What Companies Should Know About Digital Natives

Left: Dr. Urs Gasser of Harvard’s Berkman Center, who focuses on Digital Natives.

I’m live blogging from Corporate Social Networking Conference in Amsterdam, and listening to Dr. Urs Gasser of Harvard’s Berkman Center, his website and twitter account (works with friend Doc Searls) who coined the term “Digital Natives”. In my opinion, the Berkman Center is the leading think tank in academia focused on the internet and impacts to culture.


[By age 20, kids will have spent 20,000 hours online –the same amount of time a professional piano player would have spent practicing --Dr. Urs Gasser]

The kids born after 1980 are often thought of as Digital Natives but age doesn’t always matter as the generation is defined on: access to digital technologies since birth, age, and have the skills to use the digital technologies. Those who come before these digital natives are referred to as digital immigrants. For what it’s worth, I’m right in between both, giving me a perspective of both worlds.

Key Characteristics of Digital Natives:

They interact with the peers across the globe: This impacts employers, brands, teachers, parents, as this first generation enters the workforce.

Always online: By age 20, kids will have spent 20,000 hours online –the same amount of time a professional piano player would have spent practicing Urs Gasser, paraphrased
Multiple identities, personal and social, shared online and offline (blurring): Online representation is the same as physical representation: what your clothes, friends, vehicles say about you.

Extensive disclosure of personal data: 35% of girls in US are writing a blog vs 20% boys. Opportunity for HR departments to learn more about their employees, but guess what? They Google you too.

Culture of sharing: The default behavior is information sharing, not only do they have the right to speak, but to be heard. Risk: breach of confidentiality is hip, digital natives are fans of wikileaks.

Creators, no longer passive users: This generation creates their own content and shares their opinion online, see the Forrester’s social Technographics to learn about the data.

Information processing habits: Pointed out that the second most popular social network was YouTube. They often ‘graze’ the headlines and don’t often read the full article. (I guess few natives will read this far? Prove me wrong in the comments). Opportunities: companies should allow natives to increase creativity to rip, mix, burn content to encourage interaction.

Peer collaboration, online activism: They often experience work with community builders, and are responsive to intrinsic motizations.

Learning through browsing: Yes wrestles with amount & quality of information, generational “multitakers”. They may not be able to identify qualified and expert sources. “If it’s online, it must be true!”

On a related note, this month, I’m starting a research paper on Social Behaviors of Generation X, which is a bit older than Generation Y, if you’re a brand or agency that has case studies of how you’ve reached Gen X using social technologies, I want to know. Email me at jowyang at Forrester.com

Pics from the event, at a converted industrial complex westergasfabriek “Western Gas Factory”, extremely hip venue.

Urs Krem Krem Krem 05142009169 05/14/2009 05/14/2009 05/14/2009 05/14/2009

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  • http://www.techshots.net Jaremy

    Great article. This touched home in many ways for me. I’m a 23 year old digital native, who has definitely spent over 20,000 hours online at this point. Including work, I’ve likely spent over 3,000 hours online per day since I was 13 (12 hours a day, 7 days a week). That sounds like an insane amount of time, but I’ve also managed to graduate from college, play varsity baseball and currently work a full time job (though 8 hours a day of that count as online browsing).

    I am one of the 20% of males that write a blog, and am both creative and a true believer in information sharing. I can’t imagine a world where information could not be easily accessed. As you noted, however, it is extremely important for people of my generation to fact-check extensively, as the web can be prone to rampant factual innacuracies.

    I did manage to read this full article (and share over Google Reader – more interaction), but not fully through the comments. That said, I think Celia brings up a good point – those born after 1990 are the ones to watch most of all. These kids are just now going to college, and they had instant messaging their entire lives, social networks since they were teenagers and have had easy access to technology (cell phones, computers) their entire lives.

