The Future of Digital Natives Dialogue

A couple weeks ago, I participated (read: lurked) in a project called FOCUS: Cross-Generational Voices on Digital Media and Society, sponsored by Global Kids, Common Sense Media, and The GoodPlay Project. Having evolved from previous years’ FOCUS projects aimed to create dialogue between teenagers about their online experiences (a white paper report of last year’s activities can be read here), the project aimed this year to foster discussion between teens, parents, and educators on a multitude of topics related to social interactions on the Web. The discussion took place on FOCUS’s message boards and lasted a few weeks.

As you can see from the screen grab to the left, topics ranged from debates about the generation gap to personal relationships to law, and the discussions were started by teens and adults alike. The questions and answers appeared to encompass a similar level of understanding and experience: a bit cautious in approaching online safety, a bit daring in critiquing infrastructure, a bit conscious in debating issues of privacy, sexuality, and identity. The conversations suggested that nobody really has the answers — just as “the meaning of life” remains nebulous in the real world, so is our comprehension of living online — but we want to understand as much as we can. Digital Natives the book set out to inform parents about “those things” with which their children are experimenting everyday on the Internet; however, both the older and younger generations writing on the discussion boards appeared equally educated, skeptical, and curious about similar matters.

The initial set of discussion threads in the first group were sown by only teenagers, and perhaps this was meant to mirror the former year’s discussion. Eventually, users with the labels “parent” and “educator” showed up on the boards. From the conversations that I examined, though, it seemed that more members of the younger generation were speaking up and debating.

I am glad this is the case. When Diana and I spoke at South by Southwest in March (Diana’s previous posts on the issue: 1, 2, and 3), we presented knowing that we were only a few of the Digital Native generation that had attempted to study ourselves, to make an impact in the domain of Internet studies from a different, younger perspective. Most kids, teenagers, and young adults today use the Internet for quotidian tasks, making purchases and fulfilling social habits. Only a handful of students, though, have stepped up to create a dialogue about where they stand in terms of the future of the Internet. When I chose to moderate a panel about a student perspective on technology and education, I wanted to bring that new perspective to the table. I feel that these FOCUS dialogues too are the building blocks for more of the younger generation to make advancements towards becoming researchers and heralds for a new side to Internet and social research. At the same time, the cross-generational conversations of this year’s FOCUS project confirm that parents are beginning to understand life on the Web and that children who grew up in the digital space are losing the ability to exploit their knowledge as an advantage over parents and other adults.

But what’s the next step? To where will the Digital Natives project proceed?

For one, Urs Gasser has already begun to focus on Digital Natives in the workplace, as Diana wrote about before. I am interested to see how Digital Natives will affect the academic realm as well. Since I attended Berkman@10 last year (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7), I have also traveled to a number of other conventions at which the company of fellow Digital Natives remained minute. As Digital Natives enter the workforce to become teachers and professors, we will probably see an increase in the use of technology (as teachers who were early adopters have already done) on a wider scale, but I hope that greater focus across all disciplines will provide significant depth into related Internet studies.

For the moment, the FOCUS project of 2009 is already proving that our book, Born Digital, archived a moment in time when parents and other adults needed a resource to understand the online habits of my generation. In a way, it’s reassuring that everyone is understanding online habits without proclaiming them an exotic phenomenon.