Shaping Youth Through Online Media: Community Next

communitynext.pngLately I’ve been grappling with how to uncork a dialogue about “kids” vs. “youth culture.”

We need to fine tune our mindsets when protectionism and policy drivers mistakenly channel all of ‘youth’ onto one frequency, so I figured I’d better attempt to ‘orbit the giant hairball’ and cough up some global framing…

How do we “thin-slice” media’s effect on youth when there’s massive differentiation between 8 months, 8 years, 18 months and 18 years?

Recently, I spoke with Noah Kagan, founder of Entrepreneur27 and producer of Community Next, the sold-out youth-driven event I’ll be attending Saturday at Stanford covering the present and future of online communities.

Actually, watching how the Community Next event formed, ramped, and revved into high gear is a CLASSIC example of youth culture & technology in action…

Student tickets were snapped up first. Buzz built in a blink. The final few tickets were auctioned on e-bay to pad a scholarship fund for high schoolers in need. And now even his grandmother can’t find an extra seat!

The “hype+buzz = a happening” equation shows the lightening speed of what transpires when youth mobilize around media.

For those of us trying to lead change, this is a movement ripe with positive potential… Look no further than the Live 8 concert or disaster relief to watch the phenomenon in action.

Community Next could open minds about online community building in some thought provoking ways, so I’m thrilled to be splashing in this fountain of youth and vibrant idea exchange all day.

The youth zeitgeist seems to be shifting toward positive contributions to the planet beyond lining personal pockets too, so I’ll be anxious to see how this all plays out.

Noah strikes me as a cross between a collegiate anthropologist unearthing fresh ideas and a bright budding capitalist looking for the next big ‘thang.’

His enthusiasm about what’s current, coming, and cool in community building comes through loud and clear.

Whether he’s talking about user generated tees like Threadless or online lending for start-ups in the developing world content like Kiva, he can barely wait to hear his own speaker line-up as his voice excitedly previews the geek chic roster of innovation and imagination.

It reminds me of my entrepreneurial zeal coming back from the Guidewire Leadership Forum; my brain was pinging all over the place with hopeful new directions for Shaping Youth.

Will online communities begin to lead us away from self-absorbed cultural narcissism into integrated, interdependent networks?

Will youth lead us away from the reckless trashing of our own environments toward more sustainable worldviews in mind, body and soul?

From the food we eat to the earth we share, it seems a heightened awareness of interconnectivity is slowly seeping through this digital supply chain.

It feels like we’re edging toward more holistic, meaningful, personally relevant content from youth media creations and global cinema, to higher quality content and positive youth development.

Advertisers have been harvesting kids as “sticky eyeballs” like macabre organ donor banks intent on pulling fresh eyes out of sockets, without any media morality concerning messaging, damage or pain.

It’s short-sighted and stupid to body-snatch wee ones with pornification of pop culture and plop them into adulthood without recognizing there will be reverb down the line and a high price to pay.

I asked Noah how corporations that opportunistically mine young kids’ souls for a buck clash with new media thinking in technology hubs like Community Next.

Hard to compare the two demographics, but backlash from self-serving soul-less businesses (profit at ANY cost, traditional top-down management) may die out based on healthier, more expansive new models emerging.

He cited the Starfish and The Spider analogy of dying business practices. (If a spider loses a head, it dies; whereas if a starfish loses a leg, it not only grows a new one, the severed limb can grow an entirely new starfish, because of the decentralized nature of the beast.)

Again, this gives me hope.

Perhaps the top-down traditional corporations seeking profitability at the expense of kids’ physical and emotional health will get stepped on and smushed like a bug one of these days. (harsh words coming from an arachnophobe who hand-carries the insects outdoors on pieces of paper to avoid harming them!)

Starfish organizations (and youth culture itself) have the adaptive potential to change the face of business, creating new life in oceans and seas of technology.

Sure beats a hacked up headless arachnoid any ol’ day.

These are exciting (and sometimes ruthless) times in the digital revolution…New media is like the Chinese character for chaos, representing both danger and opportunity.

Protectionism collides with market forces. Privacy issues bump up against open access. And parents and kids grab the tug of war rope to redefine innovation, recreation, and limitation trying to understand each other’s subcultures and struggle for integration of new media in their lives.

I talked a bit about this with DK, founder of MediaSnackers in the U.K. who reassured me media literacy will help sort it all out.

He said, “As young people obtain media device ownership at a younger and younger age they’re bound to receive copious quantities of marketing messages, but they’re also becoming savvy to interpret them.”

I dunno. Even if we train kids for savvy interpretation at ever earlier ages, it won’t exempt them from having had “acid poured on their innocence,” as Senator Harkin phrased.

In little kids we’re seeing big problems, from obesity to self-worth. Why can’t we just LEAVE ‘EM ALONE…and yet:

We can crowd out the crud with healthier fare and counter-balance negative forces, but trying to tamp down media momentum through mega-filters of regulation in an everchanging arena seems like herding cats.

Besides, laws of physics prove when things get squashed they just ooze out from a different side.

Studies show kids of all ages are voraciously consuming media more than ever before, but there’s ZERO comparison between primary school kiddies and Community Next teens so savvy they can create a branding backlash in a nanosecond when they sniff out an inauthentic tone.

When I talk about media’s tipping point of toxicity plundering innocence for profit, I’m referring to my experiences with second graders that ask, “Do these jeans make me look fat?”

