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Searching for Jeeves Atop a High Google Mountain

When a friend gifted me with my own domain name this summer, it felt like he had handed me the keys to a new car. was a URL I could share with contacts; it would be one of the first addresses an acquaintance might type when searching to see if I had a website. In that way, it was a vehicle for controlling my online identity, a tool to help me navigate the information swamp the web has become by preventing confusion with other “Nikki Leon”s. What’s more, it was mine — my friend’s purchasing the domain meant it would not fall into the hands of the porn industry, overseas phishers, or the other Nikki Leons of the world. I imagined that just as the Internet seems to have only one Barack Obama or Seth Godin, I was on my way to someday being the Nikki Leon ordained by Google.

Wishful thinking. I know, of course, that Google doesn’t always care if you buy your own domain name. If you search for Nikki Leon as of today, the “real” me is in the third hit, a Digital Natives Project blog post. My personal blog, to which currently forwards, doesn’t come until halfway down the page. The Nikki Leon favored by Google, it seems, is a twenty-one-year-old Go-Go dancer from Palmdale California whose MySpace profile features pink leopard print and whose latest blog entry is entitled “If He Really Wants You…”

I’m actually not too troubled by this (seems she was meant for the spotlight more than I). It’s better than having the first hit for your name be a Gawker article about the real you, claiming that you “Used to Smoke Opiate of Masses.” This was unfortunately the case for a freshman at Princeton University this year. The student posted a long message to the “Princeton 2012” Facebook group that featured such choice phrases as “we are the 0.0000001% of the world,” and “We are the anti-Christs to save the world from the mercy of God, the self-pity that festers within the masses.” Having read the full post, I’d like to think it was a well-intended, if unsuccessful, satire of the “getting to know you” messages some freshmen write in their class groups (as an undergrad I’ve seen this first hand). Gawker didn’t much care whether or not the post was serious or no. Instead, Gawker bloggers mocked the student and circulated information about her high school and career aspirations, along with a picture of her from her high school website.

On the subject of controlling one’s identity online, a recent New York Times article aptly stated: “If you don’t dive in, other people will define who you are.” That is, if you fail to update your website or social networking profile with current, relevant information, the data others provide about you or themselves will crowd out your own. Diana Kimball wrote a very informative post last February about how to take hold of one’s digital identity. There is of course, a limit to how much the average user can control, and the more of an online presence a young person has, the more information they give others to take out of context, as with the Gawker scenario described above. Viewed in this light, the digital age looks a little grimmer, despite all its possibilities. The freedom to define yourself online is also a burden. With visibility comes vulnerability, and controlling your image becomes a matter of preserving your personhood.

The need to craft an online identity seems, at times, an existential issue, albeit more in the vein of Ask Jeeves than Sartre. Who is Nikki Leon? Google has its answer, though it’s not the one I’d give. So how does one go about maintaining a digital self without getting lost in the shuffle or falling prey to Gawker types? For my part, I’ll continue strengthening my ties to websites and bloggers, getting people to link to my URL, and doing the only other thing I can: praying to the internet gods.

Nikki Leon

(In the spirit of this post, no links to the Gawker article. Their Google rankings are high enough. Cross-posted from my blog.)

What do you do with a digital native?

As you might guess from Jacob Kramer-Duffield’s write-up of a recent Berkman listserv debate, the question of what it means to be a digital native has been somewhat of a hot topic lately. At last week’s intern meeting, discussion of the issue somehow ended up as a mass argument over, among other things, whether the car was a comparable innovation to the PC, whether the digital revolution is better or worse for society than industrialization was, and whether determining any of this actually mattered, given that only about a sixth of the world’s population has regular Internet access. I think the question — “Who/what is a digital native?” – is controversial because answering it requires us to contemplate other discomfiting questions that are hard to answer definitively.

The first is this – are people of all ages still “relevant” in a digital age? The Digital Natives Project maintains a) that digital natives are defined more by their habits than how old they are and b) that older people (often called ‘digital immigrants’) may be more tech savvy than their younger counterparts. The term “native” does not mean better or worse, it merely distinguishes youth who have been raised in a world of mainstreamed digital technologies – Web 2.0, social networking sites, etc. All the same, a lot of parents worry they can’t keep up with what their kids are doing online and feel left behind. Some adults find the term to be an affront – they consider themselves far more fluent in technology than most young people and don’t see how they themselves might be anything but native to digital space.

