Do you consider yourself a digital ‘native’? This term has become widespread over the last decade or so to describe someone, usually a young person, who has grown up with technology. It’s been influential in government and advertising (see, for example – sorry FT paywall Young ‘digital natives’ naive about internet advertising). The flip side of this is the so-called digital ‘immigrant’. Crudely, this someone who learns to live with technology but never quite loses their previous identity. These terms were coined by Marc Prensky in 2001, and, since then have become notorious.
See this TED talk by Sree Sreenivasn comparing the concept of digital ‘immigrants’ with being an actual ‘real-world’ immigrant.
However, his ideas have been widely criticised (see Bennett, et al., 2008 and Margaryan and Littlejohn, 2008). As a theory it puts people into rigid boxes. Surely people are more complex than this, they can and do learn new skills. But there’s now some who argue for an evolution of the natives idea.
David White and Alison Le Cornu (2011, also see a summary by White) instead say that we should think of digital ‘residents’ and ‘visitors’. These are defined by their motivations, not by arbitrary groups. For a ‘resident’, the Web is very much ‘cyberspace’. It’s a place they can go to and meet their friends, do some work or relax. This is in contrast to the ‘visitor’. They see the Web as merely a new technological tool. Sure, they might research a holiday or do some online banking on it but they don’t inhabit it. This means they are more likely to be concerned about privacy and security online and don’t seek to maintain their presence once they’ve logged off.‘Residents’, on the other hand, actively ensure that their online personas persist even when they’re not there.
You might ask, doesn’t this idea still feel like putting people in boxes? You’re still either a ‘resident’ or a ‘visitor’. But White and Le Cornu show that their ideas are more nuanced. Firstly, they say that people aren’t simply one category the whole time. For instance, in their social life, they might be considered a ‘resident’ updating and maintaining social media profiles. However, at work, they use the Web merely as a tool to make them more efficient. For someone who is self-employed, this could be the other way around. It is also not just dependent on age, consider online spaces such as Mumsnet. ‘Visitors’ may also be more technically competent than ‘residents’. As such this captures more of how people actually use technology in their complex lives.
Bennett et al., 2008 “The ‘digital natives’ debate: a critical review of the Evidence”
Margaryan and Littlejohn, 2008 “Are digital natives a myth or reality?: Students’ use of technologies for learning”
Prensky, 2001 “Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants”
White and Cornu, 2011 “Visitors and Residents: A new typology for online engagement”