Except that it’s not true. I think of the digital native much like I think of someone who’s grown up in a middle-class family in a first-world country. They’re used to the conveniences that they’re surrounded by, and the freedoms they enjoy, but they don’t necessarily know much about their history. The breadth of their choices has blinded them to how significant their choices are. When I polled my Freshman college writing class last year, I found they were all heavy users of Instagram, and were on Facebook nearly as often — but only one of them had ever gotten anything from eBay (“my mom bought me some fake Uggs there once”), none had even heard of other image sites such as Flickr or Hipstamatic, none of them knew how to generate a meme (though they loved reposting them), none had a blog, and none had used Twitter or Tumblr. One student even raised her hand to ask what “HTML” was.
Whereas the digital immigrant — and here I mean people currently in their 30’s, 40’s, or 50’s, people who’ve had to adjust to each new wave of information technology, from programming a VCR and formatting a floppy disc, to finding their way in early online communities from the Well to AOL Hometown to MySpace, from simple text e-mails and ASCII art to managing multimedia files on Google Drive. We’ve had to “migrate,” from platform to platform, from software to software, from machine to machine — and we’ve been doing it for years. The operating systems and software — the boundaries and formats of our communities — have kept on shifting, and we’ve kept having to apply for new kinds of electronic citizenship. We not only know all about the various online options out there today, we know all about what was there yesterday; we’ve lived longer than many major browsers, service providers, and web platforms have been in existence.
It all reminds me of the episode of the Simpsons (“Much Apu about Nothing”) where Homer tries to help Apu with his citizenship exam. Apu, having had to learn about the strange ways of Americans and their claims of historical exceptionalism for years, knows a lot about his adopted land; Homer, though well-intentioned, knows almost nothing about the country where he’d been born — and what he does “know” was a hodge-podge of partial truths and misinformation. He is a true native, in that sense — comfortably unaware — and Apu is a true immigrant: highly aware, but for that very reason, less comfortable. Apu actually answers a question about the cause of the US Civil War on the citizenship exam, while the examiner really wants to hear just one word: “slavery.”
Similarly, the digital natives too often want — or will accept — just one possible solution to their short-term need. Take a pic, share a pic, save a pic — done. Update a status. Done. Text mom for some money, buy an app, done. They’re adroit at finding quick solutions, but too impatient to track down anything not on the first page of Google results; they love circulating memes, quotes, and silly videos, but very few of them have ever made a meme or a silly video. They’re expert consumers of e-culture and commerce, but not often producers. True, the few who have a proclivity for looking under the hood — the geeky types who become experts at coding — have a lucrative future ahead, and doubtless will surpass their elders. But as for the rest, I’m a little concerned — if the current platform or app they use were to change, or, a là MySpace, be abandoned — I’m not sure how well they’d adapt.