digital immigrants and natives – 2 way street

Over the past…7 years, there has been much talk of “digital natives.”  Also known as Gen Y or the NetGen and broadly defined as those born after 1980 (though I like to think there are a few from, say, 1978 that, based on how that person was raised and interacted with technology, is more native than not), this generation has some pretty defined and different characteristics from previous ones.  Specifically, digital natives interact with technology not as tools, but as organic components of their daily lives.  24/7 access to data and media, constant connectivity, multitasking (a loaded term, I know), etc.  Completely different.

Gen Y would have entered college around 1998.  That’s a pretty big lag from around 2004 when I first heard the term coined at an Apple Executive Briefing on higher education, but there is always a gap between the arrival of a new “type” of student and shifts in pedagogy, curriculum, strategy, and perhaps even personnel in response.

I am purposely using quotes here and there because there is so much attention paid to how different digital natives are from their predecessors- Gen X or digital immigrants.  There is even sometimes fear about how to deal with such students, with terminology seemingly better suited to a safari trip than a web team meeting.

While at a dinner with friends of a friend the other night, all of whom were about 45 years of age, it occurred to me that the reverse is equally true – digital natives need to be considerate of their interactions and communications with digital immigrants.  If they are not, they will remain ignorant of some significant issues and may miscommunicate due to basic presumptions that can be easily dispelled.

Making the communication between Gen X and Y a two way street is important in some very specific ways.  First, today’s Gen Y student is tomorrow’s young professional.  In the same way that managers at companies are trying to make the best use of incoming employees that try to do 100 things at a time and, in extreme cases, truly believe that they can read Facebook while meeting with a client at a law firm, these newly-minted professionals need to think about the Gen X environment in which they find themselves.

First, the obvious – you’re surrounded by Gen X managers and higher level administrators.  If Gen Y is characterized by multitasking and relatively short attention span, then be aware that Gen X wants you to slow down and focus longer.  If Gen Y wants constant connectivity, then remember that not only will your manager not have his or her smartphone holstered and ready to connect at the simplest prompt, but that doing so yourself may actually be off-putting.  Note that the most connected managers in the corporate world are still carrying Blackberry units – integration of iPhones and Android devices still lag in that sector.  And comparing the smartphone capabilities of a Blackberry to those of an iPhone is a short debate with a long list of advantages to the latter, despite RIM’s best efforts.

This nuance and distinction between “having a smartphone” and having just a Blackberry vs something more sophisticated like an iPhone/Android device integrated at the corporate level is another key issue.  Even at my educational institution, where we are working with and educating NetGen students that work with social media, networking, etc, there remains a disconnect in definitions and perhaps granularity.  We remind students not to put potentially compromising photos of themselves partying on Facebook, lest a potential employer see that page and use that against them.  Many employers think merely in terms of such profile pictures or maybe blogs (supporters of WikiLeaks will take note of that – simply voicing a supportive tone caused issues with employees of and applicants to many government-related entities).

But the reality is far more intricate.  Forget about the simple profile picture.  Facebook albums are, by default, open to viewing by all friends (at least, they are at the time of this blog post).  Even if I set my permissions very tightly, every one of my “friends,” regardless of privacy setting, can see those photos.  And it’s not just Facebook – what about YouTube videos?  Even a “harmless” video from a spring break road trip where you merely indicate you are more fun-loving than a company wants could be a problem.  MySpace, incomplete LinkedIn profiles, etc.  Gen Y has to be careful everywhere.  Yet employers may not even be thinking about all of those locations and services.  So you have Gen Y that posts stuff everywhere and therefore should be careful about everything and everyone and every item, but maybe Gen X doesn’t know enough to look in that many places anyway.   And for the most part Gen X educators and advisors are not mentioning all of those sites to Gen Y students moving into the professional world.

Or maybe they do.

During that dinner, I sat with men who were, admittedly, either self-employed or worked in fields that didn’t relate much to concerns about Gen Y postings on Facebook or even blogs.  But they were also talking about how “crazy” this “Facebook thing” was.  About how they keep getting requests from everyone to be friends and they just accept them all.  And, in perhaps the most surprising comment, about how an ex-girlfriend posted something on one of their “home pages” (wall) and he hoped that his wife, also a friend, wouldn’t see it.

If you are in fact interviewing with someone with this level of understanding of Facebook, much less YouTube, Twitter, blogs, etc, how do you handle your online presence?  How much detail do you provide?  Or leave out?  And have you simply confused the interviewer more by leaving out – or putting in – something in particular?  Do you put your resume up on a blog (I’ve seen that before)?  And if so, are you impressing them with your Gen Y-ness?  Or have they never even heard of a blog in the first place?  Forget people that don’t read them on a regular basis – I wonder how many are even aware of them, much less how one can connect blog posts with FB with twitter, etc.

I am not criticizing these dinner mates in any way.  But their comments highlight that it’s not just Gen X that has to worry about what Gen Y brings to the table.  Gen Y needs to be aware of how Gen X thinks and of what the former is aware.  And of course it differs by industry.  And the job for which you are applying.

It’s a two-way street.  And for those that feel that they can browse Facebook while meeting with a client at a law firm – you have a long, long way to go before getting the nuances of this interchange.

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