Millenials, New Media and Social Change (Part Two)

What cultural contents define Millennials in the United States? Which cultural events have had the greatest impact on them?  What cultural reference points does this generation have?

With all of the reservations expressed above, we still have to say that one of the defining markers of the Millennial generation is that since 2000 (and a bit earlier), we’ve been in a period of profound and prolonged media change, marked by the proliferation of new communication platforms and practices, which are impacting every aspect of our lives. These technologies are increasingly taken for granted and incorporated into the texture of our everyday lives. It is not that every Millennial has had access to these technologies but they have all lived in a world that is defined by the possibility of access, a world shaped by their presence. These technologies create new contexts for socialization and learning that may or may not be embraced. Class, for example, determines different degrees of access to the technological infrastructure -- what we call the digital divide -- and access to the opportunities and resources that enable meaningful participation -- what we call the participation gap.

Class matters not simply for the obvious economic reasons -- some can afford different degrees of access than others -- but also because of different underlying parenting styles and different access to the kinds of community resources that might provide youth with effective mentors and different degrees of understanding of how these online experiences do or do not connect to other kinds of educational and economic opportunities. So, at the risk of reducing things too much, there’s a distinction between the involved middle class parent who seeks to shape the world around their child in order to maximize opportunities for success and the working class parent who places greater obligations on their children to serve the collective needs of the family. There’s a difference between the kinds of schools -- public and private -- which middle class youth can access which often embrace more open-ended, more flexible, more innovative, and more accommodating forms of pedagogy and the schools that are more common in working class communities, which have a much more hierarchical and discipline-focused approach, that focus on workplace preparation more than on cultural enrichment or civic engagement as the ultimate goal of their digital instruction. All of these insights come out of the work of the MacArthur Foundation’s Connected Learning research network which seeks a better integration of learning opportunities across all aspects of students lives and which is calling for more equitable access to the resources required to confront and overcome technological and cultural gaps.

What I observe when I meet Millennial students in my classroom at University of Southern California is that this generation has been caught between two totally contradictory impulses. On the one hand, there is the kind of learning which takes place within affinity spaces and participatory culture, and on the other hand there is the model of learning which has lead to such a strong emphasis on preparation for standardized testing. The opportunities on offer from the online world could have produced a generation of risk takers and game changers, students who are encouraged to set and pursue their own goals, who are highly motivated to learn based on their own interests and to apply what they learn in conversation with others who share those interests. This is what many of us saw as the promise of learning in an era of networked communication and participatory culture. On the other hand, the regime of standardized testing has produced students who are highly risk averse, who want to know the rules of the game going in, who want to be taught only what is required to succeed on the test.

But the Millennial generation is defined by more than their relationship to digital technology, having lived through a more or less equally tumultuous period of geopolitical transitions. This is the generation that has grown up post-9/11, living in a world marked by anxieties about terrorism, by a willingness to accept limits on privacy and observing the rise of new forms of surveillance, and by forms of racial and ethnic profiling, especially Islamophobia, which stems from a kind of “see something, say something” ethos that distrusts anyone different from us.  This generation has been more or less in a state of constant war since birth, although the war can often be so far removed from the everyday experiences of most Americans that it disappears from our thinking for extended periods of time. Their understanding of how democracy works has been shaped by a more or less permanent state of partisan gridlock and by some of the sharpest ideological divides in American politics since the Civil War and Reconstruction. Many older millennials cast their first votes for Barack Obama and thus their sense of whether or not government can work in their interest has been held hostage by the hopes and disappointments surrounding this particular political figure. For younger millennials, Obama has been the only American president that they have known (or at least been conscious of). 

They have, as such, been shaped by conflicting messages about race -- the claims of a post-racial society that surrounded Obama’s election, the struggles over immigration represented by the Dreamer movement on behalf of undocumented youth, and the sense of danger and risk for youth of color that has found its fullest expression in the Black Lives Matter movement. The Millennials are on the front lines of a major demographic shift in America, which over the next two decades will result in a Minority-Majority nation, and to confound things, a growing percentage are mixed race and of mixed cultural background so they are blurring the racial and ethnic categories through which we have historically organized our understanding of the society.  And they have been much quicker to embrace LGBTQ rights issues, such as marriage equality or transgender rights, than their parent’s generation had been. There has across much of this period also been a growing awareness of wealth inequalities, of limited opportunities and diminished expectations, which first found its expression through the Occupy movement and later through the campaign of Bernie Sanders, both of which have attracted massive numbers of millennial participants. Looking beyond the specifically American context, we would want to account for the impact of the Arab Spring movements, their short term success and long-term failure to transform governance in the Middle East, again, representing movements heavily shaped by the participation of youth in those countries and observed closely by young people elsewhere. 

