You are viewing a read-only archive of the Blogs.Harvard network. Learn more.

Digital First

When I first started investigating the Internet, I spent what felt like hours every day on Lifehacker and BoingBoing. I downloaded every new program; I signed up for every new service. I didn’t always know what to do with them, but I was so eager to experience novelty. Free novelty! The programs felt like toys.

Not everyone works this way. Not most adults, and not even most Digital Natives. One of the questions we frequently field at the Digital Natives project is “How technosavvy are these kids, really?” Well: some of them are, some of them aren’t. Some teenagers run their own servers, make a sizeable income selling iPhone applications, and have laptops littered with downloaded trial programs. Most, though, just tend to their collection of mp3s and instant message with friends. The Internet affords everyone the opportunity to be geeky. Even with such low barriers to entry, though, few choose to go there.

Here’s the thing: most Digital Natives don’t treat cruising the Internet as an activity in itself. It’s a tool you use when you want to do something else. What sets Digital Natives apart is their willingness to go to the Internet first—when they have a question, when they want to do something cool, when they want to find someone to hang out with. For them, the Internet is a first resort, rather than a last resort. This skews their behavior tremendously, and also skews adoption curves.

I’m lucky enough to have a few incredibly smart, digitally reluctant friends. They sometimes marvel at my love for computers and the Internet, but they also know that I’m always happy to answer any computer question, or offer about 5 different online tools to solve any problem. A little over a year ago, I introduced one of my friends to Etsy, the “online marketplace for handmade goods.” We admired a few necklaces, did some online window shopping together, and then closed our laptops.

I didn’t think about the incident again until recently, when that same friend announced that she was opening a jewelry store on Etsy. In a matter of days, she had put together her store, filled it with photographs of her jewelry, perused the Etsy forums to get a feel for the community, and purchased a domain name to redirect to her shop. Furthermore, she quickly figured out how to use all sorts of other online tools to promote her business and build an online identity to support it. The turnaround was insanely fast. In all our years of knowing each other, I’ve always been the one obsessed with the Internet. But all of a sudden, my friend’s the expert in a domain I barely understand.

I love that this happened, but what I love even more is that it could happen to anyone. It’s true that my friend has the blessing/curse of living around quite a few digital enthusiasts. But if she’d wanted to build an online jewelry shop and hadn’t known a single Internet-lover, the solution to her query would still have been only a search engine away.

Digital Natives don’t all want to be online experts. But they’ve grown up in a world where the tools to self-publish, self-promote, and self-entertain are free and abundant. The Internet is their go-to resource. As more Digital Natives start businesses and creative careers, those businesses and portfolios will be digital first, physical second. It’s the world they’ve grown up in; a world they’ll continue to build.

Creators’ voice: possibility and innevitability.

When I think of DNs as creators, what comes to mind is our effort on the net to gather different users in innovative productions, converging different sorts of information. The results can be very varied, from projects such as Wikipedia to Online Jamming Jazz Sessions. I guess one important issue to be discussed when we think of our week’s theme, is that the Web actually turns us into voiced creators by empowering us to either embrace our own innovations and creativity, or collaborate with others’ projects.

Although Born Digital states that not all creators on the web are wildly creative, I believe that one important point of these tools is the possibility that DNs have the choice to be voiced and to gather to produce whatever they believe is relevant. Rock bands create their MySpace account, social networks create environments conducive for discussions ranging from music fan clubs to political activism. Whatever the issue, being part of such networks allows DNs to voice their perspectives on the world and share it with their peers.

Obviously, a great part of these efforts will only reproduce what was already in “non-digital” formats. During discussions about the development of Distance Education, me and my peers notice the effort to transport face-to-face instruction to online platforms. The same will happen with any sort of creation on the Internet that, having no other parameter, will usually reproduce what is standard in the non-virtual world.

But then, there is possibility and inevitability. Although many of the creations on the net are not as creative as one can expect, the routine of releasing information through the web has already become usual. From programming a new application on Facebook to creating a video or a blog on the net, these productions’ relevance is in their process of production. In his book, Wealth of Networks, Yochai Benkler discusses in depth how the interconnectivity of the online community has enabled people to collaborate, to create things together with a quality and velocity never seen before. For example, Wikipedia proved to be a great idea by acting as a kind of social network and linking people around the world. So all this is possibility, the web connects information and creations around the world, giving people the chance of producing something together.

