Emerging Digital Generations

Digital Native – a contested term

Since 2001 the term Digital Natives has been used to describe a generation of young people who have grown up with digital technology as an integral part of their lives. Marc Prensky coined the term:

Digital Natives are used to receiving information really fast. They like to parallel process and multi-task. They prefer their graphics before their text rather than the opposite. They prefer random access (like hypertext). They function best when networked. They thrive on instant gratification and frequent rewards. They prefer games to “serious” work.  

Digital Immigrants, on the other hand:

typically have very little appreciation for these new skills that the Natives have acquired and perfected through years of interaction and practice. These skills are almost totally foreign to the Immigrants, who themselves learned – and so choose to teach – slowly, step-by-step, one thing at a time, individually, and above all, seriously.

Even if this is an exaggerated characterisation there is clearly something different about the behaviour of the different generations. As Tim Davies wrote in our report on global social networking trends for AIDS2031, “Digital communication technologies have not been something (the constantly connected generation) has adopted after learning about organisations, methods of communication and society, and after developing their own identities and friendship groups – but digital communication technologies have often been pervasive during their early years, during their formative experiences, and whilst they are making important life decisions.”  Our report, carried out with co-researchers in Brazil, India, South Africa and Thailand demonstrated that this has never been a phenomenon limited to wealthy OECD countries, as is evident these days to anyone travelling in metropolitan areas across the globe. The differences between this “connected generation” (sometimes referred to as a digital natives ) and older generations are in some cases greater than conventional North-South digital divides.

The term, Digital Native, has been contested for some time. Danah Boyd, a leading researcher into how young people use the web, is sceptical, as she explained in this interview with the UK Guardian media company

“There’s nothing native about young people’s engagement with technology”. Boyd doesn’t think children are innately better at coping with the web or negotiating the hurdles of digital life. Instead, she suggests, they’re pretty much like everyone else.’ “Young people are learning, they’re learning about the social world around them”. “The social world around them today has mediated technologies, thus in order to learn about the social world they’re learning about the mediated technologies. And they’re leveraging that to work out the shit that kids have always worked out: peer sociality, status, their first crush.”

For earlier research that we did for the UK National Youth Agency, Tim Davies introduced from the Pew report a more balanced framework for identifying typical behaviours and attitudes that impact organisational response.

  • They are video gamers and that gives them different expectations about how to learn, work, and pursue careers.
  • They are technologically literate, but that does not necessarily make them media literate.
  • They are content creators and that shapes their notions about privacy and property.
  • They are product and people rankers and that informs their notions of propriety
  • They are multi-taskers often living in a state of “continuous partial attention” and that means the boundary between work and leisure is quite permeable.

IKM Interactive

Digital Generations is a theme we have been exploring in IKMemergent, in the WG2 works stream called IKM Interactive. With Tim Davies and the Diplo Foundation we set out to explore the issue at the December 09 Internet Governance Forum in Sharm El Sheikh. We were working with a group of young Egyptians and planned a series of sessions we called Digital Diving. We originally envisaged a scenario where the young people would engage with other participants at the Forum and introduce them to the online experience and habits of ‘typical’ Digital Natives. However, in the event, the youth weren’t in fact massive users of the Internet. They were avid Facebook users, many downloaded and swapped music and videos, and were experienced surfers for news, entertainment and consumer objects. But, since we were in the Internet Governance Forum, there were plenty of older people who had far more experience of using a wide variety of applications and spent more time on the net. So we developed instead Digital Encounters in which a young Egyptian sat with a visitor for about 10 – 15 minutes; each described what they do on the Net, introduced each other to elements of their favourite or regular sites and questioned each other about how the Internet fitted into and affected their lives. We started the conversation off, gave people five minutes to start talking, then returned, took notes and recorded some of the exchange on video. Given that this was a multinational, very diverse audience the people who came forward were very different in terms of a range of factors to the youth so the exchanges were interesting to both parties, and the feedback was that they generally felt they had widened their horizons, deepened their understanding of trends and got a better sense of the reality of any generational differences in contrast to other elements that defined their diversity such as gender, North vs South or sub-Saharan vs North African.

We are still processing the material from the encounters. However, we also explored how Social Reporting could at one and the same time enable the youth and the Diplo Fellows be part of constructing the story of the event and reflect the diversity of information coming out from the Forum, aggregating the content available in real time, showing  the ‘emergent’ narrative as it developed. The Diplo Fellows blogged on their community site while an archive of much of the aggregated material is available here. Tim Davies developed the aggregator tool using Netvibes as a basis and has done a good, thoughtful blog on our learning about what should be prepared and done in advance,  as well as another, geekier one, which also has some reflections on what you do afterwards and tips on managing the aggregation

As well as giving us insights into how the context of international development is changing this exploration has more practical implications. Engaging with the breakneck speed of the constantly changing online environment is already challenging for organisations, staffed as they are – especially at senior levels – by people who haven’t grown up with the constantly connected world being built around them. Yet they are also confronted with an users or stakeholders or staff whose experience, expectation and capacity is different in ways they and we don’t fully understand. At the same time, younger generations – millenials – will continue to influence more rapidly changing sectors of the web, to which they will gravitate as users.


Our next IKM interactive workshop takes place on 8th & 9th April in Delft. Organised with the EADI Information Management Working Group this workshop is based on the premise that increasing numbers of people expect services that information professionals and librarians are not (yet) familiar with. The workshop will acquaint information professionals with some of these new concepts and technologies – social media, the internet of things, gaming – and explore how they relate to the world of information services and international development. We will be reporting from the workshop, initially on the Metropolib wiki.

One Response

  1. […] Sagne of CODESRIA and reported in the Giraffe by Hugo Besemer.  We have also reported here on the Digital Diving sessions that were organised in November 09 as part of Diplo Foundation’s Internet Governance programme at […]

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