In the past I found the discussion of “Digital Natives” or “Generation Y” quite boring as it was mostly scratching on stereotyping surfaces. This opinion is supported by statistical scientific evidence [Helsper, Ellen Johanna, and Rebecca Eynon. “Digital Natives: Where Is the Evidence?” British Educational Research Journal 36, no. 3 (June 1, 2010): 503–20. doi:10.1080/01411920902989227.]
I have to correct myself as these terms are very helpful for the older generations “Generation X”, “Baby Boomers”, or overall the “Digital Immigrants” to understand better what kind of societal shift is happening as teenagers, young women and men reinvent themselves in building a networked digital society. This is an iterative process with many failures and therefore not taking serious by “older” generations: But I believe that this collective iterative learning process which admits failures very clearly is the real strength of this generation.
We have to admit that we build technology of the 21st century mostly with management paradigms from the 20th century, and an educational system from the 19th century.
What is a digital native?
And the digital natives are changing that without asking the “Digital Immigrants”. Let’s see how this is happening. The most useful definition of the term “DIGITAL NATIVES” I found was in the report [“Digital Natives: How Do They Learn? How to Teach Them?” Policy Brief. UNESCO IITTE E-Library, 2011.]:
“The concept of digital natives was introduced by Mark Prensky [Prensky, Marc. “Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants.” On the Horizon 9, no. 5 (October 5, 2001).] Digital natives represent the first generation to grow up with this new technology. They are used to all kinds of digital toys and tools, which are an integral part of their life. Digital activity is like a mother tongue for them. They are the generation of technological acceleration, of the Internet and its networks. Growing up in such an environment, they think and process information in a totally different way than previous generations: their thinking patterns have changed, and Mark Prensky says it is likely that their brains have physically changed, too. They are “native speakers” of the digital language. This is a radical change, such that there is a big discontinuity between their generation and previous ones.”
Wikipedia [“Digital Native.” Wikipedia, February 9, 2017.] is, of course, another source for a definition of digital natives.
Digital Natives are different…
|Digital Immigrants||Digital Natives|
|linear thinking||multi-threaded thinking|
|focus on individual competence||focus on collective intelligence|
|owning physical goods||using and sharing physical & virtual goods|
|national physical border society||global digital society|
|hierarchy management||self-organizing leadership|
|born to passive mass media consumption: TV, Books, Radio, Papers, Magazines, LP, Tapes, CD||born as media prosumer: Search (e.g. Google), Video (e.g. YouTube), messenger (e.g. What-up), social media (e.g. Facebook), massive online games (e.g. League of Legends, World of Warcraft, Minecraft), picture sharing (e.g. instagram), music streaming (e.g. Spotify), online encyclopedias (e.g. Wikipedia, leo.org), online sharing (e.g. torrent).|
|born social media as producer: Typewriter, Pencil, Rotary Phone||born mass media consumer: TV, Books,|
|text, 2D pictures||video, sound, pictures, 3D|
|private, professional social status||online personal and social storytelling|
|communication impact: friends, family, co-workers||communication impact: friends, family, co-workers, global|
|ability in gathering & making decision with sparse information||ability in making decisions with information overload|
Though this comparison shows major differences but it neglects the most important game changer.
While I was studying computer science in the 1990s, professors and students alike wrote lengthy concepts how hyperlinked multi-media learning could work out. But we always had the “19th century” teacher model in mind: a single source of truth dumping knowledge into students brains. In the end it was much simpler: Provide a technology platform with a crowd sourcing voting and contributing schema and this social-technology system will figure it out by itself – just trust the emergence: youtube, Khan academy, blogging. And I share Chris Anderson’s opinion that online-videos can be viewed as the “the biggest learning cycle in human history.” [Anderson, Chris. How Web Video Powers Global Innovation. 2010-07.]
Playing is learning
What young kids do very naturally “playing and learning” has been discouraged by the disciplined learning paradigm of the 19th century in schools and universities. We re-learning the importance of strong positive emotions while learning. And digital natives teaching us this with their online gaming.
Throughout the human evolution teaching and learning was the concept of tradition: the older generation and society as a whole transmits, hand overs, or gives the younger generation something for safekeeping.
