How government can engage young people online

Researcher danah boyd has a message for government: You're doing it wrong

Young people don’t want to be the government’s friend on Facebook. They aren’t likely to welcome an official dropping into an online conversation uninvited. And if you want to communicate with them where they live, you need to be on mobile. These are just a few of the insights danah boyd shared with me this week.

danahboyd.jpgFor years, boyd has been at the forefront of the conversation about privacy and publicity in the digital age. Her groundbreaking digital ethnography research on class in social networking made its way into public discourse. Her subsequent dissertation, in which she investigated how American teenagers socialize in networked publics like MySpace, Facebook, LiveJournal, Xanga and YouTube, has informed academics, industry and parents alike about what it means to be young on today’s Internet.

Three weeks before she’s slated to deliver her thoughts on connecting with communities at the Gov 2.0 Expo in D.C., boyd offered me a clear assessment of how government agencies and officials are reaching out online: they’re not doing it right.

“We say we want politically engaged youth, but when they engage, we dismiss, reprimand and punish them,” tweeted boyd last month, referring to student protests of budget cuts in New Jersey. “These are the things we should be encouraging,” she said. “Kids really engaging on a topic that matters: funding of their schools, firing of their teachers.”

“We spend years telling young people that they shouldn’t interact with strangers,” said boyd. “Government officials are strangers. They don’t want to talk to them. It’s not a matter of big data; they’re a stranger. You have to deal with trust.”

Using big data to understand what young people care about presents a different conundrum, said boyd. “No matter what, a government official scouring messages who reaches out will be seen as sketchy,” she said. “Behavioral advertising will be seen as less sketchy, but not much less. Even if Facebook is restricting targeted advertising, that will be seen as intrusive. If government agencies come in with ads, it won’t go over well. We can target people to the ends of the earth but should we be doing it?”

The key to bringing young people into online civic dialogues is to create places where they want to engage, said boyd. “The idea is that if they want to be politically active, they can use technology to do that. Create spaces where, if they are motivated, they can participate. You have to give them a reason to do that. We’ve spent a long time telling young people they’re not relevant because they can’t vote.”

Consider the financial crisis, suggests boyd. “Some of the most screwed-over people are college students or recent graduates with student loans. The press covers it, but where are the politicians? This is a moment to engage students. If we don’t meet them on those terms, technology won’t make it magically happen.”

Online engagement strategies for young people

Gov 2.0 Expo 2010“Digital platforms only work for the people that are already engaged,” said boyd. “The key is to include young people in the narrative created for adults. Show them that they matter in the material presented for general consumption. Create a presence in social networking sites like Facebook, MySpace and Twitter. Write tools for the politically-engaged to reach out to those who aren’t there yet. And make that ‘shareability’ and ‘spreadability’ really easy to use.”

Think like a gamer, suggests boyd. “How can you make engaging with government like a game? Can you you give points for engagement? You’re going to have ‘Level 70’ and ‘Level 10’ players. You’ll need to make it fun for both.”

Local governments should also put more effort into engaging with young people online. “Involvement in local government leads to federal government,” said boyd. “It’s rarely the opposite direction. When everyone is focused on a local election, you often see people engaging physically. For instance, asking them to show up and clean up the streets is something you can do easily. Government leaders can show up and talk to them there.”

She cautioned that government officials talking to young people should be cautious about trying to use lingo or be hip. “It just makes you look lame. Be straightforward and say, ‘I’m going to cover the issues that you care about, here are some different ways to contact me.’ This is about building cross-generational trust.”

Mobile campaigns are essential for engaging young people

Recent research from the Pew Internet and Life Project on teens and their mobile phones drives home just how important it is for government entities to adopt mobile strategies. According to Pew’s research:

Text messaging has become the primary way that teens reach their friends, surpassing face-to-face contact, email, instant messaging and voice calling as the go-to daily communication tool for this age group. 54% of teens [are] texting daily in September 2009. And it’s not just frequency — teens are sending enormous quantities of text messages a day. Half of teens send 50 or more text messages a day, or 1,500 texts a month, and one in three send more than 100 texts a day, or more than 3,000 texts a month.

Spreadability is key, said boyd. “Make it easy for the message to be spread between friends. Don’t assume that you’ll be another friend in the buddy list. The goal is to be a part of the information sources they draw upon,” said boyd. “If you focus on making content easy to share wherever they go, you don’t need to track everywhere that they are.”

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  • Gerhard

    Dear Danah, Dear follows,

    in most EU countries citizen dislike or even hate politicians since they are corrupt, stupid, non-ethic or meet all those criteria.

