Online Participatory Cultures, Pirate Parties, and Youth Unemployment: Indicators of a Communication Gap?

One of our core foci at Civic Paths is the question of how civic engagement through online participatory cultures relates to ‘traditional’ forms of engagement, namely political activism within the democratic system, mediated by one’s affiliation with a particular political party. All three of our case studies (The Harry Potter Alliance, Invisible Children, and DREAM activists) are inherently youth driven, and even though each of them has clear political and non-political goals, they do not explicitly align themselves with any particular political direction, let alone any party. It is a new form of engagement, one that centers on causes, specific visions or dreams of a better world, and the sharing of particular media content. Claims of a political apathy amongst youths have existed since decades; however, based on our studies and observations, it seems more likely that the nature of political and civic activism has changed, and like so many other social practices, refuses to be confined to traditional if democratic hierarchical structures much longer.

Pirate Parties International

Pirate Parties International has 40 affiliated Pirate Parties around the world.

At the same time, other new forms of civic engagement and activism emerge. These are also unconventional, such as the Pirate Parties in countries around the world. The Pirate Parties, actual national parties in 40 countries and are affiliated to their umbrella organization Pirate Parties International (PPI). Unlike mainstream political parties, the Pirate Parties have an agenda focused only on matters related to the Internet and information technology, such as improving personal privacy online, decreasing governmental control over information technologies and information retention, and reforming copyright laws to comply with the demands of the new media age. While I couldn’t find any statistics on the Pirate Parties’ member or voter demographics worldwide, I did find several election reports from Germany. So far, the German Pirate Party has not been able to make it into the national parliament (Germany requires a party to receive at least 5% of votes in order to receive seats in parliament), but on a local and state level, the German Pirate Party has been increasingly successful, getting seats on larger city councils such as Aachen and getting close to the 5% requirement in state parliaments. What is more important, however, is that if broken down by age group, the Pirate Party is in fact able to garner at least 5% amongst voters aged 18 to 34. What ultimately stops them from reaching parliament, however, are the remaining voters, aged 35+ who tend to stick with mainstream political parties.

Finally, youth unemployment throughout the world is increasing rapidly. Some countries, such as Italy, Greece, and Spain are facing youth unemployment rates of up to 45% – despite overall high education levels. And while both the UK and the US have rates that are lower – 20% and 18.1% respectively – they are still too high, no doubt. Sociologists frequently warn about the long-term effects of this trend, but so far only ex-prime minister of the UK, Gordon Brown picked up on the issue and called upon the G20 leaders to finally take action and to call an emergency G20 summit.

These are three different trends that have one thing in common: The relationship between youth and politics, today. For one, as our case studies show, youths aren’t politically apathetic. They are engaged, but in ways that differ from traditional understandings of politics. Like in so many cases nowadays, young people avoid gate keepers (in this case, political parties) and decide to take action directly and to the cause they are concerned about. Secondly, it may be that ‘traditional’ politics are not fast enough (or willing enough) to keep up with what young people care about. In Germany, no other party but the Pirate Party even mentions the regulation/de-regulation of the Internet and information technologies in their programs. However, new media and the legislation surrounding it are an integral part of everyone’s life today, not to mention teenagers and young adults, and so it is not surprising that the Pirate Party can easily muster support from the ranks of the young people.

A Sketch from the Economist

A sketch from The Economist highlighting the communication gap, and some of the underlying causes for the unrests in the UK.

The same goes for youth unemployment. The issue is burning – literally, in the UK. When the Economic Crisis hit back in 2008, the ones that felt it most right away weren’t the youths around the world. I remember being asked by a friend of my father’s why “us youths” weren’t out on the street protesting against the banks terrible practices that brought us into this mess. I told him it was because for us, nothing much changed; we were all students, at high school or at university, and we didn’t have any money that the banks could have gambled away. Little did I know that for the young people, the long-term consequences would almost be worse, in the form of extremely slow and over-saturated labor markets.

What all of this boils down to, then, is a growing communication gap between the different generations in our modern societies. New media technologies have changed the ways in which political activism takes place, and facilitated non-traditional forms of engagement that do not require political party systems. However, NMTs cannot be made solely responsible; the root of this trend is a lot deeper. If youths around the world feel the need to find new ways to get involved and to take ‘politics’ into their own hand, isn’t this a signal that there must be something the ‘traditional’ system fails to offer to them? As our case studies show, and examples like the German Gamers’ response to a discriminating TV portrayal, young people communicate, organize, and take action in different ways than their parents and grandparents. If they don’t vote it doesn’t mean they don’t care, but that they feel that their political system doesn’t offer solutions or actions. Instead of voting for a party and waiting for it to take action, many youths today prefer to go out to do it themselves.

