Barack Obama's election victory owes much to his savvy use of the Internet and other new media as campaigning tools. Now that we have seen how youth can use technology as a tool for organizing and mobilizing in our own country, we need to recognize the prescriptive value this has for winning the hearts and minds of youth around the world. For starters, we now know where to engage with the world's largest demographic. I first saw this before I was in government, during travels to Iran, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and other parts of the Middle East, where I found quite a few on Facebook, Skype, blogs, YouTube--and of course cell phones.
Young people in these countries and more broadly throughout the developing world are using these technologies to shape their futures by challenging repressive laws and norms. I once asked a young Iranian if he was worried he would get caught using his cell phone to organize secret gatherings and his response was, "nobody over 30 in Iran knows what Bluetooth is." That about summed up the generation gap.
60 percent of Middle Eastern youth are under 30 and while those online are an influential minority, the exponential growth of the Internet will soon make them a powerful majority. Violent extremists committed to shaping youth activities online have already established a presence in the digital space. They transform chat rooms into recruitment centers, post videos preaching martyrdom and spam images of Muslims being killed around the world, and modify popular online games to reward players for killing Jews and Americans. But at the end of the day the one-sided web 1.0 approach of violent extremists is no match for a web 2.0 (interactive and user generated) inclined youth demographic keen on expanding their social networks and exploring new media. While many young people are still without digital access, those numbers are diminishing exponentially, and all across the world the digitally connected few have proven that they can use technology to organize and mobilize the non-connected masses.
Even more interesting than the growing access that youth enjoy is the manner in which they use this technology, getting around restrictions and empowering themselves with freedom of assembly, thought, and speech to do all kinds of things they aren't supposed to do. Even if this activity begins merely for recreational indulgences, young people are learning how to organize, generate their own ideas, and question the status quo in some of the world's most challenging environments. The civil liberties they have found online for organizing a good time have become the same freedoms that they now leverage for dissent and action. In Saudi Arabia, for example, women are using online social networks to petition for driving rights and are uploading onto YouTube videos of themselves driving in the rural areas. In Egypt, young people are using Facebook to stand up for their political rights and organize nationwide strikes. In Iran, government attempts to shut down blogging sites have only led Iranians online to become some of the region's savviest users of Internet proxies for getting around the censorship. And, in Colombia, young people used Facebook to put 12 million people into the streets against the FARC, a 40-year old terrorist organization. As a result of what new technology offers, the current generation of youth can act one way at home and in their community, while having the option of taking greater risks online. More prescriptively, they have unprecedented tools for empowerment at their disposal.
But this increased access will not alone win hearts and minds; all it does is create an opening and an avenue for engagement. This is all the more reason why young Americans need to reach out to the world's plugged in youth, now. They can saturate cyberspace with alternative forums, activities, and discourse essential to bridging the understanding gap. More importantly, they can exchange ideas and experiences without needing a visa, money for a plane ticket, or their parents' permission.
The youth of America are one of our greatest diplomatic assets if we can inspire them to engage across cultures using new media. Participation can be as simple as using popular online networks like Facebook, where one can search for people and forums by country and theme and invite them to join groups with you, live chat, or share videos and information. Facebookers can then search for groups popular in places like Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Lebanon and post their videos and favorite links. Similarly, sites like Howcast.com can be used to make "how to" videos for Middle Eastern youth on how to write a resume, apply to American universities, or something edgier like starting a grass-roots movement. Howcast has also created a hub of information on how to use online, mobile and new media as a tool for youth empowerment (youthmovements.howcast.com).
We can also leverage the charitable spirit of Americans to reach out to youth around the world: they get involved in NGOs, non-profits, and other forms of activism. In today's digital environment, anyone can purchase a URL and design a website/platform that promotes dialogue, shares debatable ideas, and serves as a one-stop shop for young people around the world to tell their stories. Once these sites are created, they can go to alexa.com to find the top 100 sites in every country and post their links, or advertise their forums.
But it's not just about one-sided activities, or web 1.0 as we often call it. The digital age has ushered in an opportunity for unprecedented collaboration between populations from remote locations. This can be American and Middle Eastern youth making videos together, sharing news and information to form their own stories from multiple perspectives, or even making music together that mixes our respective band cultures. They can connect in chat rooms, blogs, and online social networks, where forums are often organized by theme and topic. Language barriers present problems, but there is always Google Translate and the user-generated translation capacity developed by Facebook.
The best ideas for engagement will come from youth themselves, who understand and live in the digital environment and more importantly, appreciate the content that will spread virally within their own demographic. The 2008 presidential campaign proved that technology could be used to energize young people to get involved in the presidential race from their college dorm rooms, home computers, and high school classrooms. Part of this was that the campaign became more accessible to the average young person. Now that the campaign is over, what we really need is "dorm room diplomacy" around the world.