    And you believe that technology or social media can get rid of that utmost MISTRUST? If yes please let me know some best practices.

    kind regards,


  • Andrew Jackson

    The government mining of youth data and gov’t “outreach” to the public has been addressed, albeit in a different form, previously in a 1974 Congressional hearing and report. Engaging the public is merely another form of behavioral control, and is not the function of government in the US system. This direction should be tread very carefully.

    “Individual Rights & Behavior Modification”

    In 1974 Senator Sam J. Ervin, who chaired the Senate Subcommittee on Constitutional Rights’ three year investigation into federal behavior modification experiments, released a report that discusses remote brain monitoring technology that could be applied to prisoners, and could track, observe, and influence them even after their so-called release.

    Ervin said the following about behavior modification….

    “As disturbing as behavior modification may be on a theoretical level, the unchecked growth of the practical, the technology has expanded our capacity for meeting society’s needs, it has also increased, to a startling degree, our ability to enter and affect the lives of individual citizens …Senator Ervin reported that his committee watched with growing concern as behavioral research unearths vast new capabilities far more rapidly than we are able to reconcile the many important questions of individual liberties raised by these capabilities. He deplored the fact that with the speedy proliferation of these techniques few real efforts have been made to consider the basic issue of individual freedom involved and to minimize fundamental conflicts between individual rights and behavior technology. Rights and the Federal Role in Behavior Modification

    Individual Rights and the Federal Role in Behavior Modification
    A Study Prepared by the Staff of the Subcommittee on Constitutional Rights of the Committee on the Judiciary,
    United States Senate, 93rd Congress, 2nd Session, 1974.
    Sam Ervin, Chairman

    Report Abstract

    This report responds to a directive issued to the Senate Subcommittee on Constitutional Rights to conduct an investigation into behavior modification programs, with particular emphasis on the federal government’s involvement in the technology of behavior control and the implications of this involvement for individual rights. Two basic considerations motivated the investigation: first, the concern that the rights of human subjects of behavioral research are sufficiently protected by adequate guidelines and review structures; and second, the question of whether the federal government has any business participating in programs that may alter the substance of individual freedom. Although the material included in this report is by no means comprehensive, some initial findings are apparent:

    (1) there is widespread and growing interest in the development of methods designed to predict, identify, control, and modify individual behavior;
    (2) few measures are being taken to resolve questions of freedom, privacy, and self-determination;
    (3) the Federal government is heavily involved in a variety of behavior modification programs ranging from simple reinforcement techniques to psychosurgery; and
    (4) a number of departments and agencies fund, participate in, or sanction research involving various aspects of behavior modification.

  • Ola Berg

    The question is not how government should engage young people.

    The question is how the WeTheYoungPeople (aged 115 or younger) can engage the government agents.

    In a democracy, the government is _us_.

  • Sean Williams

    @Ola –

    In the USA, the US Constitution does not give the government any power to “engage” it’s citizens. These are foreign concepts that are being made “cool” and acceptable to people who do not fully understand our system of government or our history of values. “Engagement” can lead to control, and this is a very dangerous path.

  • Sam Ford

    Sean, I think your concerns are coming in how you might perceive government manipulating its citizens…I think we need to think of it differently than engage. Instead, we need to think about how government agencies might do two things: first, as danah suggests, governments need to think about how they put messages out there that citizens might need or want to know as material that is easy to spread and that citizens can easily react to and against. In other words, if the government is “us,” as Ola says, anything the government needs to communicate should be something that invites “us” to do that communicating and to add our own take, opinion, etc., in the process. Second, and even more fundamentally as we live in a representative government in the U.S., social media should be seen as a listening venue, not just for pumping messages out.

  • Arvind

    I agree centum percentum with the premise of the article. The phenomena of texting, and texting a lot simply shows how much people want to talk to each other, communicate and socialize.

    Having a Facebook fan page for #gov20 is a terrible way to implement governance 2.0. The question is, I have 30,000,000 fans but what next? Ideally the Governments/politicians will have to choose many-to-one broadcasting to listen to signal of voices in the crowd.

    Young kids hate leaders talking all the time. They want the leaders to listen instead, the voice of their togetherness, their common problems & joys and so on.

    Nice piece,



    this is a good piece. I really like it. It is important that we continue to share information about our needs and wants. this is the most appropriate strategy to combat the dreaded threats to our existence. Acknowledging the voice of the young people in matters that concern them negates spirit of true involvement. Ignore their voice and we stand to lose them and a great resource to finding a collective solution. in a democratict society, we cannot afford to ignore the most important partners who can help fight the course of issues concerning them.