Here’s the second question: “is ‘digital natives’ merely a term for the most privileged group of young people?” If the answer were yes, our project would seem precious – still relevant, perhaps, but blind to the full effect of digital technology on all levels of society. The real answer is much more complicated. It’s true that not all young people are digital natives, but the group is clearly not limited to those who have access to the best connections and computers either. According to the Pew Internet and American Life Project, at least 87% of American teenagers 12-17 are online. Cell phones make digital technology more accessible as well – Latinos, of whom only about 56% are online, lead other racial groups in mobile device usage. Internationally, though, only about 1 billion of the world’s approximately 6.7 billion people have regular Internet access.

Berkman is a place for work with real-world impact. People here do more than write papers for those in their field; they embark on projects to help us understand each other, the law, and the impact digital technology is having on society. One of the goals of the Digital Natives Project is to figure out what ‘digital native’ actually means – and how we might go about addressing the social divisions it implies. It’s no wonder people at Berkman can get riled up about the term. The generational and socioeconomic barriers it evokes are among those Berkmanites are working to break down, even as it becomes clear that those divisions exist with or without the Internet.

Nikki Leon


According to the web-comic he posted online , Sean Travis Tevis was fed up with his anti-abortion, censorship promoting, anti-gay marriage, pro-intelligent design state representative, Arlen Siegfreid. Sean decided to run against him. He only needed 151 signatures to get on the ballot, but needed to raise $26,000 to run a decent campaign. So, like so many established and aspiring politicians today before him, he turned to the Internet.

But this plea for donations was different. Sean did not tap the “netroots,” (the left-leaning political blogosphere). Instead, he posted a simple website containing a web-comic telling his story. Using an Internet meme archetype to illustrate his absurd hometown political reality, he hit a nerve. Self-consciously designed utilizing simple xkcd-style stick-figures, and making a few quasi-insider-but-not-too-elitist geek references, he managed to simultaneously solicit outrage, empathy, and, most importantly, lots of donations.

Sean Travis 1

P.J. Huffstutter reported Sean’s story yesterday in the LA Times Huffstutter mentions Sean’s jokes about “down-modding” and “trolling.”, The story also identifies the stick-figure style as being based on the stick-figure illustrations found in xkcd, a popular web-comic by Randall Monroe (…an web-comic author who has somehow managed to earn a stylistic monopoly on stick figure drawings.) While Huffstutter describes the details accurately, I don’t think he realizes how significant these cultural touchstones are.

Sean is an insider of a growing internet sub-culture. By making quips about “down-modding” Arlen Siegfreid’s conservative ranting “below the thresh-hold” in the first frame of the comic, Sean is consciously proving himself to be an insider in a particular slice of a rich semantic web 2.0 / 3.0, social bookmaking, viral meme-generating online cultural space. Sean obviously lives in this space, as does his audience of donors. (Huffstutter’s style indicates that he is wading through at least somewhat unfamiliar territory in his LA Times article.) (Hang wrote this great post last week about masquerading as an insider not just by knowing a few facts, but by knowing the jokes and therefore demonstrating knowledge of the professional culture.)

This sub-culture is far larger and far more accessible than it ever was. The behaviors (and values?) of this space are going slightly more mainstream as a new generation of Digital Natives comes to occupy the space. Conversations and ideas that seem outlandish in suburbs across the nation have taken root online and drawn in new audiences through computer screens. These conversations have even leaked off the web into our newspapers, helping to make Al Gore a hero and Richard Dawkins culturally relevant.

By demonstrating that he is a cultural insider with this particular slice of internet-meme generating culture, Sean strikes a nerve that garners support on an emotional level. Sure, it helps that his politics agree with mine– but the cultural references in this comic signal more. Sean socializes the way I do, and derives pleasure from the things I derive pleasure from. Sean lives the way I do. The details of Sean’s politics aren’t important; Sean is -like me-, and therefore… of course Sean will fight for the things I would fight for.


This tactic, this emotional connection stemming from a feeling of likeness, has always been a powerful tool in politics. “That politician is a [religious group here], like me.” “That politician is a family man, like me.” “That politicians daddy was a coal-miner, and therefore worked as hard as my dad did.” “That politician speaks with a southern accent, like me.”

