Saturday, April 10, 2010

Observation Discussion

Yo Bollweevils,

When I began my observations in March, my goals as stated in my 316 methodology were to discover if young people give their reasons for political disengagement online, and in particular, whether they express guilt over their disengagement or if they would blame outside factors for their lack of involvement. The pattern I expected to find was that "confessions" of disengagement would be initiated by anonymous posters and expanded upon by non-anonymous posters if the tone of the thread was right. I also expected to find some overlap in the reasons users gave for their disengagement with reasons found in survey-based research; namely, that politics are boring, too corrupt, and don't apply to young people who believe they are too busy to get involved anyway.

My findings show that young people do give their reasons for disengagement online but do not express guilt at their lack of engagement, and they rarely blame outside factors. Most of those who stated they were disengaged believed that being politically informed was merely a matter of personal preference. A very select few declared engagement as a civic duty, but not nearly as many as those who argued that politics "just wasn't their thing." This demonstrates especially strong overlaps between my findings and those of Mindich, who also found that youth tend to view civic activity as a leisurely endeavor done when one has time to spare.

Like Mindich found with his face-to-face subjects, I found a fair amount of serious political misinformation in the comments I observed. For example, one user stated that Congress's legislative function is unconstitutional (even though Article I, Section 1 of the US Constitution states that Congress is the legislative branch) while another claimed that American political parties are blended together in a "boring" middle ground (when in fact they are, at the time of this writing, more polarized than they have been since the Civil War). As I browsed the various forums on these websites during my pre-recruitment stage, I noticed many discussions of trivial, novelty news items, which confirms the findings of Vahlberg, Peer, and Nesbitt. In the threads I did select to observe, there were wide accusations of political corruption but not at a consistently intellectual level—users pronounced American governance to be corrupt but did not often cite specific instances to back up their claims.

Although my research is in agreement with the main concepts other studies have found, my study deviated from well-established methods in that it avoided focus groups and direct surveys and instead observed the content that youth had already posted about engagement to their peers. It is important that in my study, subjects did not have to pick from a list of predetermined, disconnected answers on a questionnaire—they were free to give their opinion using their own words. This free-style discussion environment was facilitated by the interactive, community-like websites in which all users were required to create an account to participate. With an account, users were given space to create a profile with pictures of themselves and their friends, and asked to list their favorite movies, music, jokes, etc. They also had the option of listing their age and country. Vahlberg, Peer, and Nesbitt, as well as Wallace, and Mazur and Kozarian, found that teens and emerging adults use these websites to create a "persona." In the case of my study, whatever comments users posted could be immediately linked back to their profile page, their persona. Some users chose to hide their age and location and, instead of filling their profiles with personal pictures, used clip art or other non-identifying images. I considered these "anonymous" users. However, unlike Kiesler's 1992 study (cited in Wallace), I did not find that anonymous users posted significantly more hostile content than users with profiles and pictures of themselves. There seemed to be an equal creation in volume of hostile content by both types of users.

Overall, my findings showed a wide range of beliefs that teens and emerging adults hold about civic engagement. The ones who are not engaged believe they do not have time to participate or that participation is an optional, leisurely activity. Civic educators may want to consider this when constructing their programs.