Last year, Oxfam asked me to do a think piece on the Filipino youth. I thought long and hard before I was able to write this. I’ve been involved in the business of youth organizing for so long. I have tried all possible strategies and tactics to get them to be “more involved”.  I have been part of long, tedious, brain-wrecking meetings to figure out how the young people of this generation thinks, what they like, what inspires them and what makes them tick. Perhaps, this think piece on the youth can help solve the mystery but, most likely, not. Well, as they say, there is no harm in trying.

“For the times, they are a-changin”

– Bob Dylan

In the Prosumer Report done by worldwide advertising bigwig Havas on The Millenials: The Challenger Generation (Prosumer Report, Millenials: The Challenger Generation, Volume 11, 2011),

MGv8_Cover“It identified the Millenials to set them apart from earlier generations and what holds them together as a demographics by looking at their shared values, strengths and points of promise – first, that they live in an ultra-connected world in which constraints of time and space have all but disappeared and second, that they were born in a post communist, one world model, third, that they live in a time of uncertainty, with a shifting geopolitical balance…Today’s generation are termed as digital natives, a term coined by Mark Prensky to emphasize their break from the analogue generations that had gone before; as Millenials, to designate them as children of the new millennium; Gen Y, to indicate they followed Gen X; Gen Why, in a nod to their questioning natures; and so on. The inability to settle on a single moniker offers proof that this generation is difficult to pigeonhole and even harder to understand.

Millenials don’t consider the unprecedented period of technological innovation into which they were born extraordinary; it is simply “the way things are.” This affects how they conceptualize and problem-solve. They are more iterative than linear, more prone to multitasking than monotasking. For them, digital is more habit than tool; it is simply the way they interact with their environments, as natural as eating and drinking. They believe in continuity and gradual change rather than ideological schisms born of competing economic theories. They value adaptation over planning, flexibility and compromise over intransigence…Millenials seek a compromise between continuity and change. Contrary to the Gen X, who is marked with apathy and cynicism, today’s youth are keenly aware of societal issues, are unequivocal about the need for change, and are mindful of the challenges ahead even though most of them feel powerless in the face of the world’s problems. Interestingly, a majority of Millenials believes it is women, not men who will lead change.[1] The Millennial generation is aware that it has the right tools for change and is convinced that it has what it takes to change the world because it believes in the power of individuals, working together, over the power of governments and entrenched political institutions. This generation perceives that working with an NGO or charitable organizations as a faster pathway to change than working with a political party. They are also keenly aware of the power accorded them by social media and consumerism. They are rejecting traditional “hard” power (e.g. politics, violent protest) in favor of softer approach that emphasizes creativity, collaboration and community. “

Richard Watson in the ground breaking book, Future Minds: How the Digital Age is changing our minds, Why this matters and What can we do about it, asserted that Technological ubiquity and electronic flood are resulting in significant shifts in both attitude and behaviors of the “screenagers”, a term popularized by Dan Bloom. He theorized that this behavioral shift tends to flow into attitudinal change, which in turn becomes social change.[2]

you-can-put-your-face-in-the-star-studded-oscar-selfie

In the Philippine context, the same can be said on the Filipino youth. We are introduced to the “#Selfie” generation. “Selfie” is defined by the Oxford Dictionary as “a photograph that one has taken of oneself, typically one taken with a smartphone or webcam and uploaded to a social media website.” The Filipino Youth today are obsessed with “selfies”. You can see self-images flooding social networking sites – from Facebook to Instagram. Young people have become virtually obsessed with the way they look in each shot whether about their fashion or doing mundane things. It seems that there is a sense of satisfaction that goes along with each shot. Together with this on line behavior came the tag, the #Selfie Generation, implying a generation that is self-absorbed or one that has the affinity for vanity.

Consistent with recent studies on this generation, the Selfie phenomenon is reinforced by the Havas Study (Prosumer Report, Millenials: The Challenger Generation, Volume 11, 2011).

