Facebook, MySpace, and YouTube, all newcomers to the political game, have been indispensable to each candidate’s campaign this year, allowing kids to engage in political discourse and watch playbacks of debates they otherwise never would have caught on MSNBC or CNN. MySpace and YouTube even got in on the debate action themselves, hosting — as Rock the Vote did before them — forums with the presidential candidates.
But gone from this year’s youth free-for-alls are the questions about underwear and computer preferences. Instead, they’ve been replaced with dialogue that is positively . . . adult. During a “Presidential Dialogue with John McCain,” sponsored and simulcast on MTV and MySpace, for instance, the majority of young voters’ questions related to the Iraq War, the economy, and health care. “I’m glad you asked the question,” McCain told a young woman who had asked about health insurance. “[In the non-youth debates], we’re having questions which frankly are not as relevant, by far, as these.”
Better yet: on Obama’s Facebook page, a conversation unfolded this past week that could warm any pundit’s cynical heart. What sounded like a recipe for race baiting — a message board titled “Do u guys like barack obama just because he’s black?” — started with the commenter’s excusing himself from the conversation to learn more about the candidate. It ended with him thanking those who responded.
“In 2004, Facebook was only in the Ivy Leagues” says 21-year-old Kyle de Beausset, who’s recently been named the Massachusetts point person for MTV’s Street Team 2008, which assigns one young grassroots reporter from each state to tap into the campaign issues young people care about most. “The news media’s been targeted at adults. So young people basically created their own.”
The number of people watching these debates and participating via new-media sources shouldn’t be overblown, says Patterson. It’s still unclear how many people are tuning in and how effective they really are.
But in many ways, that hardly matters. After so many years of being pushed and prodded, laughed at, and then left in the dust, young voters found their own voice in this year’s election. With it, they’re not only showing up at the polls — they’re proving they’re worth being heard. And they’re doing it on their own.