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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