“Millenials possess the ability to distance their own lives from daunting political, socio-economic, and environmental problems as they believe that despite doubts and fears, their most important weapon as today’s youth are determination, creativity, courage, kindness, faith, energy and empathy. For this post-ideological generation, change is a lot less political and a lot more personal because Millenials see a myriad of ways which they can make some small contribution to change on their own – through their spending, eco-conscious behaviors and persuasive blogging – and also because the change they seek has everything to do with people and very little to do with political ideology…Their concept of change is not about rioting and power grabs but gradual improvements brought about by incremental changes in behaviors and attitudes. For most, change is something gradual – slow but enduring. Their rallying cry – Be the change you want to see in the world.”

This famous Gandhi line has become a popular buzz in the youth movement here in the Philippines especially with the rise of President PNoy to power. From the remnants of the GMA regime rose young social change makers, and social entrepreneurship gained prominence with in the social movement. In fact, the stigma once associated with left youth activism has been tempered by an array of youth leaders engaging in development work and in governance. Suddenly, we saw then youth icon and now Senator Bam Aquino, bannering social entrepreneurship for poor communities through his Hapinoy; Ateneo bred students like Reese Fernandez transforming rags to riches in Gawad Kalinga and Payatas communities; Celebrity Bianca Gonzales hailed as Young Global Shapers in the Philippines by the World Economic Forum; Environmentalist Anna Oposa depicted by media as a catalyst for change; Basketball star Chris Tiu encouraging the youth to make a stand on causes through Ako Mismo; Boston educated Pie Alvarez lauded as youngest Mayor in the Philippines and PR savvy Gang Badoy rocking society through alternative education. It is interesting to note that these youth leaders departed from the path of stereotype activism that was the road traveled by traditionally in the past by Filipino youth icons ranging of the likes of activists Edgar Jopson, Lean Alejandro to now Senator Kiko Pangilinan and former Congressman Teddy Casino. 

Know thy #Selfie

The “Generation Me”, roughly born from 1980-2000, is depicted as a narcissistic generation engendered by social media, one that is self-absorbed. To paraphrase Plato, it is impossible to understand the role of this generation in social change if we are unable to understand their “selfieness”.

In the site http://www.prosumer-report.com/blog/2013/09/29/we’re-all-narcissists-now-and-that’s-a-good-thing/, the author, Sarita Bhatt, Director of Global Strategy at Havas Worldwide, argues that,

“Despite the narcissistic behavior, the cyber-citizens today genuinely care about their fellow human beings and the same tools that make them appear narcissistic also amplify their best traits – having a point of view on the world and wanting to give back…The quantified self-movement has brought endless innovations that enable us to track, measure, and analyze every single thing we say and do. Our quantified selves get us hooked on the products, platforms, and services that promise to make us better versions of ourselves. As we use technology to learn more about ourselves, we are beginning to create our own personal value systems, publicly posting, liking, commenting, and sharing our views on the world, be it social, political, cultural, or personal. Our digital narcissistic bragging coupled with the ability to share and connect with our peers’ equally narcissistic digital behaviors gives us more access to more information in the form of digital-social sharing. Technology is redirecting people’s behavior by making it easier to find things we care about, and then removing the roadblocks to giving and collectively fueling a more caring networked culture that is doing something to help make our communities better. Digital and social technologies enable us to collectively solve the world’s problems through innovative products and services that our (sometimes narcissistic) selves build.”

Perhaps, in most recent Philippine history, the phenomenon fueled by this #Selfie Generation that can be examined is the #MillionPeopleMarch last National Heroes Day, August 26, dubbed as the first major social media-led protest rally. Its predecessor, Edsa Dos, largely attributed the people power mobilization to the power of text messaging which was that time the latest craze of a nation once dubbed as a texting capital. If text launched the People Power 2, then social media is the culprit to the #MillionPeopleMarch to this generation of millenials. The Luneta rally became a litmus test of sorts to the mobilizing power of social media and defined the conduct of this generation in the social change game.