    I think it will be extremely difficult to create a bracket around Generation Y, as it is severely torn by the age of information technology. Though my interest and interaction with online media is extreme, there are a great deal of my peers my age (and slightly older) that are much less versed, and I would not necessarily call them Digital Natives. I feel like there is certainly some space between Generation X and Generation F(acebook).

  • http://ictlogy.net ismael

    I’d personally give credit too to Mark Prensky. His article “Digital Natives” dates from 2001, when neither John Palfrey nor Urs Gasser had begun to think about their research project.

  • RSOldring

    Great post. I am also Gen X and I agree that our generation sits at a very pivital point in history. The generations on either side of us can learn a lot from each other, and we can provide a unique perspective to help bridge the gap.

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  • Amy

    Pretty good article, though I disagree about the whole “if it’s online it must be true!” thing. If we’ve spent 20,000 online, I think we can start to learn how to tell if something is BS on the internet. Yes, we diginatives all love Wikipedia, but we know how to spot a cited source and how to verify information.

    Besides, there’s always searching Google Books if we can’t find reliable information on “normal” sites. ;)

  • http://Frankvandenberg.blogspot.com Frank van den berg

    Great post. Thanks.

  • http://klcesarz.wordpress.com Kevin Cesarz

    Great article, and yes, I read through to the end (born in 1963).

  • http://jerome.amoudruz.info Jerome Amoudruz

    Interesting article.
    I read until the end as a reader between immigrant and native : 1978 ;)

    In my opinion the most dansgerous element that reveal this analysis, is about the identification of qualified content source online.
    I hope that one day country’s educational system will embed “Internet usage” in their programs. A Better understanding of the media is a key to keep countrol on your mind.

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  • Remi B

    I was born in 1987, so i’m pretty native. I went through university without once taking out a book from a library and I am a straight-A student. Wikipedia, YouTube (to watch a video of an author explaining his books main points), Google, Torrents (for ebooks, audiobooks, documentaries/videos, textbooks) are my starting points for research in my professional and academic career.

    I even used Facebook to start a discussion group with my friends to get ideas for a report I am writing: Digital Natives in the Workplace. They confirmed my views about the subject and give me more confidence when I make generalizations about Digital Natives.

    Natives are just as capable as immigrants, if not more so, of identifying reliable sources from unreliable sources. There will ALWAYS be people who are “gullable” or just don’t care enough to check the facts (this is where schooling comes into play). But even unreliable sources are useful, because they can give you a different perspective from the mainstream and perhaps direct you towards the facts you want to display. This was the purpose of my post.

    I would never use this website or its comments as a source for facts, but if something intrigued me, I would do a search for more evidence that the particular piece of information is true – either from the original source, or a many reliable sources.

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  • Researcher

    I read it

  • Researcher

    I read it

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  • Michael S

    Have you considered approaching the discussion from an open course ware perspective? The impact of open course ware has increased university enrollment.

    Additionally, digital natives want to be “in control” of their experience. They want to have an active voice in the flow of information. Making information available in the format they are most comfortable would seem the ideal teaching aide.

  • lisa

    I was born in 78, learned programing on Apple II when I was 6, using Internet since 90s. My mother, who is in mid 60s now, can use all the stuff on internet, we chat on msn, skpye and email. My dad do online shopping all the time.

    the digital natives are just using the technology previous generation had created, nothing special. just like how people adapted to other “new” media, radio, TV, etc. Internet is just the “new” media of this generation. As a matter of fact, generation Y is late adopters, as internet has been in public use since early 90s and is a mass media now.

  • Michael S

    Have you considered approaching the discussion from an open course ware perspective? The impact of open course ware has increased university enrollment.

    Additionally, digital natives want to be “in control” of their experience. They want to have an active voice in the flow of information. Making information available in the format they are most comfortable would seem the ideal teaching aide.

  • Michael S

    Have you considered approaching the discussion from an open course ware perspective? The impact of open course ware has increased university enrollment.