This then brings us to “inevitability.” Creators and their creations rarely remain the same. Even though many of our creations on the web still reproduce what happens in “real life”, we have been contaminated by this new sort of interaction enabled by technology and this should inevitably pace the projects we are willing to do.

In Born Digital, a lot is discussed about the mashing-up of information, and how DNs get what is available on the net and make it their own. I myself really like this particular production, where the classic, charming tale of Mary Poppins was turned into a horror film (which is great to pass around with Halloween around the corner). This is serves as an excellent example of what I mean when describing possibility and inevitability in terms of web creation. In this video, for example, means of production have already changed profoundly and there is no way our usual ways of producing knowledge will be kept the same. More than that, I believe there is an urge for different types of production. It’s exciting to see what kinds of creative things DNs will do with these new tools in the future!

How about you? Have you seen any kind of creation that challenges standard productions? Have you or anyone you now participated in any creative sort of collaborative work? Do you see this as positive and fruitful?

Things to Make and Do: ‘Fresh Brain’ and the Community Conundrum

This week’s theme is creators, and it’s one of my favorites: I love thinking about the ways that incredibly simple tools empower young people (empower everyone, really) to create or comment upon art, and find their audiences, and grow as artists and critics. So yesterday, I plugged simple search terms into simple search engines—”mashups,” “teens,” and finally “teen video mashups.” The first link, out of 172,000, just happened direct me to project I can’t believe I’ve never heard of: Fresh Brain.

Setting aside its vaguely zombie-tastic name, Fresh Brain seems like an amazing venture. It’s a nonprofit aiming to “[enhance] the education and development of our youth in the areas of business and technology by providing hands-on real world experience.” via The site is still in beta, but it seems to be modeled as a sort of 21st-century digital manual on “Things to Make and Do.

Accordingly, Fresh Brain is divided into projects. In fact, the link I followed in the first place led me to a a single page for the “Teen Video Poetry Project.” The project instructions direct the teenager to “write a poem about something important to you, shoot or mashup video that relates to the poem, add your voice over reading the poem with optional music background and special sound effects.” Instead of projects requiring sewing machines and scrap paper and mounds of felt, today’s rainy-day activities encourage Digital Natives to explore digital tools and use them toward creative ends. It’s a great idea, and a great resource for parents, teachers, and students alike.

What I’d like to explore for a minute, though, is the relative quiet of the website as it currently stands. In spite of an entire section of Fresh Brain devoted to “Community,” the forums have been silent for over 7 weeks; the blog posts are sparse, and seem to come primarily from one or two people. Clearly, the staff of Fresh Brain recognize that half the fun of creation is showing your work to a big audience. And a “community,” however elusive that term may be, can provide that built-in audience—consider, for instance, YouTube. Fresh Brain is building a space, filling it with resources, and seeding it with good ideas. But nothing will happen there unless Digital Natives choose to spend their time on the site.

Ultimately, I don’t think that’s the most important thing here. I truly believe that Fresh Brain’s most important role is to provide a point of entry for Digital Natives who are ready to make the leap from consumer of digital content to creator. If the creations go elsewhere, filling up channels on YouTube and photostreams on Flickr, then that’s proof of success—not of failure. The goal of Fresh Brain, as far as I can tell, is to help teens grow and then to send them off into the world with a greater sense of their own creative agency. If the site is bare, that only indicates that people are by and large finding what they need. And that is a good thing; worth, even, the sacrifice of an engrossing and everpresent “community.” Sites that aim to make millions off of advertising are motivated to lock Digital Natives into walled gardens. Sites that aim to educate Digital Natives are motivated to let them leave as quickly as possible, equipped with new tools and a new sense of possibility.

If you do take a look at the site, we’d love to hear what you think. What project ideas would you add to the site? What do you think of the importance of “community” for creators? What things have you made and done online?

