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Pew: Online Participatory Class is Young and Growing

BY Micah L. Sifry | Wednesday, September 2 2009

It appears everybody is putting the wrong headline on the new report on "The Internet and Civic Engagement" from the experts at the Pew Internet & American Life Project. "Online politics reserved for rich," says BBC News. "Study finds web no equalizer for civic engagement," says the Associated Press. "Internet still not for everyone," says the Columbus Dispatch.

Well, duh! Participation in civic life has long been stratified by income and education in America; in 1948, people in the bottom one-sixth of all earners voted at less than half the rate of people in the top one-third bracket (33% to 74%). In 2004, that gap was just slightly smaller, though overall participation rates had improved (respectively, to 56% and 90%). [Source: the American National Election Studies, the best longitudinal data on American political behavior.] Expecting the Internet, which has only become a mainstream arena for politics in the last four years, to somehow erase, overnight(!?), decades of deeply ingrained cultural habits and deliberate governmental policy designed to reduce political participation strikes me as, um, a bit silly.

Rather, the more interesting finding of the Pew study is that there's a new "pig in the python" in the generation of younger people who are using the Internet for political purposes at levels that literally blow everyone else off the charts. "Some 37% of internet users aged 18-29 use blogs or social networking sites as a venue for political or civic involvement, compared to 17% of online 30-49 year olds, 12% of 50-64 year olds and 10% of internet users over 65," reports Pew. And there's something interesting about this group--income and education appears to matter less in who participates:

Taken together, just under one in five internet users (19%) have posted material about political or social issues or a used a social networking site for some form of civic or political engagement. This works out to 14% of all adults -- whether or not they are internet users. A deeper analysis of this online participatory class …suggests that it is not inevitable that those with high levels of income and education are the most active in civic and political affairs. In contrast to traditional acts of political participation—whether undertaken online or offline—forms of engagement that use blogs or online social network sites are not characterized by such a strong association with socio-economic stratification.

[Emphasis added.]

Most crucially, for those of you who are reaching to google the word "slacktivism," coined to demean the "one-click" activist who "friends" a cause or politician online and then imagines they've changed the world, Pew notes In addition, "Those who use blogs and social networking sites as an outlet for civic engagement are far more active in traditional realms of political and nonpolitical participation than are other internet users. In addition, they are even more active than those who do not use the internet at all....members of this group are much more likely to take part in other civic activities such as joining a political or civic group, contacting a government official or expressing themselves in the media."

That's the future folks. It's already here, it's just not evenly distributed...yet.