Digital natives, digital immigrants, and digital refugees

I have been hearing the terms digital native and digital immigrant for quite a while.  Digital native, of course, refers to those who have grown up with digital technology (generally those born after computers and cell phones became mainstream), and digital immigrants would be those who had to learn the technology as an adult. But there are a lot of people that don’t nicely fit into those categories, there are also the “bridges” (somewhere between digital native and digital immigrant) and the refugees (those who have fled the onslaught).  I teach the digital refugees, of course.

In an effort to get a better picture of these distinctions, I started questioning my kids about the ways they use technology and why.  I don’t think my kids are particularly typical (after all, they are mine), but their responses were interesting, nonetheless, since they affirm, for the most part, what others (mostly digital immigrants) are saying about digital natives.  My kids range in age from 17 to 28.  I questioned the 17 year old first.  His answers were pretty much the same as his 22 year old sibling who is still in college.  His 26 year old sibling, out in the work force, had only slightly different answers.  All of them (even the oldest ones) grew up with computers both at home and at school, although for the older ones, computer technology was not as widespread and integrated as it is today.

They all have cell phones.  They all use the phones to send text messages.  The youngest says he uses text much more than voice (verified by the phone bill).  For the 22 year old it’s about a 50-50 split, and for the 26 year old, it’s mostly voice.

Why do they text instead of use voice?

  1. It’s more private, or, to put it in the words of the youngest, “texting is less obnoxious.”  He used an example of someone in a public place like a grocery store talking loudly on a cell phone so everyone can hear all the gory details that they would rather not. Texting doesn’t disturb anyone.
  2. In many cases it’s quicker and easier than dialing a number and waiting for the other person to answer just to say something like “I’m on my way, I’ll be a few minutes late” or “are you going to Fred’s this evening?”
  3. You can send the message to multiple recipients rather than making multiple phone calls.
  4. Sometimes it’s the only way you can communicate.  The youngest used the example of being in class, where phones are not allowed, and texting surreptitiously.  The 22 year old used an example of being at a loud party where you wouldn’t be able to carry on a phone conversation.

In most cases the texting is short, quick messages.  The 22 year old will switch to a phone call if the messages are getting long, since it’s easier to talk.

They all have MySpace and Facebook accounts.  Which one they use depends on which friends they want to communicate with. The 26 year old is in the process of resurrecting his Facebook and MySpace accounts, because that’s where all his friends are.  They all prefer Facebook:

  1. MySpace has too many ads that are in your face. As one of them put it, “Where would you rather talk to your friends: in the Mall, or in Radio Shack?”
  2. Facebook is more streamlined
  3. Facebook is more user friendly
  4. Facebook gives you a targeted list (“Here’s a list of others from your school who are on Facebook”) making it easier to find your real-life friends.
  5. Facebook has more games and applications.
  6. You have more freedom to change around your Facebook page since it’s HTML based (but this can be a bad thing when you go to page to leave a comment and there’s a big flash application that slows down your computer and an annoying song you can’t turn off because the flash app is in the way).

What do they think of MySpace and Facebook?  Generally, it’s a time waster.  They get on one of them when they have nothing else to do, or they have time to waste.  Both MySpace and Facebook are used to communicate with their friends, when the communication does not need an instant response.  But all of them know people who are “addicted” to MySpace or Facebook, spending every waking second trying to find out what everyone else is doing, or checking to see if there are any new comments.

What about e-mail?  For all of them e-mail is snail mail.  They use it for:

  1. formal communication
  2. sending attachments (it’s easier than IM, with less problems)
  3. staying in touch with distant friends or friends in foreign countries (where it’s too expensive to text or phone).

What is the real snail mail for?  Packages.

What about blogs? There was a disinterested “no” from all of them.  They don’t have one, don’t want one, and don’t read them.  When I pressed the 26 year old, he thought about it and admitted he does visit a couple technology news sites that are actually blogs.

E-readers have gotten such hype I couldn’t resist the opportunity to find out what they thought about them. They were puzzled:  “Why wouldn’t you just get the book?”  When I pointed out you could put hundreds of books on them, they were still puzzled:  “Isn’t that what a library is for?”  They conceded they might read an electronic version of a book, but couldn’t fathom having a specialized device to read it:  “Why would you get something that can only do one thing?”

Finally, I asked what they would do if there were no cell phones or computers.  The 17 year old wasn’t fazed: “Find something else to do, like read a book or ride over to my friend’s house.”  The 22 year old was a bit more concerned:  “You mean, like a day or two, or forever?”  (clearly not liking the “forever” option).  The 26 year old didn’t like the forever option either since he works in the technology field.

I think they all have a very different concept of technology than my generation does, even those of us who have embraced computer technology since its inception.  It really is an everyday occurrance for them, no more special than a toothbrush. And I guess that is what makes them “natives.”  It is hard for them to understand not being intimately connected to technology.  My 17 year old found it too painful to watch me figuring out how to navigate around a new cell phone last year, that had a totally different interface from the last one (and a few more features).  He finally took it from me and set it up in a matter of seconds, complete with a picture of him as the background.   On the other hand, his brother only two years older reacted to the new release of World of Warcraft much the same as a digital immigrant:  he wasn’t so sure he wanted to take the time to relearn how to play the game with all its new features and content.  He wanted to stick with what he was comfortable with.  In the end, for them, it is just another tool.

Leave a Reply