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Digital Natives, by a digital native from Germany

I am proud to be invited to write a guest post here for the Digital Natives blog of Harvard’s Berkman Center. It all started with sending an email to Urs Gasser, who is one of the heads of the team. As a Digital Native myself, I know best how they behave, how they think, and how they “work.” I know, my words reveal no new discovery, but I am not a researcher — I am just a digital native writing down his perspective…

German teenagers don’t really behave differently from their companions in the US. What is different are their primary social networks, where they upload photos, publish guestbook posts, and discuss in groups. There is StudiVZ for students or SchülerVZ for younger children. They are a complete copy cat of Facebook, which does not play a role in German children’s lives.

SchülerVZ and StudiVZ both have an enormous reach. More than 90 percent of students in my class and probably the same percentage in my age-group are registered. Those who don’t use it don’t exist. It’s often used for sharing photos; “traditional” photo sharing sites likes Flickr are not used. The two social networks don’t offer the same degree of functions and features that Facebook does (for example there is no open API), but what is interesting for me to see is the fact that they both allow you to share short messages with your friends, like Twitter does. And this feature is used a lot – believe me. But if you ask me, I would suggest they offer a txt-based Microblogging tool as well. That’s firstly a way to monetize it and secondly a new way for the users to send messages.

To speak more generally (and not simply about German youth), teenagers at large don’t have an understanding of copyright and ownership of digital goods. They want to share, want to mix, and want to edit. They can’t understand why it is not okay to go to Wikipedia, print a page, and use it for a speech. Anyway, that’s how they still do it. Most of their created presentations are totally or partly rip-offs and plagiarism. But teachers – especially the older ones – simply fail to discover them, and so it’s not punished, and there are no consequences for the students. Although they know it’s illegal, they do it, just because they can and because they know nothing else. Besides the school-related illegal sharing, there are of course downloading and sharing of songs, movies and other stuff. I don’t know whether that is because students do not have the needed money for buying every interesting movie or just because those things are too expensive.

Mobile phones are children’s toys of choice and primary tools of communication. Nearly every single person in school has one – which can be an advantage but also a torture. Cyberbullying can start with taking photos of people you don’t like and sending them to your friends or editing them with mobile photo editors. Since mobile phones became practical MP3 players, they have become a plague. Wherever you go, music played aloud bothers you if it’s not your taste of music. But, to be honest, I am one of these troublemakers myself. Teachers have to deal with that and with students playing during the lessons instead of listening.

To point out one of the major differences between students and adults: young people don’t use email to communicate with their friends. It’s just not important, because it’s just not fast enough. They use IM or social networks to communicate with their friends. That’s also a much better way to meet new people, because you don’t know what the person looks like in an email. With social networks, you even know how you are connected to them (maybe you share the same friends or attend the same school). Of course, they all have an email account (you need it to register to SchülerVZ and StudiVZ of course) but if they use it, they do so only for sending big files and attachments.

I didn’t want this to become something like egotainment, so I decided to mention the things I do last. I am 16 years old and attending Realschule in Germany but will change to a new school soon. In my later life, I want to become a journalist. I was also one of the organizors of BarCampHannover.

It was my idea in July 2007 to write a post about why we should do a BarCamp here in Hanover (known for the largest exhibition ground in the world, the EXPO2000 and the annual CeBIT). Some people answered and we formed an organization team – of which I was the youngest, followed by some university students. I was responsible for sponsoring affairs and asked some of my entrepreneur friends to help us. In February 2008, we successfully finished our work with BarCampHannover. During this time, we met several times for organizational meetings, and, because everybody knew how old I was, they all respected me, even though I “fighted” several discussions. You must know, I am not one of these guys who hides his opinion. But it was a lot of fun and a great experience for life. In addition to that, I am the organizer of Lunch 2.0 in Germany, which had its first anniversary in May.

When I first met Sören Stamer, CEO of CoreMedia AG, in August 2007, he told me about his idea of doing a workshop for teenagers to discuss things like “How has the Internet influenced your life?” or “How would you like to work in the future?”. In December, we realized this idea and created the “Delle im Universum” (Dent in the universe), where CoreMedia employees, Sören the CEO, some of their partners, I, and a friend of mine met. We talked some hours about our future plans and played foosball after the workshop in a relaxed atmosphere.

Last month, Sören attended the so-called “Deutscher IT-Gipfel” (German IT summit), organized by the German Government, where IT people and high-ranking German politicians gather to discuss ideas. In his workgroup, Sören introduced the idea of the “Delle,“ and together they fine-tuned the plan and got new ideas. One of these was a competition where teenagers can upload their thoughts in a video. The best ones, selected by a jury, will be invited to meet with the workgroup (Deutsche Telekom is one of its members) and get the chance to meet the German chancellor Angela Merkel.

I liked organizing the BarCamp. Because I am a teenager and want to spread the thoughts we have, I am tinkering with the idea of organizing another conference, maybe even an unconference, about Teens in the Internet. There are already plans to do something similar in Germany, but with a different focus: while I want to gather people within this context and have experts talk about this topic (even older ones), the other unconference currently in development would have younger bloggers go to a BarCamp. The issue is really unresolved, and I am still searching for people to help me. If you are interested, use the email address below.

In case you have any questions, would like to give feedback, or just want to get in touch, here’s how: mail at timoheuer com (I choose email to demonstrate that not all the teenagers don’t use it..)

Timo Heuer