Digital residents and digital tourists

I think we should stop talking about “digital natives” and “digital immigrants” altogether. It’s unhelpful and unclear. A better distinction might be between “digital residents” and “digital tourists”.

I’ve never liked the terms “digital native” and “digital immigrant”, as introduced/popularised by Prensky, and the “born digital” idea as applied to people (rather than, say, media artefacts) is profoundly problematic. I’m not the first or only person to raise this – lots of people have criticised it. (And with very flaky Internet access at the moment, I can’t link to or cite to them … which is a bit annoying but saves me the bother – good job this isn’t a proper academic paper.)

Firstly, there’s important moral issues in appropriating language about indigenous people and human migration. I really don’t think the parallels are helpful or instructive here.

Secondly, there’s the fact that the categories are not fixed in generational terms: as is widely attested, there are plenty of retired-age people who have great facility with digital technologies, and spent large amounts of time online, and plenty of teenagers who struggle with them and find them overwhelming and alienating. (And the particular application to students starting at university is particularly problematic: the proportion of mature students is not negligible and is rising.)

Thirdly, it attributes inherent, unchangability to one’s approach and use of technology. One cannot aspire or attempt to become a digital native: one either is or one isn’t. There are plenty of people who come to digital fluency at a later stage in life than infancy.

Fourthly, it unhelpfully sets up an insurmountable barrier of incomprehension between teachers (by definition digital immigrants) and learners (by definition digital natives).

I do buy, however, that there are important qualitative differences between people who are familiar with digital technologies and can use them with a fluency, facility and creativity that others can’t.

So a much better metaphor, I think, is to contrast “digital residents” with “digital tourists” – or perhaps “digital visitors”.

Digital residents are familiar and comfortable with digital technologies, use them as part of their everyday lives, and therefore – to a greater or lesser extent – tend to take them for granted.

Digital tourists, however, are not familiar with digital technologies, and struggle to make good use of them. Some are enthusiastic, gushing admirers; at the other end of the spectrum, some loathe every moment of their visit and leave quickly, vowing never to return.

Often the things the digital tourists find compelling are very different to the things that digital residents do – partly because of the effect of novelty, and partly because of the amount of time spent there. And as a result, they tend to behave very differently in what’s superficially the same context.

Balancing the needs of tourists and residents is a well-known social problem in the physical world. It’s easy for tourists to be unaware of the huge impact they can have on the residents, and it’s also easy for residents to be unwelcoming as a result. But it’s entirely possible for the two communities to co-exist very happily in the same space, recognising that they each contribute something valuable. And frequent tourists might, over time, find that they have more-or-less settled in the place they originally came to as visitors and have come to know and love. Correspondingly, a longstanding digital resident might decide to leave – or at least take a holiday. (Plenty of very-online people take a break away from the net for a while now and then.)

The potential tension between tourist and resident is likely to be much less contentious and intractable in the digital world. One of the fantastic things about the digital world, as opposed to the physical one, is that in many ways that matter, more people being there tends to make things better. That’s true in some contexts in the physical world, but not all. If you want to settle and build a house, you have to find somewhere to put it: physical land is (often) a very limited resource, and is what economists call an ‘exclusionary good’ – if I own and build a house on a piece of land, you can’t. But digital “land” is (often) not a limited resource in the same way: me having this blog in no way stops you or anyone else setting up a blog.

There are, of course, plenty of people who would dearly love to visit the digital world and perhaps settle there, but lack the opportunity. And we shouldn’t forget the people who are perfectly happy with their non-digital lives and just get on with them. For completeness and entertainment value, we could also include digital xenophobes, who’ve never actually spent any time in the digital world, but still bang on about how awful (they assume) things are there – often spouting ill-informed and hostile speculation.

There are still problems with this metaphor. It’s still dichotomising (either one thing or the other), when I’m pretty sure it’s much more of a spectrum. But I think it’s a lot more helpful and accurate.

Edit: (with more connectivity) Juliette points out in the comments that plenty of people have already proposed digital residents/digital visitors (as a quick search confirms). There are fewer mentions of digital tourists in this context, although I did stumble on this guide to being a digital citizen, not a digital tourist.   I don’t think one should necessarily aspire to being a digital citizen – tourism is perfectly legitimate, so long as it’s done sensitively.  And the perspicacious and legendary John Naughton (and I’m not just saying that because he’s agreeing with me here!) draws a helpful parallel with his experience as a tourist in Provence.


Author: dougclow

Academic in the Institute of Educational Technology, the Open University, UK. Interested in technology-enhanced learning and learning analytics.

6 thoughts on “Digital residents and digital tourists”

    1. I think I might have seen it when it was published and forgot until now – thanks! I thought I couldn’t be the first to have thought in these terms. I my defence I plead poor connectivity for my otherwise inexcusable failure to Google it 🙂

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