Digital Natives vs. Digital Immigrants

We’ve all heard the phrase “digital native” and “digital immigrant.”

In fact, it’s referenced in today’s Wall Street Journal in an article titled Kids Lend a Digital Hand. These phrases are typically used to describe the delineation among people’s comfort level with technology. Digital natives “get it,” whereas digital immigrants have a more difficult time adapting to the constantly changing world of digital communication. Expectations are higher for the digital native, lower for the digital immigrant. Digital natives tend to be of a younger age, digital immigrants older.

The more I think about these phrases, the more annoying and inaccurate they become. Thinking about digital natives versus digital immigrants in terms of age is fundamentally incorrect. To me, being a digital native or digital immigrant has everything to do with mindset and nothing to do with age. A deeper exploration of the Wall Street Journal article offers a more insightful perspective on what I mean by this.

The article describes how advertising agencies are “turning to a younger generation to meet ballooning digital demands.” It goes on to use examples of how this is being done at larger advertising agencies. For example, JWT has a “reverse-mentor” program where executives bring in their own children (ages 9 – 14) to work on client projects because they “understand the digital world better than many in the work force.” Leo Burnett has an “energy pool” that consists of young adults fresh out of ad school that are digitally savvy who act as a swat team parachuting into different accounts.

The article continues on to discuss how education is an essential ingredient to success in regards to how agency’s can stay ahead digitally. It also talks about how agencies have had to cut educational investments due to margin pressure and the bad economy in recent years. This year, however, big agencies are “spending millions on training programs.”

The article stops to reflect by stating, “The velocity of change has marketers questioning whether the ad business is equipped to deal with the new landscape.”

Based on the story being told by the Wall Street Journal, apparently we’re not.

First, we’re relying on our own children and recent advertising graduates with traditional journalism degrees for digital consult. Second, we’re serving up educational opportunities to those leaning back and not taking the initiative to learn on their own.

Advertising executives need to be held accountable and own the future of their agency. This does not mean passing digital responsibilities to the younger people at your shop. It means taking the lead and establishing an educated perspective by actively learning and doing. It means fostering a culture of openness and experimentation. Edward Boches, Chief Innovation Officer at Mullen, is a great example of this. Edward is a “digital immigrant” and you’d never know it. He’s constantly curious, learning, creating and publishing.

There is a serious misunderstanding about the correlation between people’s age and digital competency. Being a digital native or digital immigrant has everything to do with mindset and nothing to do with age. If you’re an advertising executive, I don’t think your 10-year-old daughter is going to identify the key insight needed for your next big digital idea. I just turned 33 years old. Does that put me in the digital immigrant category? Based on my age, possibly. Based on my mindset, no. I’m able to maintain this mentality by pushing myself to always learn and never settle.

The fact that your company is cutting educational investments due to margin pressure and the bad economy has nothing to do with you becoming a digital native. It’s an excuse. There is so much information freely available, we all have an equal chance of becoming a digital native. It’s just a matter of how much effort you want to put into it.