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Citation: Bennett, W. Lance. “Changing Citizenship in the Digital Age." Civic Life Online: Learning How Digital Media Can Engage Youth. Edited by W. Lance Bennett. The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Series on Digital Media and Learning. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2008. 1–24. doi: 10.1162/dmal.9780262524827.001 Copyright: c 2008 Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Publishedunder Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works Unported 3.0 license.

Changing Citizenship in the Digital Age W. Lance Bennett
University of Washington, Seattle, Center for Communication and Civic Engagement

Democracy is not a sure thing. Governments and party systems often strain against changes in societies, and some fall prey to corruption and bad policies. Under theright conditions, people may reassert their rights to govern, and produce remarkable periods of creative reform, realignment, and change. In these times, politics becomes a focus of personal life itself, restoring the sense that participation makes a difference. The challenges of influencing the course of nations and addressing global issues may inspire creative solutions from the generations ofyoung citizens who have access to digital communication tools. The cascading advance of media platforms and social software enables unprecedented levels of production and distribution of ideas, public deliberation, and network organization. It is clear that many young citizens of this digital and global age have demonstrated interests in making contributions to society. Yet the challenge of engagingeffectively with politics that are linked to spheres of government remains, for most, a daunting prospect. The reasons are numerous. A casual look at world democracies suggests that many of the most established ones are showing signs of wear. Parties are trying to reinvent themselves while awkwardly staying the course that keeps them in power. In the press, in everyday conversation, and often fromthe mouths of politicians, politics has become a dirty word rather than a commonly accepted vocabulary for personal expression.1 Perhaps most notably, younger generations have disconnected from conventional politics and government in alarming numbers. These trends in youth dissatisfaction with conventional political engagement are not just occurring in the United States, but have parallels inother democracies as well, including Germany, Sweden, and the United Kingdom.2 The pathways to disconnection from government are many: adults are frequently negative about politics, the tone of the press is often cynical, candidates seldom appeal directly to young voters on their own terms about their concerns, politicians have poisoned the public well (particularly in the United States) with vitrioland negative campaigning, and young people see the media filled with inauthentic performances from officials who are staged by professional communication managers.3 Paralleling these developments has been a notable turning away from public life into online friendship networks, gaming and entertainment environments, and consumer
The author would like to thank Peter Levine, Alan Schussman, CathyDavidson, and Chris Wells for their helpful comments on this chapter. In addition, the lively discussions both on- and offline among all the authors in this volume have informed and changed my thinking on many aspects of citizenship and digital learning. The online discussions with an impressive group of participants further added to the intellectual stimulation of this project. Thanks to everyone whoso generously shared their time and creative spirits.


Civic Life Online

pursuits. Where political activity occurs, it is often related to lifestyle concerns that seem outside the realm of government.4 Many observers properly note that there are impressive signs of youth civic engagement in these nongovernmental areas, including increases in community volunteer work, high levels of...
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