Thursday, 29 July 2010

Forget digital domicile, it's social domicile that counts

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.

So what does all this mean for marketers?

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.


Neil Lakeland said...

A highly thought provoking post. As a digital immigrant myself I'd say that one reason the immigrants are working hardest to prosper from it is the fact that it is now so much a part of our everyday lives (no social native will yet be in the world of work) and, especially if you work in marketing/communications, one you need to understand. We are therefore much more likely to read around the subject and recognise opportunities based on previous experiences.

Neil Warren (via Linked In) said...

You probably are an “immigrant” if you can remember the moment in The Graduate when the avuncular family friend puts his arm round Dustin Hoffman’s shoulders, takes him to one side and says…

“Son, I’ve just got one word to say to you……..Plastics!”

And, since China seems to have gone on, in less than a lifetime, to totally dominate that market, I think that, with some rapidly approaching hindsight, we’ll be able to identify yet more dividing lines yet than before or after PC’s or before and after “social” media.

One of the biggest, that I can see, is actually who is going to use these new communication channels to achieve what – and the overall impact that each component will have on human affairs in general. For example I understand (ref: Thomas L Friedman – “The World is Flat”) that one of the earliest manifestations of printed literature c. 1400 AD was (as usual) the distribution of pornography. Still with us today, of course, but is that what Caxton is remembered for?

Porn was undoubtedly also one of the first items to dominate the internet, and still is around in profusion – but is that its legacy – already? Or has it been replaced by teenagers recommending this or that party, band, movie or fizzy drink to each other? Or maybe that is already “small beer” compared to monitoring Iranian dissent or facilitating and encouraging Al Qaeda operatives/cells to do and report their worst? Or perhaps a more positive slant can already be detected with the 2005 USA & Oman free trade agreement (presumably worth $billions) and 50+ participants, all conducted and with a “virtual” handshake, digitally?

Personally, I suspect that it will be the cumulative effect of all the one-to-one communications, which are more accurately represented as one-to-one-one-to-one-to…equalling-billions “connecting & collaborating” that will have the biggest effect, rather than any one-to-many “command & control” broadcast outputs of people trying to write their own histories (Dr Pepper Rules – OK?).

It’s still “globalisation”, but from the bottom up, rather than the top down. And a micro-version (or quite big version actually) of that, offline, will be when Chinese peasants coming off the land to fill in the “cheap industrial labour” gaps (just like their European counterparts did 2-300 years ago) gain enough traction to be irreplaceable cogs in the machine, and start demanding some of their “rights” and rewards (which will probably include education and a PC with internet access).

“You ain’t seen nothin’ yet”, in other words, whether you’re 53, 35, 15, 5 or 3 and whether you are an “active, willing, natural”, an “old dog still learning new tricks” or an “inactive grumbling Luddite” (and imho, “man”, of course! When was that old hippy Bill Gates born?).

Hope it helps Matt/Neil.

Kind regards

Neil – Publisher – (e-Magazine for UK Sales Professionals & Management).

Sarah Matthews (via Linked In) said...

Like anything new I think it's more about one's ability and readiness to adapt to change. From my pic you can probably guess I'm born pre-1980. I started working for myself just under a year ago and recognised I will need to look at digital technology and my marketing would have to use up to date technologies. Six months ago I couldn't see the point of Twitter - because I hadn't investigated what it did and it's advantages and disadvantages. Having made the effort to explore I have found that it is very useful for small businesses building relationships with potential and existing clients. I'm now a regular twitterer and blogger.

Brian Kent (via Linked In) said...

As a steadfast over 60 evolutionist - am still all fingers! (not yet thumbs) - see: -

The Marketing Eye said...

Thanks folks,

As immigrants we all seem to agree that it's not the fact that the technology exists that's important, nor when we were born, but whether and how we choose to embrace it.

We immigrants might lack the instinctive understanding of the natives, but we seem to be making a pretty good fist of experimenting wih these tools and turning them to our advantage (agreed Neil,not necessarily common advantage)- arguably better than the so called naturals.

That said, there seems to be real evidence that natives really do think and learn differently from immigrants. The question is, does this necessarily translate into natives doing things better?

For example, natives seem to be less discerning. The culture of 'now' and 'free' legislates against an informed decision making process, meaning that the first answer on Google is selected rather than the best one.

