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"The Technology of Mobilization: Computer Mediated Communication and Youth Organizing in the Bronx,"

by John M. Beam May/June 2009 issue of Poverty & Race

In Autumn of 2005, 2,000-2,500 students walked out of DeWitt Clinton High School to protest metal detectors and other lock-down policies imposed by the Mayor and Chancellor. Then, 1,500 of them proceeded to march through the streets of the Bronx to the borough headquarters of the New York City Department of Education. They organized this action through (a social networking site that links students who attend the same school) and text messaging. No adult-led community group working on New York City education justice issues has mounted a public action so large and so militant in recent memory.

Computer Mediated Communication (CMC) is an under-examined reality in the lives politically active teenagers. (For purposes of this discussion, CMC includes Internet-connected computers, cell phones, instant messaging/chat/IM, email and social networking sites. We do not include YouTube or some of the newer applications oriented to smart phones such as Twitter, although the former is increasingly showing up in the arsenal of mobilization tools used by adult and youth-led groups.) Analysts, advocates and organizers interested in understanding how social change is contested at a grassroots level by urban youth need to understand how young people relate to the nearly ubiquitous technologies they increasingly use to manage their personal relationships and their civic engagement.

CMC technology use has become a widespread and defining feature of youth culture. In 2000, 73% of youth 12-17 used the Internet. In 2005, the number was up to 87%. By 2008, 94% of all teens were using the Internet or email. While the digital divide still exists, it has shrunk dramatically in the last few years among white, black and Hispanic youth. As many as 91% of all teens at all family income levels are users.

Meanwhile, government officials have politicized the use of CMC tools. Policymakers have targeted some of their decisions directly at youth. Other decisions are likely to have a disproportionate impact on young people because they are disproportionately heavy CMC users.

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s vigorous attempt to ban cell phones from schools embodies an “expect the worst” approach to both technology and youth that hinders their capacity to take part in policy debates directly affecting their education and community.

A May 15, 2006 NY Times account reported: “Bloomberg’s resistance [to cell phones in schools] reflects the administration’s beliefs that cell phones are disruptive and difficult to control in the classroom and that they all too often become means for cheating, gang activity or other undesirable behavior.” Moreover, April 27, 2006 NY Times article had also observed:
“[NYC Schools] Chancellor Klein defended the scanning [mandatory metal detectors] and the cell phone ban yesterday, telling reporters that students had used cell phones to take pictures in locker rooms, cheat on exams and summon friends to start fights.”
More recently, New York City Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly testified before the U.S. Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs. Referring to recent events in Mumbai, India, he said, “Law enforcement needs to find ways to disrupt cell phones and other communications.”

NY Civil Liberties Union Associate Legal Director Christopher T. Dunn responded that “it was reasonable for the police to focus on terrorists using cellphones, but he expressed concerns about broader measures….[S]erious issues would arise if that could only be done by the police taking control of communications systems or by closing down large areas of cellphone usage.”

Exploring What Works

Youth-controlled communication is, therefore, of dual interest as a resource urban youth must defend and a tool they can use to mobilize around issues they face on a daily basis. Youth CMC activity on the Internet and wireless networks has been examined regularly. In addition, CMC as a set of tools to use for political action on the Internet is an occasional topic of study — e.g., electronic petitions, fundraising for candidates, on-line debate. There has been, however, much less work done on CMC as a set of tools for on-the-ground political activity. Our Technology of Mobilization project emphasized the organizing functions of CMC. With the major exception of widespread resentment of the Mayor’s cell phone ban in the schools, defending CMC from adult officialdom has not surfaced as an issue in the South Bronx…yet.

With assistance from a PRRAC research grant, Sistas and Brothas United (SBU), a youth-run affiliate of the Northwest Bronx Community Clergy Coalition, and the Fordham University National Center for Schools and Communities conducted a pilot project to explore how SBU activists use CMC in their work and what sorts of capacity-building might enhance the effectiveness of Internet and wireless tools in their organizing work.

Our investigation took place during Spring, Summer and Fall of 2008. Various logistical and learning-curve realities impeded the smooth implementation of the project plan. However, the partnership made substantial progress in understanding how Bronx student activists use technology, how they might further adapt it to the needs of their organizing agenda, and how action research projects unfold in the real world of youth organizing.

Major components of our effort included:
• A listening session with middle and high school students discussing technology and social networking.
• A survey of Internet and wireless technology usage among SBU and non-SBU Bronx students.
• A field-test using Instant Messaging as a mobilization tactic.
• A field-test using individual social networking friends lists as a mobilization tactic.
• A field-test using an organizational (SBU) MySpace bulletin and group text messaging as mobilization tactics.
• A leadership discussion of preferred CMC outreach methods.
• Analysis and synthesis of results.

Technology User Survey

A survey of technology usage developed and administered by a SBU working group collected information from 229 students in ten schools, with 90% of responses coming from three schools where the group is especially active.

Results varied by SBU membership, gender and school, sometimes significantly. The economics of technology use varied by communication mode, with family subsidies for Internet connection being much more frequent than for the texting bill.

