Here at Digital Natives, our wiki and Twitter and YouTube channel and Facebook are our tools. But they are laboratories, too. We use them because they are useful, but also because we want to understand them; because when someone uses the tools in imaginative ways, we want to be there to hear about it.

This week, we had the enormous pleasure of seeing an experiment in one of these laboratories go dramatically right. Andy Oram, editor at O’Reilly, posted a preliminary review of Born Digital to the Digital Natives wiki for comment. After John Palfrey announced this spontaneous forum on Monday, many people jumped into the conversation. In brackets and italics, they etched the discussion into the text of the draft. All of this discussion culminated with Andy posting his review to the O’Reilly news site—a document reflecting not only an opinion, but the embedded nuances of a conversation in action.

We were elated to see Andy using these tools so imaginatively, and excited to have such an in-depth conversation about the marketing, message, and conclusions of Born Digital. While the full wiki conversation is worth reading, I wanted to take a moment to respond to one of Andy’s major points.

Andy kicks off his review with this analysis:

Born Digital postulates a watershed between those born on or before 1980 and those born after. Although the book is advertised as a guide to the latter for those born earlier, I suspect that the marketing became unmoored from the authorship. That’s because the book’s arguments culminate in the message that its lessons need to be learned by “digital natives” most of all, and that they are the ones best positioned to alleviate the social dislocations caused by digital media and the Internet.

He goes on to write about the seeming irreconcilability of this situation: Digital Natives are the ones who need this information most. But they are also—by definition—the ones least likely to even read a paper book, let alone buy one. The question then becomes: if Digital Natives don’t learn this information from a book, where and how will they learn it?

The answer, I think, is deeply tied to the ultimate goal of Born Digital: to facilitate better conversations between teachers and students, parents and children, by seeding those conversations with good information and provocative ideas. Conversations, as the internet has irreversibly proven, are inherently memetic; information travels, mutates, and impacts people along the way. And we’re much more likely to listen to someone we respect and care about than someone we’ve never met.

As pre-teens and teenagers, Digital Natives are acutely socially aware. They put great stock in the opinions of their friends. For parents and educators, this priority schematic can often feel like a brick wall stationed resolutely between their voices and the student’s ears. But the fact remains that, in the grander scheme of things, parents and educators are still easier to respect and care about than disembodied professorial voices—or even a sheaf of dead trees, covered with unchanging words.

It is true that Digital Natives form their own first line of defense. But that defense can be made much stronger by informational reinforcements. Fortunately, those are exactly the tools that parents and educators are best equipped to give their charges. These reinforcements, though, can never be transmitted and utilized if parents and educators don’t have them in their arsenals in the first place. By educating themselves, they can transform their fear of the unknown into a set of questions and a catalog of anecdotes; a lens through which to view their Digital Natives’ activities, and the knowledge to have intelligent conversations about the digital worlds they live in.

The measure of Born Digital’s success will lie not in unit sales, but in conversations started. The entire team here was honored, this week, to participate in the conversation Andy started. We look forward to many more, here on the internet; and hope that even more take place offline, between Digital Natives and the adults who care about them.

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