As a sub-culture becomes less insular and community grows, they realize that they actually have the power to create change.

Sean’s online culture has been testing the waters for a while now. In what has seemed like online mischief, they have used social networking sites to swarm news sites with precision timing to alter the results of online polls. In December, the whale adopted by Greenpeace was officially named Mr. Spashy Pants, the name that beat the runners up Humphrey, Aiko, Libertad, Mira, Kaimana, Aurora, Shanti, Amal and Manami with almost 80% of the vote. This particular community is also responsible for swarming countless MSNBC, ABC, and CNN online polls to express their support for Ron Paul, and swarming many other online polls to express a lack of religious belief. It was only a matter of time before the sub-culture graduated into real politics.

Perhaps Sean Travis embodies the next step in this sub-culture reaching for political power. By insinuating that anything is possible because “THIS IS THE INTERNET!” he is cracking open a new political reality. Unlike Jello Biafra, Sean might actually win.

Sean Travis 1

John Randall

How I Learned To Type (video)

This first video, “How I Learned to Type,” was created by Diana Kimball and Sarah Zhang of the Digital Natives team. It takes a glance into how people of different ages learned one of the first skills every digital inhabitant needs – typing. Do you “peck” with two fingers, type in multiple languages at once, or have a typing teacher with a wooden leg? The people in “How I Learned to Type” do all this and more. Digital technology has become so ingrained in our lives that for digital natives, learning to type has become a ubiquitous experience, as memorable, say, as learning to read or ride a bike.

Gearing up the project to support multiple forms of investigation, engagement, learning and fun, we’re proud to announce the start of our summer “Digital Natives: Reporters in the Field” series. In this series, we’ll be investigating the many themes of our project in true Digital Native style – through video, audio, and instant message chat interviews. Stay tuned as we talk to Digital Natives on the ground, discuss related issues with researchers, educators and innovators, and celebrate the upcoming August release of Born Digital.

Look for more podcasts on piracy, digital learning, online activism, and other topics. Stay tuned for the release of a new piece every Wednesday, and enjoy!

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Are you a Digital Native?

I thought I was. I was born January 9th, 1980. I missed the 70s by just nine days.

I love technology. I was luckiest 6 year-old kid in he world when my uncle gave the family a Commodore 64 for Xmas. I programmed in BASIC. I was in chat-rooms on Prodigy and CompuServe. I played in Multi-User Doors (MUDs) on local direct dial-up bulletin board systems before I even knew what the Internet was.

I thought that I was a Digital Native.

I’m an active participant in “online culture”. I can name every YouTube reference in Weezer’s “Pork and Beans” video. I get ALL of my news online and I own a television almost exclusively for the purposes of watch media that comes to me across the Internet. I conduct 80% of my professional life online and maintain only the fuzziest of boundaries between my work and play time. I multi-task. I transition between IM, SMS, email, telephone, and face-to-face seamlessly. I Facebook. I Myspace. I Flickr. I LinkedIn. I Wiki. I YouTube. I twitter (sort-of). I code a little.

I thought that I was a Digital Native, but I am not.

When I twitter, I often do it alone. (I’m more enamored with the concept than the practical application.) Although IM has become an indispensable tool for getting work done and telecommuting, most of my friends and family are not usually logged in. Aside from email, most forms of online communications never gained enough a critical mass in my age bracket to endure past our extended adolescence. My Skype window sits idle, displaying a grey-out contacts displaying ghostly reminders of my fleeting online social life.

With much enthusiasm and the best of intentions, I try to co-ordinate social events and camping trips with friends using online calendars, forums, social networks, or email lists. But more often than I think is reasonable, I need to resort to the phone to really make things happen. Most of my people just don’t live online.

I am not a Digital Native, but I would like to be.

I’ve had a lifelong love affair with technology and it’s potential for creating change. My age bracket, generally speaking, has not shared this interest with me. True Digital Natives have a mainstream culture of online connectivity. My interest in digital technology has been exploratory and forward thinking, and placed parts of my life-style on the geeky fringes of American culture.

