A glimpse of the future

Yesterday I ran a workshop for the Carnegie UK Trust social media project to delve a little deeper into the issues around the future of social technology and its implications for civil society associations. The idea was to gather as many smart people together as we could fit in the room, and then pump them for ideas for five hours. If you were one of the people who so very kindly gave up the majority of your day, thank you!

We started off splitting into three groups and considering the three (nominally) different types of changed mentioned in my previous post:

1. Predetermined driving forces
What forces appear to be predetermined?
What changes in the broader environment appear unavoidable?
What assumptions are these changes based upon?

2. Uncertain driving forces
What might happen over the next 15 years that would affect social technology?
If you could have any question answered about what will happen by 2025, what would it be?
How uncertain are they?
Which are becoming more certain?

3. Wildcard events
What type of unexpected developments could totally change the game?
What could undermine existing assumptions?

It has been pointed out, and rightly so, that the idea of predicting a wildcard event is, well, sort of impossible because if they’re predictable, they’re not wildcards! As I thought this was the most difficult of the areas to examine, I joined this group to give them a bit of moral support. We focused on change that we thought were either unlikely but possible, or small things that could have effects. It was suggested we use the PESTLE analysis, examining each of these areas in turn: Political, Economic, Social, Technological, Legal and Environmental. I actually found that framework really helpful and may well use it again.

Once we got to the Environmental section, the discussion started to sound rather like a B-movie plot brainstorming session. Yellowstone erupts! A pandemic decimates the population! A comet destroys the Earth! Lots of fun, but I think we can probably leave most of those out of the final scenarios. If a comet hits the planet, we probably won’t be around to worry about how civil society uses social media.

Although I was nominally facilitating the event, and participated in the initial group discussions, I really saw my role as to ask a few questions and then listen very, very carefully. The result was a bit like what I imagine a Vulcan mind-meld might be like, and I’m still feeling a bit dazed from all those thoughts pouring into my brain!

It’s going to take me a while to fully process everything I heard, but in the meantime, here are the conclusions that each group reached. Please excuse some of the video quality. The great thing about having a Flip is that it encourages you to video everything; bad thing about having a Flip is that it encourages you to video everything without realising there’s a great big glass in the way! Thanks to David Wilcox for also videoing the discussion and letting me have his files.

Predetermined driving forces

Uncertain driving forces


And as per usual, I’d love your feedback and thoughts in the comment please!

links for 2009-05-13

Unpacking the concept of the ‘digital native’

Marc Prensky coined the term ‘digital native’ in 2001 to refer to his students and to help others in education understand the differences he saw between his students and their teachers/professors:

They are native speakers of technology, fluent in the digital language of computers, video games, and the Internet. I refer to those of us who were not born into the digital world as digital immigrants. We have adopted many aspects of the technology, but just like those who learn another language later in life, we retain an “accent” because we still have one foot in the past. We will read a manual, for example, to understand a program before we think to let the program teach itself. Our accent from the predigital world often makes it difficult for us to effectively communicate with our students.

Our students, as digital natives, will continue to evolve and change so rapidly that we won’t be able to keep up. This phenomenon renders traditional catch-up methods, such as inservice training, essentially useless. We need more radical solutions. For example, students could learn algebra far more quickly and effectively if instruction were available in game format. Students would need to beat the game to pass the course. They would be invested and engaged in the process.

Since then, the idea of the ‘digital native’ has gained a lot of traction and, like many memes, has evolved into a set of assumptions about what makes one person a digital native and another person a digital immigrant. I have heard the term used in all sorts of contexts, from business to media, and often it’s used in a discussions about how “We must hire more digital natives”, (where “we” is the company or organisation that the speaker represents), “Digital natives will change everything”, or “Digital natives will expect us to use social software”.

But what is a digital native? How can we tell one when we see one? For many, the assumptions about what makes a person a digital native revolve around age: The “net generation” are all digital natives because they have grown up with technology embedded so firmly in their lives that they barely recognise it as tech.