Culturally, this generation has been shaped by the expansion of opportunities to create and circulate media -- what we call participatory culture -- and thus the breakdown of the monopoly of corporate producers on the kinds of media that they regularly consume. They are a generation whose expectations about what constitutes entertainment has been shaped by their access to computer and video games and not simply hard-railed games with limited options but the more open-ended forms of gaming represented by The Sims, World of Warcraft, and Grand Theft Auto at the start of this period and Minecraft at the current moment.  It is a generation that has been shaped by the kinds of heroic but often dystopian fantasies on offer through Young Adult novels -- that is, the generation informed by their shared engagement with Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, and a broad array of other stories of often empowered young women who take on powerful social and political structures to change the world around them.

They have been shaped by what people are calling the plentitude of contemporary television -- a period of “too much good television,” even though many of them have cut the cords to cable and may watch television primarily via streaming and downloads on their computers. As we look back on television across this period, we would want to specify the emergence and sustained interest surrounding reality television, the popularity of cult serialized dramas such as Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead, and the increased push to represent racial and ethnic diversity in both comedy and drama. Over the past year, some key markers of generational identity would include Hamilton and Beyonce’s Lemonade, both of which use hip hop, a style of music that has provided the soundtrack of their lives, to comment on racial politics in America.

Having recently seen Rogue One, I was struck by how many of the markers of Millennial popular culture it embodies. We can start with the fact that Millennials have been drawn to large transmedia franchises, which unfold over many different texts, over extended periods of time -- the return of Star Wars, yes, but also the Marvel Extended Universe or now Harry Potter, operate according to these principles. And Rogue One really represents a big step forward in terms of its play with backstory, its shifting of focus from primary to secondary characters, and its emphasis on world-building over narrative development. Second, Rogue One has an ensemble cast which is being celebrated for its inclusion and diversity as defined both by U.S. and global standards, including black, Latino, Arab, and Asian performers in key roles. Third, it has a “strong female protagonist,” similar to those found in YA novels, and reflecting a larger move in the Disney pictures towards heroic women who can handle themselves in action situations. And finally, the whole plot hinges on an act of  media transmission -- the uploading of the data files on the Death Star -- which brings us back to the centrality of digital media to the identity and experience of many from this generation. Other generations had stories about getting messages through in wartime, but not based on the kind of remote networked communication that is so central to this narrative. It’s not all about the digital where this generation is concerned, but the digital informs almost every other topic on their political and cultural agenda.


You’ve been looking closely at their political lives in recent years. How do these various factors shape the forms of citizenship and activism that has evolved there?

Over the last decade, I've been part of a multi-disciplinary research network created by the MacArthur foundation on Youth and Participatory Politics. Our mission was to better understand the political lives of American youth, combining quantitative and qualitative methods. My team's involvement consisted of doing ethnographic case studies of a number of different networks that have actively involved young people in the political process. The networks we looked at were mostly youth-centric, mostly started by people thirty or under, mostly spaces where young people could play very active roles in shaping the tactics and messages, and in many cases they were built around themes that really concern young people's entry into the political process. Altogether we interviewed more than 200 young activists, and what emerged there was a fairly consistent picture of the ways that a generation that had come of age in response to participatory culture was making the transition into political lives. For the purpose of the study we were dealing with youth defined in political terms -- we looked at people of an age who were too young to vote to people who were too young to run for public office - both very specific ages in the American context - people roughly seventeen to twenty-nine.

