Ferguson, One Direction, Tumblr, and Why You Need to Pay Attention to Teenage Girls
Gallup isn’t polling them, Pew isn’t researching them, but influential teen girls online are creating content about a whole lot more than boy bands. They’re poised to drag the American center left — and no one’s noticing.
In August 2014 my younger sister turned 21 and I told her we could do something special to celebrate. While I had in mind a weekend trip to New York to see a show or a warm weather weekend getaway over the winter, she had another idea. For about the same amount that it would cost to go on a trip, we could get seats six rows from the stage to see One Direction at Gillette Stadium. I assumed she was joking. She assured me she was not. I bought us tickets.
I knew nothing of the boy band One Direction beyond a couple of their singles, but I was determined to enjoy the show. I downloaded their albums and learned the songs they’d be performing. I watched their music videos. And when I asked my sister how I could best come to understand the essence of One Direction, she suggested some YouTube videos (the X Factor video diaries, to be exact) and told me to nose around through One Direction hashtags on Tumblr.
Down the rabbit hole I fell.
I created a Tumblr blog a few years ago and reblog things occasionally, but I’ve never been a heavy user. Born in 1989, I feel old on Tumblr. The site has the youngest average audience of any major social networking site: 46% of users are between the ages of 16 and 24. As more parents and grandparents have made their social homes on major sites like Facebook, young social media users have moved their conversations and engagement elsewhere: Tumblr, Snapchat, Yik Yak, and other sites not populated by older audiences. Since 2013, teens have left Facebook en masse. Consider this: Is your Facebook feed filled with recipes, family updates, baby and dog pictures or memes?
In my quest to learn about One Direction I began to browse and follow blogs focused mainly on the band. The vast majority of these bloggers are young women in high school and college (or at least purport to be). But the most interesting thing I found was that these users weren’t just sharing fan fiction and dreamy gifs of Harry Styles. Many of them were taking on social issues and, whether they realized it or not, applying the lenses of critical race theory and intersectional feminism. Talking about and applying this kind of theory isn’t like adopting single-focus issues that these girls might outgrow some day (I think back to the “Fur is Murder” position paper I wrote as a freshman in high school). These are issues and discussions that shape worldviews.
On November 24, 2014, a grand jury declined to indict Ferguson, Missouri police officer Darren Wilson for the murder of Michael Brown — and something very interesting happened on my Tumblr feed.
The legions of One Direction blogs I followed over the summer were almost exclusively posting about Ferguson, reblogging others and creating their own original content. Many were expressing anger at a minority of users who were staying silent or publishing posts unrelated to Ferguson. As a digital strategy consultant, I often advise clients to pause their scheduled social posts when big, national news events are happening. Accidentally (or purposefully) posting about your own issues during times of duress comes off as tacky at best and offensive at worst. Last Monday, these teenage girls were giving the same advice in the face of what they saw as a tragic national news event that demanded users’ full attention and energy.
These posts — and countless other posts — matter. Considering the sheer number of notes (Tumblr’s metric for the number of users who engage with a post) Ferguson posts received, I think it’s reasonable to assume a huge segment of Tumblr’s users saw at least some Ferguson-focused content on Monday night — regardless of what the blogs they follow typically focus on.
Fifteen percent of Tumblr’s users are between 13 and 17 years of age, meaning they are not polled on political issues and cannot yet vote. Thus, we have few hard facts about their civic behavior and political beliefs.
How is content like I saw Monday night regarding Ferguson influencing teenage Tumblr users as they begin to shape their social and political worldviews? Ferguson posts aren’t being ignored — they’re receiving hundreds and thousands of notes. These users are getting a social education, and it’s not happening in the classroom — it’s happening online. These un-pollable teenagers will soon be part of the voting population and they just might help drag the American center left. Neither Democrats nor Republicans, talking heads nor pollsters, are paying much attention to them.
Twenty-three million young Americans voted for Barack Obama, both in 2008 and 2012 — a margin of 2:1. These votes proved particularly critical in swing states like Florida, Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Ohio. According to research from The Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts University:
Assuming that Florida is called for President Obama in 2012, then Ohio, Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Florida will be states in which young voters were essential to the President’s reelection coalition. In those states, if Governor Romney had won half of the youth vote, or if young voters had stayed home entirely, then Romney would have won instead of Obama.
These electorally muscular states proved the difference for Obama in 2012. Many of these same states will likely be in play in 2016 and the youth vote will matter. Politicians and their machines need to pay attention to youth voters, and if they’re smart they’ll look to the internet to better understand the issues that are most important to them and — critically — how and where to talk to them about these issues.
We can’t assume loving a boy band prevents a girl from thinking critically about her experiences and the experiences of others. Don’t assume teenagers can’t understand complex social theory. Pay attention to teenage girls; they just might change the world.