This assumption, that a given generation is automatically imbued with a natural understanding of technology in general and the web in particular, is wrong. I have spoken to many an undergraduate class, as has Kevin, made up primarily of people who did not have an interest in the web at all, who distrust it, feel it has no place in their work (and sometimes personal) lives. There is a tendency amongst each generation to believe that the generations that come afterwards are in some way fundamentally different, and it seems to be a natural part of being human to dissociate oneself from younger generations. Maybe that is why we name each generation, from Baby Boomers to Gen X to the Net Generation, so that we can talk about them as if they are ‘other’ to us. Is not ‘digital natives’ just another way to achieve that?

Amongst academics at least, it’s recognised that the term ‘digital native’ should not be used as a way to describe a particular generation. Harvard’s John Palfrey, co-author of the book Born Digital, says:

– Not all people born during a certain period of history (say, after the advent of BBSes) are Digital Natives. Not everyone born today lives a life that is digital in every, or indeed any, way. For starters, only about 1 billion of the 6.7 billion people in the world have regular access to the supposedly “World Wide Web.” In other cases, young people we are meeting choose to have little to do with digital life.

– Not all of the people who have the character traits of Digital Natives are young. The term “Digital Immigrant” doesn’t describe those people either — people like Urs and me, like our colleagues at the Berkman Center who are over a certain age — who live digital lives in as many ways, if not more, than many Digital Natives. Many of us have been here as the whole digital age has come about, and many of our colleagues have participated in making it happen in lots and lots of crucial ways.

He then goes on to list a set of descriptive terms for different groups of people on the web using territorial terms that I find a little disquieting, because they imply a culture of ownership that is misleading. The web, and particularly the social web, is a lot less about ownership and a lot more about participation and sharing, so to use terms reminiscent of the age of empire is to set up a theme of control within the reader’s mind which is at odds with the reality of the internet.

So, here is a typology which we think emerges from what we’ve learned:

1) those who are Born Digital and also Live Digital = the *Digital Natives* we focus on in this book (to complicate things further: there is a spectrum of what it means to live digitally, with a series of factors to help define where a Digital Native falls on it);

2) those who are Born Digital (i.e., at a moment in history, today) and are *not* Living Digital (and are hence not Digital Natives);

3) those who are not Born Digital but Live Digital = us (for whom we do not have a satisfactory term; perhaps we need one — our colleague David Weinberger suggests “Digital Settlers”);

4) those who are not Born Digital, don’t Live Digital in any substantial way, but are finding their way in a digital world = Digital Immigrants; and,

5) those who weren’t Born Digital and don’t have anything to do with the digital world, whether by choice, reasons of access or cash, and so forth.

It remains to be seen whether being born at a certain time has any actual impact on one’s ability to understand and adapt to life on the web. I have certainly come across counter-examples where supposed digital natives fail to understand the ramifications of their actions, or show a distinct disinterest in social tools in a business context because of their own prejudices about what social tools are for, e.g. Facebook users for whom the site is their only experience of the web, and because Facebook is about organising their private lives they believe that social tools have no place in the work environment.

Palfrey also quotes danah boyd and her reaction to the term:

“While I groan whenever the buzzword ‘digital native’ is jockeyed about, I also know that there is salience to this term. It is not a term that demarcates a generation, but a state of experience. The term is referencing those who understand that the world is networked, that cultures exist beyond geographical coordinates, and that mediating technologies allow cultures to flourish in new ways. Digital natives are not invested in ‘life on the screen’ or ‘going virtual’ but on using technology as an artifact that allows them to negotiate culture. In other words, a ‘digital native’ understands that there is no such thing as ‘going online’ but rather, what is important is the way in which people move between geographically-organized interactions and network-organized interactions. To them, it’s all about the networks, even if those networks have coherent geographical boundaries.”