Nor does there seem to be much interest in learning or stretching the capability of these tools - they are just accepted for what they are. Is this really just a time-of-life thing or a behaviour that will stay around forever? Marketers, entrepreneurs and politicians take note.

Ken Boddy (via Lined In) said...

I agree with the sentiment but not the dates. There are many people (including my self) who were involved with computing well before 1980. My involovement was with structural analysis and design, then with graphics packages and at the time it was a new horizon that was coming into view, and in my case what kept me in structural engineering.

My age at the time meant that I was at the forefront of this wave and my managers, who were perhaps 4 - 5 years older, did not get involved in the small and fine detail and only every, and still to day, have just a rudimentary understanding of the complex nature of the problems being solved on theri behalf. But being a manager doesn't stop them from making commitments to getting the work done, but is frustratingly anoying on how bad their estimates of the time involved need to do these things.

There are three other points I would offer: firstly due to the rapidness of available information many natives think that as they have read the first line of their research they have the complete and whole answer and do not have to assimulated their findings into the actual problem they are researching to solve. The application of 'Critical Thinking' and the ability to identify what is imporant from all the information they have eludes them. But more frighten is the lack of understanding as to why they have to do it.

Secondly: I always chuckle when I read that a search engine has found 190,000 results in 0.6 seconds. What good is that! Now what can you do? Read the first 20? How do you know that the first 5 have not brought their way into that position? Are you are aware you have already been geo-sorted before the search was run? Having all that choice does not mean you are better informed! I mention this as I feel in many ways the Internet is gonig to be its own downfall because people are happy to accept this type of irresponsibility.

Lastly, and if you are still reading, thank you. Natives have grown up with freely available information at the drop of a hat. Copyright is important but ignored. I was very pleased that the Times News paper is charging for it's online content. This is showing the great general public (world wide) that information has value as it has been collected, sorted, put into context and relation with other facts and presented in way that can be understood. I happen to believe in the BBC as a very nobal institution and don't want it to be split up. (I am not that nieve to overlook its problems.) I am happy to pay my lecense fee and would be happy to pay for it's online news service for the same reasons I value the Times News paper.

So in summary: there is a big difference in attitude towards how I see people use IT and communications skills, and older is not always wiser. Young natives have to e amongst imigrants who often have the knowledge, understanding and skills to solve problems.

Penelope Parker (via Linked In) said...

Immigrants to a new land discover and build the new land, the natives take it for granted. I believe Ken above is saying the same thing.

My husband has been designing websites since the early 1990s when working on design projects for a US university. The technology and skills were being developed as they used them and he was on the same level as the students at that time. What he has done is add the skills of considered design and creative thinking to the tools that came along.

I find users of Word don't push the boundaries to make it do what they want, they just accept how it is presented, and this lowers the individuality of output. Every letter and poster looks the same.

Immigrants develop new ideas and projects and get excited about new possibilities, while it is more difficult for natives to see things in a different way.

Age is not the issue: Immigrants arrive at any age.

Malcolm Davison (via Linked In) said...

I often joke that I am so old that I used to program and operate computers when they ran on steam. Thanks to the coal-fired power stations supplying the electricity, of course, many still do!

Computers were room-size, cost as much as a medium-sized passenger jet, with less power power than my mobile phone and they communicated using a bank of winking lights and an electric typewriter. They didn't have a screen like today. They were tended to by white coated priests - operators and engineers. The humming beasts had to be fed with punched cards, huge disc packs and spools of magnetic and paper tape. In response they spewed out miles of continuous stationery.

I was involved in the banks change over with Decimalisation in 1971 when I was a programmer at Barclays Bank. I used to write books about microcomputers in the 80s, and today train bank staff, Whitehall departments - even at the UN. I will be 62 in a few days time.

If you want to get serious about computers they can be as challenging and difficult as any other complex technical subject. The beauty is that they have been made so much easier so that anyone can use them to quite a sophisticated level.

But to survive in business in these recessionary times today, efficiency through the use of computers is, in my view, a prerequisite.

As for Marc Prensky and his ideas, in my view, people are not changing in the way he is implying. But people will use the new technology to learn, I certainly do. Even Shakespeare would have used a laptop!

Jonathan Richards (via Linked In) said...

I tend to shy away from any view that classifies people by age, however it would obviously be wrong to dismiss Prensky. I prefer Geoff Moore's classification in 'Crossing the chasm'. This allows people from different generations to exist as early adopters or laggards.

