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« Don't Betray Yourself Barack!!! | Main | Sam Merten: Hunting Down the Garbage »


Discovering Young Voters, Part 3

By Sarah Burris
July 1, 2008

The third installment of my series guided at teaching folks about young voters is here! If you haven't read the previous pieces you can find Discovering Young Voters, Part 1 and Part 2.

Often times we bypass the introductory level information assuming everyone knows about these things. Therefore, today I'd like to continue the series for entry level topics to create an understanding of why young voters are important and how they impact elections, what are frequent mistakes about young voters, what are attitudes of young voters, youth policy and talking about issues, and how to begin a youth program.

Young Voter Attitudes

There is a beautiful Chinese Proverb that says "Tell me and I'll forget; show me and I may remember; involve me and I'll understand." To understand the attitudes of young voters you must understand where young voters are coming from and the lives they live. I have the unique position of actually being a young voter myself, but further I'm immersed in pop-culture. Not as someone who is cool (believe me I'm not... not even a little bit), but I watch, I learn, I listen, I experience, and I remember.

With understanding comes great wisdom. Thus sayeth the Sarah... or possibly someone I stole that from.

And to understand Millennials, you really have to understand three major key points: 1) Why they are on social networks and where they are socially networking; 2) The influence of Millennials on their parents and other generations; and, 3) How they want to be involved and impact the world around them.

I am in great admiration of a PhD candidate at Berkeley's iSchool named Danah Boyd who I believe is a delightful subversive and sublime troublemaker. She recently wrote Why the Youth (Heart) Social Networking> (pdf):

"Music is cultural glue among youth. As the bands began advertising their presence on MySpace, mid 20/30-something club goers jumped on board in the hopes of gaining access to VIP passes or acquiring valuable (sub)cultural capital. While fans typically have to be 21+ in the United States to get into the venues where bands play (because of alcohol laws), younger audiences are avid consumers of music and the culture that surrounds it. When young music aficionados learned that their favorite bands had profiles on MySpace, they began checking out the site."

In her other piece, Viewing American class divisions through Facebook and MySpace, she explains that since the inception of Facebook was rooted in the Ivy League community and MySpace with music aficionados there naturally began a class divide between users of the two spaces. Class divisions breed variations in purpose for use as well as length of time spent on the site, education background, race, and even location. Since Facebook has opened its doors to everyone that gap is closing, but the divisions are still wide.

"The goodie two shoes, jocks, athletes, or other 'good' kids are now going to Facebook. These kids tend to come from families who emphasize education and going to college. They are part of what we'd call hegemonic society. They are primarily white, but not exclusively. They are in honors classes, looking forward to the prom, and live in a world dictated by after school activities.

"MySpace is still home for Latino/Hispanic teens, immigrant teens, 'burnouts,' 'alternative kids,' 'art fags,' punks, emos, goths, gangstas, queer kids, and other kids who didn't play into the dominant high school popularity paradigm. These are kids whose parents didn't go to college, who are expected to get a job when they finish high school. These are the teens who plan to go into the military immediately after schools. Teens who are really into music or in a band are also on MySpace. MySpace has most of the kids who are socially ostracized at school because they are geeks, freaks, or queers."


For a candidate to only have a Facebook Fan Page excludes an enormous population of young people. A presence in both is a must.

In Socializing Digitally (pdf), Danah addresses some of the topics you can see in this video of her speech.

Aside from those trends, I highly recommend looking at the Purchase Power of the Millennial Generation. While this doesn't seem like it would make a difference what kind of detergent a Millennial prefers their mom buy its incredibly important. In the 1990's we saw one of the waves of the recycling movement which was attributed in large party by young people who forced their parents to act accordingly.

If Millennials can convince their folks to recycle (I know I did), to buy specific detergent, to get an iPhone (my mom did), or how they spend their money, can you imagine how they influence their politics? I can promise you that my folks would never have read as much, watched as many debates, or seen as many political events if I hadn't been there pushing the buttons on the remote. I'm not alone.

Finally, Millennials are a creative and participatory bunch. Unlike some generations (you know who you are) they are more doers than talkers. Oh, I'm sure we talk plenty, but we like to do stuff. And Millennials are super creative. Some people like to say that they are more about having things exactly the way they want them. Don't get caught up in this old-school mentality.

According to Richard Sweeny University librarian at the New Jersey Institute of Technology,

"Millennials want more options, more personalization and customization, not one-size, cookie-cutter learning approaches. They want practical, efficient learning processes and they want to learn better, have more fun, and do so faster...."

Ford figured it out, too:

"Youth are purchasing more than any previous generation, and they're personalizing everything from sneakers to cell phones and handbags to headlamps.

"Today's youth have come to expect customization in all their product choices, having grown up with the Internet and the world of personal technology – from personalized Web pages to play lists for MP3 players," says Valentic. "They're presented with endless choices, so it's important for youth to be different and to stand out in the sea of choices. In fact, they place a premium on one-of-a-kind style."

What this means is that young people want to personalize their relationship to politics and government too. They want to do something and they want it to be personal. This sucks for all those control freak operatives out there. Remember a few years ago when everyone was wanking to George Lakoff's Don't Think of an Elephant? Not that its a bad book, its quite good. But what I thought then and I think we're seeing now, is that 10 people saying exactly the same thing isn't as valuable as 500 people all being positive about a candidate. Distribution is key.

When operatives learn to let go of the control and let their people help in ways that make sense for them - whether its blogging, or making videos, or podcasts, or digital art, or whatever the hell they want ... all boats will rise. Let go, bring them in. Let the masses lead the charge.

So here's the thing... when understanding young people's attitudes you have to understand where they are coming from. There is a lot of potential if you can just chill with some young peeps. Get to know them and you get to know how to organize them, guide them, and harness their energy and influence.


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