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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.

Innovators: can we be optimistic?

Last week I visited Microsoft’s STIC (School Technology Innovation Center) here in Brazil. STIC exists in several different countries and works to stimulate research on the use of technology for educational purposes. While at the center, I attended a lecture by Professor Resnick, from MIT, who works on the Scratch project.

The Scratch project is a fascinating tool which has made programming more accessbile for Digital Natives. What I find most impressive, however, is how DNs have been working on it to develop their own animations, publish their pictures, ideas, and how they have been working collaboratively in different ways for unique results.

Born Digital states that:

Digital Natives themselves are often the innovators who develop the “next big thing” that their peers, in turn, make wildly popular. The innovative spirit of some Digital Natives, mixed with their technological acumen, represents one of the biggest areas of opportunity for societies that want to create jobs and establish growth businesses. We should find ways to tap into the upside potential of this entrepreneurial spirit to do good things for economies and society at large. To do so, we need to figure out what it is about Digital Natives that make them likely to be good innovators.

Palfrey and Gasser write with an optimistic perspective and I understand that along with the digital era, come several problems that need to be thought of – many of which have already been mentioned in this blog!

But how about being optimisic? This is an example of what a very young DN can do with the right tools. Naturally, these means will be the way through which DNs will be able to create things that will enhance our lives in society. Along with this, another aspect that enables innovation on the Internet is the possibility of working together with other youth, connecting DNs to one another in new and creative ways.

Palfrey and Gasser note that the combination of working colloboratively with others, having the tools to do various types of things in an environment that is relatively cheap, and the entrepeneurship these tools offer DNs, may result in new jobs and new activities that can, and are, changing means of production: ways people relate, consume and produce goods.

There are three types of innovation where Digital Natives can excel. First, as entrepreneurs, Digital Natives are creating new firms and new models that, in a few instances, are transforming entire industries. Second, Digital Natives innovate in their role as customers, in ways that help to improve specific products offered by firms that they have not started. Third, Digital Natives as employees of firms may help to point the way toward enhanced forms of workplace productivity.

When it comes to innovation, I believe it’s especially important to remain optimistic, as digital tools are empowering a wide range of possibilities, with new ways of thinking, and producing things. Digital tools are providing exciting opportunities for individual innovators, regardless of age.Would you have any examples of how DNs are using digital technologies in new ways to improve their society?

– andré valle

Innovating Digital Scholarship and Art

My friends will be writers. They will be scholars and journalists and novelists, and they will write about what is important to them; the places they grew up.

We grew up on the internet.

I am lucky to live and learn in a city where the internet, and other digital expanses, are taken seriously. The Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard—home to the Digital Natives project—brings together cyberscholars from around the world. The Convergence Culture Consortium at MIT examines the future of entertainment and narrative in a digital world. (Incidentally, C3’s Futures of Entertainment conference is coming up this weekend, and was by far the most illuminating conference I attended in 2007.) These centers have helped to aggregate the critical mass of interest in Cambridge necessary to really start thinking about what the digital age will mean for culture, politics, and society.

But the internet is not bound by geography, and my friends are distant, too. A few weeks ago, I got an email from Gaby David, writing from France. She studies cameraphone videos—the intimacy, and the “auto-mediation of our daily lives,” constructed by the filming and sharing of grainy personal videos. She wrote to me after reading through this, the Digital Natives blog, and ever since I’ve been blown away by the depth of research she and her colleagues in Paris are embarking on. (Their collective blog is here.) Gaby and I are living through the internet. We connected through the internet. The internet is, in many ways, the substrate of our parallel—though distant—lives. But digital life is the substrate of Gaby’s research and art, too. And that’s true of so many people I know.

Christina Xu is writing her thesis about the short history of communication in the digital age. Recently, she posted to her blog a paper she wrote last year about her experience as a teenager on a GameFAQ message board. Christina’s research examines a past so recent, it’s almost present. But that’s the reality of the digital age: it’s so young, and we’re so young. For Digital Natives and those barely older, it will be more than an obvious topic for study; it will be impossible to ignore. The curve of digital innovation, the vanguard of digital innovators, will race forward. For now, Digital Natives may be the first to recognize en masse how much there is to see. How urgent it is to keep up, to try to study the future as it unfolds.

Digital innovators, after all, are hardly just the people constructing that future. They are also the scholars, journalists, and novelists who will have to figure out how to study everything that has happened in the almost-present past, and everything that will happen in the fast-approaching future—a future that is already here.

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For further reading in young scholarship on convergence culture and internet & society, two more pieces from among more than I can count:

Lana Swartz on fanfic and noobdom
Xiaochang Li on storytelling on Twitter.