What being a digital native means, and what impact it has on our psychology and sociology.
When I was about 4 years old, I was playing on the living room floor, my dad and aunt were sitting on the couch talking about work. At the time my dad worked for Apple, I was used to him bringing home toys. The Macintosh was a fixture in the dining room since before I could remember. We had occasional days where we would stop by the office. Sometimes I make the joke that “Steve Jobs baptized me” Because everything in my early childhood was dominated by Apple, they were like our home team. We would root for them like they were the 49ers, every macworld event, my brother and I would brag that our dad was in the room. “I have something to show you” He said, and ran upstairs, a few seconds later he came out of his room carrying something.
“What book is that?” my aunt asked. She’s always engaging and very positive, being a bilingual teacher of Kindergarten and 1st Graders in California. Her personality is always inquisitive.
“It’s not a book, it’s a computer, a PowerBook 100” he said. Then she screeched! She wouldn’t stop talking about how amazing it was. Frankly it startled me. Maybe it was her personality that emphasized the noticeable shock, amazement and surprise, that made this situation memorable. I remember how she couldn’t get over the fact that they could make a computer that was so small it can easily fit on your lap. I found her surprise surprising.
I always think of that moment any time someone is amazed by technological innovations. My mom is probably the most guilty, she’s notoriously slow to adopt anything new.
It is very important to remember the psychological impacts of childhood on an adults life. This is why one of the primary fields of study in the psychological world is developmental psychology.
Millennials are unique. Being echo boomers (the largest wave of humans since the baby boomers, their parents. This is with the largest shift in developmental psychology since the industrial revolution. Psychology Today published a paper by Robert J. Hedaya, M.D., D.F.A.P.A., on Jun 3, 2010:
“During the teen years, under the influence of massive new hormonal messages, as well as current needs and experiences, the teenager’s brain is being reshaped, and reconstructed. Information highways are being speeded up (a process called myelination), and some old routes, closed down (this is called pruning); some are re-routed and reconnected to other destinations. And above all, old information highways are making lots of new connections to other highways, and other cities and towns (this is called sprouting). It’s a massive construction project, unlike anything that occurs at any other time in life. In such as situation, things rarely flow smoothly, and surprise destinations thrive. This reconstruction explains why the personality and stability that was evident just a year or two before adolescence recedes, and suddenly new perspectives, and reactions abound.
One of the important things to remember is that what a teen does and is exposed to during this critical time in life, has a large influence on the teen’s future, because experience and current needs shape the pruning and sprouting process in the brain. So if a teen is playing lots of video games, this will shape the brain in such a way that they might become an excellent fighter pilot, but becoming an accountant or researcher will be less possible. Being the class clown will help make a good sales person later on, and running for class president will develop brain skills that are needed to run a business or take on a management position. Being exposed to drugs, computer sex, or violent movies, will also shape the brain and future of the adolescent, laying down the seeds of addiction and interpersonal conflict.” –Psychology Today
August 24th, 1991 seemed like an ordinary day to me and most people in the world. However, that was the day that everything changed for the world, and especially for my generation. That was the day the the World Wide Web was opened for public use.
By 1995, there were 16 million users. A Millennial is an individual born between the early 1980s and the year 2000. Nearly all Millennials experienced the birth of the Internet as part of their childhood development. By 1999, nearly every student in the United States had some sort of interaction with the web.
Millennials are the first generation of digital natives. What makes this different from the generation that first saw the use of personal computers in the early ‘80s, is not the developmental experience with machines themselves, but rather developmental experience with peer-to-peer digital connectivity. That connectivity originally facilitated by the birth of the web, allowing for them to have email at a young age, use MSN Messenger with multiple friends at the same time, and blog by the late ‘90s. The idea of having a voice in the world is something that is directly infused into the fabric of the Millennial brain.
A 2011 paper from the University of Nebraska at Omaha states as follows:
“...20 percent of Millennials began using computers between the ages of five and eight, an age when previous generations were still building with blocks and drawing with crayons. Of this population 72 percent checks e-mail at least once a day, and 78 percent browse the web for fun, activities unheard of for Boomers and Generation Y workers (Connaway et al., 2008, p. 125). These findings are paralleled in Prensky’s (2001b) article “Digital natives, digital immigrants”, which found even before they even leave college, on average, over 200,000 e-mails and instant messages have been sent and received by each Millennial student.“ –University of Omaha
Jeff Fromm, the self proclaimed “Millennial Marketing Guy™” (even though he’s 100% a baby boomer) put it very well in his work that Millennials’ consumer behavior is adopted by older generations. This is especially true moving forward as not only are baby boomers beginning to leave the workforce into retirement, but they are also dying off. In 2015 we are now seeing that Millennials are replacing boomers as the largest single demographic in the world. –Pew Research
One great example of this was the very intentional Facebook rollout plan. From 2004 until mid-2006, Facebook was only accessible if you had an .edu email. It was designed to target the earliest Millennial generation as the early adopters before it was released to the general public – a very concrete foundation for the most rapid exhumation of a user base in history.
