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Dissent and the Digital Natives

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If you're reading this right now, you're probably already aware of how dramatic the effect of the Internet has been on American life. Email and paying bills online threaten the future of Postal Service and friendships are maintained not by mutual effort but by billion dollar conglomerates. One need only look at Newt Gringrich's citing of his twitter followers as a sign of campaign's viability and the classification of a cyberattack against the United States as an act of war, to know that the information age has irreversibly changed the political sphere. Websites like Wikileaks present new opportunities of information flow and accountability. From cyberactivist groups like Anonymous, the formation of the Tea Party, the Arab Spring protests across the Middle East, and the Occupy Wall Street movement, social media has become an outlet and rallying place for those discontent with status quo politics. With the generation on the rise feeling increasingly disenfranchised within the American political system, the rise of these "digital natives" who have taken so much of their lives online, points to an almost inevitable shift: the move of the electoral process to the Internet, a blend of social media and politics that allows voters to keep up on their politicians and their stances the way they would their Facebook friends, likes and interests. While no one can know exactly what this Internet-integrated future of American politics looks like, through examining some new websites and the projects of young entrepreneurs, a glimpse of the potential future of the political process emerges.

In her article, "Rise of The Digital Natives" for The Nation last month, Laurie Penny wrote, "The generation that was supposed to be made listless and apathetic by technology -- the kids who were supposedly staring vacantly into virtual worlds in lonely bedrooms -- are instead using technology to re-engage with current in an era when the very principles of power are being rewritten on terms not wholly in the control of nation-states." While Penny was discussing the rise of "hack-tavist" groups like Lulzsec and Anonymous, her observation holds true even among the less anarchic Internet users.

"We're told we live in a democracy," says Joshka Tryba, a senior at Brown University, "We spread democracies. Everyone wants the gridlock in Washington to stop. We have two parties in a stalemate. A real democracy would just be us."

As Tryba works on his final project for his undergraduate degree in the Commerce, Organizations and Entrepreneurship department, he and his teammates are working toward a technological solution to the national turmoil. Together, the group is designing a website that mixes elements of Facebook, LinkedIn and OkCupid with a focus on politics. When asked why he feels the future of political debate will take place online, Tryba blames the state of corporate news, "The media doesn't provide a well rounded view. Everyone has their own channel, their own filter for information that allows them to support rather than question their beliefs."

On a site like this, users would be able to answer polls on a variety of issues, comparing their views to potential candidates as well as other users. A political news feed, like the one found on Facebook, would keep participants informed on politicians stances and current events, while discussion forums would provide room for debates. Event reminders would keep members informed about upcoming elections and rallies. From the government's perspective, there could also be a benefit. With a large enough membership, decision makers could view a sample opinion of a wide national demographic. This is one clear advantage the Internet has over traditional news media as a political forum: news polls, tend to represent the views of a small like-minded group and carry a slant toward a particular agenda. "51 percent of Americans use Facebook," Tryba points out, "With numbers like that, a percentage poll of all users would be a much better representation of the collective political pulse."

"Look at the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street," Tryba says, "The public wants to feel more involved in the political process, people are frustrated, and things don't seem to be working. We need a platform so that we can have a general discussion."

The idea of mixing social media and politics might seem a little far fetched, but 10 years ago, no one could have predicted the President of the United States holding "town halls" on Twitter to address the general public. Politifact, the fact checking website that allows the public to test the statements of various pundits and politicians, won the Pulitzer Prize in 2009, and the information wars inflamed by Wikileaks have far from ended. The move toward an online platform for political debate seems to take the trend toward its logical conclusion. It should come as no surprise that Tryba's team is neither alone, nor the first to try and fill the gap.

"Pick A President Not A Party," reads AmericansElect.org's homepage, "Take Part In America's First Direct Presidential Nomination." The organization is attempting to receive ballot status in all 50 states, and has already been accredited in Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Kansas, Michigan, Nevada, Ohio and Utah. The site, hopes to offer "the first nonpartisan presidential nomination," by allowing registered users to pick amongst themselves to choose a third party candidate. The group's mission statement reads, "The goal of Americans Elect is to nominate a presidential ticket that answers directly to voters- not the political system... We believe a secure, online nominating process will prove that America is ready for a competitive, nonpartisan ticket."

Not all such websites are as radical. Twosides.co, allows users to see how their views stack up against others in colored pie charts. ElectNext.com, stocks questions devised by Ivy League professors and allows users to agree or disagree, then compare their answers to their peers.

I've been thinking about this quote a lot lately, "They've got a set of Republican waiters on one side and a set of Democratic waiters on the other side, but no matter which set of waiters brings you the dish, the legislative grub is all prepared in the same Wall Street kitchen." While this sort of rhetoric sounds like it could be coming from Zuccotti Park, Louisiana Governor, Huey Long said these words in 1932 -- at the height of the last great depression.

While discontent with politics as usual is not new, the means of dealing with the system's structure is changing quickly. For decades, proponents have pitched the Internet as an opening to a new world of ensured equality and opportunity. Maybe the Internet isn't here to allow us to escape our world, but change it for the better.