The New Civics

March 14, 2013

The Digital Media and Learning Conference is an annual event sponsored by the Humanities Research Institute at the University of California, Irvine. Its topics range widely from the use of digital media as a form of participatory culture to how youth activism benefits society and the ways in which social media expands the political voice of individuals and groups. Its fourth annual meeting (#dml2013) is being held in Chicago, March 14–16.

The keynote speaker on the first day was Ethan Zuckerman, director of the Center for Civic Media at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who began his talk with a clip from a YouTube video titled “Lunch Scholars.” It was produced in 2012 by Olympia (Wash.) High School students as a local version of Jay Leno’s recurring “Jaywalking” sketch on the Tonight Show, in which he takes a walk outside the studio and asks people simple questions in order to get funny answers.

“Lunch Scholars,” with its carefully edited silly answers (“Who is the vice president of the United States?” “Bin Laden?”) quickly went viral, igniting outrage on such differing media outlets as the Huffington Post and Glenn Beck’s radio show about the lack of civics savvy in a top high school. But since the five-minute video was winnowed down from four hours of interviews, it’s safe to say what was shown was not representative.

Zuckerman cited other studies, such as the National Assessment of Educational Progress (PDF file), that show that student knowledge of civics hasn’t decreased significantly in the past 12 years and may even have been stagnant for as long as 50 years. Youth voter turnout has actually increased since 1996.

“I think we can make the case that there is a crisis in civics,” Zuckerman said, “but it’s a crisis in agency. It’s not about passing a test. Rather you need to ask whether people feel they have the ability to influence their government or influence their communities on the issues they care about. The crisis comes about because the shape of civics is changing.”

Zuckerman cited four levers for change that symbolize the way civic engagement has evolved from the 19th-century standards of simply voting or writing to a congressional representative. All can be done with the help of social media:

  • Legislative engagement on a single issue (such as marriage equality) can be slow but targets lawmakers on their own terms.
  • Authority engagement influences authority figures, either elected (such as Obama coming out in favor of full equality for gay Americans) or nonelected, so that they can persuade others.
  • Public opinion engagement can change culture in the long term (perhaps taking more than 20–40 years) so that socially harmful practices (smoking in public or drinking and driving) become stigmatized.
  • Do-it-yourself infrastructures (websites, viral videos) attempt to solve our problems in the short term before long-term solutions emerge.

Another way of looking at engagement is to measure it as “thin” or “thick.” Thin engagement primarily means showing up and doing what people tell you to do (donate money, click on a petition). Thick engagement is more involved and invites people to “come join us and help us figure out where we are going in this movement.”

Zuckerman singled out the YOUmedia space in the Chicago Public Library, a space built around teens exploring their own interests, as a good example of thick engagement. “It strikes me that this is one of the first clues about how we want to teach civics,” he said. “We have to figure out what people’s interests and passions are, we have to figure out how to help them learn more and deepen their knowledge so they can do more than just show up.”

Zuckerman’s entire keynote can be found online at (starting at 22:50).