I’m probably more tech-savy than most Digital Natives today, yet I am not one of them. The Digital Natives around me have been shaped by a totally mainstream digital lifestyle, a norm that enables allows them to digitally communicate and collaborate with their peers with ease. Their habits have been formed by their lifetimes of digital communication and complete immersion in digital spaces.

In contrast, my lifetime has been a lifetime of waiting. Waiting for the digital spaces held in the collective imagination to come online. Now that the early, early alphas of the meta-verse are here, I am shocked that my peers aren’t rushing in to them as I always imagined. It’s too late for me. I missed the 70s by nine days. I just realized that I missed the life-style I’ve always imagined would come by about a decade.

I adore the Internet. The possibilities that are provided for by massive digital collaboration and open access to information are the single biggest factor in my having any hope of a brighter future for the human species. (Clay Shirky’s talk on excess cognitive capacity gives me chills.) I wish that my generation was going to play a major role in that imagined future. …But sadly, I will have to go it mostly alone because their embrace of life-changing technological innovation seems to have stopped at Tivo.

John Randall

UPDATE 2008.08.04: More on the term “Digital Native” here.

Instructional Technology in College Courses

As more Digital Natives arrive at colleges and universities, professors and instructors of all subjects are trying to use digital technologies to better connect with students. In my personal experience as a sophomore at Harvard, some professors have been quite adept at using online resources – like watching music videos on YouTube during a foreign language class – while others have yet to embrace digital technologies.

Overall, however, most professors who I spoke to here at Harvard were passionate about the opportunity of using the Internet and its resources to improve teaching and make student’s learning experience more engaging. Many wondered where to start, asking which types of tools would be best to help students learn. In an effort to identify what digital “tools” students find the most helpful, I worked with the Romance Language department to survey hundreds of undergraduate and graduate students about their experience with instructional technology. Specifically, we asked them to rank digital technology tools (like blogs, podcasts, and wikis) on a scale of 1 -5, where 1 is “not useful” and 5 is”very useful.” We also asked them to describe their best experience with digital learning and to comment on any negative aspects of using digital technology in college courses.

Average Rating

Consistently, students ranked the posting of course material online and interactive syllabi as the most useful. They believe that all courses should maintain a website that contains readings, notes and other content so they can be accessed easily during the semester. Furthermore, students greatly appreciated interactive syllabi – a list of lectures and assigned readings with links to download them. Both of these features enable easy information access, something that saves time and confusion. However “web 1.0” they may seem, students view them as a necessity.

It was interesting to see how different groups of students ranked newer technologies like lecture videos, blogs, and RSS feeds. For example, undergraduates gave recorded lecture videos a high ranking, while graduate students did not. In fact, graduate students wrote in and note the negative aspects of lecture videos, claiming that they allow undergrads to skip class and take a passive role instead of actively participating in the lecture. Freshmen tended to give higher rankings to “web 2.0” tools like wikis and blogs than did older students, perhaps a sign of digital natives entering the arena of higher education.

Most striking of all, however, was the difference in rankings between students who have used a given technology and those who have not. For nearly all technologies, students who had firsthand experience with tools tended to give them a higher usefulness ranking. This means that students may not know to ask professors to use tools like RSS feeds and podcasts until they have experienced them in another course. This is shown in the graph below.

Average Usefulness by Prior Experience

My favorite part of doing the survey was reading the written responses. Although students expressed concern with digital technologies replacing personal discussions with professors, the vast majority of respondents praised digital tools for making learning more engaging and exciting. The best experiences with digital media where ones in which online content and tools supplemented inspiring lectures and stimulating readings.

Instructors looking to use digital media to improve the learning experience can look to first meet “web 1.0” needs, like easy access of readings and other material, and then incorporate social tools like blogs, wikis and RSS feeds of relevant news.

I encourage anyone who is interested in seeing the details of the study, including many of the open-ended answers, to download the full report at .

Tony P.

Digital Natives in the Press

Today’s New York Times features an article about differences in content creation among girls and boys:  Pew reports that girls in the US are bigger bloggers and upload more photos, while boys are bigger vidders.  Why?

Just follow socializing of gender for generations – it’s still the same, just migrated online.  As quoted in the NYT:

“With young women it’s much more about expressing yourself to others in the way that wearing certain clothes to school does,” said John Palfrey, the executive director of the Berkman Center. “It ties into identity expression in the real world.”

