The desire to be politically active, informed on public policy, participate in an organization, or involved in the community is known as civic engagement. Research by Clay Shirky (2011) and John Pollock (2011) suggests social media plays a major role in this endeavor. Whether it is through organizing protests or posting political commentary, people use these tools to engage with the public at large. Interestingly enough, teens and young adults make up the largest demographic of social media users (Lenhart, Purcell, Smith, & Zickuhr, 2010). However, the majority of this population is not does not participate in civic discourse. This can be measured by looking at participation in elections. As evidenced in the Florida Civic Health Index, only 22% of Millennials voted in 2010. The state of Florida is particularly low, ranking 34th in young voter turnout (Knuckey & Collie, 2011). In an effort to encourage civic engagement among this cohort, the University of Florida and Senator Bob Graham opened the Bob Graham Center for Public Service. This essay evaluates the effectiveness of their social media implementation by looking at the Civil Debate Wall, on campus events and use of social network sites (SNS).
The Civil Debate Wall
Located in Pugh Hall, the Civil Debate Wall is an innovative social media tool designed to captivate the interests of the student community with regard to important issues (“The Wall: A Place for Civil Debate,” n.d.). Comprised of a series of interactive touch screens, it prompts passersby to answer various questions. Topics range from politics and education to worldviews. The answers take the form of “agree” or “disagree” but allow the responder to further explain their opinions. If the responder consents, he or she will receive a text message whenever someone else replies to that same question. Cameras mounted above the monitors take photos of responders to add a personal touch. The Civil Debate Wall also has a web component, so students off campus can participate as well. Click to view a demo of the wall in action (Local Projects, 2012). In terms of actual use, there were on average 200 responses per question.
On Campus Events
Another product of social media utilized by the Bob Graham Center is their distinguished lecture series. Though going to see a guest speaker would not typically be considered social media, many of these events are live streamed to a web-wide audience. Viewers can participate by tweeting their questions. According to David R. Colburn, the interim director of the Bob Graham Center, the speakers’ goal is to “familiarize the public and our students with the pressing issues of the day, so everything from the events that are unfolding in Syria to domestic events like the confrontation between republicans and democrats” is covered (Denardo, 2012). An archive of all their distinguished speakers is available on their website for on-demand viewing. This is significant because video clips and sound bytes from these recordings can be taken and shared with friends via blogs or social network sites.
Social Network Sites
The third implementation of social media by the Graham Center is maintaining profiles on various social network sites. This not only allows people to interact with the organization, but it also provides a way for them to gauge their effectiveness. By looking at the number of likes, followers or subscribers, they can determine their reach. The Bob Graham Center Facebook page has 1,124 likes (“Bob Graham Center for Public Service,” 2012). People who have “liked” this page have opted-in to receive content updates. The account manager posts links to interesting articles, poll questions and event announcements. Subscribers have the opportunity to comment on these posts and share with their friends. To the Graham Center’s credit, their posts are frequent, relevant and thoughtful. However upon further analysis, the majority of likes and comments tend to come from an older audience. This calls into question the efficacy of SNS implementation. Their Twitter profile may provide additional insight. The Graham Center has 571 followers, but many of these are other organizations or older adults (“Graham Center (GrahamCenter) on Twitter,” 2012). Their tweets are more informational and less conversational in nature, which may account for the low level of engagement among Millennials. The frequency of re-tweets is low and @ replies are virtually non-existent.
On the surface, the Graham Center is doing everything right with regard to social media. They are using the technology, creating content and sharing it. Yet, there is still a struggle to get young adults involved. I think we need to take note from Marshall Maculan. If the medium is the message, then the message of social media is to be social (McLuhan, 1964). If the Graham Center wants more young adults to be active in their community, then they need to first focus on engaging them in conversation relevant to their lives. I realize this is much easier said than done, and I have tremendous respect for their efforts thus far.
Bob Graham Center for Public Service. (2012).Facebook. Retrieved from https://www.facebook.com/grahamcenter
Denardo, S. (2012, May 31). David Colburn shares his goals for the Bob Graham Center at UF. WUFT-FM. Retrieved from http://www.wuft.org/news/2012/05/31/david-colburn-to-serve-as-interim-director-of-the-bob-graham-center-at-uf/
Graham Center (GrahamCenter) on Twitter. (2012). Retrieved October 31, 2012, from https://twitter.com/GrahamCenter
Knuckey, J., & Collie, T. (2011). 2011 Florida Civic Health Index: the Next Generation (p. 20). Presented at the National Conference on Citizenship. Retrieved from http://www.bobgrahamcenter.ufl.edu/sites/default/files/bobgraham-civichealth-booklet-jd-7_2.pdf
Lenhart, A., Purcell, K., Smith, A., & Zickuhr, K. (2010). Social Media & Mobile Internet Use Among Teens and Young Adults. Washington, D.C.: Pew Research Center. Retrieved from http://pewinternet.org/Reports/2010/Social-Media-and-Young-Adults.aspx
Local Projects. (2012). Great Civil Debate Wall Walk-Through. Retrieved from http://vimeo.com/35397675
McLuhan, M. (1964). Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press. Retrieved from http://monoskop.org/images/4/47/McLuhan_Marshall_Understanding_Media_The_Extensions_of_Man.pdf
Pollock, J. (2011, August 23). Streetbook | How Egyptian and Tunisian Youth Hacked the Arab Spring. Retrieved October 30, 2012, from http://www.technologyreview.com/featuredstory/425137/streetbook/
Shirky, C. (2011). The Political Power of Social Media: Technology, the Public Sphere and Political Change. Foreign Affairs, 12.
The Wall: A Place for Civil Debate. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.civildebatewall.com/