The Civic Me: Civic Identity Expression in Online Spaces panel at DML 2013 | MIT Center for Civic Media

The Civic Me: Civic Identity Expression in Online Spaces panel at DML 2013

Liveblog of The Civic Me panel at DML 2013

Panel Description
Click to read on DML 2013 site.

The Civic Me panelists


  • Margaret Rundle (chair), Emily Weinstein - Harvard University
  • Neta Kligler-Vilenchik, Liana Gamber Thompson - USC
  • Chris Evans - Mills College
  • Brittany Spralls - Mikva Challenge

Introduction (Margaret Rundle)
It really should be "The Civic and Political Me" as a title but that's just too long.

Panel's Focus: How are young people expressing their civic and political identities online? featuring insights from research and practice, diverse qualitative methodological approaches, different units of analysis, differing levels and types of youth civic and political engagement and primary settings, and personal experience and observation in the field. Will offer recommendations for educators at the end.

Panel is meant to be "research + practice." Research is represented here by three teams from the MacArthur YPP network, exploring the intersection of youth, new media and political life. They engage in both quantitative and qualitative research, and this particular panel focuses on the latter. The qualitative methodology offers an important component to the research ask

Practice is represented by Brittany Spralls from Mikva Challenge, a Chicago based organization that works to develop the next generation of civic leaders, activists, and policy makers. Brittany is an alumna of Mikva and now serves on its staff as the Issues to Actions Coordinator

Engagement and Identity: the Youth and Participatory Politics network is interested in youth civic and political engagement. They define participatory politics as "interactive, peer-based acts through which individuals and groups seek to exert both voice and influence on issues of public concern" (Cohen and Kahne, 2012).

New media creates novel context and opportunities to engage in participatory politics; "the boundlessness of action" (Danielle Allen). Theory and research point to connections between identity and engagement (Crocetti et al., 2012, Hart el al., 2011).

Reason for panel: To better understand engagement via new media we need to explore identity online.

Summary of Methodologies and Presentation Foci
Methodologies and Presentation Foci

Presentation 1: Civic Identity Expression Patterns and Motivations in Online Spaces
Emily Weinstein
Harvard University

(Full Disclosure: I managed this research project as a research assistant at Harvard Project Zero before coming to MIT ~Erhardt)

Leads with @KimKarshian's "Twitter Snafu" (Kim is one of 10 most followed people on Twitter). November 16th, 2012: "Praying for everyone in Israel." Kim received lots of negative feedback, even death threats. So she tweeted out, "And praying for everyone in Palestine and across the world!" Later, she deleted both posts after receiving another huge backlash. This is similar to what young people can sometimes encounter at a smaller level when they try to engage in these spaces, publicly developing their identity by discussing political issues

Recruitment for study: youth were selected through civic organizations, had started civic organizations in the target cities, or had won awards for their personal civic work.

Emily asks us, What do you expect? Do civically engaged youth express this facet of their identities online? How might they express their civic identity in relation to there identities (persona, professional)? She will argue that it's complicated to enter these spaces for youth. And for some, expressing their identity online may not seem a good use of their time.

So how are offline civic expression and participation related to online expression? They find three main patterns:
1) Blended: express offline civic views and participation in their online lives, 50% described this expression pattern
2) Fragmented: very involved offline in some cases, but refrain from sharing those views and actions online, 20% follow this pattern
3) Bracketed: express offline civic views on one platform but not another, e.g. use Facebook and Twitter differently, 20% follow this pattern

The remaining 10% of the interview sample had very low usage of social media generally.

Bri, age 21, was Emily's example for the Fragmented pattern. She said in her interview, "I don't use it to promote anything." She noted how her peers would sometimes pose in their profile photos with kids from developing countries where they had worked, and she felt this was inappropriate.

