Digital ‘natives’ 16 years on

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.

‘Residents’ see the Web as a place, a ‘cyberspace’…  from openDemocracy Flickr used under CC non-commercial

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.

… whereas ‘visitors’ see the Web as a ‘tool’ from WikiMedia used under CC ShareAlike
‘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.

The scale from ‘visitor’ to ‘resident’ from White and Cornu 2011


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” 


Introduction and self-test

Hi everyone, this is my blog for the UOSM2008 module taught at the University of Southampton. You can read about me here.

This post is my ‘self-test’ where I analyse my skills at the start of the module, in order to go back to them at the end and reflect on what I have learnt.

  Rating at start of module Comments
Accessing, managing and evaluating online information


4 Over the last few years of Web Science study, I have become competent in collecting and using a range of online information. However, there is still more that I can learn.
Participating in online communities



2 In the last few years I’ve not participated in many online communities. In the past, however, I have been part of several online forums.
Building online networks around an area of interest



2 I have various networks of online contacts. But I’ve not tried to build these around particular topics before.
Collaborating with others on shared projects



4 As part of my degree, we’ve undertaken several group projects. Also, when working over the summer I’ve worked with people all around the world using digital technologies.
Creating online materials (text, audio, images, video)



4 I am a fairly competent user of various image, video and audio technologies. However, I am not an expert.
Managing your online identity



3 My digital profile stretches over many different platforms and websites. But I’ve not put a huge amount of effort in being active on all of these or consistent over them.
Managing your online privacy and security



4 I have a strong cyber security background. But I’ve not spent a huge amount of time managing my own privacy.

Q1 Why did you choose the module?

It is compulsory on the Web Science degree and I am also interested in the impact of digital technologies on the social life.

Q2 What in particular do you want to learn from the module?

How to more effectively leverage online networks for the development of my career. It is also a good way to dedicate some time to understanding these concepts.

Q3 Which degree programme are you studying?

Web Science (Computer Science) BSc (third year)

Q4 Have you studied online before?

I did the Web Science MOOC before coming to Southampton several years ago.