynamics than traditional, offline protest. Katrina Kimport and I talk about this as requiring theory 2.0 approaches because underlying theoretical models need to change to explain new realities. For me as a scholar, this is serious business because I am in a field that gets better and better at understanding the 1960s every day. There is far more scholarship on pre-millennial activism than contemporary activism, and far more still on offline activism than online activism even when examining recent protests. This would be irrelevant if protest today, and protest online, operated exactly the same as social movements have historically—i.e., if the processes driving movement emergence, maintenance, and success were the same. But, since my data compels me to think that these dynamics are changing, I constantly worry about our field’s ability to stay relevant and to deeply understand how activism is working today. Can we get as good at explaining protest today as we have been at explaining protests in the past?
The next step in that worry chain is to wonder how prepared we are to understand the changes that have yet to take place in protest as a result of pervasive technology use. That is, how prepared are we to understand protest tomorrow, or 20 years from now, or in 4-5 generations? Lacking a crystal ball, I had just left this in the category of mindless worry until I started working with the YPP folks.
Then it hit me: youth are as close to crystal balls as we are going to get at glimpsing into protest’s future. While youth may age out of some practices and into others as they move toward middle age and their senior years, they are going to bring a lot of technological habits and cultural and political expectations with them. They aren’t going to just age into older models of activism; they are going to continue to remake new models of activism. This is serious business for the future of our field. And, it’s why I have started to think a lot more about youth engagement and youth media use in activism.
I hope at least a few people who read this blog are persuaded that considering youth as theoretical harbingers is an interesting prospect and worth considering in their own work. As they say, it will take a village.