Emily showed a flow chart of Motivations for Civic Expression
Motivations for Civic Expression

  1. They do not provide a rationale
  2. As a response to an organizational policy
  3. As a result of a personal choice (MOST PARTICIPANTS)
    1. Because of their attitudes toward the platform
      1. Related to perceptions of the audience
      2. Related to functionality of a platform
    2. In order to dance a particular goal
      1. Related to an issue of public concern
      2. Related to a personal interest, might be more self-promotional

A quote from Trent, age 21, exemplifies civic expression related to an Issue of Public Concern: "suddenly some of my friends are looking at this and probably seeing this for the first time."

Jimmy, age 21, exemplified the personal interest expression: "See what I've accomplished." "It's Personal PR."

Emily ends with the implications for education. Bill Damon says the development of civic identity is important both socially and psychologically as young people try to develop a sense of purpose, it's "what fills you out." We need to consider and reflect on the complex array of expression patterns and motivations; no one answer fits all.

Presentation 2: Integrating Civic and Personal Identities Online
Neta Kligler-Vilenchik & Liana Gamber Thompson

Using the framework Emily introduced in her presentation, Neta talks about her case studies of organizations featuring a high degree of blending, youth integrating activism into personal social networks. And asks, Why is that? What are the advantages and drawbacks both for organizations and members?

In their cases all participants are actively online. Most participants were blended and/or bracketed. Case number one is the Harry Potter Alliance, established in 2005 , mostly high school and college age youth organizing around Harry Potter fandom. Case number two is Students for Liberty, established in 2008, mostly college students organizing around libertarianism. Both organizations are non-profit, youth-led, and take innovative approaches to new media.

The methodology involved 60 interviews (30 for each case study) of youth ages 15—25, participant observation (both online and local), and media content analysis.

So how and why is blending common?
1) Organizational support: mobilizing efforts assume use of social networks, creating spreadable content, use a wide variety of platforms through which members can share

Examples: Students for Liberty's spreadable content: hipster barista meme "I was a libertarian before it went mainstream" creates a thin messages but is also a entry into a Facebook post describing a principle and event announcement. HPA spreadable content: fan Julian came out as undocumented, and Morgan from HPA (age 23) spread it by reblogging it on tumblr, retweeted it from the HPA account," Julian asked them to spread it, "he asks us to do it and I support him."

They both have presences on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, YouTube. The challenge is that it's hard to have consistent message and tailor message to each platform (YouTube videos are always under 4 minutes, e.g.). And platforms are used for different purposes, which supports bracketing practices. Bruce says "I don't feel like I can have a good conversation on Platform [X]."

2) Member motivation: affiliation is perceived as part of online's identity, blending as a way to connect to like-minded others, in some cases ideologically driven

Example in quote from Students for Liberty youth: "Yeah, I mean to see my political beliefs as port of my personal life. I think it kind of just define who I am. I think it says a lot about who I am. So yeah, i don't really bother keeping them separate and I am not ashamed of who I am." A lot of libertarians felt like they were crazy — the only libertarians around for miles and miles — blending allowed them to connect to other like-minded youth online.

Libertarian belief is so strong the they are willing to be the ambassadors of their ideology interpersonally. This is less so among HPA youth because dissemination of ideology happens more at the organizational level.

Open Questions

  • Is blending a normatively preferred method of engagement?
  • Do its benefits outweigh its potential drawbacks?

For members: What happens when the social network is all politicized (no personal use)?
One SFL youth posts a lot of libertarian and political content on Facebook feed, and feels she need to go back and post other things on her feed to "show that I'm a real person."

When does the push to spread content through personal networks become too much pressure?
HPA sends out content to share everyday but as one HPA member explains, "I can't annoy my real life friends that much." She has to decide whether she really wants to share 5 times a day. Spreadable media is easy to share but might have personal consequences

For organizations: At what point do platforms become become saturated and publics become desensitized to the message? This is related to the previous issue of HPA's five messages a day. The message can be lost when it's at this volume.

Presentation 3: Freedom of online political expression?
Chris Evans, Mills College

Chris starts by citing the National YPP survey project sample: most young people are not involved in participatory politics (59% versus 41%) in the last 12 months, not even forwarding funny videos or commented on political blogs. Her interviews indicate this is likely due to a lack of resources. There are few after school opportunities for developing civic identity.

