Who are Digital Natives?
Marc Prensky coined the term “Digital Natives” back in 2001. Digital Natives are people who grew up immersed in technology. They never knew a time before personal computers or recorded television. While most people born after 1980 qualify as Digital Natives, some born even earlier may qualify, depending upon their immersion in, and propensity for, new technology. By age 20, these Digital Natives will have spent 20,000 hours online, buying from Amazon, selling on eBay, downloading from iTunes and doing things which were not even possible five years ago.
Everyone else, including your humble narrator, is a “Digital Immigrant,” having to adjust to this new landscape from our technologically spartan upbrinings. Even though we, as Digital Immigrants, created the current technological environment, we consistently give ground to Digital Natives. Their takeover of the entire digital landscape is manifest destiny. Thankfully, they appear to know what they are doing. Before the transformation is complete, it might be wise to understand what motivates this new digital ruling class.
As Digital Immigrants, we are constantly on the lookout for scams. Wary of thieves, idiots and con artists, we never lay all of our cards on the table at the first meeting. We get to know you, we find out about you, then we trust you and tell you about ourselves. It is a slow process, but one which avoids inadvertent entanglement with disreputable partners. Digital Natives lay everything out for the world to see. They are radically transparent. From blogs, LinkedIn, Facebook, YouTube and myriad other sites invisible to most people over 40, anything you (and the rest of the world) want to know about a savvy Digital Native is out there. Natives want you to know as much as possible about them before they meet you. Throwing everything online allows digital vetting. If the Digital Native is a thief, a scammer, a liar or even just an idiot, the harsh voice of the digital vox populi, so the theory goes, will surely expose these warts. Placing everything online has the risk of alienating potential contacts that may not like your views on politics, religion et cetera. Online exposure also attracts the matches who are attracted to this 21st century curriculum vitae.
9. Play in Their Work and Work in Their Play
Digital natives want jobs that are fun … not necessarily jobs which everyone sees as fun, but jobs which they find personally enriching. They are more amenable to working longer hours for lower wages if they do something they love. Working at something they love, they tend to excel, often expanding their jobs into new areas which they themselves discover. In play, Digital Natives are drawn toward social activities involving large diverse groups. They often see activities as forums for learning and fostering their networks. While open salesmenship is rare, they come with questions and ideas which Digital Immigrants avoid discussing outside of a signed non-disclosure agreement. Natives key in on being a valuable part of an enriching community, at work and at play.
8. An Inch Deep and a Mile Wide
Digital Immigrants spend years searching news outlets for one they can trust. Once they find one with a “spin” similar to their own, they are unwaveringly loyal. Having been weaned on spin, Digital Natives are acutely aware every source comes with its own bias. Instead of sticking with a single news source, Digital Natives look to dozens of sources, including text messages, e-mails, phone calls blogs, social networks and even archaic media such as television. They scan this wealth of information until they find something of interest. At this point they drill down, assessing all of the subtitles the story has to offer. Digital Natives can scan, sift and digest more news in an hour than Digital Immigrants can process in a week. Digital Natives are mercurial in who they trust for news. What was a trusted source yesterday, may not be credible today. Sorting through large amounts of information, as quickly as possible, is what allows Digital Natives to separate fact from fiction before an issue even appears on most Digital Immigrants’ radar.
7. Say No to Negativity
As a lawyer, this has been the hardest aspect of Digital Natives for me to understand. From a young age, my siblings, friends and schoolmates assisted my development by sarcastically deriding any perceived error. I quickly discerned the rhyme and meter of this dance and am able to differentiate bullying, constructive criticism and fear of new ideas. This skill I honed to a razor’s edge in law school and the subsequent practice of law. Bringing my adroit verbal rapier to bear on Digital Natives however, yielded unexpected results. They were raised in a different age. Not better. Not worse. Just different. I never received a participant trophy when I was young. If I had, I would have hid it from anyone whose opinion I valued. Conversely, most Digital Natives were raised on constant positive reinforcement. Negativity was viewed … negatively. Far from making them whiny and lazy, this background has made them open and collaborative. Saying “no” is anathema without providing an alternative solution. Ideas are not criticized, but instead repeatedly stripped down and built up until they either stand on their own or fail. As a result of this process, even ideas which lead to failure are seen as a positive.
6. Failure is a Gift
Digital Immigrants wear failure as a scarlet letter, going to lengths to avoid it or pin it on someone else. Digital Natives view failures as merit badges, things they need to discover before they eventually reach their goals. They know failures teach them things no one else knows, giving them an advantage over any unschooled competition. The most remarkable Digital Natives share stories of their unique failures within trusted groups, not as a form of commiseration, but as a form of advanced learning, giving and receiving gifts not available from any other source at any price.
5. Create or Die
Content is the new commodity. To Digital Natives, it determines who you are and what options you have. Whether it is YouTube videos, ebooks, blog posts, tweets or a string of successful startups, your reputation and your worth are judged by what you have created. While someone with an extensive scholarly background may have the chops to take a company to the next level, to a Digital Native, they are at a competitive disadvantage with a high school dropout who has successfully replicated the implementation at four other companies. Digital Natives are more concerned with their ideas taking root, than in actually receiving compensation for the idea. If they come to an impasse with their idea, they put it out for the world, with the hope that others add and subtract from the idea until it becomes viable. Creating content brings people of a like mind together. The more ideas you have, the more opportunities you have to stand on the shoulders of giants and see your ideas through to fruition.
4. Technological Bulimia
Aware that the amount of valuable information available to them far outstrips their ability to process all of it in a thousand lifetimes, Digital Natives are constantly on the lookout for the latest technology to assist them in processing ideas more quickly. They crave technology not for technology’s sake, but as a tool to assist them in getting from point A to point B better, faster cheaper and easier.
3. Collaboration as a Culture
Collaboration outside of one’s business was anathema to many Digital Immigrants. “I worked hard, and paid my dues to obtain this information. Why should I give it away for free?” Digital Natives see things differently. “If I give one valuable piece of information to five intelligent people, I will probably receive at least three pieces of valuable information in return.” Sure, there are those who try to take advantage of the system, always taking and never giving, but with the speed of information transmission, these individuals are quickly discovered and cut off from future collaboration.
2. Follow Leaders of Trusted Tribes
Digital Natives are more blind to stereotypes than Digital Immigrants. Ignoring borders, language, age and culture, Digital Natives flock to influencers capable of providing the best information at any given time. As a shortcut to determining who is the most trusted influencer, Digital Natives look at who else is looking to a particular individual for advice. In this case, it is quality over quantity of followers. Ashton Kutcher and Sean Combs each have over one million followers on Twitter. Despite their followings, however, they are less influential in that arena than people like Pete Cashmore or Michael Arrington. Despite having fewer followers, the latter two individuals have influential followers and are, therefore exponentially influential. Discovering who a Digital Native trusts provides a wealth of information about who they are and where they are going.
The Holy Grail for a Digital Native contains a balance of friends, family, work and play. If you find a way to help them achieve this balance, or better yet combine these goals, you will see what Digital Natives can truly acheive.
Digital Natives are not “slackers.” Just the opposite. Most work long hours for little pay when pursuing an activity they love. The key is finding out what there is for them to love about you and your company. Understanding their goals, and incorporating them into your business strategy, may translate what you previously dismissed as a liability, into one of your company’s most valuable assets.