    Additionally, digital natives want to be “in control” of their experience. They want to have an active voice in the flow of information. Making information available in the format they are most comfortable would seem the ideal teaching aide.

  • lisa

    I was born in 78, learned programing on Apple II when I was 6, using Internet since 90s. My mother, who is in mid 60s now, can use all the stuff on internet, we chat on msn, skpye and email. My dad do online shopping all the time.

    the digital natives are just using the technology previous generation had created, nothing special. just like how people adapted to other “new” media, radio, TV, etc. Internet is just the “new” media of this generation. As a matter of fact, generation Y is late adopters, as internet has been in public use since early 90s and is a mass media now.

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  • Maggie

    I am a Digital Native, and probably the youngest one yet on these comments. I'm a 1992'er. I'm one of the ones that hasn't gone to college yet. I've been online since we had our little dial-up connection when I was 8, and I can promise you that in those ten years, I've spent much more than 20,000 hours on the internet. And I'd like to address a few points.

    Yes, I read through to the end. And I read through all the comments. Does this disprove your point? Not in the slightest. I get many articles in my Google reader every day, but do I spend time reading all of them? No. I graze. The same way you graze the newspaper. I read the articles that interest me. Now, fine, this might not be true of all “Digital Natives,” but your comment is probably less so.

    In terms of the “reliable sources” argument: I do believe that's true–I judged a 9th grade debate the other day that cited many of their sources as opinion sites/wordpress/etc. It's just something that needs to be taught at a really early age. I think it will be learned more easily in time. But, as someone else suggested, you will always have the people who don't care. These are the people who think Rush Limbaugh is “news.” To be honest, all of that has a lot more to do with the changing face of journalism and the rise of opinions in the news and on the internet. And seeing as the majority of the Digital Natives aren't even old enough to have much sway in the media, I don't see exactly how it's our fault. The searching is just naivety that comes with being a kid. I'm sure you had it in similar form.

    What I think is ridiculous is the people who are “scared” for our generation and the changes that we bring. Yeah, we're different–just like the generations before us were different for their new TVs and even their microwaves. It's just change. We won't bring the government tumbling down.

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    Interesting article. thanks

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  • Anonymous

    I was born in 1953. Much of the ‘vocabulary’ of digital natives is confusing to me and probably always will be. In that sense, I’m like an English Language Learner (ELL) – Did you infer my profession from that clue? I consider myself a DLL (Digital Language Learner) I think I just coined that term and if so, I expect my ‘copyright’ to be respected. (How very old-fashioned of me). My “accent” if you will, is likely to remain. I’m inefficient with new technology but not afraid of it. As you can see, I do participate in forums. But I don’t have a Facebook account and never will. I enjoy and protect my privacy. I share a circulatory system with my laptop. I don’t have a smartphone. I still wear a wristwatch. I visit Youtube daily. I email frequently but I don’t see myself ‘tweeting’ anytime soon. If somebody could show me how to blog I’m sure I would. In my down time, I play on my DS or read on my Kindle. So what am I? A digital settler or a digital immigrant?

  • Anonymous

    I was born in 1953. Much of the ‘vocabulary’ of digital natives is confusing to me and probably always will be. In that sense, I’m like an English Language Learner (ELL) – Did you infer my profession from that clue? I consider myself a DLL (Digital Language Learner) I think I just coined that term and if so, I expect my ‘copyright’ to be respected. (How very old-fashioned of me). My “accent” if you will, is likely to remain. I’m inefficient with new technology but not afraid of it. As you can see, I do participate in forums. But I don’t have a Facebook account and never will. I enjoy and protect my privacy. I share a circulatory system with my laptop. I don’t have a smartphone. I still wear a wristwatch. I visit Youtube daily. I email frequently but I don’t see myself ‘tweeting’ anytime soon. If somebody could show me how to blog I’m sure I would. In my down time, I play on my DS or read on my Kindle. So what am I? A digital settler or a digital immigrant?

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