Thursday, March 27, 2008

Youth Cohort Creates Viral Explosion in Online News

The New York Times reports that young Americans have creating a viral explosion of online news:

Senator Barack Obama’s videotaped response to President Bush’s final State of the Union address — almost five minutes of Mr. Obama’s talking directly to the camera — elicited little attention from newspaper and television reporters in January.

But on the medium it was made for, the Internet, the video caught fire. Quickly after it was posted on YouTube, it appeared on the video-sharing site’s most popular list and Google’s most blogged list. It has been viewed more than 1.3 million times, been linked by more than 500 blogs and distributed widely on social networking sites like Facebook.

It is not news that young politically minded viewers are turning to alternative sources like YouTube, Facebook and late-night comedy shows like “The Daily Show.” But that is only the beginning of how they process information.

According to interviews and recent surveys, younger voters tend to be not just consumers of news and current events but conduits as well — sending out e-mailed links and videos to friends and their social networks. And in turn, they rely on friends and online connections for news to come to them. In essence, they are replacing the professional filter — reading The Washington Post, clicking on — with a social one.

“There are lots of times where I’ll read an interesting story online and send the U.R.L. to 10 friends,” said Lauren Wolfe, 25, the president of College Democrats of America. “I’d rather read an e-mail from a friend with an attached story than search through a newspaper to find the story.”

In one sense, this social filter is simply a technological version of the oldest tool in politics: word of mouth. Jane Buckingham, the founder of the Intelligence Group, a market research company, said the “social media generation” was comfortable being in constant communication with others, so recommendations from friends or text messages from a campaign — information that is shared, but not sought — were perceived as natural.

Ms. Buckingham recalled conducting a focus group where one of her subjects, a college student, said, “If the news is that important, it will find me.”

A December survey by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press looked broadly at how media were being consumed this campaign. In the most striking finding, half of respondents over the age of 50 and 39 percent of 30- to 49-year-olds reported watching local television news regularly for campaign news, while only 25 percent of people under 30 said they did.

Fully two-thirds of Web users under 30 say they use social networking sites, while fewer than 20 percent of older users do. MySpace and Facebook create a sense of connection to the candidates. Between the two sites, Mr. Obama has about one million “friends,” Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, his rival for the Democratic nomination, has roughly 330,000, and Senator John McCain, the presumed Republican nominee, has more than 140,000. Four out of 10 young people have watched candidate speeches, interviews, commercials or debates online, according to Pew, substantially more than people 30 and older.

Young people also identify online discussions with friends and videos as important sources of election information. The habits suggest that younger readers find themselves going straight to the source, bypassing the context and analysis that seasoned journalists provide.

In the days after Mr. Obama’s speech on race last week, for example, links to the transcript and the video were the most popular items posted on Facebook. On The New York Times’s Web site, the transcript of the speech ranked consistently higher on the most e-mailed list than the articles written about the speech.

The way consumers filter their news is being highlighted now that a generation of Americans is coming of age in the midst of a campaign that has generated intense interest and voter involvement. Exit polls in 22 states estimate that more than three million voters under the age of 30 participated in Democratic primaries this year, up from about one million four years ago.

In three of the most populous states — California, Texas and Ohio — the share of voters under 30 who turned out for Democratic primaries increased to 16 percent, up from less than 10 percent in 2004, according to exit polls by Edison/Mitofsky. In the Republican primaries, the increases in most states have been less striking but still visible.

“Young people are particularly galvanized in this campaign, and they have a new set of tools that make it look different from the enthusiasm that greeted other politicians 30 years ago,” said Lee Rainie, director for the Pew Internet and American Life Project. “They read a news story and then blog about it, or they see a YouTube video and then link to it, or they go to a campaign Web site, download some phone numbers, and make calls on behalf of a candidate.”
This is great news.

I'd be interested to see some of this data on the youth viral explosion broken down into demographic indices, for example, socioeconomic status.

I teach young people, and I assign active particiption in news consumption as part of class assignments, but there's the old digital divide thing (an economic gap in online access and efficacy), and it does seem to be having an effect in depressing the power of the new media in terms of economic class standing.

These are just ruminations, totally unscientific. But of course, there's
some evidence for them.