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Magazines > Computers in Libraries > May 2010

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Vol. 30 No. 4 — May 2010
FEATURE
From Realities to Values: A Strategy Framework for Digital Natives
by Helene Blowers

So how do you take these Digital Native realities and build a set of strategies that support your organization’s digital initiatives, especially when technology is quickly and constantly shifting?

Meet Emma, my babysitter. She’s 14, and she’s bright, loves math and board games, is great with my daughters … and is almost impossible to get ahold of by phone. This is ironic because like most teens today, she’s seldom detached from her “celly.” In fact, after my repeated voice mail messages were left unanswered, I learned quickly that if I needed to get Emma’s attention for a Friday night babysitting gig, my best bet was to text her in 140 characters or less.

I know that Emma is not unique. For many Digital Natives, text messaging or SMS (short message service) is the communication channel of choice, and it’s easy to see why. Text messaging is fast. It’s short. It’s direct. And, of almost equal importance to the first three, it doesn’t require a lot of continuous attention.

But preferences in communication channels aren’t the only distinguishing traits of Digital Natives. Attitudes and perceptions related to digital privacy, identity, creativity, piracy, and advocacy also help to set younger generations apart. Their world is defined by the realities of ubiquitous connection and open participatory technologies, where having an active digital identity is a prerequisite to being able to pass today’s equivalent of an old-fashioned paper note in the hallway—a Facebook “wall post.”

Digital Identity

For most of us older than 28, our digital identity was first formalized a little more than a decade ago by the simple creation of an email address. But fast-forward a baker’s dozen years and the essence of digital identity has greatly expanded. From logins and remote access passwords to avatars and screen names, a digital identity is required to participate in almost every kind of online exchange. Today, most children encounter their first digital identity experience either in school, in the form of a student login, or at home via gaming or social networking sites. In both instances, more often than not, young people are encouraged to extend a part of their IRL (In Real Life) identity into the digital space.

For Digital Natives, the online world provides many advantages when it comes to the exploration of the self and one’s identity. On the one hand, it provides a valuable testing ground for the exploration of alter egos and other identity-forming activities. On the other, it provides a powerful platform for the expression and sharing of ideas as young people explore the reach of their IRL identity. In fact, for most Digital Natives, there is no definitive divide between their physical identity and their digital footprint; they coexist as a singular entity. Digital Natives understand that in order to participate and be influential in today’s world, a digital identity can’t be treated as an add-on to life. It’s essential to everything, period.

Digital Privacy

Although the phrase “privacy is an illusion” may seem trite these days, Digital Natives understand this well, for it is a reality that they’ve grown up with. And while decreased privacy settings have long been a trade-off to convenience and quick connection, Digital Natives have grown up with the realities of 24/7 connection, online banking, and remote access logins where every move that they make online is traceable and retrievable.

This reality can be disturbing to those of us who grew up in the offline world with a sense of security that access to our personal information (and our personal thoughts) was held closely by only a handful of trusted institutions and friends. Digital Natives, however, often see the opposite side of privacy concerns and understand that, in order to participate in the digital culture and assert their influence through their online identities, even the illusion of privacy must be compromised.

Digital Creativity

While privacy may be an illusion, the ability to participate and add value to the global information stream is a very concrete reality. Unlike past generations, where printed publishing and artistic license were granted only to those lucky enough to capture the attention of industry leaders, the internet has created a wave of opportunities for young people to express themselves creatively and to gain the attention of large audiences. User-generated content has exploded over the past few years. In fact, a 2007 study concluded that the world produced 161 exabytes (161 billion gigabytes) of digital information in just the previous year alone—more than 3 million times the amount of information contained in all the books ever written.

Remixes and mashups, where new content is formed from malleable and dissectible digital files, are just two of the offshoots of digital creativity. In addition to these, the internet has also created a mass market for fan fiction and new forms of authorship, such as cell phone novels. In the digital world, there are no boundaries to creative self-expression. The ability to find and connect with like-minded individuals and audiences is limited only by your own interests and comfort level.

Digital Piracy (Sharing)

The rise of the remix and mashup culture online is also closely tied to the debate over digital piracy. As more and more content becomes both distributable and remixable in digital format, copyright concerns have grown while information industries all over the globe struggle with the issue. The issue is a large one, and there are several movements trying to come up with more open models. Creative Commons and Digital Rights Management (DRM) are just two of the earliest models, but with the rise of BitTorrent and peer-to-peer (P2P) filesharing, there are many who suggest that we need to revisit the very essence of copyright and piracy.

But the truth is that most youths don’t look at digital content as a copyright issue or a piracy infringement. They view the world not from the viewpoint of content ownership but from the depth of a much larger opportunity pool where they have the ability to participate and play an active role in the creation of new ideas, many of which come from the reshaping of existing content and knowledge. “You are what you share,” has become a youth motto that not only strongly supports the essence of digital identity but also boldly infringes on the boundaries of digital rights.

Digital Advocacy

Ask a member of any older generation to define the word advocate for you and you’ll likely get an answer that supports its definition as a noun, “one that supports or promotes the interests of another,” such as a victims’ rights advocate or healthcare advocate. Pose the same question to a Digital Native and you’ll more likely receive an answer that supports its meaning as a verb, “to speak, plead or argue in favor of.” In fact, advocate is one of those words that seems to change with our perspective as we progress through life.

