Technology companies catch a lot of flak these days, often for a good reason. Facebook behaves like a social engineering platform. Google and Amazon built the world’s surveillance apparatus. To some, Microsoft is too cozy with the military, and Uber seems to fight desperately, so it doesn’t have to recognize its workers as employees.
The list goes on. However, the irony is that the very tools these companies built are the same ones that help shed light on their questionable motives, and their sometimes less-than-ideal cultures.
And that’s the larger point today. Technology keeps finding a way to make the world seem smaller, impose accountability where it’s needed, and give a platform to people who never before had a voice.
Greta Thunberg accuses world leaders of 'creative PR' at climate summit https://t.co/CnyEixupGv
— BBC News (World) (@BBCWorld) December 11, 2019
If you’ve been following along with the news, you know that young people are making excellent use of their available soapboxes. Think of the Parkland Survivors and the Greta Thunbergs. These are true warriors raising consciousness for important causes. They chill their elders to the bone by combining mastery of modern media with breathtaking candor and urgency.
Young people — today’s largest workforce cohort and tomorrow’s leaders — have a voice now in a way that their forebears never did. Let’s see how they’re putting it to use.
Social advocacy and community
The ability to publicly advocate for one’s favorite social causes is one of the greatest gifts that technology gave to young people. In some of antiquity’s most celebrated cultures, like Rome, civic participation and public forums were regular features and expected parts of citizenship.
Technology is giving us back a little bit of that feeling of an “ongoing public forum.” Young people today have the benefit of exposure to cultural and political discussions and controversies early on. Exposure to a well-rounded collection of ideas and perspectives early in life is essential for personal development.
They survived Columbine.
Then came #SandyHook.
Six Columbine survivors describe reliving the trauma of school shootings, over and over again. https://t.co/B7AQniE0ki
— Vox (@voxdotcom) December 15, 2019
Moreover, developing resilience requires community, relationships, and a sense of shared difficulties (or even trauma). Social media and technology can provide these things under the right circumstances.
Explosion of platforms and perspectives
The accessibility of platforms has led to an abundance of perspectives. Young people are quick to offer their views, but they also look for organizations and brands that are equally authentic about their values.
Some companies even make careers out of creating advocacy-centered content for traditional and social media channels. Public advocacy is “cool” now — and so is the sharing of opinions once thought off-limits.
Sometimes, corporations appropriate this cool-factor and do something so cynical with it, as Pepsi did recently with Black Lives Matter, that it nearly comes across as self-parody. Nevertheless, young people are finding their causes and their voices using technology.
Mass communications and worldwide mobilization
For those with established interests to protect, it’s easy to see how mass communication tools — like the internet and the smartphone — could pose an existential threat. It’s hard to understate the importance of communication breaking free from hometowns and confined areas. For all its faults, mobile computing is helping all people, especially young people, come together on a global scale.
Teen's TikTok video about China's Muslim camps goes viral https://t.co/WI0JsJgioa
— BBC News (World) (@BBCWorld) November 26, 2019
For example, in late 2019, Feroza Aziz spoke out against China’s activity in Xinjiang Uyghur on the Chinese-owned app Tik Tok. The video went viral, and she quickly found her account suspended. Despite the app claiming it as an oversight, many wondered whether Tik Tok was censoring its users and, as a result, began sharing similar content. Whether or not this critique is justified remains unclear as of now.
More examples include the school walkouts, and climate strikes recently organized and undertaken by millions of young people across the world. Then there are the activists mobilizing global audiences to help create educational opportunities for refugees, spreading educational videos to raise awareness of LGBTQ+ issues and helping to bring mental health issues into the open. All of these and more are equally inspiring examples of the internet’s potential today.
Technology brings constructive worldwide outrage
One of the most urgent and heartbreaking ways that youth today use tech channels is to show the world why we need to stop mass shootings. It’s not uncommon anymore for Snapchat and other messaging platforms to help “televise” school violence in real-time for a global audience.
For instance, those who witnessed the school shooting in Broward County, Florida that left 17 dead well-documented the unfortunate event. From a safety perspective, receiving a message from a classmate captioned with “getting shot up” can help tip-off people on a school campus that they should move toward safety.
Every year, our photo editors sift through 365 days of images to distill the year. The result is a visual chronicle of political protests, climate catastrophes, mass shootings and poignant scenes of everyday life.
This is 2019 in pictures. https://t.co/UuVc8iHf1C
— The New York Times (@nytimes) December 15, 2019
And from an “enacting change” perspective, it’s hard not to appreciate how galvanizing social media salvos like these can be. Something like a school shooting is an unpleasant but abstract idea until we have to live through it.
Sharing terrible and visceral footage of school violence isn’t why any millennial signed up for Facebook or Snapchat. But these are the tools we have at our disposal, and young people are showing us how to use them to inspire hope and dread in equal measure as they try to bring meaningful change.
A double-edged sword
Technology gives younger people a voice, but it also gives all people a voice. The last point worth making is that access to technology — and the ability to spread one’s opinion to anybody who will listen — is a double-edged sword.
For us to realize the opportunity for change that now lays at our feet, we have to choose carefully on who we listen to. The good news is, young people today are a little more skeptical than their parents and a little less quick to trust somebody who’s not genuine and authentic.
Thankfully, the internet is still younger than many of its most popular stars. And like many young people, it’s still figuring out what it wants to be when it grows up. But there’s no questioning it’s brimming with positive, world-changing potential.