The first thing that emerged there was the idea that politics was being conducted by any media necessary. The phrase is a play on Malcolm X’s desire to bring about racial justice by any means necessary -- if you look at his speech defining this concept, he both calls for active recruitment of youth into the political practice and the use of a range of grassroots media to get protest messages out to the world. The tendency is to focus on the digital because that's what's new, and digital tools were certainly important in expanding who got to participate in the political process, and what participation meant for this generation, but the more closely we looked, the more it was clear that traditional tactics were also being used. Some of the young activists told us that they had access to very limited resources, and so they tapped whatever they had access to in order to get their message out. They also seemed conscious of the fact that a purely digital strategy would not help them reach older generation voters, and so the need to form coalitions meant they also worked with print media, with radio, did street protests, and used many other tactics that we might associate with other generations of political change. There are striking differences between the generations - research on African American youth, for example, finds much fewer of them engaging in boycotts, which had been a standard method of the Civil Rights movement, and a higher percentage involved in "buycotts," using their purchasing power to support groups that they think have made the right decisions and are doing the right thing. And that's a sea change, I think, in terms of what African American politics looks like in the United States.

What new media has meant has been an expansion of voice. Many of the young people we talked to had discovered their voice through largely cultural activities, participating as fans or gamers in online communities, but they were learning through these activist networks ways to translate those skills into new forms of political participation. So, for example, we were very interested in the work of fan activist groups, such as The Harry Potter Alliance and The Nerdfighters, that explicitly were seeking out young people who were culturally active but not yet politically active and helping them channel their energies into campaigns for social change. The Harry Potter Alliance is very interesting as large-scale organization, with more than 1,000 participants devoted to a range of different political issues, and with the variety to launch many different campaigns in the course of a year. They've involved everything from gay rights to hunger relief in Haiti to fair-trade chocolate to the labor rights of fast food workers in the South as well as issues of minimum wage and issues of environmentalism. So, unlike traditional activist groups, which tend to choose a single issue and focus on it, they tend to work with a shared cultural framework and deploy that to deal with a whole range of issues that their young people care about.

The Harry Potter Alliance led us to think very closely about what we're calling the "civic imagination." Building on a phrase from J. K. Rowling, they urge us to “imagine better,” by which they mean both do a better job imagining and imagine a better world and work to build it.  There's a tendency, especially on the Left, to think about policy in terms of facts, and that information will set us free, but we're seeing that imagination plays a crucial role in the political process. Before you can change the world you have to be able to imagine what a different or better world looks like. You have to be able to imagine what the process of change is, to imagine yourself as a civic and political agent capable of making change. You have to have a sense of an imagined community that you're a part of, a collective larger than yourself that is capable of being mobilized towards political goals. You often need some sense of empathy, or concern for people whose realities are different from your own. And for many who are marginal there is a leap of faith where you are imagining yourself as equal before you have had any direct experience of equality or reciprocity through the political process.

We find that these goals of the civic imagination get performed differently in different contexts. Historically, say, the founding fathers of the United States ran the civic imagination through allusions to ancient Rome and Athens, whereas the black civil rights movement in the 1950s conducted its business through the language of the black church and especially the story of Moses and the promised people's journey to freedom from the Egyptians. Young people today around the world are tying into the kinds of popular culture references we talked about earlier. They're fighting in the name of Harry Potter, they're using the three-finger salute from The Hunger Games as a sort of shared political marker across generations of activists around the world. They're dressing up like superheroes or putting on the Guy Fawkes mask, which in the United States really connotes V for Vendetta, to conduct their politics.

They do this because they're very invested in reshaping the political language. Many of the young people we talked to said that they found the language of contemporary American politics repulsive and exclusive. The rhetoric of American politics is repulsive in that it came in already encoded and partisan narratives that prevented people from finding common ground and common sense solutions, and exclusive in that if you were not already invested in policy discourse there were few points of entry for young people to enter into the political process. What we found was that young people wanted to actively shape the language of their political participation, that there was not a one message or one size fits all sort of rhetoric, and that the creation and circulation of memes is an important part of political speech for this generation. The meme is a shared language or discourse that many of them recognize and feel an affinity with. There's a kind of 'forthelulz' style of politics, which is a bit irreverent - all of which serves to increase their voice but doesn't necessarily increase their influence with earlier generations of political leaders. The messages that speak to millennials do not necessarily speak to the adult population, and so this where I think some of the crisis point is going to come for this generation. Lots of moments of misrecognition and misunderstanding across generations in terms of how people are pursuing their political agenda. It's important that these forms of activism are networked. Messages travel really rapidly from one site to the next, which allows success stories to be duplicated by activists not only around the United States but across the world, and many of the protests that have mattered for this generation do start out as global protesting. We can think about the Occupied movement as maybe the prime example of the kinds of politics that emerge in a global networked society.