The key point here is that we’re talking not about a generation but about a level of understanding, and that understanding can be achieved, in my opinion, by anyone with an open mind, some imagination and access to the web, regardless of age or background.

We also have to remember that the web is not homogenous. We cannot talk about ‘web culture’, or even ‘social software culture’ as if it one thing. There are cultural themes such as sharing and honesty that bind together users of social tools, for example, but they vary from tool to tool, along with the demographic of that tool’s users. So we need to be careful about making assumptions about what type of people will find it easy to exist within a specific web culture – someone already active within an offline culture with the same values and expressions as a given online culture will find it easier to fit in than a so-called ‘digital native’ who has all of the digital experience and understanding but none of the relevant cultural references.

This relevant to civil society organisations because the idea of ‘digital natives’, when taken to its logical extreme (as happens when a thought-provoking academic term is let loose into the wild where it’s used in all sorts of ways that are dissociated from its original context) creates an assumption in non-webby communities that the only kind of people who can deal with the web are ‘those other people, those digital natives’. It’s too easy and too comfortable for non-webby people to think that the web is something that can’t be learnt, but to which you must be born.

Not only is this not the case, as many a ‘silver surfer’ will attest, but it’s an actively damaging assumption that can be seen worming its way into hiring, training and web development policies. When I hear business people saying “We need to hire more digital natives”, it is said with the assumption that anyone straight out of university will have the appropriate knowledge and skills, and dismisses the idea that older people could fit the role more tightly.

In civil society organisations, resources are always tight and if the wrong assumptions underpin hiring, training and web development decision making, it can severely damage the organisation and limit its growth. We need to think very hard about what makes someone good at being online, not just so that the right people are hired, but also so that existing talent within organisation is recognised, respected and rewarded. We need to understand where cultural fit is more important than skills, and which skills can be most easily taught, which are tougher to communicate, and why. What we don’t need is to bandy about a term like ‘digital natives’ that is open to so much misinterpretation.

There is a lot more online that I want to read about this issue, but I also want to get this post up and get your responses to it. Please do let me know your thoughts, point me to any research or papers I should read. I have Neil Selwyn’s paper The digital native – myth and reality to read, as well as The ‘digital natives’ debate: A critical review of the evidence by Sue Bennett, Karl Maton and Lisa Kervin. What else is relevant? What evidence do you have for and against digital natives? What problems have you seen occur because of a misunderstanding about who is good at doing stuff online? What do you think civil society organisations need to be thinking about when recruiting for web positions?

Peering into the future of newspapers at the NYTimes R&D lab

New York Times R&D Group: Newspaper 2.0 from Nieman Journalism Lab on Vimeo.

Suw and I visited the New York Times R&D lab last August when we were in New York. It was an impromptu visit. A friend, Jason Brush, at Schematic put us in touch with Nick Bilton after seeing that we were in New York from our Twitter status updates. (Yet another example of how useful Twitter is.) Nick was kind enough to work around our hectic schedule, and Suw and I were both happy to be able to fit the visit in before we had to dash for the airport. Nick showed us his table of devices including the One Laptop per Child, various e-book readers and the odd netbook.


photo by Scott Beale / Laughing Squid

The Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University is running an excellent series of interviews with Nick. It’s definitely worth watching the videos or reading the transcripts.

Nick not only showed us their collection of devices to show people at the Times how their audience might view their site, listen to their podcasts and view their video, he also showed us some of their projects. One that really impressed us was a print-on-demand customised version of the newspaper. However, this isn’t your father’s PDF to print. No, this was much more advanced and showed elements of effortless personalisation married to a future-looking mobile strategy. The system works by users having a card, similar to the Oyster cards used on the London Underground, that is linked to their account at the NYTimes. Based on the stories that you read on the site, it knows what your interests are, adding personalisation without the cumbersome box-ticking that has led most first generation customisation services to fail. Research shows that people say that want customised services, but they will rarely go through the hoops of ticking boxes to tell news sites what they want to read. This is not only customisation, but it also changes with users’ habits instead of being a static set of preferences. After the user swipes the card, they are presented with the top three sections of the site based on their reading habits. They can choose a version with the top story in full from each of those sections or a digest of those sections, similar to an RSS feed view. However, after each story, there is also a QR code or semacode. Using your mobile phone camera, these QR codes are translated to URLs and take you to the full story using the web browser on your phone.
Nick also showed us something that the R&D Team first came up with at a Hack Day in London, which is the idea of content following a reader throughout the day. They created a system with some of the ideas called shifd.com, which is actually a working site if you want to have a play.

