The notion of adolescence and childhood has been in a progressing state of blurriness due to the rising Digital Native population and the concept of technology functioning as a necessary part of young adult’s everyday lives. Shah and Abraham discuss in Digital Natives with a Cause? how this generation of individuals has the potential to cultivate a new wave of activists who can be empowered through technology to develop new movements to change the world. Engaging with local knowledge within the context of one’s community while actively appropriating global paradigms into these digital campaigns creates a beautiful balance between local and global perspectives. However, to assume this generation of individuals truly understands, appreciates, and appropriates their power is definitely stretching our faith and trust in this group of young people.
Popularized by turmoil in the Middle East and the Arab Spring, the term ‘slacktivism,’ is the notion that the individuals who are updating social media about relevant news happenings aren’t actually the individuals directly participating in the action or the movement. It is a kind of “bandwagon” effect, where these users believe they are helping the cause by using digital resources to update their followers, but the extent of their physical assistance to the cause my reap little to no benefit. In a way, it represents a false sense of confidence and is considered taking the easy way out when we are referring to notions of hard campaigning and protesting. However, the beauty of social media is that if one person tweets about a news event, pop culture reference or global issue, someone is likely to see it and respond, or at least make a mental note and be more conscious and aware as a result. Social media represents a highly visible, digital platform for all the world to see, digest and respond to.
One of my personal favorite examples of slacktivism and as Shah and Abraham coin “e-activism,” is the Kony Campaign of 2012.
The video has collected over 100 million views, as of today, and was one of the first success stories of digital activism in our modern era, besides the grass-roots social media campaign for Obama in 2008. Participants and users of all ages contributed to the cause by just sharing the YouTube link on their profile pages. At the time, it seemed like everyone involved was actively helping to capture Kony and solve the problem at hand, while the reality is that frankly they weren’t contributing directly to the cause. Some may argue that by sharing the video, it created awareness and lead to donations, which is true, but when you boil it down to the actions, simply sharing a YouTube video doesn’t help to capture the enemy. We must consider the extent of involvement individuals play in online activism.
The report discusses how cyberpublics (e.g. blogging, social networking, user-generated media websites like YouTube) help to disseminate images and information that promote liberal ideals of tolerance and co-existence. On websites like Tumblr, for example, you are able to find a vibrant culture of awareness, advocacy, and activism that educates users on social issues and critical theory in a way that allows individuals to engage positively with a political community. In areas that are under the control of a totalitarian or authoritarian system, the Internet offers a way for individuals to resist oppressive socio-political power in a way that minimizes personal vulnerability. Individuals in these cultures are able to connect with like-minded individuals and actively protest acts of political or structural violence, giving their subversive discourse more cultural power.
However, I also think it’s important to recognize how the Internet can, in fact, be used to encourage intolerance. For instance, just as the Internet allows positively minded individuals to connect with other people with similar aims to promote positive change, it also allows increased interaction to people with more regressive or violent interests. Traditionally, members of hate groups like the Ku Klux Klan were only able to recruit members and spread messages of extremism via person-to-person contact; now, the Internet allows members to spread dangerous ideologies to others they would have otherwise not have been able to contact. (I would link to the KKK’s website here, but I actually don’t want to give them any more web traffic.)
And it’s not just these ostentatiously regressive political groups that promote intolerance in the age of the Internet. You can find equally dangerous but more furtive discourse on other, more benign areas of the Internet. For instance, in the subreddit “The Red Pill,” a community of users encourage a perception of modern society as being female-dominated (as opposed to male-dominated). The rhetoric on this website is implicitly (and, often, explicitly) misogynistic, with women being cast as cruel, consumeristic, unintelligent shrews and feminism being characterized as a conspiracy to ruin the lives of men. However, because the community is not obviously violent (with some very significant exceptions), their ideas and ideologies are able to be consumed by naive users without critique.
My point is that the Internet can be used as an instrument of spreading both tolerance and intolerance, and that merely identifying the positive aspects without recognizing the negative results in an unfortunately unbalanced idea of the digital world.
