What is a Digital Natural?

Digital Naturals are individuals who are comfortable in an online environment, being equipped through experience and exposure to the both its cultural norms and the technological competencies required to operate effectively.

With every passing day the distinction between online and offline becomes more obscure. We are thinking less and less about technology and more about communication. We are more likely to say “I spoke to her yesterday” than “I spoke to her yesterday on my mobile telephone.”

If we buy a new device, be it a smartphone, tablet or laptop, we won’t spend long reading the instruction manual (not least because there probably isn’t one). And we will all use the devices in different ways, with our own favourite apps, sites, games and tools. Understanding who uses which platforms and channels is very important to communicators, but we have long ago moved on from the time that age alone could be thought to be truly significant.

Today, nearly all of us have some digital competence. We are becoming Digital Naturals, routinely using an array of online tools in our daily lives, even if few of us are completely comfortable in this new environment.

Digital Naturals helps both academics and practitioners understand today’s world. It is a helpful and necessary step forward from the outdated and divisive labeling of Digital Natives  and Digital Immigrants. Way back in 2001 Marc Prensky published a widely cited paper, Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants, in which he argued with some justification that educators needed to adapt to the demands  a new breed of college students, those born after 1980. Prensky believed them to be fundamentally different to those who had come before them.

A really big discontinuity has taken place. One might even call it a “singularity” – an event which changes things so fundamentally that there is absolutely no going back. …
Today’s students … represent the first generations to grow up with this new technology. They have spent their entire lives surrounded by and using computers, videogames, digital music players, video cams, cell phones, and all the other toys and tools of the digital age.

His “Natives” label caught on, and although it is not heard quite so often nowadays, there is still a great temptation for communicators to slice up stakeholder groups by age, as either pre- or post-digital. But even if we set aside the negative connotations of natives vs immigrants division, it is clear this doesn’t represent the world we live in.

To be a Digital Natural is to have the skills and competences to operate in the online environment, to treat internet-enabled devices as a routine to daily life, to expect information to be at our fingertips, always available and endlessly abundant. Digital Naturals inhabit a place where location and distance don’t much matter and where news travels instantly.

This is not to say that all Digital Naturals experience the world in the same way. Far from it, they will be distinguished by access, literacy, social inclination and conditioning. They will have contrasting digital identities negotiated, consciously otherwise across, many platforms and channels.

Some will not feel themselves to be Naturals, but the reasons will be many and varied; there is no binary opposite to being a Digital Natural. Some will not have the economic power to engage, some will not have the communicative literacy, some will have the ability but not the social or emotional inclination to engage with online platforms.

Although age is important to behaviour patterns, it is does not bestow unique understanding. Those born after 1980, certainly after 1995, may not have known a world before the internet, but that doesn’t mean they have an intrinsic understanding of technologies; indeed assuming that they do brings dangers . A 15-year-old may have faster fingers and cooler apps than a 50-year-old but is probably not as good at decoding social messages or knowing who to believe or to trust in everyday dealings. Forgetting this risks exposing the vulnerable to significant danger.

Finally, beware the apparent paradox in the definition of Digital Naturals, which is to assume that being competent to operate in the new environment is the same as being comfortable there. Many Digital Naturals will make good and effective use of online tools and resources but will be only too aware of the trade-offs they make in terms of personal privacy and accountability. The natural athlete may be very good at a particular sport but they will also be aware, even fearful, of the risk of injury.

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