Understanding Digital Natives

The digital world is starting to feel like our own Fringe-like parallel universe, as new vocabularies, behaviour and slang evolve: it is a place inhabited by humans who work, breathe, eat, feel, talk, and communicate the way we do. Breeding an entire new digital citizen, with native skills, languages and habits that put them well ahead of their elders, often labelled the 'digital natives'. These people are classified in a totally different way. For example, we have the digital natives, the digital immigrants, and at the end of the queue, the digital laggards.

The truth about these “digital species” is somewhat debatable. There is no hard classification for each, which may seem as if anyone can be a digital immigrant or native. However, if we let many experts differentiate both, they will tell you that the digital natives are those who are pre-disposed to technology since childhood or even the day they were born. We may be talking about those born during the 1980s, at the height of televisions, cassette players, Walkmans, and of course those who were around in the 1990s when the Internet was in full swing. For the purpose of my narration I tend to use the one of the most significant digital milestones as the tipping point for digital nativity. That date is September 4th, 1998, the birth of Google. Anyone born after Google is by default a 'digital native'. Granted there are variances based on context, environment and technology access, but the significance of Google's existence is an important one it defining a generation.

The digital immigrants, meanwhile, are people who are born way ahead of the technological time, before Google. This doesn’t mean they didn’t have any form of technology back then. One had to remember that the earliest space flights happened during the 1960s. However, as far as the digital technologies we know today are concerned, they were non-existent. Yet these individuals have decided to accept and embrace these technologies, adopting them into their lives. Like learning a new language mid-life, technology will never be a native language of those that immigrated. But with an ever increasing generation of digital natives occupying the planet, digital immigrants are often left lost and confused as to why the latest SnapChat or Flappy Bird is such hot property.

Digital Immigrants Issues

The digital immigrants are actually faring well when it comes to implementation and integration of technologies. In a 2011 study conducted by Pew Internet Research, over 50% of the total American population who are at least 65 years old are now using the Internet. The baby boomers are also now considered a huge market in e-commerce because by now, they already have the money and the eagerness to invest in technologies and anything new. However this generation tends to be labelled the 'digital laggards', those that only adopt technology because there is no alternative. A term made famous by Geoffrey Moore in his book 'Crossing the Chasm.'

Despite the growth across the board, there are still a lot of issues these digital immigrants face. One is the supposed disconnection with these technologies, especially the Internet and new media. More often than not, they go online to look for information first rather than to buy. They also normally find themselves asking the question why every time they see a brand-new technology: what has this got to do with me? Another perfect example of the lack of deeper understanding of relevancy is how digital immigrants would prefer to edit documents manually—that is, printing e-mails—rather than to use the editing features in a word processor. Sound familiar?

Their idea of using these technologies also greatly differs from the digital natives. For them, these wearables, smart phones, tablets, and other gadgets, as well as the Internet, are around to serve them with a greater purpose, perhaps help them reconnect friends, keep their jobs, contact their loved ones in other states or overseas, or buy items for comfort and convenience. Holistic value of technology is therefore in the eye of beholder. As digital natives show strong signs to leverage technologies as a means to fulfil Maslow's hierarchy of needs.

Of course, there’s still the huge problem of adoption. Many can still be considered digital laggards among them or individuals who’d never consider using any of these technologies just to be able to “stay current.” Others, maybe due to age, struggle with the ever-changing design interfaces.

My post on SnapChat's USD 3 Billion offers a sneak peak into the cultural gap the divides the generations, as digital natives intuitively adopted and understood the ephemeral need for SnapChat. While digital natives and digital laggards are left wondering 'what the hell is SnapChat?'. This behaviour translates to all facets of life as they evaluate employers, brands and governments.

Digital Natives, the rising significance

If you're one of the billions of digital immigrants on the planet that struggles to understand the new cultures, behaviours and social norms of digital natives, you're not alone. But that doesn't bring much relief, as digital culture starts to be become the national norm over the coming decade. Digital natives will continue to drive more significant representation as citizens, employees and consumers, shifting what is normal. In the not too distant future, digital natives will make up a significant voting population in most G20 nations, raising the need for governments to listen to the needs of these citizens. Before this decade is out digital natives could effectively play the balance between the voting majorities, heavily influencing where the balance of power swings.

Are you ready for a digital natives world?