Or teeny ones that use pop culture slang like ‘hyphy, crunk, gangsta or pimp’ or break into tears with playground taunts about body image or branding, like “Is your butt REALLY “Juicy?”

When advertisers create psychological insecurities in 8-12 year old “tweens” to purposely fill them with products, I’d say that qualifies as being morally bankrupt.

When cognitive research on the under 8 crowd shows kids’ inability to discern advertising from reality it means these kids never should’ve never been on the radar to begin with…much less plied with empty calorie toxic junk.

Market forces pundits maintain it’s a free enterprise issue, and a ‘just say no’ proposition, but our counter-marketing research shows it’s brandwashing, big time.

This goes WAY beyond parental finger-wagging & purchase power when it’s impacting public health and children’s well-being. Where’s the ethical self-rein? One look at CARU’s funding resources from the ad industry shows why that watchdog won’t even whimper.

Contrast these young kids with Community Next’s über-savvy media culture and there’s no inkling of comparison:

This generation is so accustomed to being relentlessly targeted as ‘the youth market’ that they widely accept it as part of their lives. In fact, if it’s authentic and relevant, advertising is more often embraced than deplored.

Noah said:

“There’s a big difference between product placement that distracts from a game vs. contextual positioning of a guitar center ad within a Guitar Hero II music video game…Branding is all about keeping it real, relevant, and actionable.”

“You need to understand before you can be understood, and that’s where marketers that appeal to youth take more of a Seth Godin approach with uniqueness and humor to be fully appreciated.”

As for over-saturation, he replied, “We’re desensitized, no doubt. We ignore a lot. Banner ads aren’t even noticed half the time, or there’s recall but no follow-through. The ad’s vernacular has to be on equal footing; when it works, it can be hilarious and memorable.”

Gee, and all this time I thought those sophisticated media teens would just use Tivo or Slingbox to ditch the pitch altogether. Apparently not.

Most interesting to me were the powerful new opportunities linking social networking to cause-marketing,

“Media’s becoming more about sponsoring and cross promotions and integrated marketing that works on different levels.

You might have a youth made-movie like Invisible Children supported or distributed by a retailer in one of their stores…A MySpace link to homeless activism through the Burrito Project…Or get to see who you’re helping directly through orgs like Kiva.”

Yep. I can definitely see how online communities could ‘do the starfish thing’ and grow, thrive, and attach themselves to one another with exciting outcomes that are a win-win model for social entrepreneurs.

That’s consistent with the way younger kids are processing media messaging too. It’s even how we run our counter-marketing sessions, layering different concepts on multi-levels and integrating them to reinforce the message.

MediaSnackers runs youth media training all over the place, so I asked DK what he’s seeing globally in terms of how people refer to ‘youth.’ He said:

“As a youth professional I still define ‘youth’ by age (11-25), however, there is an obvious blurring of lines.

Tweens increasingly have similar access to technology and media-device ownership as their older siblings…

And we’re also seeing the first ‘always-on’ generation retain their focus and expectations, even as they become young parents/professionals. Their online activities and media habits do not change.”

That explains the MMORPGs average gamer being 26, and why my 35 year old neighbors fuss over the joystick with their kids.

He added, “In other countries their definition of age is very different: Malta 35, Turkmenistan 37 and Malaysia 40; also interestingly, for the UN it’s 15-24.”

Wow. So we’re all over the board trying to reconcile what we mean by ‘youth.’

In a society that loves to list subcultures down to the gnat’s eyebrow, ‘youth’ is squishy.

No matter how you ‘thin-slice’ it, new media and youth culture shifts in a blink.
“Community Next” is actually now.



  1. Amy you are a miracle worker!!!!

    I definitely did not sound this great but thank you for the amazing write up. I linked it on my about page.

    I look forward to meeting you at the event;)

  2. I wholeheartedly agree that marketing should have a concience when it comes to targeting our youth. Not just “give em what they want” but rather help them choose what they might need. Example; drivers education, It can be accomplished on line but some courses are not certified by the DMV.
    Ads that target teens are rampant with spybots to track their searaching habits.

  3. Ah, behavioral targeting…huge issue…from cookies to FB and social networking sites the science and technology behind the branding and motivational draws is getting more sophisticated by the moment.

    Here’s an article from iMediaConnection about the targeting of tweens and teens in virtual worlds and beyond:

  4. One more for ya, the recent discussion transpiring in Washington (re: the FTC)

    “Statement of Dr. Kathryn C. Montgomery, who led the campaign for the passage of the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), commenting on the FTC children’s privacy lawsuit announced today against Sony BMG Music Entertainment

    I applaud the FTC’s actions to enforce the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act. The government’s lawsuit against SONY sends a strong signal to the online industry that this law must be taken seriously. COPPA was designed to protect children under the age of 13 from unfair data collection and manipulation by online marketers. Congress passed the law ten years ago to establish a clear set of safeguards and principles that were built into the foundation of the emerging digital marketplace. However, in recent years, online data collection has become increasingly sophisticated, expanding into a variety of new platforms — from social networks to mobile phones to interactive games — that are now central tools in young peoples’ their lives. In the new administration of President-elect Barack Obama, both the FTC and Congress must support additional policies that will extend COPPA’s mandate and create privacy protections for all children under the age of 18.

    Kathryn C. Montgomery, Ph.D, is Professor of Communication at American University in Washington, DC.”

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