Harvard Magazine reports about Urs Gasser and John Palfrey’s upcoming book, Born Digital.  Here, Palfrey highlights the issue of the digital dossier:

Palfrey believes companies should be required to disclose—either in plain English or on an icon resembling a nutritional label—what they do with the information they collect. “What is it that you collect and store about me?” he would ask. “Is it only what I put in, or is it my browsing habits? Do you share [data] with any third parties? How long do you keep all of [it]?”

– Miriam Simun

Frontline’s “Growing Up Online”: What about the digital dossier?

PBS recently aired “Growing Up Online” (and posted the entire episode on their website) – an inquisitive look into the lives of so-called Digital Natives.  The program presented a world of young people spending much of their lives immersed in digital media – constantly connected to friends and others via mobile phones and web sites such as MySpace and YouTube. These are the lives of young people who are the first generation to grow up online, or those “born digital”, to borrow the term from John Palfrey’s and Urs Gasser’s forthcoming book of the same title.  Frontline addressed several of the key issues the Digital Natives project is investigating, including education in the age of internet, online identity play, cyber-bullying, and online sexual predators.

While the documentary hinted at the types of creative expression and activity taking place online, the focus was very much on the risks associated with socializing on the internet.  Discussion of young people’s private lives, which are increasingly taking place online, touched upon the shifting notions of privacy among youth raised with a mouse in-hand, and a number of the issues regarding the wide and unknown audience they present themselves to.  Hats off to Frontline for taking a fair – and realistic – stance in addressing the sexual predator issue.  Despite media portrayal of sexual predators lurking behind every corner of the internet – NBC’s “To Catch a Predator” has quite a good hand in this – research is beginning to show that this is a seriously, and dangerously, overblown threat.  A Cal State study by Larry Rosen mentioned in the program found that young people on MySpace are rarely approached for sexual liaisons, and those that are tend to be seeking these types of interactions.  Our research on the Digital Natives project has supported these findings – the overwhelming majority of teens are very aware of sexual predator concerns and are incredibly savvy at navigating the internet and avoiding contact with creepy strangers.  In fact, most youth we spoke with largely avoid online contact with anyone they don’t know personally.

The risks associated with teens socializing online were further highlighted by Davina, a high school student interviewed who took part in a lunchroom fight that ended in chair-throwing and a video that proceeded to earn her YouTube fame.  Davina is now legitimately concerned that this video – and her behavior –  is now permanently available for all to see – including college admissions officers. While kids socialize in online spaces they often feel are out of the realm of adults, college admission officers and prospective employers are trolling sites like MySpace and Facebook, searching for evidence of illegal or unsavory hijinks to deny offers of admission or employment. A media blitz last spring highlighting stories of employers discriminating against college grads based on unsavory Facebook photos and police officers searching for evidence of underage drinking on MySpace, appears to have affected youth behavior, to a degree.  We have found that youth, particularly those attending more elite high schools and universities, are increasingly becoming wise to these issues. They are taking charge of their social networking sites’ privacy settings, or removing all together those frat-party videos that seemed so funny last Saturday night. A serious issue is the inequality of awareness we have found among the students we talked to – in more affluent schools, college counselors and teachers are adamantly warning students from the start to be careful what they post online, while students from lower performing schools were more likely to hear the warnings from after-school programs they were involved with, or else, wait for the warnings to be passed down from friends.

One issue of a life online which was completely ignored by Frontline is the digital dossier:  the accumulation of personal data collected as people use digital technology.  In focusing the program so heavily on social networking sites, it is surprising that there was no discussion of the repercussions of the availability and permanence of online personal data – not to sexual predators or college counselors, but in mass form, to service providers and marketers.  As teens socialize online they share photos, videos, blog posts and personal musings – all of this content is hosted by sites that wield enormous power over what they do with these data, and who they share them with.  As children grow up online – starting with NeoPets at 4, to MySpace at 14, to Facebook at 24 – they document everything, and leave this documentation in the hands of companies that have profit, rather than kids’ best interest, at heart. For example, Facebook collects information about users and then reserves the right to share all the amassed information with third parties.  When signed in to email or blogger, Google is keeping tabs on every search the user conducts.  In twenty years, marketers may know a six-year-old’s interests and habits better than he knows them himself.