My youngest son came back from school one day and analyzed:
“The teachers just want to fill knowledge in my brain – they are not really interested in me.”
which admits three things
- Digital natives can access information and knowledge at zero cost in time and money. Why should they spend valuable time at school when they could learn something more important somewhere else?
- Digital natives feel that they are treated like passive objects that are just there to absorb knowledge from a single source of truth: the teacher. Digital natives push for renaissance of empathy and social purpose.
But as the “Digital Natives” try and build a new digital world they teach the “Digital Immigrants” how to live and work in that space. This is rather “reverse tradition”. The key differences of these new systems it that everybody is invited to shape and build these systems. They are not giving from a higher authority. Here are some examples:
Minecraft enabling emergent gameplay with at least 70 Mio players: allows to collaborate or compete with other online players but also allows to build your own world with your own achievement systems. It is so simple that teenagers can build and run their own gaming infrastructure e.g. on Amazon Web Service (AWS)
World of Warcraft with more than 100 Mio created accounts the most spread massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG) linking the concept of a personal identity of the “Avatar” to a social “tribe” framework embedded in atavistic stories from Asian, European, and American tails.
Youtube has become a first class teacher on every subject for digital natives with more than 1bn active users consuming several hundred million hours of video every day. It “teaches” everything from Minecraft, maths to repair a bicycle and combines it with fun, music, and news.
Khan Academy is a great example how different digital natives schools look like with 5,000 courses online where digital natives teach their peers in their way: with videos and pictures.
Scratch has more than 3 Mio active contributors for a visual programming language. Scratch is about learning coding and sharing code.
Digital Natives & Born Digital products
Another important concept in the product space is “Born Digital” referring to “material that is born digital” and has not been transformed to become digital.
The link between the virtual world and the physical world can be coined as a “spime”
a term suggested by Bruce Sterling maybe a little bit too narrowly as “space and time history of a thing.” [Sterling, Bruce. Shaping Things. MIT Press, 2005.]
Digital Natives magic Spime
Just explore a concrete example of these two concepts related to the digital natives: the smart phone.
For digital immigrants, a smart phone is an evolution of the rotary phone. A rotary phone was a synchronous one-to-one communication device that related one person (or several people) to one phone number. The landline telephone connection is managed and viewed like connecting water, electricity or gas to your home. Therefore, the phone number was not associated with the person. Digital immigrants today still use their smartphone in a similar way. It is treated like a helpful device, looked carefully after like a purse or the keys for the car or the house.
For digital natives, their smart phone is part of their own digital identity. It is the main physical interface to their virtual social network. It is always on. It is mostly used for asynchronous massive parallel communication. Tough one can doubt that answering messaging threads within minutes is still asynchronous 😉 Smart Phones are treated like teddy bears, are charged in the bed overnight and are always close to the body. And you give your smart phone only to very very trusted friends! If I observe digital natives embracing their smart phone it reminds me of a wizard like Harry Potter remote controlling the virtual and physical world around with a magic wand and spells.
A teenager without smart phone and without access to the relevant digital social network (e.g. Whats-up, facebook) feel the digital divide already. They do not belong to their peers, even if they meet physically. Becoming a professional photographer and video artist is a must have competence for digital natives in order to communicate their social story.
How to build your next spime?
The strategies to use digital opportunities in building new products is very different for digital immigrants and digital natives.
Digital Immigrants ad a digital layer to an existing product. Examples are
- eMail to replace mail via letters and postcards
- eBook Reader to replace books
- video on demand to replace a video rental store
- remote control a physical devices like a stereo or a car
Digital Natives view the products from the content, context-of-usage, or value side:
- hearing music that fits to me and my mood e.g. spotify
- finding a restaurant or my friends e.g. google maps
- tell the story of my and my friends life e.g. facebook
and make the user part of the creation or product improvement process.
Digital Natives are your best product developers…
So, if you build a (new) digital product the key question is not what it should do but rather how you actively involve your digital native target audience to build this product.
We have to admit that the social transformation has only few parallels in human history. The 1st renaissance as the transition from the medieval to the industrial age is the best analogy. But we have to be aware that the 2nd renaissance is much faster, probably finished with the children of the Digital Natives.