It’s a World Wild Web out there

June 8, 2008

It all started a couple of weeks ago when I noticed our own newspaper editor Ellen Miller’s name listed as a speaker at Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society 10th anniversary events. Having planned to attend the conference and also recalling her past association with the university, I immediately e-mailed Ellen for some insider information… Alas, it turned to be another Ellen Miller (of the D.C.-based Sunlight Foundation) who moderated a discussion on how the new information and online technologies can enhance political transparency and accountability.

With a heated Presidential campaign knocking on our door, timing couldn’t have been better for looking at the way political campaigning has changed in the digital age. And, judging by the numerous “Obama for President” signs on so many local front lawns, there is no greater relevancy than looking at how Obama, with the help of Silicon Valley supporters, pioneered an impressive method of generating grassroots support and funds by relying heavily on evolving means of social networking applications on the web.

Up until not too long ago, it was the 1960 televised debate between then-Presidential candidates Richard Nixon and J. F. Kennedy that was considered a classic part of the curriculum in every mass communications class. It wasn’t until Presidential hopeful Howard Dean who, with the enthusiasm and support of many young, Internet-savvy, college-age voters, raised the bar of the common campaigning boundaries yet another notch by establishing an innovative online fundraising platform which addressed and especially appealed to young potential voters.

As a media professional, I find these anecdotes an excellent demonstration of how a calculated use of media, which has moved from emphasizing the message to highlighting the delivery through new means, created such political shifts. And, while it could have been the lack of on-air charisma (and the apparent lack of appropriate TV makeup) which cost Nixon the elections, it was most likely the loud on-air “Dean Scream” (emphasized over the background noise level by the unidirectional microphone he was holding) which cost Howard Dean his innovative “invisible primary.”

For 15 years now, since the inception of the World Wide Web, our lives have been changing bit by bit, literally. And ever since, a whole generation, born into the digital age and now coming of age, has been reshaping culture, education, social connectivity and civic engagement. Dubbed the Digital Natives generation, according to Berkman’s executive director and professor John Palfrey and faculty fellow Urs Gasser, they keep defying quite a few myths.

Their recent research shows that children not only gain critical thinking and social engagement skills from their online activities as well as from their offline lives, but that, though naturally not politically engaged or taking part in civic activities on or offline, they understand their civic role in society. They realize that their voices can be heard. The wide, fluid space of the Internet provides them with virtual networks in which they can engage in socializing, entertainment, learning and political action.

As a voting parent to two first-time voters, and as a Digital Immigrant (like most other pre-1980 folks), I explore the new virtual playground made available to us on the Internet. Even with the rapidly changing rules of the game, I am quite amazed at how seamlessly children move from one medium to another, able to sort through the bombardment of messages out there and choose the right content (for them) and the right level of engagement, whether educational, social or political, whether virtual or real.

 

( This article was posted here and published there on May 23, 2008 )

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