Our research has shown that while many young people are disinterested about data collection issues, they are also largely unaware of what is being collected, how it is being used, and what the repercussions may be.  Some who are more aware, cite the inevitability of compromising their privacy if they are going to engage in the social world, which, for the 12-24 age group, has migrated online.  As one student we talked to – a particularly thoughtful high school senior – said “… anyone can have access to your stuff. [..] do you accept that because you participate in using internet and technology like that or is there a way to fight that and create ways in which you can keep stuff private and keep stuff yours? [..] People Google everything because they just think to. They don’t know where this information goes. They don’t know that [..] when you log on to certain sites [..] they keep track of [..] when you log on and what you write. [..] It’s the fact that people don’t know. ..There’s not enough transparency for young people to know and they participate very unknowledgeably. That’s what scares me because you don’t know what that will end up looking at later on.” Perhaps rather than focusing efforts on bills like DOPA that limit access to social sites in response to sexual predator fear, congress should focus on protecting the mass amounts of information service providers like MySpace and Facebook amass from the millions of young people that live their lives on these sites.

In spite of the current lack of attention among US lawmakers to these concerns, issues of privacy stemming from the use of new technologies are becoming increasingly relevant not only for digital natives, but for all citizens living online.   In Europe, stricter privacy laws are bringing more attention to these issues: the Council of Europe has organized the second annual “Data Protection Day” (January 28, 2008) marked by campaigns to raise awareness amongst middle school and high school students about how and why personal information is collected, and what is done with these data. As part of this initiative, the transatlantic privacy perspective will be discussed at Duke University Center for European Studies. Education about issues of privacy must be extended beyond fears of sexual predators and trolling college admission officers or potential employers.  The reality and implications of the widespread and largely unregulated collection and dissemination of private data must be taught to youth that spend so much time living and sharing online.  In order to be successful, this is an effort which must be undertaken by the many stakeholders involved – parents, schools, young people themselves, and policy makers. It is not only necessary to reform current laws in order to make service providers act responsibly in the collection and sharing of user data, but also to help young people understand the online world they inhabit, so that they may engage in knowledgeable and critical ways.

 – Corinna di Gennaro & Miriam Simun

MacArthur/MIT Press Series on Youth, Media, and Learning

(Cross posted from Dr. Palfrey’s blog.

Last month, the MacArthur Foundation, along with MIT Press, announced the release of a series of new books on youth and new media. The series is a treasure trove.

I have been working my way through the six books over the past several weeks as I’m simultaneously working on late drafts of the book that Urs Gasser and I are writing on a similar topic, called Born Digital (forthcoming, Basic Books, 2008).

I’d highly recommend to anyone remotely interested in the topic to read these books. They are academic in style, structure and language, but remarkably accessible in my view. I’m not a social scientist, nor an expert in most of the fields that are represented by the authors (in fact, I’m not sure if there are any lawyers at all in the list of authors!), but the editors and authors have done a lovely job of making their fields relevant broadly.

For starters, the series Foreword, by the group of “series advisors,” is wonderful. I can’t imagine how six people came to agree on such a clear text, but somehow they did. There must have been a lead author who held onto the pen; it’s far too coherent to have been written by committee. (The advisors are: Mizuko Ito, Cathy Davidson, Henry Jenkins, Carol Lee, Michael Eisenberg, and Joanne Weiss. One imagines that the voice of the program officer at the MacArthur Foundation who made it all possible, Connie Yowell, is in there somewhere too.)

The Foreword is worth reading in full, but a few key lines: “Unlike the early years in the development of computers and computer-based media, digital media are now commonplace and pervasive, having been taken up by a wide range of individuals and institutions in all walks of life. Digital Media have escaped the boundaries of professional and formal practice, and the academic, governmental, and industry homes that initially fostered their development.” Those are simple statements, clear and right on. One of the reasons to pay attention to this topic right now is the pervasiveness, the commonplace-ness of the use of these new media, especially by many young people.

Also, their working hypothesis: “those immersed in new digital tools and networks are engaged in an unprecedented exploration of language, games, social interaction, problem solving, and self-directed activity that leads to diverse forms of learning. These diverse forms of learning are reflected in expressions of identity, how individuals express independence and creativity, and in their ability to learn, exercise judgment, and think systematically.” The work of the series authors, I think, bears out this hypothesis quite convincingly.

