Earlier this month Matt White posted on the topic of digital natives and digital immigrants and sparked some lively discussion from people born on both sides of the age divide. (I am, by some considerable margin, a digital immigrant).
In many respects, Prensky’s concept can be applied to any period in modern history. We have been adapting to the constant march of technology since the days of the industrial revolution and one has to ask if there is anything fundamentally different about this latest evolution in our development.
The identification of a new socio-demographic group is, after all, only useful if it gives us fresh insight into behaviours or likely future trends.
Norman Tebbit once famously argued that the test of how well one has adopted a new homeland is which cricket team is supported when the current meet the former. To apply the analogy here, how many digital immigrants would support a fax over email or a set of encyclopedias over the Internet? By this test, immigrants we may be, but our longing for a distant digital place of birth has long since been left behind.
As immigrants too, those of us born before 1980 have become naturally attuned to finding information on a website or working out how a new mobile phone works with little or no need for instruction. Partly a victory for good design, this also demonstrates our rapid naturalisation.
To see any fundamental differences in the natives and immigrants of Prensky’s study, therefore, is difficult. Those of us born before 1980 have become so comprehensively naturalised to a digital world that there is little to be gained by treating us differently for marketing purposes or certainly no more than traditional demographic groupings would provide.
While the date is wrong, the concept does, however, provide some insight if it is brought forward a number of years.
The evolution of Prensky’s analysis would be to set the dividing line at around 1995 and ask whether one is a social native or social immigrant. The real generational gap is not in the use of digital technology per se, but in its use for communication, file sharing and networking.
When I left school, I had about a dozen friends that I could be readily in touch with. I knew where they lived and it was possible, but unlikely, that I had their telephone numbers written down. The passage of time has meant that this dozen has dwindled away to only one (I hasten to add that I’ve made some new friends along the way!).
As my daughter now reaches an age when she could technically leave school, she has more than 1,000 friends of Facebook. Some of these contacts will be a lot closer than others, but the point remains that she can follow their movements and get in touch with any one of them at a moment’s notice.
I doubt my daughter recognises the power of her network and certainly hasn’t built it with any sense of the future in mind, but imagine how useful this could be as these contacts become the lawyers, teachers, politicians and entrepreneurs of tomorrow: people she can turn to for jobs, advice, referrals or social interaction in a very speedy and natural way.
But we immigrants have not stood frozen in the lights. As social immigrants, we have not only strived to catch up, but have developed or monopolised certain networks and free resources of our own.
LinkedIn is positioned unashamedly for professionals that want to keep in touch and Twitter is dominated by 35-50 year olds who want to promote their businesses or demonstrate their pithy wit to a set of followers. Now we see new geo-location facilities such as Foursquare being harnessed by a more mature audience than their creators might have anticipated.
The immigrants’ use of these facilities might lack the natural behaviour of the social native, but we are embracing the technology and adapting it for our own purposes.
Which brings us to the terminology, for it is often the immigrant that recognises the opportunity in a new land and works hardest to prosper from it, while the native watches in the wings taking for granted what has always been around them.
For marketers and businesses in general, the principle challenge when dealing with the social native is going to be how to make a commercial gain from a group that has come to expect so much for free.
Communications, music, video, news, research and games are all now accessible entirely free of charge. This is already proving itself to be unsustainable and we wait to see who is going to be brave enough to break the mould and how they will do it. With the notable exception of Google, advertising is not proving itself to be the answer.
Secondly, marketers shouldn’t forget that we have an aging population in the UK, in which the social immigrants are the largest group and the holders of the wealth. We need to continue to focus on this group and use available media appropriately to ensure its engagement with our brands.