Digital Nativism: A Diagnostic Manual

Understanding digital native behavior is the key to better marketing.

The term ‘Digital Native’ gets thrown around liberally. Particularly in reference to ‘Generation Z’.

But everyone uses technology, right?

But some people were born into technology, molded by it. Some merely adopted it.

My Dad loves Instagram and YouTube. But so does the 13-year-old who delivers his newspaper.

So being born at what point in history defines being a Digital Native?

By Nick Hartland

According to the internet: “Digital natives are distinguished from digital immigrants, people who grew up in a world dominated by print and television because they were born within the advent of the Internet”. 

But this definition isn’t entirely helpful. Technically ‘the internet’ was invented in 1983, and even that’s hotly debated. Technology doesn’t just appear and replace. It develops and disseminates.

As fashionable as it may be to consider only the last two decades of technological innovation, it has been developing incrementally for a long, long time.

Fundamentally, technology influencing our communication and behavior is nothing new.

So being a Digital Native is less about when you’re born and more about the extent to which you exhibit certain behaviors as a result of technology’s influence. It’s about the effects, not the causes.

Understanding these effects allows us to better understand how people interact with the world and culture develops, making us better marketers.

So to see where you lie on the spectrum of Digital Nativism, we have prepared a short, non-exhaustive list of some of the most prominent behavioral effects.

For Digital Natives, everything is and should be permanent

The invention of the internet doesn’t just help to distribute information, historical record, content and entertainment. It archives it too.

Today, nothing disappears. It’s all on record waiting for us.

If you missed an episode of Seinfeld in the ’90s, you had to wait until the end of the year for it to be re-run. And if you missed that, it was gone.

But for a Digital Native, nothing in their lives disappears because everything is frozen is archived digitally, influencing how they view their lived experience and memories.

Growing up with the expectation that the world is recorded and archived on the internet bleeds into their behavior. It means Digital Natives have a compulsion to digitally document their real lives as if their lived experience would fade away out of existence had they not. 

Every moment is a photo, a video, a social post, or an iPhone note. Placed away in a digital safety deposit box in ‘the cloud’, ready to be retrieved whenever they feel the need.

For the Digital Native, nothing in their lives has been temporary, and therefore nothing should be ephemeral as experiences are habitually converted to code for it to be experienced again sometime in the future.

Do you feel the anxiety of your memories and experiences will fade away if you don’t record and archive them? If so, you could be a Digital Native 

For Digital Natives, creation and artistry are inherent social behaviors

For generations passed, creativity and artistic expression were reserved for artists. You either were an artist, or you were a regular person.

For the Digital Native, social communication and creation are one and the same. The most creative expression a non-artist of an older generation may have managed was a cleverly worded letter or email; the Digital Native communicates and expresses themselves through things they’ve made.

Everyone’s now a film director and editor because everyone’s making TikToks. It’s a creative endeavor that welcomes anyone who downloads the app.  Even a basic Instagram post of your weekend trip invites a certain element of creativity and craft given its semi-public display, no matter how frivolous. What this teaches the Digital Native is that creativity, and making things is open to anyone, not just artists.

The Digital Native cohort is the most creative generation we’ve seen in history because at a young age they are taught that making things and sharing them is inherent to socializing.

For the Digital Native, everyone is an artist and everyone should share their ideas, because that’s how you socialize, communicate, kill boredom, make money and connect with fellow creators.

Do you habitually create things as part of your everyday social life? If so, then you could be a Digital Native.

Digital Natives value privacy in a completely novel way

How we value privacy seems to exist on a sliding scale. The average person today is far more comfortable with sharing their life with their friends on social media, or in the same cases, publicly.

But Digital Nativism has taken this to new heights.

At your next family event, go and find your younger cousin and ask to see their ‘Snap Map’.

There’s a good chance they can see the exact location of 100+ of their ‘friends’ in real-time. This is a lack of privacy that would make anyone who had grown up without this social culture squirm with discomfort. Yet for the Digital Native, it’s just another part of their digital-social lives.

Are you comfortable with sharing aspects of your life (like your exact geographic location) with friends and acquaintances?  If so, then you could be a Digital Native.

Digital Natives do not see niche interests as niche

Back in the day, specialized interests and hobbies were an isolating pursuit.

For example, you were probably the only model train guy you knew.
Or the only art-house cinema girl you were aware of.

You knew your interest, passion or hobby was niche because you loved it and very few people around you did.