It would be easy to use this blog post as a loud accusation towards ‘all those ignorant politicians,’ but I do not believe that making accusations is the right thing to do in this case. The times are changing rapidly, and it is hard to keep up for both young and old. So instead, I would like to urge politicians and the older generations to stop and to listen for a moment, so that in future, the communication gap between the generations does not grow much further, but that we can all find ourselves on the same playing field, talking to and with each other, just like we’re supposed to in a functioning democratic society.


German Gamers Use Shared Media Culture to Bring About TV Investigation

For the last two days I’ve been following a very interesting and most of all rapid form of civic engagement amongst the gamer community in Germany. I first heard about it from my brother back home, who is a gamer and sent me a link to a video that sparked a tremendous outrage online, particularly on YouTube. The content of the video is a short “news report” on the gamescom (game convention and exhibition in Cologne last weekend) from the current affairs show ‘explosiv’ on RTL, one of the two leading German broadcast TV stations (German cable is virtually non-existent). In the report gamers are portrayed as a bunch of male, alcoholic and crazed weirdoes who have a terrible body hygiene and no romantic relationships.

You can find a subtitled version here:
(I hope this video hasn’t been taken down when you are accessing it; banning YouTube videos has been RTL’s crisis strategy, it seems).

First shown on air last Friday, August 19th, the video immediately
went viral amongst gamers, and when leading gamer and YouTuber Rainer
Schauder came back from gamescom Tuesday this week (August 23rd) and
finally saw the video himself, he took to his YouTube channel (link in German) to not
rant against the TV station (like so many other gamers had at first),
but to encourage all other gamers to go to (link in German),
Germany’s official TV complaints website, and to launch a formal
complaint against RTL and the ‘explosiv’ report.



Rainer Schauder calls upon the gamer community to stop ranting and take 'real' action against RTL



Schauder explicitly asked his viewers to abstain from any derogatory remarks against RTL or the video, and to clearly and objectively explain in the complaint comment section how this report discriminates against gamers and breaches several broadcasting laws and codes of ethics. Schauder uploaded this video at 4am on Wednesday (August 24th) morning (EST+1 /
German time).

According to a second (link in German) video Schauder uploaded about 12 hours later, even he himself would never have imagined the immense and immediate response to his video, which of course also went viral. Thousands of gamers all over Germany took first to the TV complaint website to lodge their official complaints, and then created their own (link in German) YouTube videos sharing their objective and to-the-point messages they used in the complaint comment section. Many went so far as to cite broadcast laws and regulations in detail (chapter and paragraph numbers). By 9am on Thursday morning (August 25th), had broken down several times due to its extreme website traffic, and a total of 6.500 complaints (link in German) had been submitted. At the moment the website is back up again, with a request to not submit any more RTL/’explosiv’- related complaints as the Complaints Commission is already looking into it. In addition, a video (link in German) has surfaced on several YouTube pages and website that claims to be an official message from the hacker group Anonymous, with a threat to take RTL down due to its sensationalist practices that lack any journalistic integrity (this is not the first time RTL’s ‘news programs’ have been questionable). However, it has been questioned whether this video is real (i.e. indeed authored by Anonymous).

While RTL and the show ‘explosive’ have a website, Facebook pages, and Twitter accounts, it took until noon on Thursday, August 24th 2011, that RTL issued an official apology, as a press release and as a video on their website. The producer of the show also posted on the gamescom facebook page saying that the report was meant to be comedic and ironic, and that he apologizes “should he have insulted the feelings of anyone.”

However, it seems that these apologies aren’t enough for the gamers – and I cannot blame them. The wording of the apologies is formulaic and insincere at best, and so the gamers are demanding a broadcast apology with an actual effort on RTL’s behalf to show the diversity amongst the gamer community and to eliminate the prejudices the producers established in their original report. It is late Thursday evening in Germany now, so I’m waiting to see what will happen tomorrow, but I think this whole situation is an excellent example how youths can use their shared media culture to organize quickly and efficiently, and to
bring about real-life and even actual legal action.


Update (Aug 25 2011, PM): Rainer Schauder just uploaded his “final” video for his cause, thanking the gamers for taking such great action and asking them to now stop complaining and the let Complaints Commissioners do their job. He also doesn’t want anyone to keep ranting about RTL and particularly doesn’t want them to continue to throw swear-words at the station and its show. Lastly, he makes it clear that he doesn’t want to be seen as a ‘Michael Moore’ of the gamer community, and just wants to continue living his normal life.