For today’s younger generations, advocacy takes on new meaning in the digital space. Without the baggage of IRL limitations, such as access to resources and/or people of influence, the ability to create a cause or movement is only bounded by an individual’s passion and capability to create conversations that can travel. Influence, as we already covered, is largely created through sharing over online social networks. Movements, such as those that speak to larger advocacy, are created through the mass sharing of ideas and collective passions. The interwoven social fabric of today’s internet supports the drive for Digital Natives to play an active role in the climate and landscape of their future.

Transferring Realities to Digital Strategy

So how do you take these Digital Natives’ realities and build a set of strategies that support your organization’s digital initiatives, especially when technology is quickly and constantly shifting? The answer is actually quite simple—build your strategies to support the core values of your users, not to support the advancement of technology.

Technologies come and go, but the reasons that people gravitate toward them don’t. So to understand what technologies and digital applications you should invest in, you need to look closely at how the tools fulfill the inherent needs and desires of digital identity, privacy, creativity, sharing, and advocacy. If you look closely beneath the motives of these areas, you’ll discover the common threads that support the social and emotional needs of Digital Natives: engagement, enrichment, and empowerment. And once these threads are aligned within a matrix, they become a powerful tool to help measure the potential social ROI (Return On Influence) of digital projects and online initiatives.

Engagement. Engagement is a theme that is batted around a lot these days within the space of social media—and for good reason. When you engage, you connect and create a channel for dialogue and interaction. When creating strategies to meet the needs of Digital Natives, specifically in digital identity and creativity, be sure the tactics and tools that you choose allow your customers to connect not only with library staff and services but, more importantly, with each other in meaningful ways. Keep in mind that, for younger audiences, social influence and engagement are very motivating factors. The more your organization’s online presence allows your customers to connect and share their expertise, opinions, and talents with others, the more valuable your digital space will be. Therefore, when evaluating specific web projects or tactics, it’s important to be able to clearly answer the questions: How does it engage users in a meaningful way? How does it make them feel connected to something much larger that they can influence?

Enrichment. Enrichment is the second element of the digital strategy matrix that supports the needs of Digital Natives by providing rich online experiences that enhance their daily lives in the physical world. This element speaks highly to the foundational needs of both digital identity and digital advocacy. By ensuring that the connection enriches, bridging physical world certainties to digital world realities, you will not only be meeting young audiences’ needs, but you will also be demonstrating to them the real life value that your organization provides them. For a library, the challenge of demonstrating community value in an age of ever-increasing information access and technology advancement can be an ongoing struggle. Therefore, whenever possible you want to make sure that your organization’s digital presence highlights enrichment and connection between your virtual and physical services and does not send a message that the two are substitutes for each other. The questions to ask in this element of strategy are: How does this tactic enrich the customer’s daily life? How does it support your customers with a connection between the real world and the digital?

Empowerment. Last but not least is the element of empowerment, and it’s easy to guess why this element is so important to Digital Natives. Empowerment not only weights the emphasis of control to the user, but it speaks highly to all five of the digital realities: identity, privacy, creativity, sharing, and advocacy. In the digital space, empowerment refers to the ability to enable users to personalize and control their experience. It also means shifting the emphasis away from “telling the library’s story” to focus on allowing the community to utilize your website’s services and capabilities to share and celebrate themselves.

Empowerment is an element that many organizations are still struggling to fully achieve. In order to allow your customers the ability to personalize their preferences and showcase their thoughts, talents, and opinions in your space, you need to let go of control and embrace the concept of an open brand. In the new social web, your customers are center stage and user-created content is king.

As you build strategies and select digital tactics to invite and empower your users to truly become an integral part of your online space, the questions you need to ask are not only “How does this tactic enable and empower customers to personalize their experience?” but “How does it enable them to become a part of your organization’s brand?” It’s not a secret that the best way to get users to market your brand is to allow them to use you (the library’s digital presence) to market themselves. It’s just new territory for most organizations that have built their marketing messages through traditional methods.

The Strategy Matrix

In pulling all the realities and attributes of Digital Natives together with their foundation core values, it’s easy to get lost in the finer points. But if you can look at these within a matrix, you can create a strategy assistance tool that can be applied to any technology within the online space. By examining the inherent attributes of those who have grown up surrounded by the opportunities of the digital world, you can begin to evaluate the potential of any new digital initiative or project by its ability to engage, enrich, and empower younger audiences.

There’s no doubt that coming up with tangible strategies for your organization’s digital space is like shooting at a constantly moving target. However, if you can keep in mind how the technologies meet the needs of the strategy framework, then you’re well on your way to developing a great online presence for Digital Natives that might cause a Digital Native like Emma to text, “xlnt site i <3 my library.” (Translation: Excellent website. I love my library.)

This article is based upon a presentation given by Helene Blowers at the Computers in Libraries conference, March 2009. A full version of the presentation is viewable at www.slideshare.net/hblowers/strategies-for-digital-natives.  


Helene Blowers is the director of digital strategy for the Columbus Metropolitan Library (CML) in Columbus, Ohio, and the creator and architect of the widely adopted discovery learning program, Learning 2.0: 23 Things, which has been duplicated by hundreds of libraries and organizations worldwide. She blogs at www.librarybytes.com.
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