At the same time, the series advisors make plain that they are not “uncritical of youth practices” and note that they do not claim “that digital media necessarily hold the key to empowerment.” It is this spirit of healthy skepticism that one can hear through most of the essays in the series — and which is essential to the academic enterprise they’ve undertaken.

So far, I’ve finished the book on “Youth, Identity, and Digital Media” (ed. by David Buckingham) and “The Ecology of Games: Connecting Youth, Games, and Learning” (ed. by Katie Salen) and am part of the way through each of the others. Each one is excellent.

In the ID book, I found particularly helpful the first piece on “Introducing Identity” by David Buckingham, which took on the hard definitional and discipline-related questions of identity in this context. He put a huge amount of scholarship into context, with sharp critiques along the way. The essay by our colleague danah boyd (on “Why Youth (heart) Social Network Sites,” a variant of which is online) is already a key document in our understanding of identity and the shifts in conceptions of public and private (”privacy in public,” and the idea of the networked public — related to but not the same as Yochai Benkler’s similar notions of networked publics). And the notion of “Identity Production as Bricolage” — introduced in “Imaging, Keyboarding, and Posting Identities” by Sandra Weber and Claudia Mitchell — is evocative and helpful, I thought. The many warnings about not “exociticizing” (danah often using the word “fetishizing”) the norms and habits of young people and their use of technology, as well as echoes of Henry Jenkins’ work on convergence and his and Eszter Hargittai’s study of the participation gap came through load and clear, too. (I am pretty sure I can hear dislike of the term “digital natives” in between certain lines, as well.)

There’s much more to like in the book, and much more to work into our own understanding of ID in this environment, than I can post here. There’s an equal amount of insight in the Games book too. (The class I am co-teaching with David Hornik starts in 31 minutes and I should probably prepare a bit more than I have already.)

John Palfrey

The Digital Native Divide

When we talk about Digital Natives, are we just talking about privileged kids with access to technology? Siva Vaidhyanathan, author of an upcoming book on Google, thinks so:

Invoking generations invariably demands an exclusive focus on people of wealth and means, because they get to express their preferences (for music, clothes, electronics, etc.) in ways that are easy to count. It always excludes immigrants, not to mention those born beyond the borders of the United States. And it excludes anyone on the margins of mainstream consumer or cultural behavior.

In the case of the “digital generation,” the class, ethnic, and geographic biases could not be more obvious.

Unfortunately, there’s a lot of truth to this. In a recent talk at Berkman, sociologist Eszter Hargittai discussed her finding that “the only statistically significant predictor of engaging in creative activities at all is parental education.” And communication researcher John McMurria has observed that “a glance at the top 100 rated, viewed and discussed videos, and most subscribed channels [on YouTube] reveals far less racial diversity than broadcast network television.”

“It’s not just about access to the technology,” Henry Jenkins explained at the Totally Wired forum. “It’s access to defining skills and experiences. This is the new hidden curriculum.”

Unlike Vaidhyanathan, however, I see this as no reason to throw out the Digital Native metaphor. To the contrary. Unlike Baby Boomers or Generation X, Digital Natives are growing up now. When we use the term, we not only describe the past, but also look ahead to a future we can still change.

So let’s keep using the term, but as an aspiration as well as a description. Rather than pretend all kids are Digital Natives, let’s make that our goal. Because if we don’t act, the problems could get even worse. At her Berkman talk, Hargittai said she’s concerned unequal opportunities will become a vicious cycle:

I do think it’s going to create a greater divide, because I do think that for those who have the opportunities and have the skills, there really is so much out there. … It’s the people who don’t have the education, who don’t have the networks to figure it out, who aren’t going to be benefiting.

So how do we avoid this? I see hope in projects like One Laptop Per Child. Although that program is specifically aimed at the 3rd world, it points to the possibility of making laptops and wireless internet affordable to everyone, bypassing the time limits, crippled access, and dated technology too often found on the public computers at libraries and schools. Connecting to my last post, I’m also excited about the ideas coming from Katie Salen and her cohorts in the “edutainment” field.

These are just the first thoughts that come to mind. What do you think? How can we confront the problem of unequal access? And do you think the term “Digital Native” helps or hurts the cause? Comment away!

-Jesse Baer