Her methodology comprised 38 interviewees, from Chicago and two cities in NC, and followed the Harvard interview protocol closely. It was convenience sample: 56% had participatory politics experience, 44% were not involved, i.e. they ended up oversampling engaged youth but it was closer to reality than the Harvard study.

Points of civic engagement included religious based youth groups, fraternal orgs, and traditional organizations like Key Club. Interviewees said that these groups often felt like a family and coincided with their values like believing that some people needed a second chance.

For these youth political identity expression is conflicted. They prefer to speak politics only in certain, safe spaces like among friends and family. They felt unsupported by their civic organizations when it came to politics; there civics was more service oriented. Politics was associated with provocation and conflict.

Digital media create new unknown spaces where the threat of conflict looms. "I guess I sort of avoid arguments … because you never really know how they are going to respond. … I would rather keep it to my self," said one interviewee, specifically referencing her interest in voting for McCain when everyone else in her community online was talking about how they would vote for Obama.

The average youth doesn't enter this pace with strong internal political convictions which might support their political expression online, unlike in the Harvard sample.

Leader of a service fraternity who was interviewed took a strong position against posting political views, but she did use Facebook and Twitter to mobilize for her community service work. She frames her civic practices as helping the community; they are not political. However, digital media brings her work to a larger audience that might not agree with her apolitical framing.

Member of Latina sorority also didn't want to express politics online, only updates about sorority service work. But when their national sorority moved to endorse the DREAMers movement, they all updated Facebook statuses with the campaign, finding online a more safe space when done together.

Presentation 4: Mikva Challenge
Brittany Spralls, Mikva Challenge

Brittany is here to talk about how Mikva gets youth involved in the political process through digital media.

"Mikva Challenge develops the next generation of civic leaders, activists and policy-makers. We do this by providing young people with opportunities to actively participate in the political process, because we believe that the best way to learn leadership and to learn democracy is to experience both." (Mikva Challenge's mission statement).

Brittany says their mission is all about learning by doing. They believe there is not one student who develops a passion for politics in the same way another student does. One might get there through campaigning, another through activism, etc. They have three councils of 15 students each who work on different policy issues in the city of Chicago: health, education, and youth issues. They meeting with officials in the city who work on these issues. Mikva also has an after school program, called Peace and Leadership Councils at 10–15 schools in Chicago, in which they work with students to develop leadership and conflict resolution skills. Lastly, they have a program that focuses on community organizing and activism.

Brittany talks about all the amazing opportunities she has had through Mikva: interning for US senator, working on a presidential campaign, etc. and how this has served to develop her civic identity.

Mikva mainly works with Chicago Public Schools students. They try to provide a safe space for students to express their political views online and offline, the platform and necessary tools to express their political and civic identities, and they guide and support students in their development as civic leaders. They aim for giving them a sense of efficacy and confidence.

One specific way Mikva tries to do this is by providing the tools for media making, and teaching students how to use those tools to get their voice and message across. They are championing youth voice ,so it is very important to have a strong social media presence in order to reach the youth they serve. They have Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram accounts to do this. And they bulk of their followers are current and former students, as well as a significant number of educators. They want their social media community to represent a safe space.

They also use social media to measure their successes and keep our youth informed on the latest issues. They even connect youths to elected officials through social media.

Case 1: DC Inauguration Trip
They asked their students to document and post their experience on Facebook, Twitter, and Instragram. One 12th grade participant said, "My best political experience was the Inauguration. It was amazing. We were so close and so we were able to feel the energy and excitement."

Case 2: Celebrate MLK Day
MLK is often the first time that Mikva's students come to the downtown area where our office is location. It's important to create a welcoming place during that even. Brittany says that Chicago is most segregated city in US. They try to counteract this by building solidarity between neighborhoods that typically do not interact with each other. Their celebration included an "I am Chicago" campaign that stressed that you are not limited to a certain area of Chicago (youth should expand their sense of identity).

