Monday, July 10, 2006

Emily, the Digital Native

Emily is a “digital native”, one who has never known a world without instant communication. Her mother, Christine is a “digital immigrant”, still coming to terms with a culture ruled by the ring of a mobile and e-mails, reports The Times. Though 55-year-old Christine happily shops online and e-mails friends, at heart she’s still in the old world. “Children today are multitasking left, right and centre — downloading tracks, uploading photos, sending e-mails. It’s nonstop,” she says. “They find sitting down and reading, even watching TV, too slow and boring. I can’t imagine many kids indulging in one particular hobby, such as birdwatching, like they used to.”

As The Times points out, last month, Lord Saatchi, virtually declared the death of traditional advertising — because digital technology is changing the way people absorb information. The digital native’s brain is physically different as a result of the digital input it has received growing up, he claims (The reason TV advertising is unsuccessful with digital natives is because they are in what he refers to as a state of 'constant partial attention
'). This has implications for PR practice. How we present information online and off-line to attract attention in a multi-tasking world is a big deal.

The media reports parents still fear that children who spend hours using computers will end up 'nerdy zombies with the attention span of a gnat'. There is, apparently, a view that 'cyberspace is full of junk and computer games are packed with mindless violence'. I suggest such writers go to their local school to find out the truth.
Nintendo requires endless concentration.

To evangelists of the digital age such as Marc Prensky, picked out for the Times article presumably because he says on his web site that he is an “internationally acclaimed speaker, writer, consultant, and designer in the critical areas of education and learning” (sounds like Marketing speak to me) an American consultant and author, modern interactive computer games are “deep, complex experiences” that challenge the intellect far more than, say, passively watching Big Brother. Socialising through chat rooms and online forums, he argues, both requires its own etiquette and overcomes old prejudices: it doesn’t matter nearly so much what you look like. But in 'Alone Together' the extent of some social interactions in online games is questioned and there are limits as to how far you can extend the argument. The author Steven Johnson pursues the argument in his book Everything Bad Is Good for You that online interaction has educational benefits. Far from popular culture dumbing down, he says, much of it has become more challenging; he points to the intricate, multi-layered plots of modern TV series such as The Sopranos or 24, compared with the linear plots of programmes 30 years ago.

Does this mean that the Public Relations practitioner who having once gained the interest (not the same as attention) of constituents can find reward in the complex? My view is yes because it enhances the opportunities for common values to be sought and found.

“A few people have demonstrated that computer games can improve some aspects of attention, such as the ability to quickly count objects at the periphery of your vision,” says computational neuroscientist
Dr Anders Sandberg, who is researching cognitive enhancement at Oxford. “Is this a different way of thinking? Well, a little bit. Being instantly able to itemise objects is probably a useful skill in this world. Some evidence suggests people are becoming more visual than verbal.”

For more research into human/computer interactions, there is a Special Interest Group that is worth following.

The sheer mass of visual, auditory and verbal information is forcing digital natives to make choices that those who grew up with only books and television did not. At one time, there was a view that this would be the limiting factor for the Internet but two things have changed in the last five years. The first is that people have learned to multi-task and we have learned to make snap decisions. Implications for the practitioner are that the key information has to be present on the landing page. This does not, as Lord Saatchi proclaims, mean that attention is only archived by reducing everything to a single word. People can do much more that absorb a single word in a millisecond. But it does mean that Dr Reginald Watts is right to follow semiotics as an important future activity for PR practitioners.

Younger people sift more and filter more,” says Helen Petrie, a professor of human-computer interaction at the University of York. “We have more information to deal with, and we pay less attention to particular bits of information, so it may appear attention spans are shorter.” She also notes that the brevity of text messaging is spreading to e-mails and other communication, rewriting English with simpler spelling in the process. Though this may appear rude to traditionalists, it’s merely sensible to digital natives. “But I don’t think attention spans are diminishing per se,” Petrie says. “If we find something that is engaging, then our attention span is just as long as it has always been. I bet you during the England-Sweden World Cup game people’s attention span wasn’t any shorter than it might have been before.” We can take from this that if Public Relations activity engages constituents, they will pay attention.

The question, then, is how do digital natives learn to discriminate, and what determines the things that interest them? Parents who hope skills and boundaries are instilled at school may be fighting a losing battle. According to Prensky, the reason why some children today do not pay attention in school is that they find traditional teaching methods dull compared with their digital experiences. Instead, parameters are increasingly set by “wiki-thinking”, peer groups exchanging ideas through digital networks. Just as the online encyclopaedia Wikipedia has been built from the collective knowledge of thousands of contributors, so digital natives draw on the experience and advice of online communities to shape their interests and boundaries. A telling symptom is blogging. Where once schoolchildren and students confided only in their diaries, now they write blogs or entries on Bebo or — where anyone can see and comment on them. While I have some doubts about the collective wisdom of the collective commons. It is a dangerous place to be. There is merit in having a digital footprint and response to the 'Digital Footprint'.

“My parents are as au fait with the internet as I am.” says Nathan Midgley of the TheFishCanSing research consultancy, “but what they are not used to doing is upgrading. “People of my generation are much more used to the turnover of gadgetry. Other generations are left out of the loop in the way it is speeding up.”

Will this lead to greater intelligence? Some might argue that is already happening. In what known as the Flynn Effect, underlying IQ scores have been rising for years.

For PR practice this may mean that we have to adjust our thinking, relationship management and even our understanding of brand values every decade or so because the population is getting really clever.

Picture: Geek art

Concepts: digital / people / attention /