What started as social media outrage over Napoles spilled over to the streets (in this case, to a park, masked with the illusion of a holiday picnic for the left sensitive middle class). What was extra-ordinary about this was unlike the previous EDSAs, the enemy was faceless and the issue was something everybody actually knows has existed for the longest time and to a certain point, tolerated, accepted or endured as part of the system that many deem impossible to dismantle. What was remarkable was no political group or bloc could claim ownership. No one would argue about the spontaneous influx of people from all walks of life, organized and unorganized, poor and middle class. What was unbelievable was that the social media, a platform perceived as all talk and no concrete action, non-committal and untested in the context of the Philippine social movement has emerged as a vital tool for political mass mobilization.

The #MillionPeopleMarch was the Millenials’ psyche in action. It has all the characters of the Millenials spread all over it – the belief in the power of individuals working together over government and institutions, and the right tools for change. It distances itself from political ideology, traditional left militancy and practices environmental consciousness. Individuals who were there made their presence known through hashtags, tweets, instagram and status posts and the infamous selfies. The shares to the #MillionPeopleMarch first posted by private citizen and advertising agency employee Peachy Bretana reached thousands and spread through social media like wild fire, resulting to 60,000 people showing up in Luneta.

In a Rappler article by Sociologist Nicole Curato (http://www.rappler.com/thought-leaders/37401-millionpeoplemarch-citizenship-social-media), she asserts that:

“While the #MillionPeopleMarch was successful in promoting inclusivity and pluralist politics, political activities of this nature find it difficult to consolidate demands. Registering dissent is easy. Sustaining engagement about what to do next is challenging. One can make an argument, however, that the logic of post-protest politics in the age of new media is less about consolidating demands but more about creating new, open and consequential spaces for conversation. These spaces can be used to develop ideas and imagine alternatives to the pork barrel and its Aquino-style reincarnation. For disgust against the pork barrel to be transformed to a productive democratic activity, it is imperative that this evolves to a serious and careful discussion about alternatives. After all, what we take for granted today like press freedom, women’s suffrage and labor rights are products of sustained collective action, not just one-off expressions of public outrage. This, I suggest, is the real test for social media – to challenge its users to engage in a national conversation, unpack what “abolishing pork barrel” and “re-channel budget to social services” mean in practical terms, crowd source proposals for a better political system and link online and offline campaigns for public accountability. Without these important next steps, public participation falls short of its promise to bring about social change, just like the politicians condemned in the August 26 march. It is our obligation as citizens to follow through. Indeed, the demands for democratic citizenship are more exacting than a selfie.”

Like any other generations that came before them, the #SelfieGeneration’s fundamental desires – education, secure jobs, good governance, and a healthy and balanced lifestyle, have not changed significantly. However, the condition of the Filipino youth reflects the sorry state of our country and people today: poor, exploited and neglected[3]. Wilson Fortaleza in his paper, The Condition of the Filipino Youth cited that,

“According to the SWS survey made in 1996, generally, the Filipino youth are not “joiners”. From a survey of their organizational involvements, the pattern revealed that there is very low interest and involvement in politics. A quick look at Table 1 below indicates that only 1% of our youth are involved in political parties and labor unions compared to 12% in sports, recreational, and religious organizations, and 10% in youth organizations. The figures appear to be consistent with what they consider to be “important” or “rather important” aspects in their lives. When asked about their preference, political involvement would be their last (36%) compared to having good marriage and family life 98%), being able to find steady work (98%), having a good education (98%), and being successful in work (96%). (See Table 2).

Table 1: Organizational Involvement

Philippine Youth
Active members of …
Sports/Recreational organization 12%
Church/Religious organization 12
Youth organization 10
Art, music or educational organization 6
Charitable organization 3
Political party 1
Labor union 1
Professional association 1

Table 2: Important Aspects in Life

Philippine Youth
April 1996
Percent “Very/Rather Important”
Having good marriage and family life 98%
Being able to find steady work 98
Having good education 98
Being successful in work 96
Finding meaning and purpose in life 96
Being religious 95
Having strong friendships 93
Making a contribution to society 91
Having lots of money 83
Having plenty of time for recreation & hobbies 57
Being politically involved 36