The thinking behind shifd.com is actually realising that as we go through our days we actually shift from device to device, from form factor to form factor. Content that might be relevant or accessible on one platform might not be appropriate on another platform. The reader might begin reading a story on their computer before going to work and then want to continue reading that story on their mobile phone on their train ride to work. They might not want to watch a video associated with that story until they can come home. They can mark the video for viewing at home on their flat screen TV at home. This is the kind of user-centered thinking necessary to adapt to news consumption as it is instead of asking readers to modify their behaviour to our platforms and business models.

Nick and the rest of the team at the New York Times R&D lab are doing some great work that I hope drives thinking in the rest of the industry. I think it’s also an opportunity for cross-disciplinary academic research. How do we surround our audience with our content, delivering relevant information to the relevant devices as they move through their day? That’s a service I’d pay for.

links for 2009-05-12

Survey examining the use of social media by civil society associations

How are civil society organisations using social media? Which tools do they favour, and what do they hope to achieve by using them? These are some of the questions I hope to answer in my survey, Civil society associations and their application of social & new media, and I need your help to spread the word and find lots of respondents.

Who should fill in the survey?
The questions are aimed at people who have responsibility either for your organisation’s website, or its PR, media, communications or marketing strategy. Your organisation doesn’t actually have to have a website in order for your responses to the survey to be valuable – indeed I have a whole bunch of questions aimed at organisations without a website at all. But if you have a website, and you’re not the person responsible for it, I’d be grateful if you could send a link to this blog post or the survey itself to the right person.

What sort of organisations are you looking for?
The phrases used by those in the know are “third sector” and “civil society associations”, but if you’re not sure if that means you, here are a few examples to help clarify:

  • Registered charities, like Help the Aged
  • Non-profit organisations, like the Open Rights groups
  • Credit unions or mutuals, like the Mid-Cornwall Credit Union
  • Co-operatives, like the Abbey Road Housing Co-operative Limited
  • Trade unions, like the NUJ
  • Faith-based organisations, like the Islamic Foundation
  • Business or professional associations, like the Design Business Association
  • Political parties, like the Green Party
  • NGOs, like NESTA
  • Community groups, like Guerilla Gardeners
  • any other organisation, regardless of governance structure, that is focused on civil issues.

If you still aren’t sure if that means you, please fill the survey in anyway – you can define you own identity in the “other” field. And whilst we are focused on the UK, if you’re from outside of the UK and are doing really fab things with social tools, please do fill the survey in too.

The survey takes about 10 – 15 minutes to complete, and if something doesn’t make sense, you can always email me.

Please help spread the word
I don’t have much time to get the initial results from this survey, so I’d really appreciate it if you could forward links on to people in your network whom you think might be able to help.

Any questions? Let me know in the comments!

links for 2009-05-09

  • Kevin: This is very interesting, and I think that we'll see more things like this. Reuters-Thomson, working with a company called phase technology, has released a specialised Drupal installation that incorporates Reuters-Thomson's Calais semantic-marking technology and also allows easy integration with Google Maps and Flickr photos. Steve Yelvington with Morris Digital Works in the US is working on another specialised version of Drupal for social media journalism. We'll see more of this, and news organisations would be wise to rally behind them. These projects will deliver great value, especially for small and medium publishers, at a much lower cost than the commercial CMS solutions on the market currently.