Internet Draws Masses for ‘Silent Dance’ Experiment

In this week’s video, Diane Kimball and Sarah Zhang take us into the world of the “silent dance experiment” – a silent, synchronized dance party which, with the help of the Internet, drew throngs of people from all over Boston, the US, and the world to Faneuil Hall in Boston in February.

Such “flash mob” happenings have picked up in popularity over the last few years thanks to the publicity they have gained through blogs, online event pages, and most especially Facebook. Of the event in Boston, one site wrote, this “silent dance party involves a large group of people assembling at a given area on a pre-decided time. They mill around inconspicuously, and at the signal (in this case, an airhorn), insert their headphones into their ears, hit play on their portable music player and start dancing as passersbys confusingly look on as a swarm of people dance in silence.”

You can check out this hilarious, spontaneous production below:

[kml_flashembed movie="" width="425" height="350" wmode="transparent" /]

Enjoyed this video? Look out for more Reporters-in-the-Field productions every week. a conversation with blogger Qin Zhi Lau

Rest your eyes — we’re going audio-only this week. Digital Natives reporter Nikki Leon chatted online with Qin Zhi Lau, a second-year Princeton student who runs the blog in his spare time. Although the blog started as a side project for QZ (as he’s sometimes called), it’s become a small-scale hub for English-speaking fans of Asian music. In this interview, QZ gives insight into what it’s like to manage an online community and how being a digital native has shaped his view of the world.

Listen here:

Come back each Wednesday for more multimedia on Digital Natives issues!

Studying Online (Part II)

Last week we introduced you to David Kosslyn, who is starting up a website, StudyBuddy, in the hopes of bringing together digital natives online to study together. There David talked about his hopes and aims regarding the project.

In this week’s video, produced by Kanupriya Tewari, we are going to look at the implications of StudyBuddy; from cyber-bullying to the loss of face-to-face interaction.

[kml_flashembed movie="" width="425" height="350" wmode="transparent" /]

Watch part one here.

Come back next Wednesday for more multimedia on online privacy, cyber bullying, digital activism and more!

And check out freshly released Born Digital!

Are you a Digital Native? NHK General TV wants to know.

A few weeks ago, NHK general TV in Japan stopped by the Berkman Center interview our principal investigator John Palfrey about Digital Natives, and caught some footage of the Digital Natives “Reporters in the Field” team in action.

They’re airing a special on Digital Natives in September as part of the program, they’ll be including video blogs made by digital natives about the Internet. Are you a Digital Native? Take an NHK’s digital native quiz to find out.

[kml_flashembed movie="" width="425" height="350" wmode="transparent" /]

Digital Natives Quiz

Getting Married in a Digital Age… (how google planned my wedding)

I’m getting married in a month. Life is good. And despite the best intentions of simplicity, our wedding seems to have become a huge undertaking. Although I don’t think that anything about planning an event or about getting married is fundamentally different because of digital technology, I have noticed a few trends and used lots of interesting tools in this process.

Communication (email and instant messenger):
I’ve been spending the summer here in Cambridge, MA working with the Digital Natives project. My fiancé is living in our apartment in Brooklyn, NY. Our families and friends want to help, and they are in Florida, New Jersey, and many other places. Email helps a lot. Instant messenger [Wikipedia] helps more.

98% of the planning we are doing starts online. Just about everything we’ve needed to find or to plan has started at a search engine. Almost every evening my fiancé and I are online working on doing something “productive.” While the merits of multi-tasking are certainly up for debate, the fact that we are “there” to bounce questions and ideas off of each other has been amazingly helpful in this context. We copy and paste URLs [Wikipedia], email to-do lists, and occasionally open up an audio or video chat for discussions that require more direct attention. Because of this, not being in the same room to plan together has become pretty much a non-issue.


The Location (maps):
We decided to have our wedding on the Jersey shore, in a little shore town that I grew up vacationing at with my extended family (Exit 63). It feels great to stay true to my NJ roots and throw a wedding in NJ (you’d understand if you were from the Garden State).