But though half of the youth population remains pessimistic over their quality of life as well as in politics, the absolute majority (more than 90%) still dreams of having better and meaningful lives and in making contributions to society. They still remain proud of being Filipinos and are willing to fight for the country and work for the good of others. Overall, the youth are net optimists compared to average adults. And this is the greatest value we cannot afford to lose among our youth because in them lies the future of this nation.“

Pop culture icon Lourd de Veyra, in his blog, This is a Crazy Planets at Spot.ph, shares this anecdote on an internet meme he came across showing Neil Armstrong who went to the moon and took 5 photos and some blond girl who went to the bathroom and took 37 photos. De Veyra concluded, “That, right there, is the metaphor for the modern world. Humanity has gone on from the industrial to the digital revolution.  Now we ordinary human beings have the ability to search for virtually any piece of information conceivable, from philosophy to literature, to the great works of art to astrophysics. Now explain to me why the most Googled person in history is Justin Fucking Bieber.”

Socially Transforming the #Selfie

Recent technological advances brought forth an emerging culture in this generation but the aspirations and ideals have not changed. The youth hopes for comfort – from the struggles of daily commuting, secure jobs to an enabling environment to fulfill their needs and wants.

In a document defining the youth as civic actors in New Digital Media (New Digital Media, Social Institutions and the Changing Roles of Youth, Margaret Weigel, Katie Davis, Carrie James, Howard Gardner), it points out that,

“New Media allows youth new ways to participate in cultural, societal or political change; the affordances of new media present a wealth of options that can foster online engagement. Typical youth, however, remain focused on other priorities; they may engage with civic content merely through consumption of entertaining or slanderous politically themed messages that course through the Internet. Adolescence is seen as a time for establishing-or failing to establish– the foundations for future civic engagement (Duke et al. 2008). However, the social institutions that seek to promote civic engagement often have to fight an uphill battle against cultural mental models and behaviors against participation ingrained at an early age.”

426084_10150645327019028_1859945104_n

In the past, youth’s civic engagement is shaped by institutions. He may have learned about political issues through discussions in the family table, through school, mainstream media outlets and through his peers. This is why the outlet for their participation is organizations with in their surroundings and activities provided by these existing institutions. However, gone are the heydays of fraternities, sororities, and campus and community organizations whether socio-civic, cultural, academic, political or religious. These platforms used to be important venues to hone youth involvement and have played significant roles during Martial Law where youth activism flourished. In fact, membership to these organizations is dwindling.

Historically, a membership to a certain generation shapes one’s worldview on politics as the shared significant events and experiences color one’s perspective and attitude towards civic engagement. For instance, the proliferation of black people’s jazz and blues spawned the birth of rock and roll and played a part in fueling the civil rights movement. The emerging consumerist attitude of America fanned the hippie culture that fought against Vietnam War. In Philippine history, the Martial Law shaped an entire generation of Filipino youth’s mindset. It can be said therefore that the Internet and digital media is molding this generation’s perspective.

Back then, options for youth participation were limited to voting as the youth reached 18 or through the Sangguniang Kabataan if not through his affiliation or volunteerism to organizations in schools, churches or communities. In this age, the Internet has democratized the youth’s participation in civic engagement. Social Media sites are allowing spaces for the youth to easily incorporate elements of their political views into their profiles. It gives them greater voice in political discussions and frees restrictions on what they can contribute.

The same document (New Digital Media, Social Institutions and the Changing Roles of Youth, Margaret Weigel, Katie Davis, Carrie James, Howard Gardner), cites that:

