Welcome to the New (Social) World

In my classes at Youngstown State, we have a lot of really talented nontraditional-age students.

What is the nontraditional age, you might ask? For most universities, it’s around 25. But most nontraditional-age students will tell you, there is a big difference between being a 25-year-old college student and one who carries an AARP card.

Even with this wide-ranging definition of age, some nontraditional students come into a social-media class and are immediately intimidated by the thought of using newer social-media platforms.

When this happens, I ask: Is social media and new technology for young people, or is it for everyone?

One way to understand this intimidation is to appreciate the age gap with new technology.

Marc Prensky’s publication, Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants, introduced us to the term digital natives, used to describe a new group of students who are attending college. These are the D-geners, the digital babies who have never known a world without the Internet.

I am not a digital baby. At 42, I am a digital immigrant.

My first Internet experiences came during my undergraduate years in college. But I didn’t grow up completely unaware of technology. At best, I probably straddle the line somewhere between immigrant and native. After all, I was born into a world with video games. From Pong, to Atari, to Nintendo 64, the Game Cube, and the Wii, I’ve never known a world without video games.

But with all other new technologies, I am an immigrant.

So, my fellow digital immigrants, welcome to the new world. It seems odd to be considered an “immigrant” to anything. My family has been well-established in the United States for centuries. I’ve never known the true immigrant experience.

However, when we think about it in “new citizen” terms, Prensky’s term offers a great deal of insight. We are, in fact, people who came to the “new world” of digital media. And like many successful digital immigrants, initiative leads to the creation of opportunities.

In 1996, I worked in a college admission office. My boss came to me and said, “See if these kids look at this Internet thing for college,” and “make a website for our office.” I jumped at the opportunity to master the Web. My early career as a webmaster took off because I was fearless about new technologies.

Just as many early immigrants to America took advantage of this early opportunity, I took advantage of my place in this brave new digital-media world.

So then, how do we deal with, connect with, and speak to the digital natives? Much as our forefathers were frightened that we would lose the traditions of our mother countries, digital immigrants fear that digital natives will forget about the ways of the “old world.”

But digital natives don’t speak our language, and we don’t speak theirs. So why would we expect them to care about the old world?

Of course, some have chosen to remain in the old country — with very little interest in the new digital frontier. They have no interest in learning or using this new digital language. And this has exacerbated the connection, or disconnection between the natives and immigrants.

Have no fear. Digital natives are not becoming disconnected from the real world. In fact, they may be more connected than the rest of us – it’s just a different connection, with a new language, new customs and cultures. As immigrants, we should try to learn these new customs and cultures, to assimilate.

We can teach the natives about our world. Digital immigrants must create the connections that draw the natives in, that create opportunities for learning, and that build routes in the online world to meaningful, long-lasting relationships.

Dr. Adam C. Earnheardt is chair of the department of communication at Youngstown State University. Follow him on Twitter at @adamearn and friend him on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/adamearn.

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