Being that we are subway-riding city folk at the moment, we rarely have to worry about the mix of alcohol and motor vehicles. Obviously, the wedding was going to be a different story (The subway service in NJ is notoriously sub-par to, er, nonexistent). We really wanted to plan something where everything was walkable and everyone could celebrate as merrily as they desired to without having to worry about driving.

Using Google Maps and other similar map services, we were able to find a location for a rehearsal dinner, an outdoor pre-wedding barbeque, a location for the ceremony, and a hall for a reception, all within a few blocks of each other. While this would have been possible with a paper map, the combination of search engines and instant access to satellite images really helped us to feel out what we were planning.

Sat Image

Communication (the website):
Since most of our guests will be traveling to our wedding, and many of them looking for overnight lodging, we needed a way to help them find places to stay that were affordable, reputable, and in walking distance. We needed a way to communicate this information to our guests as it came in, both before and after invitations were sent. So, we built a web page and put a whole bunch of lodging options up there. While we were at it, we highlighted a bunch of “fun stuff to do while you are in town.” This is great because it gives us the flexibility to modify and update the information until a week before the wedding.

More importantly, textual links from our site to the lodging options and to the respective websites of other points of interest really harness the power of the Web, allowing users of our website to find all the information that could possibly need in just a few clicks.

We also used the “My Maps” feature on Google Maps to create custom maps of all of the points of interest, and linked those Google Maps from the entries on our website. This allows our guests to plan ahead a little and to really have a sense of space, helping us to keep everyone on foot and out of their automobiles.

Invitations (the mash-up):
My suggestion of sending out email invitations was shot down (correctly) without much consideration. My suggestion of talking invitations with customized voice recordings (“Hey Joe! Come to our wedding! See you in September!”) was shot down (unfairly). In the end we decided to create our own invitations and have them printed. Because we want to encourage people to explore the little shore town, we decided to include a little map of the area.

Google Maps again to the rescue! I navigated Google Maps to the area, took a bunch of “screen captures” of areas of the map, and then stitched them together in Photoshop [Wikipedia], an image editor [Wikipedia]. We found Creative Commons-licensed images and icons on Flickr that really helped communicate the smart but chill vibe that we wanted too, even with my meager artistic skill. To make the map simple and iconographic, I traced the map in the vector graphics [Wikipedia] editor, Illustrator [Wikipedia], with the help our friend Del.

Then, we emailed a PDF [Wikipedia] off to the printer and sent them via the good old fashioned postal service.



RSVPs (the semantic web):

My favorite part of this process so far is has been collecting the RSVPs. To keep printing (and environmental) costs down, and to keep our sanity, we decided to ask people to RSVP online. Although there are many methods of creating forms for websites [Wikipedia], Google provided the solution that was easy and met our needs. We created a spreadsheet in Goggle Docs, and then created a form that guests can fill out that dumps the data directly into the spreadsheet. Google Docs auto-generates the html code for the form, which we embedded into our website.

Wasn’t all of this a lot of work? Actually, no. It probably only took an hour. Opening and counting that many RSVP envelopes would have taken twice as long, and would have been a slow, cumbersome, and error-prone process in comparison. Better still, we get emails every time someone RSVPs, and checking out the notes people have written along with their RSVP a couple of times a day is a lot of fun.

The spreadsheet keeps running totals of guests and reception meal menu choices in real-time, and allows both my fiance and I to access it from our remote locations. We were able to invite the family members and friends who are helping us plan to view the spreadsheet.

Paying the Vendors (invoices & online banking):
Managing a budget for a wedding is tricky, but Internet banking has made it a lot easier. By using bill-pay services that both my fiance and I can access, either of us can arrange to send a check to a vendor at the click of a button. We can both have instant access to what is being paid when, and adjust our Google doc spreadsheet at the click of a button to make sure that we are still on track. Doing this on paper, or doing it over the phone, would have been vastly more difficult. [Wikipedia entry for Online Banking]

Paperless (contracts):
There are a few vendors’ relationships that require basic contracting. We could either wait for snail-mail, or buy a fax machine. Actually, we haven’t had a land-line phone in three years and rely exclusively on cellphones, so the fax wouldn’t work. However, internet fax [Wikipedia] services work well. (Checkout eFax or MyFax.) Because we have an account with a fax number, anyone can send a fax to us that will then arrive in our email inboxes as a PDF. It’s super convenient, and environmentally responsible to boot.