Update (Aug 26 2011, AM): The Complaints Commission decided (link in German) that RTL’s ‘explosiv’ report did not violate any rules and regulations of German broadcasting and was protected by freedom of expression/opinion, but did agree that the nature and tone of the program was “irksome” and that the outrage surrounding it as well as RTL’s apology were justified. The gamers’ reaction was one of acceptance with underlying contentment; even if RTL is not facing any legal consequences, it seems that the gamers are happy to have a) shown RTL (and the entire country) that they are a large societal group to be reckoned with, and to have b) seen that they are in fact capable to quickly organize themselves to take effective action. I for my part will be interested to see whether this self-organization will continue, given that the gaming community in Germany is still facing many prejudices and scape-goating, particularly when it comes to violence among youths.



A ‘Big Bang’ – and Participatory Fans are now on your TV Screens

It’s been a while now since geeks have made the sudden and rapid evolution from social outcasts to trendsetters. They’re amongst the coolest people out there at the moment, causing sales of large, geek-style glasses to increase and kids to explore their ‘nerdy’ sides in hopes of being the next Mark Zuckerberg or Bill Gates.

Mark Zuckerberg, one of the people that made geek cool, was named Time's Person of the Year 2010

But it’s not just geeks that have all of a sudden become it. Engaged fans have become cool, too. Fan participation has become cool. What used to be seen as the behavior of a confused* minority group that may or may not have lost touch with reality* – this same behavior all of a sudden has become hip.


Don’t believe me? Consider this:

1. Three out of five protagonists of How I Met Your Mother are seen at a Star Wars convention at least once – in addition to countless die-hard Star Wars references between Ted, Marshall, and Barney (to the extent that they consider ANY woman unsuitable to marry Ted if she doesn’t love Star Wars as much as he does, and Barney gets into countless fights with Robin and Lily over the life-sized Stormtrooper he has in his living room).


Lily (Darth Vader), Ted (Luke Skywalker), and Marshall (Chewbacca) from 'How I Met Your Mother' at a Star Wars Con


2. Similarly, The Big Bang Theory is full of references to Star Trek and Star Wars, as well as to various comics such as the Marvel series (their collector’s editions are all over the walls in Sheldon’s bedroom, for example), and the show includes scenes at fan conventions or the entire gang dressing up in matching fan outfits.

Rajesh, Leonard, Howard, and Sheldon from 'The Big Bang Theory' all inadvertently dress up the same on Halloween as Flash (from one of their favorite comic series)

3. And even the cases of Harry Potter and Twilight, where both book signings and film premieres consistently prompt thousands of fans to show up in full-on costumes, often camping outside venues several nights before the events to get the best spot in the queue or in front of the stage. And rather than being ridiculed, the news media join into the craze, counting down the hours until a new release with the fans and joining into the debate of whether Harry Potter is a craze or a classic.


What’s important here is not the fact that all of these fans exist on television, but the way they are being portrayed in the media. Yes, devoted fans have always existed, and so have fan crazes like the ones surrounding Twilight and Harry Potter. What’s new, however, is that devoted fans are no longer framed as a crazed minority, some weirdoes who are trying to escape from reality. They are portrayed as cool, sometimes funny, but increasingly normal. But where does all of this come from? How did participatory fans all of a sudden make it into some of the most successful TV shows?


One reason could be that TV producers have discovered the continuous source of revenue participatory fans can provide. Unlike ‘everyday’ fans that only follow a film or television series for some time before turning to something else, engaged fans stay with their chosen show(s) and film(s) over years, if not decades and even their life. Maybe studio bosses and producers have come to realize that this devotion means additional income from media content that is long past its original airing and its zenith, and so they may now try to engage participatory fandom by showing it on-screen in the first place and in a positive manner at that.


Or maybe it’s all for fun and ridicule. Both How I Met Your Mother and The Big Bang Theory feature relatively geeky main characters, and their devotion to fandoms like Star Trek, Star Wars, and Marvel Comics is often the cause for humor and comedy. However, the positive and amiable depiction of these characters’ fan dedication suggests otherwise. Fan references and fan commitments may be comedic at times, but they always also highlight the importance of a fandom in a characters’ life, and what’s more, the way his/her fandom bonds a protagonist to his/her friends and significant others.


Which leads me to my third possible reason: Maybe the general public has begun to accept and respect participatory fans. Maybe they have seen engaged fans’ continued and lasting commitment to their fandoms, have realized that they are not just following some form of extreme craze, and that they actually (surprise, surprise!) get a lot more out of their fan objects than mere escapism. And maybe they started to think that in a time where we are trying to let anyone live in a way that makes them happy, regardless of social backgrounds, sexual orientation, and religious affiliation, for example, participatory fans could be allowed just the same – without being derided or made fun of, but with being accepted and respected.


As a hopeless optimist and idealist, I’d like to think that it is mainly reason three – increased general tolerance and respect. If this is not the case, then I’m still ok with any of the other reasons, as long as participatory fans continue to get their screen time, and do so in a good light.



*I’m not exaggerating here. These words actually came up in conversations with countless non-participatory fans throughout the last ten years of my life.