One born every minute: how digital natives make immigrants of us all

I think we can all agree on something: things have changed. We live in a very different world to the one inhabited by our parents, full of microchips and strange flashing lights. These changes have naturally come to have a very real effect on the people who live there (you).

The technological divide

According to educational visionary and game designer Marc Prensky, there are now two classes of people: the digital natives (DNs), and the digital immigrants (DIs).

DNs are those lucky folk who were born into this era of ubiquitous digital technology, and thus have an intrinsic knowledge of Facebook, Objective C and flux capacitors. The DIs, however, were born before the advent of digital technology and have had to adjust themselves to accommodate.

A Digital Native and Digital Immigrant

Like all immigrants, some are better at fitting in than others, but all DIs retain their ‘accent’ – that foot in the past that makes them seem out of place to the DNs. DIs can never be as au fait with modern technology as the DNs.

Natives as an audience

As content consumers, DNs are both a blessing and a curse. They are open-minded, optimistic and adapt quickly to new ideas, but they are hard to impress, have short attention spans and need instant gratification. They naturally want to interact, hack and break things. Producing content for the DNs is no mean feat, especially when the producers are frequently DIs with a topdown approach and a strong accent.

Things change

See, there seems to be a growing consensus that technology has caused the paradigm to shift.  Look at politics; back in the good old days, governments had sovereign control over their own distinct territories. Then came telegrams, airplanes and the internet. Suddenly, everyone was in everyone else’s business and the world was a much smaller place. The boundaries of the world have been deformalised, and the legacy political structure that still persists is desperately trying to crowbar in new apparatus to deal with problems it was never designed to face.

The world IS smaller. The human notion of space is inherently connected to the time it takes to perform activities in that space; if it takes 6 weeks to get to the US, it is heuristically a lot further away than if you can be there instantaneously via Skype.

Small World

In much the same way, the space in which producers and consumers exist has shrunk. The gulf that previously existed between the two has been annihilated and the relationship deformalised. DNs now expect content to align with this space; it should be interconnected, personal, engaging and sophisticated.

Staying ‘current’

Now, not all content producers are DIs, but even the DNs have a problem; you will never be as native as those who come after you. You may be up to date with current tech, but then things done change and you become an immigrant again.

As a content producer who fears their accent is getting more pronounced, you may end up chasing the curve to try and keep the DNs interested. What? There’s a new photosharing app that the kids love? Quick, let’s use it to get DNs interested in this exhibition of historical mirrors! Photosharing is out but HTML5 trousers are in? MAKE SOME NOW WITH OUR LOGO ON!

HTML5 Trousers

Plenty of businesses and institutions have tried to take advantage of game-changing tech, and failed. Dusting off a traditional media strategy and bunging it into a Twitter shaped hole, or putting all your eggs in one tech basket generally leads to problems. News Corps acquisition of MySpace (that lost them in excess of $545m) springs to mind, or the recent Swedish Twitter debacle.

Swedish Twitter Debacle

A new world order

Political theorists believe that to deal with the challenges of globalisation there needs to be a normative shift from domestic to transnational policy. Similarly, dealing with the challenge of DNs as consumers may need a shift away from tech-centric digital practice that has been grafted onto legacy audience engagement strategies.

It’s all about the idea, man. Or, in other words, digital works best when it slots in unnoticed, operating in the background as a facilitator and enabler. For all the complaints about Facebook’s constant UI upgrades and feature tweaks, they are undoubtedly sitting on some seriously clever technology. And it works so well because it compliments a more fundamental need – to chat nonsense and laugh at cat pictures. Technology is most powerful when part of a focused and holistic approach, seamlessly propelling the user towards a higher teleological goal. It cannot be an end in itself; no matter what you expend trying to be at the forefront of tech, a new generation of DNs will always be one step ahead.

In this deformalised space, how can you provide the experiences DNs crave?

Play is the way forward

Play more games

We’ve argued before that play is a great way to engage the natural curiosity of DNs. It’s not the only way to appeal to fresh spawns of DNs and make sense of relentless technological innovation, but play is a dynamic that sits quite comfortably in a deterritorialised space. Slingshot Effect, our partners down the road, have had incredible success with their unique brand of street games. Their technology is hidden, the play experience unfolds in the real world and people have been signing up in their thousands.

Last year in Bristol more than 1,000 players (and zombies) took over a city centre shopping mall and other landmarks for 2.8 Hours Later. The virus has spread to Leeds, London and Glasgow. Slingshot’s online support before and after the event and delivery of the game experience on a city-wide scale is very impressive, but the core idea done well (zombies!) is what really draws the crowds.

Whether we consider ourselves DNs or DIs, as producers it must come down to the fundamentals; compelling content, strong stories and instinctive interaction.


A bit more on “Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants” by Marc Prensky

More on making technology work in museums Jasper Visser, “Integrated meda strategies for Museums”

How other members of the PMStudio are engaging the public

We’ll leave you with this quote from Douglas Adams:

1) Everything that’s already in the world when you’re born is just normal;

2) Anything that gets invented between then and before you turn thirty is incredibly exciting and creative and with any luck you can make a career out of it;

3) Anything that gets invented after you’re thirty is against the natural order of things and the beginning of the end of civilisation as we know it until it’s been around for about ten years when it gradually turns out to be alright really.



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