Monday Mornings with Madison



In 2001, Mark Prensky, author, speaker and consultant, wrote an article entitled Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants.  In this decisive article, he first described the enormous differences he saw between two groups:  Digital Immigrants — people born and raised to adulthood before the advent of the digital age — and Digital Natives– those born and raised in a digital world.  His argument was that Digital Immigrants see, understand, experience and interact with the world around them very differently than Digital Natives do.  Since introducing that concept a decade ago, industrial psychologists, sociologists, and marketing wonks have sought to either discredit the concept or further define the characteristics of Digital Immigrants and Digital Natives. 

So who is a Digital Immigrant?
Generally, a digital immigrant is considered to be an individual who was born before the existence of digital technology and adopted it to some extent later in life.  Those who define digital immigrants by age don’t agree on the cutoff age.  Some say those born before 1984 are digital immigrants, while others argue it is those born before 1980, and still others backdate it to 1964.  The term is meant to be analogous to being a real immigrant to a country.  Immigrants may adopt the culture and language of a new country but will never be fluent.  Digital immigrants are said to have a “thick accent” of functioning in pre-digital ways while operating in the digital world.  For example, a digital immigrant might print emails.

Since Prensky’s initial article, researchers have done studies that show that not all digital immigrants are technologically inept.  They typically fall into one of three categories:  Avoiders, Reluctant Adopters and Eager Adopters.

  1. Avoiders use only a minimal amount of technology in their lives and households.  For example, they may have a landline telephone, a television and cable, but have a cell phone only in case of driving emergencies.  These are classical digital immigrants.
  2. Reluctant Adopters see and adopt technology in ways that are needed, but might avoid it if possible.  They might have a desktop computer but not a laptop, or an email account but not a Twitter account, and a fax machine but not a scanner. 
  3. Eager Adopters have a talent for technology and embrace each new development enthusiastically.   They usually purchase new technologies that make life easier or more fun, even if they already have a perfectly adequate device that does the job.  They might buy a Flip digital camera that is more portable so they can share video on social media sites.  They’d check bank accounts using a smart phone and download apps that simplify tasks.  They are very similar to Digital Natives.

And who is a Digital Native?
A digital native is a young person who was born during or after the general introduction of digital technology.  By interacting with digital technology from an early age, digital natives generally have a greater understanding of technology concepts and uses.  Digital natives are generally thought to be Gen Xers, Gen Ys and younger… those supposedly born with ‘digital DNA.’  In 2007, Josh Spear and Aaron Dignan used the term “born digital” to further describe Digital Natives.  In the past few years, a number of schools, including Harvard and universities in Switzerland, the Netherlands, and Bangalore, have initiated studies to better understand Digital Natives.

Like Digital Immigrants, not all Digital Natives fit neatly into the category. There are Avoiders, Minimalists and Enthusiasts. 

  1. Avoiders are young people who, even though they were born digital, do not feel an affinity for digital technologies and, unlike most of their peers, are not enamored by Facebook, texting or mobile technologies. Avoiders use an older model cell phone but may not have an email, Facebook or Twitter account, or Internet access at home. They don’t text.  
  2. Minimalists realize that technology is part of today’s world, and they engage with it minimally when necessary. They prefer to buy at stores but will Google for information and shop online when it is a must. They may have a Facebook account, but only check it every few days. For directions, they’ll ask a friend rather than use Google Maps or a GPS. 
  3. Enthusiastic participants make up most of the digital natives. They enjoy and thrive on technology and gadgets. They interact on Facebook all day long and Tweet constantly.  They go to YouTube, watch TV shows or movies online and enjoy online gaming. When they want to know something – such as a language translation, directions to a store, the synonym for a word – they immediately turn to Google. They are harder to reach by phone than texting but thrive on instant, fluid communication using a smart phone or iPad.

Gray Areas
Since coining the terms digital immigrant and digital native, these concepts have been cause for much debate and controversy.  Some of the controversy arises over the limitations implied by the terms.  As the studies indicate, neither term accurately describes all of the members in the group.  The term digital immigrant overlooks the fact that many people born before the digital age were the inventors, designers, developers and first users of digital technology.  In this sense, they could be regarded as the original ‘natives’.   By the same token, it is misleading to dub all digital natives as deeply knowledgeable about technology simply because of their prolific yet often superficial use of digital technology.

Why so much interest in Digital Natives vs. Digital Immigrants?
At the heart of the matter is the belief that while digital natives speak and breathe the language of computers and the culture of the web into which they were born, digital immigrants will never deal with technology as naturally as those who grew up with it.  This technology rift will create a giant divide in how Digital Natives learn, work, do business and interact with Digital Immigrants in the future.

Next week, we’ll look at the differences in how Digital Natives think, act and buy versus Digital Immigrants, and how those differences will affect business over the next five, ten and twenty years.  Don’t miss it!

“There is a powerful tension in our relationship to technology. We are excited by egalitarianism and anonymity, but we constantly fight for our identity.” David Owens

© 2011, Written by Keren Peters-Atkinson, CMO, Madison Commercial Real Estate Services. All rights reserved.

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