Young people always have been more hip to technology and the Internet than their parents -- and usually more politically out of it.
But with the emergence of technology as an organizing tool in the presidential campaign, young voters are turning their expertise in all things digital into a real-life voice in elections.
Pointing to the record-shattering youth turnouts in the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primaries, experts and young political types give credit in part to social networking and text messaging, saying they've helped young voters get involved more than at any time since the Vietnam era.
Other factors, such as the Iraq war and the appeal of nontraditional candidates, are part of the youth boom. And technology is still no substitute for real-life interaction in driving votes. But it has eased interaction and removed obstructions like cost and time and effort to learn about candidates and get involved.
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"The barriers to entry (into politics) overall are lower. Plus, this generation spends an enormous amount of time online," said Eli Pariser, executive director of MoveOn.org, the liberal activist group that recently released a Web-based set of political tools for organizing, phone banking and voter registration. "If TV made it as easy to get engaged, you would have seen the same kind of boom 40 years ago."
The trend, those involved say, appeals to young people's desire to contribute to the conversation and express themselves without editing or permission -- rather than just be lectured at, as their teachers and parents have done their whole lives.
"You like a candidate but maybe you don't want to actually volunteer or go knock on doors," said Brian Lawson, a 22-year-old political-science major at St. Anselm College in Manchester, N.H., whose New Hampshire Presidential Watch blog (www.nh2008.blogspot.com) gets about 8,000 unique visitors every day.
"You may be really good at coming up with a video about them, or maybe you want to do a blog about that candidate somehow."
Technology gives young voters access to information from their own peers, rather than spin from the campaigns or the media.
"Young people ... are very suspicious of strangers with agendas," said Pete Levine, director of the University of Maryland-based Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, which promotes research on the civic and political engagement of people ages 15 to 25.
"Whether it's candidates, the way they perceive reporters. ... They go to human beings that they trust as intermediaries, like their parents and friends. The online space does give you a chance to do that, because you can go see what your literal face-to-face friends have put up."
And because they're doing it themselves, they get to flex the independence they've spent their adolescent and teen years trying to earn -- an important psychological edge at a time when 18- to 24-year-olds have just begun to stretch their wings, both in politics and in life.
"What these technologies are doing is they're giving young people an unprecedented amount of power and access to the political process," said David Burstein, 19, whose documentary
"18 in '08," about young people and politics, was released late last year.
And not only does it speak to young people, it's also driven by the under-30 population. They're coming up with the new technologies, they're taking over the campaigns' online strategies, and they're producing the videos that become viral on YouTube.
That age group's vote is being credited, in large part, with Barack Obama's win in Iowa -- where youth turnout was three times higher than in previous years. In New Hampshire, the number of young voters was nearly double what it was in 2000, the last time both parties had a contested primary.
"Young people very much want to be included, and in this particular election, young people are really wanting a voice," Burstein said. "We saw it in Iowa and New Hampshire. Young people are staking a claim. In this case, they're saying to the politicians, 'I want to be a part of what you're doing.' "
Young people tend to be more edgy, more creative and more fearless in their approaches to, well, everything -- which can translate into interest among young people if such approaches are used in politics. The fact that all this online political activity is user-driven and, by nature, dominated by young people, only makes it more credible to that historically neglected group of voters, Burstein said.
"That's one of the things that's really different about Internet and new media and social networking as it relates to politics," he said. "It's more interactive and much more peer-to-peer, and young people respond to that better."