Activism in the Next Generation: Technology and Millenials

By Anya Arndt

It seems like everyone has been writing about “Millennials” lately. Half the blogosphere is blaming Millennials and our “selfish nature” for the woes of the world and the inevitable decline of the United States, while the other half is desperately defending the technology generation as full of innovative and big-thinking people who are just struggling to enter the adult world in today’s economy. ((Remember that Time article, “The Me Me Me Generation?” Why yes, I was offended by that, and here are a few reasons why. Then there was Susan Zarkin’s TruthDig article: I have absolutely no idea where she gets the idea that Reagan is our number one hero, I mean, really? Reagan! Our hero is Stephen Colbert, puh-lease. (She also calls my generation “ahistorical,” which doesn’t even make sense: what about my generation is “less historical” than any other? I dare her to prove to me that Millennials are less interested in history than the people leading the country right now: has the U.S. government learned nothing from decades of failed attempts at intervening in the internal affairs of other countries? Yet we still manage to justify meddling in the Middle East and ignoring the rest of the Western world when they tell us to get out! *end rant*) Oh, don’t let me forget, the list of things my generation has allegedly ruined (according to media and big business) for our country.)) Whether you like Millennials or not, however, they (and their uniquely technological worldview) have made a huge impact on society so far and as they grow into fully active and engaged citizens, they will continue to do so.

I was born in the year that the Internet as we know it (the World Wide Web) was released, 1991. Of course, the Interwebs (my generation’s favorite pet name for this network phenomenon), has a long history prior to 1991 and has expanded substantially since then. The Internet and I are good buddies though, after all, we grew up together. I began to learn about the wonders of the Internet in elementary school; in fact, I’ve never written a research paper without the help of that vast bank of electronic knowledge. ((Funny side note: In fourth grade, I had to write a research paper on glue. I found a website that told me Jamie Farr invented glue in 1949, and I believed it. To be fair, this was at a time when even legitimate web sources still had rather unsophisticated layouts, so to a fourth grader, anything on the Internet could appear to be fact, since every website looked about the same legitimacy-wise. (This was also when MLA required a URL in all citations, so fortunately my teacher was able to look up the website I had found, and determine that I had been duped and could not be blamed for thinking that Jamie Farr invented glue in 1949. She let me try again).))  I do everything with the help of the Internet, from making plans with my friends to buying clothes to turning in my senior thesis. But, with such vast capabilities, what does the Internet mean for those fighting for a cause? For nonprofits and organizations that have traditionally organized using physical bodies out on the streets and in the offices of elected officials, it has become a lot harder to engage younger generations who are more tied up in online movements.

With the advent of the Internet, a new phenomenon of “clicktivism” has emerged. Often relegated to another subset of “slacktivism,” clicktivism is activism online. It ranges from liking an organization’s Facebook page, to signing an online petition or donating online. Clicktivism does not require one to leave his or her bed, but it still gives the clicktivist a feeling that he or she has made a difference in the world and promoted a noble cause. Take a moment and google “clicktivism;” the first hit you get is “clicktivism.org.” Micah White, creator of clicktivism.org says “Clicktivism is the pollution of activism with the logic of consumerism . . . Clicktivism neglects the vital, immeasurable inner events and personal epiphanies that great social ruptures are actually made of. The history of revolutions attests that upheaval is always improbable, unpredictable and risky. A few banal pronouncements about ‘democracy in action’ coupled with an online petition will not usher in social transformation.”

So what will usher in social transformation as the technology generation enters adulthood?  And didn’t we just see Egypt’s January 25th Twitter Revolution successfully oust President Hosni Mubarak in 2011? ((The exact roll social media played in any of the Arab Spring uprisings is still a topic of great debate amongst scholars. Some argue that the Arab Spring would not have happened without social media, others insist that it merely would have happened differently.)) Clearly, the internet can be quite a catalyst in sparking change, but is it enough in the U.S.? Undeniably, many American Millennials seem pretty content to say that political awareness consists of sitting on their comfy sofas and beds reposting HuffPost articles on their Facebook pages and Twitter feeds while watching Netflix. But we are also the generation that has been named most socially progressive thus far, and studies have shown that we have been much stronger supporters of causes that promote human rights and equality than our predecessors. ((For statistics that support this claim, view the Pew Research Report and the Center for American Progress Report.)) Watching the news in the past year alone will tell you that Millennials can be convinced to hop out of their beds and into the streets to promote these progressive values. ((The streets were overflowing with Millennial activists before and after the Supreme Court’s repeal of DOMA and after the verdict in the Trayvon Martin case was released, to give a few examples.  Additionally, we have this marvelous HuffPost article, entitled “5 Things That Prove young People Aren’t Just Slacktivists.”))  Maybe this dichotomy of “clicktivism” versus “real activism” is a false one.

