Will having Obama or Rudy or Hilary as your friend on MySpace or Facebook or monitoring John Edwards Twitter feed make young people more likely to vote? This is really the first big "election 2.0" (AdAge.com, reg. required) and sites like MySpace, Facebook and YouTube all want to be the ones to recreate that "boxers or briefs" moment Bill Clinton had on MTV. MySpace is launching a series of town hall forums with candidates and is now letting users donate up to $500 to their candidate of choice. Facebook just teamed with the Washington Post and Slate (Media Post, reg. required) to create politically themed applications for its users, and YouTube launched its own YouChoose channel.
More young people voted in the 2004 presidential election than in the past -- according to Generation Next, a recent report [.pdf] on "How Young People [18-25] View Their Lives, Futures and Politics" from the Pew Research Center for People And the Press, "turnout among young voters increased 12% from 2000 -- the biggest increase in any single age group -- and the gap between young and older voters narrowed to 20 points." While celebrity studded slick get-out-the-vote campaigns might have had something to do with this, "research by the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) suggests that new voting laws -- including Election Day registration, early voting and motor voter registration -- contributed to higher voting rates particularly among young people."
It's important to note that the 2004 election interrupted the downward trend in youth voting, and that, according to Pew, this generation of young people still seem to be less engaged politically:
In 2006, fewer than half of Gen Nexters (49%) were certain that they were registered to vote compared to 70% of Gen Xers, 83% of Boomers, and 86% of Seniors. When asked how often they vote, young people also trail behind all other age groups. In the 2004 election cycle, only 22% of 18-25 year-olds said they "always" vote, and another 15% said they "nearly always" vote. Nearly half of young people (47%) report voting "seldom" or "never"...
...Nearly four-in-ten Nexters (38%) agree that most issues discussed in Washington don't affect them personally. Only 29% of those over age 25 share this sentiment.
I bolded "don't affect them personally" because I think this is the key to voter turnout and youth activism in general. We saw it with the immigration protests -- when Latino youth thought their parents, friends' parents or relatives might be deported, word spread like wildfire on MySpace and they turned out en masse to protest. If there was a real threat of the draft being reinstated, and young people thought they might be headed to Iraq, I guarantee you we would see record levels of youth voter turnout as well as huge protests. I think there are lots of issues that candidates could make more personal for young people like the astronomical cost of higher education, health insurance and housing in cities like my own (San Francisco).
One of the interesting psychological aspects of social networking is that anyone can be "a friend" of a celebrity, band or now political candidate. You can leave them comments and they can send you bulletins. It creates a faux sense of having some sort of personal connection. My question is whether this type of imagined personal connection can somehow work in the same way that feeling a real connection to a specific issue that affects you personally does. If you develop a relationship with "Obama" on Facebook, will you be more likely to go out and vote for him -- even if there isn't a burning issue that would otherwise prompt you to go to the polls?