Nishant Shah and Sunil Abraham’s, Digital Natives with a Cause?, discusses the advent of the term “digital native” to describe “children born after 1980; youths significantly affected by the rise of Internet technologies; [and] an emerging global population growing up with digital technologies central to everyday functioning.” This report also focuses on the limited scope that academic literature has displayed in regards to the digital native identity, which has lead to “no theoretical understanding or serious expostulation of what a Digital Native identity can mean.” The digital native is generalized as ignorant and dumb, with an addiction to the Internet that leads to poor social skills. The Internet also serves as a place for digital natives to be more confessional and allows for a limited notion of privacy, as well as allowing digital natives to become self-centered and self-important. These are a few of the many negatives that have been focused on in regards to the digital native in literature, but are obviously generalizations.
In an article published in The Baffler called “The ‘Digital Native,’ a Profitable Myth,” author Jathan Sadowski claims the terms digital native and digital immigrant, which first appeared in A 2001 article written by the education consultant Marc Prensky, “are prime subjects for inquiry. In brief, they overlook socio-economic differences, which exist within the younger generations, and do so in a way that creates lucrative business opportunities for education gurus.” Shah and Abraham’s report issues a similar criticism and states that “engagement with youth should focus on their development as responsible and active citizens rather than on their digital exploits or technologized interests.” However Sadowski argues “when we take a look at the data and research, however, it becomes clear that the great divide between ‘digital natives’ and ‘digital immigrants’ is a puff of smoke—one that obscures the actual differences that other factors (like socio-economic status, gender, education, and technological immersion) play in digital proficiency.” What is happening in the discussion about digital natives is that “we effectively erase the stark discrepancies between access and privilege, and between experience and preference. By glancing over these social differences, and just boosting new technologies instead, it becomes easy to prioritize gadgets over what actually benefits a diverse contingent of people. And those skewed priorities will be to the detriment of, say, less well off groups who still lack the educational resources necessary to learn basic reading and writing literacy skills.” The digital native moniker erases many individuals, who, while born after 1980, do not, because of differences in education, literacy, etc, conform to the notion of a digital native.
This comprehensive report, “Digital Natives With a Cause?” by Nishant Shah and Sunil Abraham attempts to defend the best intentions of digital natives and seeks to contribute to the current lack of academic literature about the identity of Generation Y. We are described as “without agency, solipsistic, and hedonistic, thus dismissing his cultural interactions and processes as trivial, and implying he lives for indulgent consumption and personal gratification.” The constant criticism is heard quite clearly and remains ringing surprisingly well within our young ears for a generation supposedly diagnosed with attention deficit disorder. We’ve managed to utilize digital communicative technologies to expose ourselves on the Internet and place our vulnerable selves onto mainstream pedestals for all to see. Children are finally being seen as well as heard and the adults don’t like it. I appreciate Shah and Abraham’s efforts to support us digital natives and to even perceive the complexity of digital natives as an area that demands imperative research.
Despite all the self-gratification we digital natives like to indulge in through likes and comments on social media platforms, we are actually left insecure about ourselves due to a lack of acceptance from our main role models, the adult community. Powerless, self-centered, and self-indulgent are stereotypes we’ve been sentenced to bear upon our identities. Even when young artists take initiative to challenge social media and disprove the illusion of an absent-minded generation, their efforts are dismissed and satirized. The Vice article features an Instagram artist who constructed a pseudo-representation of herself through her posts in an attempt to, “reproduce[d] our obsession with self-branding to show that we don’t present ourselves through Instagram, we create selves through Instagram, using a series of cultural and material markers of identity.” The artist, Amalia Ulman, even titled this performance as “Excellences and Perfections” and follows this movement of post-Internet artists like Ryder Ripps who seek to “unsettle our comfortable relationship with technology.” Vice, a cultural source produced mainly by digital natives, diminishes the significance of Ulman’s performance, ending the article on a sneering, sarcastic note. I can understand on both ends, why Vice treats this artist as someone lesser than a traditional performer as well as why Ulman’s performance remains so intriguing and casts a point. What I do not exactly understand is where this contradiction emerges from. Digital natives themselves seem to be walking paradoxes, embracing technological growth at one point and attacking those who provoke it the next.