We all had LiveJournal and Myspace. I was Tavia Romar’s dorm room when Facebook came to the University of Washington in 2006-07. “You need a Facebook account.” She said. “I don’t need one, I have all my friends on Myspace.”
“Too late, I just signed you up.” Every since that day, my name changed. Up until that point my friends and family called me Danny. I’d change my preference depending on the situation. Sometimes I went by Daniel. Since that day, every new person I met, I introduced myself as Danny, in case we were going to connect on Facebook, I had to be consistent. Facebook and Tavia Romar branded me.
What this means about millennials:
- There is no difference between the digital world and the physical world in the way our brains have developed: Digital immigrants think of the Internet more as an evolving directory, or index. Millennials do not see the border between what is online and what is the physical world from a psychological perspective. Services that bridge the gap like Uber will become more and more commonplace. Small businesses must be ready to adapt to instantly make their in person services accessible for real time digital booking. Two biggest keys for success will be user experience and ease of use. There is a good reason why Uber was used as a case study prior to the release of the Apple Watch. The most important piece of this is accessibility.
- We seek out and adopt better ways to communicate: Millennials are the fastest to adopt new technologies. This is not because we just want what’s new and shiny. We see it as a form of exploration of our world and ourselves. We don’t see ourselves as beta testers, but as explorers. The adoption of new technology is no longer isolated to specialized enthusiasts (aka nerds). The exploration of new technology is an exciting and inspiring adventure that helps make our lives interesting. The success of each new technology is not based on its actual functionality, but on its ability to be simply assimilated into everyday life. New technology is considered an opportunity to enhance the consumer’s life, whether that be in the field of efficiency, health, entertainment, or community building. The bottom line is we want to be able to communicate better and in new ways. Whether that be with our friends, our tools, our homes, or the greater network on the internet. Our brains are wired to want to make new connections.
- Our brains are wired for intuitive adoption of change: Due to the massive amount of information we process every day, communication and language itself must be simplified as much as possible. We rely on two massive changes in communication: expansion of form to more universal languages and simplification of design. Millennials are a very diverse group of people spanning every continent. We are multicultural and diverse, but we share commonalities. Just like in establishing communication between new groups of people the first step must be to boil down communication to its most common basic elements.
- Do not use metaphor: as they are different for everyone.
- Use beautiful, simple images.
- Look at Ikea, while no one likes putting together their furniture, the reason why they are so successful is because everyone can do it regardless of what language. The most revolutionary part of Apple’s relaunch in the late ‘90s was the simplicity of it’s set up (plug it in and press “on”)
- We feel, we don’t read. This tactile view of the world has been carefully sculpted not by engineers, but by designers. Designers are not interested primarily in just making something beautiful, but good design takes into account the way people actually interact with an object and allow the product to be modelable to achieve the desired action.
- Computer user experience technology is a language that is evolving. Native speakers can understand new evolutions of this similar to the way audiences of Shakespeare were able to understand the 30,000 new words he invented for his plays. Each new word is a logical elaboration on something that the audience is already familiar with.
- We feel empowered to make quick and informed decisions because of our access to information. With an Internet-ready device in nearly everyone’s pocket, we have the ability to educate ourselves on every decision, from what film to watch to what kind of car to buy. This massive amount of information doesn’t extend our decision process, however. Rather it shortens it, because we feel we are able to access and summarize far more quickly.
- The most important information that we can source is other people’s’ opinions, as they are generally considered unbiased and relatable. For this reason reputation management and reviews are something that brands should carefully curate with their happy customers, and personally address with their unhappy customers.
- We read and remember less, because we feel our knowledge is augmented by real time access. Steve Jobs used a famous metaphor for the role he saw that computers have in society. In his famous “lost interview,” he mentions a textbook comparing the land running speed of every animal on earth that he read as a kid. Humans were in the middle on the chart. However, he pointed out that some genius also added a human on a bicycle, placing humans on a completely different plane. He stated that his goal was to build the bicycle of the human brain. This concept is one of the foundations to our evolution as humans. Our success has always been based on our ability to use tools to augment our natural talents. Before the invention of paper, the ancient Greeks used specialists called bards to memorize all of their epic tales, for performance. This was true of many ancient societies. While after the invention of side spread written communication the requirement for such memorization was no longer needed, the advancement form memorized and oral communication of knowledge, to written, saw a loss of the art of extensive memorization, it greatly democratized access to information. The same transition is happening today.
- Because we have so much access to information, we have to summarize it as quickly as possible. We also have tools for doing just that. That is where search engines have greatly assisted over the past 20 years. The entire point of the Google algorithm was to consolidate and summarize the most important information iN the shortest amount of time so the user can see the most credible and relevant information as quickly as possible. This is evidence in the way that meta titles and descriptions are displayed in search results, as well as web standards of the proper use of headers, and subheaders to organize thoughts. This is also apparent in leisure reading. Most people do not read entire blog posts about the top 10 ways to achieve your beach body. They read the bullet points, then we choose what we want to learn more about, and read that section in detail, if it fancies our interest.