SBU members (n=41) were significantly more likely than non-SBU members (n=155) to cite their cell phone as their favorite tool for “personal, school, and community business” (80.5% vs. 54.5%, z = 3.02, p < .01).

SBU members were significantly more likely than non-SBU members to send over 50 texts per day (31.6% vs. 14.2%, z = 2.59, p < .005), but they were also significantly more likely to receive 25 or fewer texts per day (68% vs. 55%, z = 1.92, p < .05). Thus, SBU members were net initiators of text communication in their circles.

Nearly 60% of all respondents checked their email one to three times daily. SBU members were significantly more likely than non-SBU members to check their email seven to nine times a day (26.8% vs. 9.9%, z = 2.28, p < .005). This finding initially flies in the face of research that suggests the declining popularity of email as a tool for social communication. Conversation with active SBU members, however, suggests that much of their intensive email use is related to checking for alerts from their social networking sites. Almost 90% of respondents have MySpace pages, and, in fact, as their main computer use, SBU members were significantly more likely than non-SBU members to cite social networking (63% vs. 48%, z = 1.71, p < .05).

CMC and Mobilization

SBU members conducted field-tests of individual and organizational outreach using Instant Messaging (IM), MySpace and phone texting to boost attendance for a spoken word competition, a Unity Day Fair, and a SBU general meeting, respectively. With the major exception of a survey of youth and other community residents attending a Unity Day Fair (N=181), the somewhat loose execution and resulting smaller guesstimated Ns for resulting turnout provide less than definitive hints at the relative effectiveness of various CMC tools.

We are left with speculative conclusions that are beyond the resources of this project to test but that are rooted in both earlier research and our observations from this investigation.

The personal touch—figuratively and, we presume, literally—is still highly valued in the relational dimension of youth communication. Outreach tactics that involve a personal and personalized contact (word of mouth, door knocking, phone calls) played an important role—in the case of the Unity Day Fair, an overwhelmingly dominant role—in the turnout for each monitored event.

According to a 2004 Kaiser Family Foundation report: “Online political communication that tends to turn off young people involves ‘viral’ campaigns that are less personalized and less interactive: most unwelcome are weekly text messages with campaign updates via cell phone or other hand-held device (69% turned off vs. 23% more likely to pay attention), followed by Internet banner ads (53% turned off vs. 36% more likely to pay attention), e-mails encouraging voter turnout (50% turned off vs. 41% more likely to pay attention), and weekly e-mail updates about campaign endorsements and events (49% turned off vs. 42% more likely to pay attention).”

We should not be surprised, therefore, that the mass outreach of MySpace bulletins (the new spam?) or texts were not magnetic in their appeal. According to SBU activists who are veterans of the 2005 walkout at DeWitt Clinton, was useful because it provided the interactive platform for the pre-action debate — i.e., not just one-way bulletins. Equally important was the fact that debate attracted opinion leaders of the various groups within the school (e.g., the Goths). These students, in turn, were the grassroots leaders who entered the classrooms at the beginning of the walkout to call out their personal networks after having texted them by cell beforehand.

A closely linked notion is that the central function of CMC tools for youth is maintaining personal relationships. As a 2003 article in The Journal of Language and Social Psychology concluded: “The attraction of the Internet for most [young] people is not access to information but access to social environments.”

A corollary of these two ideas is the popularity of CMC resources that provide or reinforce intimate, real-time communication. These are Instant Messaging and—mundane though it might be—the phone.

Some research suggests that young people frequently employ the more intimate format of IM to support face-to-face relationships. A 2007 Pew Internet and American Life Project study concluded: “For the entire population of those ages 12-17, phone conversations and face-to-face meeting are the most frequently chosen ways to communicate with friends outside of school.”

In our convenience sampled tech usage survey, Instant Messaging was the second “most” used choice for SBU members and first place for non-SBU in their computer use. “Calling people” was by far the most popular phone use for both groups at 62.5% and 53.1%, respectively. The real-time, but more abstracted, Instant Messaging was a distant second for the SBU and non-SBU respondents for “most” used phone activity (40% and 35.4%).


Although this preliminary exploration of the current and potential role of the Computer Mediated Communication infrastructure of youth culture in the Bronx has raised more issues than it has resolved, we can already identify three useful lessons.

The long-standing relational approach to organizing is not about to be replaced with the Blackberry. Youth organizers and young community leaders will continue to identify issues and recruit leaders and core supporters knocking on doors, sitting around the kitchen tables, and leafleting on the corners across the street from our overcrowded high schools.

CMC, however, does offer agile ways to transmit expected information (e.g., the location of a demonstration) that is part of a plan organized through face-to-face or basic telephone formats.

With thought and creativity, we should be able to marry the relational to the technological. An example of such a marriage would be consciously organized phone trees that link within pre-existing networks—e.g., neighbors in a building, active members of committees, Goths)—so that news, motivation and mobilization occur along lines of existing personal relationships as well as political affinity.

John M. Beam is a policy analyst and advocate and former community and political organizer. Most recently he was executive director of the National Center for Schools and Communities at Fordham University, which recently closed as result of collateral damage from the financial meltdown. The full report from which this article is drawn, including an extensive list of supporting reference, is available at

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