I also believe that people can change between categories depending on the technoogy converned. For me, technology is a means to an end so if I cant see benefit then I wont invest time or cash. If I can see a way that I will be better off then i'll be the first to invest.

I am also cautious about the idea that immigrants develop new ideas - there are many cases of immiigrants not being willing to change, let alone develop.

One last thought - is Microsoft an 'immigrant' to the web world and Google a 'native?. If so then how long will it be before Google is the 'immigrant'?

Steven Evans (via Linked In) said...

I think Prensky is woefully wide of the mark. It's a chicken and egg relationship, which came first?
Without the people to develop the technology to the level that the techno generation could pick up and run with it is missing the point.
It smacks of "creationism" and not of good old evolution.
"and on the fifth day Prensky did create the techno generation and it was good" piffle!
As for the idea of immigrants may I remind everyone that this nation of mongrels we call Britain was itself created by wave after wave of immigrants. Where would we be without Brunel etc? (QED)
I have been on the "bleeding edge" of some technologies - notably Information (document) control and also collaborative tools. However since being thrown on the scrap heap far too early I'm desperately trying to keep up with the development of business control software and its use.
I am looking for new challenges, but am beng treated like an amiable old duffer - and I'm still in my forties.
I feel this is because the techno generation recruiters cannot belive that anyone who predates them is capable of doing anything that is vaguely associated with computers.
Change is inevitable, and therfore I must be a "native" even though I do not meet the arbitrary age threshold.
However, seeing the landscape with an immigrants eye of opportunity may well be better than being a self satisfied native.
I think it could well be a case of familiariity breeding contempt.

Myles Ford (via Linked In) said...

This is a really interesting conversation, 2 thoughts come to mind;

Firstly, its not about age its about openness. Every trend (technological and otherwise) goes through a series of life stages and what drives each trend are the 'early adopters' and the level of influence they have with their peers. I can see why younger people are perceived to be more open to digital technology but I think that is just a reinforcement of stereotypes. Some people are just more open to new ideas than others.

Secondly, as a Marketeer I think most technology is developed without thinking about whether it is useful or not. The huge number of gadgets, software programmes or web-based solutions that don't last longer than a few months reflect their developers focus on what can be done rather than what is needed. Regardless of age, people use what they find useful. Thats why my 21 year old Cousin spends her life on Facebook and my 80 year old Great Uncle has a home cinema, they use the technology that works for them.

Gerrie Hawes (via Linked In) said...

I’ve been watching this feisty discussion since it was first posted. I was so wound up by it initially I decided to give a few days, I was most annoyed by the idea there was something inferior about being an immigrant. Involvement in the culture of the place you dwell is about your frame of mind rather than where (or in this case, when) you originated.
I do, however think the theory has uses. I’m helping the Digital Magazine Awards in their inaugural year. The founders know the awards are a little early for the market – but know, after the iPad Christmas, 12months on will be too late to start. I have met with a number of leaders at the largest publishing houses and each are faced with same challenge: How to convince the board the market is radically changing so their organisation remain leaders rather than followers?
So thanks, Neil and Matt at the Marketing Eye, as a result of this discussion, I will include Prensky’s theory in the working session I’m facilitating, as it may help any immigrants stuck in their ghetto look beyond their mental boundaries and think differently about why they don’t get what is happening to their sector.

The Marketing Eye said...

Thank you all for your comments. Wow it certainly seems to have got the backs of the immigrants up!

In fairness to Prensky, I think he only said 'different', not 'better'. That privilege belongs to a chap called Tapscott who said in 1998, wait for it Gerrie and Steven, "The native is socially conscious, hungry for expansion and self development (....). Immigrants are inflexible and centralized". Hopefully he won't meet any of us on a dark night!

Ken, yes, I was still reading to the end and agree that these are the issues. I'm still not sure though, whether it represents an evolutionary change or it is just kids being kids. Didn't we all want instant gratification and short cuts when we were younger? With age comes experience, discernment and sceptisism.

Miles and Jonathan talk about early adopters et al spanning the generations and this must be true. Even in a time of such rapid advancement, we surely miss all sorts of insight by using only the blunt instrument of age to define competencies, attitudes and behaviours.

We don't seem to have any comments from a Prensky native yet. If you know one, encourage them to give voice to their view here - it would be interesting to get their perspective.