What does it mean to be a digital native?

It’s funny to think that getting online used to be something you actively blocked off time to do. Nowadays, the internet only tends to enter our consciousness in those moments when it’s noticeably absent—the wifi at Starbucks goes down, our bus passes through a tunnel, a plane prepares for takeoff or landing.

I remember the ritual of dial-up back in elementary school. While our computer serenaded the entire house with its chhhhhhhhh-neeenerneeenerneee-dooooooooo electronic jangle, I’d pass the time by doodling on floppy disks or wandering into the kitchen to hunt for a snack. I’ve never warmed to the word “Initializing…”

My brother, on the other hand, who’s seven years younger, has wielded a smartphone since middle school. He treats his Facebook like a model home, maintained to keep up internet appearances but otherwise devoid of life. For him and his friends, Twitter is where the action happens.

Today, parents conduct due diligence on search results and available domain names before deciding what to call their first-born. Toddlers see a screen and instinctively reach to pinch, swipe, and zoom. During a recent family vacation my manager’s youngest son ran to him, distressed. “Dad, the TV is broken!” Turns out the hotel TV was working fine; Zach had just never encountered commercials before.

It’s astounding to consider the surface level changes the internet has produced in a few short decades, and even more fascinating to think about how it’s shaped our aspirations and inclinations. What beliefs, attitudes, and values define a generation of digital natives?

Self-aware & self-sufficient

For better or worse, this is a generation inclined to capture and share quotidian snippets of daily life, from tweets about the weather to Instagrammed photos of homemade raspberry strudel. Call it an optimist’s view, but one upshot of this narcissistic navel-gazing is increased self-awareness, an ever calibrating sense of your likes and dislikes, tastes and preferences. Combined with the ability to measure and track everything from sleep quality to energy consumption and you have an unparalleled degree of insight into personal habits and behaviors.

We’re also more empowered to act on this data than ever before. An internet connection is all that’s needed to teach yourself subjects as diverse as Farsi and machine learning. And it’s never been easier to solicit advice from someone you admire, whether through a(n) tweet, comment, email, message, etc. Extend the spirit of “Just Google it” and you have the modern day version of “Where there’s a will, there’s a way.”

Seeking out global perspectives

The degree of interpersonal connection and accessibility enabled by the internet means that globalization is no longer a concept confined to multinational corporate strategies or the pages of The Economist, but something that’s meaningful on an individual level. With a few clicks of the mouse you can book an Airbnb apartment in Hanoi and receive a local’s welcome, read a Quora answer on what immigrants find most surprising about American culture, or apply for funding to spend six months in Chile working on your startup idea. We’re not far off from the day when our digital first or digital only connections rivals that of our offline ones, and that’s an exciting prospect.

Attention divided 

Digital natives might pride themselves on being adept multi-taskers but the reality is that we’re more productive and creative when focused on one thing at a time. Unfortunately, there are a lot of distractions to contend with in a constantly plugged-in world. Technological progress pushes us to pack more computing power into ever more compact form factors, but there will continue to be demand for well-designed, single-function devices like the Kindle.

Renewed appreciation for quality craftsmanship

The Industrial Revolution put a long chain of factories and machinery between physical products and end consumers, a trend that’s reversing with the Maker Movement, 3D printing, etc. At the same time, we often have a closer connection to the digital apps and services we use today thanks to the dissemination of low-cost tools and resources to pick up the requisite coding skills. The combined result is a newfound appreciation for quality design and technique.

Personalize it for me 

Personalization will be at the heart of future digital experiences. The dimensions are numerous and growing: location, time, demographic profile, stated preferences, past behavior, social graph, interest graph, etc. This expectation extends to the world of storytelling as well—digital natives want marketing messages that are tailored to them and their unique situation. The trick will be balancing what people want (personalized results) and what’s “good for them” (diversity of perspective).

Inspired by Whitney McNamara‘s post “When the internet is your hometown

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