Natives vs. Immigrants
In 2001, Prensky proposed a distinction between two types of online users: ‘digital natives’ and ‘digital immigrants’. Prensky’s theory can be summarised as follows:
- Digital natives: The younger generation that have grown up with technology and are therefore competent digital users.
- Digital immigrants: The older generation that have not been exposed to technology from a young age, so are required to adapt to the changing digital environment.
What strikes me about this distinction is the strict categorisation by age, suggesting that the generation you are born into ultimately determines your ability to engage with digital technology. Whilst I acknowledge that it’s now normal for a 6-year-old child to pick up an iPad and know how to use it, this doesn’t mean that my curious grandparents are digitally doomed.
Visitors vs. Residents
In response to Prensky’s stereotyped view, White and Cornu (2011) proposed an alternative distinction: ‘digital visitors’ and ‘digital residents’. This concept can be summarised as follows:
- Digital visitors: Use technology to perform a specific task and then log off, leaving no identifiable social trace.
- Digital residents: Use technology to share information and interact with others, creating a social persona that exists even when not logged on.
Rather than categorising by age or skill, the concept of digital visitors/residents is based on people’s motivations for engaging with technology. It follows the idea that individuals interact with technology differently depending on the context (White, 2014). For instance, to complete a simple task, we might approach the web in ‘visitor mode’, whereas to establish an online identity, we might approach the web in ‘resident mode’ (Jisc, 2014a). Furthermore, this concept can be seen as a continuum, rather than two opposing categories. We are not either a ‘digital visitor’ or a ‘digital resident’, but somewhere along the spectrum.
After some self-reflection, I have decided that my level of online engagement is towards the digital resident end of the scale. Yet, the more I think about it, the more I think I am both a digital visitor and a digital resident in different domains. For example, academically speaking, my web use resembles that of a digital visitor, as I often use the web to find specific information but do not interact socially. However, for personal use, such as communicating with friends via social media, I would strongly consider myself a digital resident.
Harris, L., Warren, L., Leah, J., & Ashleigh, M. (2010) Small steps across the chasm: Ideas for embedding a culture of open education in the university sector. Education Technology & Social Media (Special Issue, Part 2), 16(1).
Jisc (2014b). Developing digital literacies.
Prensky, M. (2001). Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants. On The Horizon, 9(5), 1-6.
White, D. (2008). Not ‘Natives’ & ‘Immigrants’ but ‘Visitors’ & ‘Residents’. TALL blog.
White, D. (2014). Visitors and Residents (video). University of Oxford.
White, D., & Le Cornu, A. (2011). Visitors and Residents: A new typology for online engagement. First Monday, 16(9).
Figure 2: Self-produced using Canva.