If someone needs to actually send us a piece of paper, we have it sent to our postal-to-email bridge, Earth Class Mail. Earth Class Mail scans all the paper that arrives in our PO Box and emails to the PDFs. (Earth Class Mail will also contact the senders of mail you identify as junk and ask them to stop sending it, saving countless pounds of junkmail from ever being printed.)


When we need to sign documents, I slap a digital signature [Wikipedia] on the PDFs. This makes and image of my signature appear on any print-out, and also helps to secure the file digitally, making my signature disappear if the file is modified after I sign it. When sending these contracts back I either email them, virtually “fax” them back using our fax service’s email-to-fax bridge, or have a good ol’ US Postal service paper copy sent to the destination via our email-to-postal-mail-bridge, Postful.
While the fax services are cheaper than owning and maintaining an actual fax machine and phone line, the mail services are more expensive than regular postal mail. In the end, the two are pretty much a wash, and we get the added benefit of having everything we need on-hand at all times from our laptops, having it from states away, and no clutter in our NYC-sized apartment.

…Using all of these various technologies certainly hasn’t changed the nature of the event itself. However, the technologies are helping us to plan a wedding more conveniently over a long distance, involving the people we want involved in planning to the exact degree that we want them involved, and getting surgical with a few of the details that we really care about, helping us plan an event that is more uniquely our own than would have previously been possible.

John Randall

Fans and Creators

Henry Jenkins talks a lot about co-creation, and with good reason – without the fans interpreting a cultural work, there’s really no imaginative space for it to occupy. Most co-creation, however, is an exercise done by fans either independently or collaboratively as fans – not in collaboration with the artist. However, perhaps this is changing:

For [NIN’s] latest album, “The Slip,” fans won’t have to steal anymore. It’s available for free. “This one’s on me,” Reznor blogged… [he] created the new set of tracks for fans to download, remix and share on his Web site…

Reconfiguring songs has always remained central to Reznor’s thinking about music; he frequently follows official releases of NIN records with long-format remix albums. Before parting with Interscope, he fought with it to post the basic tracks from his songs on his site for his devotees to do with as they pleased.

The concept of the remix does away with the idea that the official, “first” recording of a song represents the definitive version. Reznor has always had problems with authority. What better way to subvert his own influence than to encourage his fans to remix the new NIN record before it has really solidified in the public consciousness?

Some fans have already started giving him a run for his (free) money. NegodJaeff, taking the bait, brings Reznor’s “Lights in the Sky” vocal way forward and pushes the screwy piano further back to create a prouder, more effective ballad. 15Steps concocts an infectious beat for “Echoplex,” and Soundtweaker’s grimy, hook-conscious version of “1,000,000” sounds considerably more fun than the “original.””

Reznor has had an interesting journey to co-creator, as well, emblematic in a more vociferous way of the relationships many musicians have with the modern recording industry:

When he discovered in 2007 that in Australia, [Interscope] had priced his album higher than other releases simply because his fans would pay more, he angrily encouraged a concert audience to download illegally. “Steal, steal and steal some more,” he raged, “and give it to all your friends and keep on stealing.”

Nine Inch Nails, of course, has benefited from years of radio play and MTV time with hits like “Head Like a Hole” and “Closer.” But Reznor has also been particularly savvy about maintaining a relationship with the hard-core fans spawned by those hits and his sound and aesthetic, generally, selling out concerts regularly even when he wasn’t receiving radio play.

What this latest move seems to indicate is a further evolution of both his and his fans’ perception of their relationship, and of the nature of creative production. Reznor is still the source and reason for fandom, but he is not the only voice that matters – he’s just the one that starts the conversation. In this model, being a NIN fan becomes more like being a member of a semi-official club or even collective – “People who listen to/remix NIN.”

Fans have always desired this sort of interaction with their creative idols – who hasn’t played air guitar or sung in the shower, imagining oneself in the role of, or onstage with, a favorite artist? – but Reznor, aware of the relationship that fans have both to music generally (download, listen, sometimes remix) and his music more specifically, has taken the next step and become something closer to a peer with his fans. The president of the NIN club.