“First, the extent to which individuals are empowered by access to easy information online results in a corresponding decline of the influence of traditional gatekeepers and institutions. An individual can learn, buy, publish, and take action without formal alliance with a group, from any networked location. Second, the extent to which individuals are able to communicate with remote others enables contact with friends and family beyond what was possible in the past. There are no longer spaces or times in which an individual is removed from her social contacts. Whether or not most young people will reverse a multi-decade decline in civic participation and capitalize upon this new mode of engagement remains to be seen. The online activities of tweens and adolescents in particular remain firmly focused on identity explorations, social status, and peer play, with political and civic concerns taking a back seat. Multi-mediated entertainment, which incorporates political messages, remains popular, and circulates among youth. However, these messages are usually consumed and exchanged uncritically, allowing misinformation (deliberate or otherwise) to be treated like any other form of entertainment. Polat (2005) considers the Internet a self-supporting world in which information and knowledge are distributed and discussed. The Internet can also function as a powerful tool for organizing actions both online and offline, but despite these attractive affordances, the internet’s potential to impact civic engagement remains firmly in the hands of its users. “

Celebrated writer Malcolm Gladwell in his controversial piece in The New Yorker, Small Change: Why the Revolution will not be tweeted asserted that, “The platforms of social media are built on weak ties. Social networks are effective at increasing participation—by lessening the level of motivation that participation requires. Facebook activism succeeds not by motivating people to make a real sacrifice but by motivating them to do the things that people do when they are not motivated enough to make a real sacrifice.” Gladwell further argued that “all Internet-enabled activism only makes it easier for activists to express themselves, and harder for that expression to have any impact.”

In a rebuttal piece in The Nation (http://www.thenation.com/article/156447/what-malcolm-gladwell-missed-about-online-organizing-and-creating-big-change), of leading international practitioner, trainer and writer in the field of progressive online organizing, Ben Brandzel, countered,

“Gladwell suffers a serious misunderstanding of how people actually use online tools—and confusion about the theory of change behind the historical tactics he cites as well as their modern equivalents. Gladwell begins with the reasonable contention that challenging any entrenched power structure involves a willingness to engage in “high-risk activism.” Gladwell also misses the way social media have radically changed the relationship between individuals and our weak-tie social networks. The opinion of circles of acquaintances has always had a huge influence on any given individual’s behavior, but the advent of social media means the opinions held within weak-tie networks are now far more accessible and interactive than ever before. By making it possible for just about anyone to receive and broadcast information about personal choices from just about anywhere, social media make weak-tie networks a far more focused and powerful source of social normalization than ever before—and when what’s socially ‘normal’ is taking courageous political action, weak-tie networks can indeed be a source of significant courage.

“Effective vanguard risk-takers were successful because they set an example of principled defiance, inspired others to follow suit and helped ensure that the stories and imagery from these episodes were broadcast across the region and nation. News coverage would then catalyze more activism, which would in turn generate more stories, and cumulatively help shift public opinion about the civil rights struggle itself—with large-scale political and legislative consequences. What Gladwell misses entirely is that modern examples of good online organizing almost always involve an equally multi-faceted interplay between clusters of strong-tie risk-takers and dissemination strategies that catalyze more activism, expand the story and heighten the impact.”

timecover

For us who are in the business of social change and movement building, these arguments interest us precisely because the challenge lies now in how do we actually steer the Millenials whose beliefs, behavior, attitudes and values are shaped by this new media into this movement to claim their right to a better life?

In Dakila’s Digital Activism Program, much has been discussed about whether digital media can spark social change. Digital technology defines the infrastructure that we activists operate at this time and age. And with that as a significant factor, we must consider the context where it exists – economic, social and political and integrate it in our practice as a new tool to add to enrich our experiences in mobilization, organization and message dissemination to make whatever knowledge we have to be more effective in building the movement for social change. In doing so, we acknowledge that the institutions of political, social and economic power exist offline thus all our digital campaigns must at some point make the leap in the real world. What is most important is that we understand the framework by which we operate and integrate its value to our real world – the social movement.[4]

The New Media is now one of the many institutions that exist with in society. So great has been its influence that it is shaping an entire generation, affecting institutions of power and is continuing to do so everyday. Karl Marx in his Selected Writings in Sociology and Social Philosophy, explained that our consciousness is social. Life or our social existence shapes our consciousness. For the #Selfie generation who spends hours everyday immersed on the Internet, social media plays an important part in shaping their consciousness. If we want to engage them as a youth sector then we must do what the #selfies do, take our own #selfies and post it online for everybody to see, like and share.