Gen Y Finds Online Entrance to 2008 Presidential Race

While browsing over Facebook.com scouting for interesting photos or juicy gossip recently, I was struck by a public comment written by one friend to another.

“I can’t believe you had the gall to become an Obama supporter after I threw a Hillary at you.”

After a little investigating, I discovered that a special application on the site, called SuperPoke, allows you to “hug,” “high-five,” “hit the beach with” or, yes, even “throw an [insert politician name here] at” any of your online buddies.

You’d think that when it came to current events, Generation Y would be too busy surfing YouTube and updating their online profiles to take much notice of the presidential campaign. But that’s just it: They are surfing YouTube and updating their online profiles, and these days the political campaign is meeting them there; embracing the Internet. Everything from campaigning to fundraising to voting is affected by it, and with Gen Yers turning out in record numbers to cast ballots, one has to wonder: coincidence or consequence?

In a February blog entry, CNN political commentator Jack Cafferty asks the question: “Why are young people so interested in the 2008 election?” A posted reply from “C.” in Houston reads: “Young people don’t focus on what has been. They focus on the here and now. They use the Internet very effectively, exchanging information, and they love commercials. I believe they have always had an interest in elections but were shut out.”

Indeed, the widespread dissemination of information via the Internet seems to have allowed the younger generation in America to feel a better sense of ownership in politics. Young voters may feel more at ease with all three presidential candidates maintaining personal Web sites that lay out their campaign policies and ideas for reform. They aren’t tied down to watching debates or doing additional research to figure out where each hopeful stands.

A quick visit to JohnMcCain.com, for example, reveals a splashy Web page featuring an “Issues” tab that categorizes and summarizes his thoughts on such topics as the Iraq war, health care, border security and ethics reform. The same goes for
HillaryClinton.com and BarackObama.com.

Further, news sites such as CNN.com allow users to track everything from spending to superdelegates at the click of a mouse, and they often offer average citizens the opportunity to e-mail in questions that might be used during debates.

Yet, perhaps the two most galvanizing technological influences on young voters in this election are Facebook and YouTube. Content on these sites is entirely user-generated, meaning Gen Y can claim full ownership of what they create there.

On Facebook, members of the site can publicly record their political views and support candidates of their choice for all to see. Additionally, there are hundreds of groups and applications related to politics, including one application called “US Politics,” sponsored by ABC News, that boasts “a suite of features to get you engaged in the 2008 Election and connected to the politicians you support.”

One such feature, called debate groups, poses issues-based questions and allows users to post response statements, read others’ and respond again. (If all else fails, they can always throw a politician at their rivals.)

Then there’s YouTube. The video-sharing site, launched in 2005, sees billions of views each month. Its word-of-mouth, grassroots feel is extremely popular with Gen Yers, and in April, the organization partnered with C-SPAN to launch “YouTube Voter Video on C-SPAN,” encouraging people to post videos voicing their opinions on the issues.

An eye-catching example of Gen Yers expressing their interest in the current politic process is Amber Lee Ettinger, better known as Obama Girl. In a string of YouTube videos, the 20-something model and actress dances, sings (or lip-synchs), debates and otherwise vocalizes her support for Obama. Her first and most popular video, “I Got a Crush … on Obama,” reportedly garnered 1,000 hits within the first five hours of its posting. Other such personas have since sprouted up.

Gen Y has always been known for being adept at social networking. By bringing politics into that arena, it seems the Internet has effectively engaged this group on its own turf.

- Agatha Gilmore, agilmore@certmag.com

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