This is a similar sort of sentiment and approach taken by Weezer, who have for years maintained excellent contact with their fans online. Their latest single, “Pork and Beans” is both an anthem for the idiosyncratic (“I’mma do the things/That I wanna do/I ain’t got a thing/To prove to you”) and a celebration of community, as the video features a score of Internet meme stars first performing some variation of their gags and then all dancing together, and with the band. It’s pretty much as awesome as it is sweet.

One interesting question to ask in all of this is – given these evolving relationships, are fans more or less likely to want to reward a creator (even/especially when they’re not required to pay for it [at least legally]) when the relationship is closer to one of a peer? Or, if not a peer, then at least not some sort of marble godhead. Of course, most people know very well they’ll never hang out with Trent Reznor or Weezer – but if they do a good remix, or video, or something, maybe they’ll get an e-mail from them saying, “Hey, that’s cool.” Or maybe that e-mail will come from another fan, and connecting together over that piece of culture draws them closer both together and to the band. Or perhaps something entirely different – finding out is half the fun.

Jacob Kramer-Duffield

The Video Generation

At age eleven, I experienced Disney at the movies or on VHS, nowadays Digital Natives are experiencing it online. Nielsen Online, a service of The Nielsen Company, reports:

“Kids 2-11 viewed an average of 51 streams and 118 minutes of online video per person during the month, while teens 12-17 viewed an average of 74 streams and 132 minutes of online video. Those over 18 viewed an average of 44 streams and 99 minutes of online video”

The way I see it, it’s impossible to avoid this phenomenon, and if anything, these numbers will continue to increase in the near future. Digital Natives can find anything from “digital play for girls today” ( to “where the hell is matt” ( to the NBA Finals. As Michael Pond, senior media analyst, Nielsen online, states:

“Today’s youth don’t know – or don’t remember – a time when they weren’t going online, so their adoption of online video has been seamless”

For young Digital Natives online video seems to compliment their TV experience. Their top online video destinations include Disney Records, PBS Kids, Nick, and Barbie, among others. For DNs, ages 12-17, the demographic with the highest average of streams viewed, the most popular destinations include YouTube,, Google Video, Facebook, bebo, and, among others.

In many ways, online video is more engaging and interactive than conventional video sources such as TV or DVDs. For example, YouTube enables users to watch related videos, post video responses, and make comments about the videos viewed. This establishes a community where users are not only able to find videos but also network with others who share similar interests. PBS Kids, for example, allows users to color and play games with their favorite characters. One common theme in all of these websites is availability of related-video-links. This makes it more likely for users to spend longer periods of time online. We all know the way it goes, one link leads to another link, which leads to yet another link…the possibilities are endless.

And there’s video content for everyone. Some of my school friends who studied abroad became experts at finding sites that would enable them to watch American shows while abroad. When they came back to the states they were hooked on websites such as or These are “link-sharing-website that catalogue links to TV shows, movies, music videos, sport, anime and cartoons to make them more easily accessible.” Not only do we have YouTube, where you can “broadcast yourself”, we also have websites that make it possible to watch all the episodes of all the shows you’ve ever loved watching, online. For those who love sports, there are websites such as, where soccer fans can watch matches for free. And my personal favorite, I recently started attending a church where they offer podcasts of the sermons, so if you spaced out for a second and did not pay attention to the youth pastor, no biggie, just watch the podcast.

Finally, I believe this development to be positive. From my own experience, I know I can sing Hakuna Matata better than I can recall the departments of Colombia – something I apparently learned in the 3rd grade. As a child I always loved learning through video. I learn about how babies come to the world at age five through a video my mom rented and to this day I remember clips from it. It is crucial that we learn and continue to harness the influence and power online video has on Digital Natives today. Video content online shouldn’t be just an extension of what young Digital Natives are experiencing in front of their televisions. It must continue to go beyond.

The Video Generation: Kids and Teens Consuming More Online Video Content Than Adults at Home, According to Nielsen Online