And yet, somewhere, there is a disconnect. Why do nonprofits report having such a hard time engaging younger donors and volunteers? It looks like a balance needs to be found. Millennials want to support causes, we want to see a more accepting, a more inclusive, a more equal, America. So why aren’t we at non-profit fundraising events, where are we when there’s a city council meeting happening, how come we aren’t found volunteering for causes that make our communities better places? ((Probably because there’s never free food, but I digress…)) Is our inclination toward clicktivism actually going to prevent us from pushing the country toward positive change in terms of human rights like Micah White predicts?

Personally, I don’t think that Micah White is right, but he could be if we fail to speak to the Millennial generation in their own language. We live in a society where information is now largely transferred via the Internet and the Millennial generation has never experienced otherwise. As a Colorado College student, I rarely picked up The Independent and I don’t think I ever saw a physical copy of The Gazette floating around campus. I was not unaware of what was going on in the world around me, however. In fact, I followed politics very closely, I just liked to get my information in different ways than what has been the norm for many years (I still do). I drink my morning coffee while scrolling through my Twitter feed instead of reading the newspaper at my kitchen table. ((Although I really enjoy newspaper crossword puzzles and I actually prefer reading off of printed paper over the headache-inducing computer screen, I will honestly never pay $13 a month for a subscription when I can get all that for free, in my bed, on my iPhone.)) This does not mean that I don’t want to stand up alongside my neighbors for a cause that I believe in, however. It’s just that when something awesome was going on in the Colorado Springs community, I never knew about it, because it was not publicized in a way that crossed my radar.

The point is, the Millennial generation goes about finding their news and expressing their political and social beliefs in ways that many established organizations are unfamiliar with. As a college student, I often lamented this: Why is there no Jezebel equivalent in Colorado Springs or no Buzzfeed for social causes? These are the types of sources that get my generation excited. We need to begin to develop new mediums for communication to the socially conscious Millennials out there, or else they’re unlikely to see the message and join in the cause. As a recent college graduate and nonprofit employee, I feel eager (though slightly unqualified) to begin to brainstorm ways to bridge this gap between nonprofits and Millennials. ((I am currently in the process of creating a new blog on CP’s website that will hopefully communicate our message in a more “Millennial-friendly” format. Basically, I get to post things that are a bit sassier and flashier than I would be able to post in more “traditional” news pieces and blog posts.))

I can’t offer some great, fail-proof solution to reaching Millennials, but I can offer a reminder that as times change, so must our strategies. Millennials have plenty to offer to good causes (namely time, passion, and the ability to spread information on their favorite causes to massive networks of their peers) ((I linked to this HuffPost article already, but you really should read it, as it elaborates more eloquently than I can on the capabilities of Millennials in nonprofit and cause-oriented work.)), so let’s find new ways to tap into that. Let’s capitalize on clicktivism to spur in-person activism, let’s be more direct in engaging this technologically-inclined generation when spreading our information. Millennials are quick to get behind those who speak with true passion, what we need to do, then, is direct our messages to their ears.

For anyone interested in a little more information on what these strange “Millennial” people like and how they think, here are a few links and articles to check out from some of my favorite sites:

Jezebel and Buzzfeed are my top two, hands down.  If you like your news with a splash of snarky angst and a heaping tablespoon of feminist agenda, then Jezebel is your cup of tea.  If you like your news in list form or you like anything in list form (Millennials love lists), then Buzzfeed is your go-to. If you are interested in writing your own trend piece on Millennials, because it is all the rage to do that nowadays, I first recommend reading this lovely PSA from Kelly Williams Brown, author of the blog Adulting, and a book based off it. Are you wondering just what it is that makes someone born between the years 1982 and 2000 a Millennial? Take this quiz by the Pew Forum entitled “How Millennial Are You?” And finally, if you still haven’t read the Huffington Post article that I have already linked to twice, here it is again (you’re welcome, *winking smiley face*).

Oh yeah, and this, because Millennials also love cats, especially cats on the Interwebs.



Endnotes (aka Tangents)

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