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Magazines > ONLINE > March/April 2008
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Online Magazine

Vol. 32 No. 2 — Mar/Apr 2008

Social Media, Information Seeking, and Generational Differences
By Marydee Ojala
Editor • ONLINE

At autumn library conferences, I heard numerous presentations that focused on younger people’s use—and perception—of technology (people, that is, who are younger than the presenters). Comparing expectations of digital natives with those of digital immigrants led to much angst on the part of immigrant presenters. Not born into a digital world, computers were not embedded in their upbringing. They not only remember when they were not connected 24/7, but they also remember those days fondly. They worry that digital natives’ information-seeking behaviors, shaped by social media, will dilute rigorous research, yet they realize that new formats and sources greatly enrich available content.

One hallmark of new phenomena is the lack of standardized terminology to describe it. Digital natives go by other monikers: millennials, next generation, NetGen, screenagers, Bebo generation, Google generation, Facebookers, MySpace generation, and probably some others. The word “generation,” attached to the product name of the week, is popular. Gen X and Gen Y have lost favor. Then, again, digital immigrants are also baby boomers, or possibly just old fogies.

Boomers are invading Facebook and Second Life, blogging frantically, creating wikis, editing Wikipedia entries, and relying on RSS feeds for current awareness. I sometimes see these actions as the digital equivalent of men using comb-overs or women shopping in the preteen department. More charitably, excursions into social media attempt to find practical uses and real value in these technologies.

A Pew Internet & American Life Project report, “Information Searches That Solve Problems,” should reassure the immigrants that millennials still value libraries. To solve a problem, 58% said they used the internet to get help, 53% turned to a professional, 45% sought out friends and family, and 36% used newspapers and magazines. I don’t think that’s enormously different than the problem-solving behaviors of older information professionals.

The British Library’s “Information Behaviour of the Researcher of the Future” report has less heartening news. The CIBER research team at University College London, who authored the study, found that computer literacy among the young does not equate to information literacy. Browsing supplants reading. And we’re all becoming more impatient, wanting instant gratification for our information queries.

The appeal of social networks is obvious. It’s easier to ask colleagues for information than to slog through an ambitious research endeavor. Even information professionals post requests on library discussion lists that they could probably answer themselves. How will digital natives adapt their information-seeking behaviors as they move into the mainstream workforce? Will search engines shape behavior or react to existing behaviors? I think we’ll find that information-seeking habits will evolve as this digital native generation gives way to the next generation. How that will happen is anybody’s guess. I suspect that advances in technology will have people decades from now looking at our present-day desktop and laptop computers with disdain and think them impossibly quaint. They’ll probably deride our information-seeking behaviors as well. I look forward to it.

Marydee Ojala [] is the editor of ONLINE. Comments? E-mail letters to the editor to

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