Digital native is digital. (At least he is now.)

Culture, Media / journalism, US culture

At an expert meeting about the future of broadcasting I attended a month or two ago (as mere observer, obviously), one participant simply observed that “the broadcasting era is over”. Not that broadcasting itself will stop, but the era in which it is the primary, central means of disseminating and receiving information and entertainment is over.

An exceedingly smart guy, he waxed a little all too rhapsodically for my taste about what this meant. In an effort to impress the import of the developments on a group of mostly aging, European veterans of old-media policy, he sketched how participatory, democratic online media infrastructures will win an “epic battle” with the traditional ‘command and control’ infrastructure of broadcasting. Which is all fair enough, but reminded me a little too much of those glory days of the 1990s, when visionary internet philosophers declared the dawn of a new age of democratic empowerment. Remember how the net would remodel society into bottom-up communities that would change the very nature of nations and democracy?

To some extent, of course, we did eventually – ten to fifteen years on – come to witness that the net can transform how democracy works, at least in the US: Dean, Obama, etc. But post-national, bottom-up democracy is still a long way coming, and in the meantime the logic of corporate capitalism has firmly reaffirmed itself on a commercialised net.

In defense of idealistic visions, individual users do time and again show that, whichever corporate overlord owns the means of publication, so to say (YouTube, Facebook, Blogger, Flickr), they create most of the content and interaction in ways they never could with newspapers or TV – and pioneer ever new ways to do so.

Results from the Pew survey, overall population. For the under-30s, changes are more drastic (below the fold)

They generate today’s mash-up culture, the corporations merely chase after the results, buying up or clamping down accordingly.

The meeting belatedly acquainted me with the notion of digital natives, coined back in 2001 by Marc Prensky (even their brains are different, did you know?): the new generation of consumers who grew up with the Internet, video games and cellphones. Roughly speaking, that’s everyone born after 1980.

In case you missed it, a Pew report released just before Christmas appears to show these digital natives truly coming into their own.

First off, the Internet has overtaken newspapers as main source of news:

40% say they get most of their news about national and international issues from the internet, up from just 24% in September 2007. For the first time in a Pew survey, more people say they rely mostly on the internet for news than cite newspapers (35%). Television continues to be cited most frequently as a main source for national and international news, at 70%.

(To be fair, Kevin Drum does have a point when he qualifies the findings: “Obviously this is slightly misleading, since internet largely means newspaper web sites, but it’s still [..] a bellwether statistic.”)

Secondly, among those under 30 – the purported digital natives – the net has caught up with television as well:

For young people [..] the internet now rivals television as a main source of national and international news. Nearly six-in-ten Americans younger than 30 (59%) say they get most of their national and international news online; an identical percentage cites television.

In one year time, the proportion between TV and Internet as main source of news for young people went from 68/34 to 59/59. Digital natives are digital!

As much as the findings seem to confirm the point, though, they arguably also implicitly undermine it. This is, after all, the generation whose defining distinction, when compared to “digital adaptives” like me, was that they never needed to adapt to the new media in the first place, because they’ve lived in a digital, online world all along. That they are, as Prensky put it, “native speakers” of the Internet, socialized in “the twitch-speed, multitasking, random-access, graphics-first, active, connected, fun, fantasy, quick-payoff world” of the web.

And yet they seem to be very much adapting still. After all, in 2006 and 2007 just a third of 18-29 year olds listed the Internet as a main source of news and information. It’s only this year that the big push to 50%+ came. And that’s America; I assume developments in Europe are lagging.

In the end, I suppose, whether we’re “digital immigrants”, adaptives or natives, we’re all still journeying down the same road. The road to a post-broadcasting era of networked information, in which a much broader range of voices has the opportunity to present themselves and find an audience – but it also becomes ever easier to simply avoid views and perspectives you don’t agree with.

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