Andrew Conte’s Focus on Media: Young people showing way forward via social media |

Andrew Conte’s Focus on Media: Young people showing way forward via social media

Emma Gonzalez, a senior who survived the Feb. 14 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, talks with people at North Community Park in Parkland, Fla. (John McCall | South Florida Sun-Sentinel via AP)
Tribune-Review contributing writer Andrew Conte.

Emma Gonzalez barely knew how to use Twitter on the morning of Feb. 14, but six weeks later, she had tweeted more than 1,200 times and had 1.23 million followers.

Of course, her life changed that day, along with the lives of her Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School classmates in Parkland, Fla., when a former student with an assault rifle killed 17 people. After Gonzalez gave an impassioned speech about gun control in the days following the attack, her social-media prominence swelled. Now, she uses the platform to connect with, recognize and elevate other users — particularly young people.

Since the attack, high school students nationwide have used social media like never before, inspiring organic collective action such as school walkouts across the country and this weekend’s “March For Our Lives” in Washington.

As Nate Silver, FiveThirtyEight data analyst, noted a week after Parkland , “Something is different this time.” While gun-control messages faded from Google searches after past mass shootings, he showed that the conversation kept going after this attack. “The students speaking out makes a pretty big difference,” he said.

Critics have wondered how people so young could quickly gain so much influence . But in reality, they’re simply using the only tools they’ve ever known. This generation grew up on smartphones and has the potential to change not only they way we talk with each other, but our national discourse.

When the baby-boom generation was young, a few media elites could control the narrative, such as when CBS’s Walter Cronkite called for an end to the Vietnam War or when Edward R. Murrow mocked the anti-communist witch hunts of the 1950s . Today, no one person or even a small group controls the media. They belong to everyone, now that anyone with a smartphone can reach the world with video, photographs and words.

In his seminal 2000 work about the decline of American social capital, “ Bowling Alone, ” Robert Putnam fretted about future generations, noting declines in all types of civic engagement among those who followed the so-called “Greatest Generation,” which came of age around World War II: “(I)t is the obligation of Americans of all ages to help rekindle civic engagement among the generation that will come of age in the early years of the twenty-first century.” Guess what? Young people are doing it on their own.

My first-year students were in grade school when smartphones arrived and can barely remember life without immediate pocket access to all the world’s information and people. Older generations talk about the first iPhone’s innovation as a turning point, but the youngest Americans haven’t known anything different.

Technology has disrupted our world in unquestioned ways — automation and artificial intelligence, greater international connectivity and dependence, immediate communications over fantastic distances — that have confused and confounded older Americans. Now, in this moment, young people are showing a way forward by focusing not on what was, but on what can be.

Andrew Conte is the director of the Center for Media Innovation at Point Park University.

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