But the internet has created a freeway system of flowing information and communication that removes this isolation. The model train guy now has an online forum, a subreddit, YouTube channels and #TrainGang on TikTok. Suddenly model trains aren’t quite so niche. It’s now a thing you love that can be shared with millions of people around the world.

Digital Natives have grown up in a world in which they can connect with subcultures and communities of people numbering in the millions. Finding people who share your specific interests is just a few clicks away, leaving the idea of niches to feel far bigger and more accessible than they ever did.

Do you have specific interests that you don’t consider to be niche? If so, you could be a Digital  Native.

Digital Natives are more likely to question their cultural orthodoxy

Culture is completely pervasive.

As the saying goes by philosopher Marshall McLuhan, “we don’t know who discovered water, but we know it wasn’t a fish.”

But being able to interact with the cultures from around the world so easily through the internet means an ability to contrast what we think is objectively true with what someone else thinks is objectively true.

In the past, people grew up being entirely subject to the cultural orthodoxy of their environment via their parents, the news media, the entertainment media, their government and their education system. To be exposed to something outside of this orthodoxy, you probably had to go out of your way to find it.

Now the digital world allows anyone to be exposed to alternative ideologies and cultural values from around the world. And more importantly, not through another culture’s media, but direct and unfiltered through a real person from within another culture.

For example, a teenager growing up in Trump’s conservative, anti-socialist America can engage with the idea of Scandinavian democratic socialism first-hand.

Sure, past generations could read a book about other cultures or different political philosophies if they wanted to. But now Trevor from Tennessee can see a real-life TikTok made by Henrik from Helsinki explaining his life and values.

Do you find yourself contrasting your cultural orthodoxy with someone else? If so, you could be a Digital Native.

For Digital Natives, socialzing in Virtual Third Places is legitimate socialising

“Third place” is a term coined by sociologist Ray Oldenburg and refers to places where people spend time between home (‘first’ place) and work (‘second’ place). They are locations where we exchange ideas, have a good time, and build relationships. Think ‘zor ‘Tom’s Restaurant’ in Seinfeld.

These places have always been physical. Parks, malls, skateparks and so on. But the Digital Native doesn’t see the same distinction between the digital and IRL social domains that their elders do.

Growing up, Digital Natives needed a private place to escape from their parents and shoot the shit after a long day of learning Pythagoras’ Theorem. With increasing safety concerns and the appeal of virtual realities, they looked to digital worlds for their Third Place.

Soon, a hard-fought game of Battle Royale on Fortnite or a solid session on Roblox became perfectly legitimate substitutes for what was once a face-to-face interaction with friends.

As a consequence, the need to hang out hasn’t changed. But what defines the legitimacy of the space in which the hang is occurring, has.

Growing up with a novel idea of socializing, socialize has on flow effects for the Digital Native as they age. For the Digital Native, a ‘Virtual Coffee’, a quick FaceTime, a voice note and a funny GIF are seen as far more legitimate forms of social interaction than for older generations.

Virtual socializing is still not a substitute for reality, but it certainly feels ‘more real’ for the Digital Native.

Nothing will ever fully replace a good old bottomless brunch with the boys/girls, but for the Digital Native, the digital alternative certain comes a lot closer as a result of socializing inside digital worlds at such a young age.

Do you see digital/virtual communication as a perfectly legitimate social interaction? If so, you could be a Digital Native.

Overall, the point is, that we are ALL Digital Natives to some degree.

Digital Nativism is not a condition you’re born into. It’s more like radiation; the more you’re exposed to the internet, the more you’re affected.

It is not a core generational trait. It’s a set of behaviors. Behaviors that are only going to increase in prominence and prevalence. And of course, new ones will emerge too.

As cultural experts, New Moon helps our clients navigate the changing tides of culture, fast and slow. Drop us a line to understand more about how culture influences behavior, and what your brand can do about it.

This article was written by Nick Hartland, Strategic Director, New Moon.

  1. Thanks Nick for laying out this description of Digital Natives, and providing insight. Yes, we all are there to some degree. Being in the agency business for years, and in the customer engagement space for years, it sets my mind to thinking about the Digital Native Brand. It strikes me that brands need to do that these days to thrive.

  2. Thanks Nick for laying out this description of Digital Natives, and providing insight. Yes, we all are there to some degree. Being in the agency business for years, and in the customer engagement space for years, it sets my mind to thinking about the Digital Native Brand. It strikes me that brands need to do that these days to thrive.

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