Case 3: Youth Solution Congress
At this yearly event, students talk about what issues in Chicage are most important to them and develop recommendations. The Youth Issues Council then reports these solutions to Mayor Rahm Emanuel. The conversation during the event unfolded over Facebook through the prompt of "I dream of a Chicago where… " in which attendees would write the rest of the sentence on a piece of paper and get photographed. These were uploaded to the Facebook page where they could be talked about by other youth. They also held a Twitter debate during the congress on the hashtag #YSCTalk. Students lobbied for their favorite solutions in tweets. They used a huge screen to show the tweets as they they were posted. One example is, "Table 21 wants 9 because we think jobs will keep you active and help you provide for your family #YSCTalk." The staff used Storify to categorize tweets and photos from the day.

Case 4: Represent Me Chicago
The goal of this project was to give platforms for students to come together around an issue important to them and create 30-second videos targeted at one of their elected officials. Mikva would post the videos on the Represent Me Chicago website and also send them to the officials.

Brittany offered two quotes to summarize Mikva's impact. One for a current student: "Beyond instilling confidence, a love of politics and sense of giving back, Mikva also taught me how to be open-minded." And another from an alum: "My experience at Mikva has play an important role in laying the foundation for my personal and professional development." Brittany agrees wholeheartedly with this reflection. She says Mikva's programs really affect the whole person, and a lot of alumni want to go into policy work or become elected officials themselves.

Summary (Margaret Rundle)
Are young people expressing themselves? Yes, a number are but not all, but they find barriers. Some patterns and expressions work for some youth. They express themselves in different ways and with different reasons for doing so. Some organizations provide supports for this activity. There is not one clear answer here about how this works or what works best.

Recommendations for Educators:
Recommendations and Implications

  • Youth need support as they navigate the evolving terrain of online identity expression
  • Educators can:
    • Facilitate reflective conversations regarding the what, how, when, where, and why of expressing a civic identity (deepen knowledge)
    • Scaffold youth as they explore their civic identities online, helping them connect expression to a realized civic identity
    • Help you deal with conflict and social pressures in online dialog rather than simply refrain from participating in civic and political discussions

Other relevant considerations from the conference include the need to develop "navigational capital," provide safe spaces for young people (not force them to take risks when they aren't ready), and build supportive communities,

Q: (me) You talked about the importance of being ready to take a risk. But often people grow through being forced to take risks? So what is the importance of risk taking to developing civic identity?
Brittany: Mikva doesn't force risk, but it's more a push, we take kids that volunteer and we see the potential in them and push them to get more involved. I personally didn't need much pushing but instead need the tools to get my point across. We definitely push them and put them in that space and then they tend to grow. In the process, they become fearless, build confidence. I never worried about issues I was really passionate about like police brutality. But in college, there were certain things I didn't want to post, not sure if online is a perfectly safe space. You want to share that with like-minded people.
Henry Jenkins: In the case of It Gets Better, the risks were not proportional to the gains as danah boyd points out, they didn't have the publicity or legal structure around certain activists and that led to tragedy for those that revealed their personal narratives.

Q: Improvisation as a metaphor for working in created safe spaces: laying a foundation, connecting people through community (fandom e.g.) and then pushing others to go farther.
Neta: Context collapse (danah boyd's concept), unattended audiences attack you in spaces that are not safe though the media was created in a safe space. Have to be aware of how your message can spread beyond what you think.

Q: Civic identity as a community construct versus the abstract notion that you have a particular identity like "Volunteerer" — Seems like risk is a western, individualized concept. Opinion is based on "What do you think versus what do we think."
Liana: I just want to say that "All of the libertarians are individuals."
Neta/Emily/Me: How comfortable do people feel with the label of activism? The would call what they do activism but wouldn't call themselves activists.
Chris: This is a moment in youth when identity is fluid. There are many paths that youth I talked to could go in.

Q: (Joe Kahne): Is their an ideal in the blended model of identity expression? With the collapse of youths' public and private sphere, kids seem struggle with the tension between these two.
Emily: Our panel struggled about making a value judgment about what is the best model of political expression and offline/online identity development. This remains a complicated and open question.