What Digital Natives Can Teach Us About Publishing

First, I don’t really believe in the idea of “digital natives.”

Digital natives are the students entering college right now who have never experienced life without the Internet. (See more about the history of the term at Wikipedia.)

At UC, I’m teaching roomfuls of these so-called digital natives, and while I’m learning A LOT from my experience, it’s not because they’re “better” than me when it comes to digital technology (or life lived online vs. offline).

Yet my interactions have clarified a few things about the digital native mindset that might be instructive for the print-focused writers/authors who automatically say, “I don’t have time for that” in reference social media—or who automatically equate online/tech with time-wasting, or some lower value activity, or whatever is deemed not-as-good-as WRITING A BOOK.

The comments in this post—where I said to stop using social media if you really hate it—didn’t mean that success is found by ignoring the “distraction” of social media. My larger point was that, if you have any imagination at all, I’m sure you can find something you love to do that brings you closer to readers.

I tend to cringe when writers gasp, “Oh, finally! I can focus on WRITING A BOOK.”

Because writing, reading, and all the lovely things associated with literary culture are not dependent on book form. (Read this post for one of the best commentaries EVER on this issue.)

So here is what writers/authors might like to know about so-called “digital native” mindset. (Note: Everyone needs to learn digital literacy skills. We are not born
with such skills, and this is why I’m not fond of the “digital native” label.)

  • Connection is highly valued. There’s acceptance that what we experience online is all within a shifting, hybrid environment. There’s an understanding of the risks associated with online identities, but also an instinct about handling paradoxes inherent in online identity and self-expression.
  • Media neutral. There are many ways to access entertainment or information, and the most valuable content doesn’t have to be physically produced/available to be worthy or credible.
  • Focused on passion. Many of my students feel free to completely ignore topics/subjects/lectures they’re not personally interested in. What they care about is doing stuff they love. I’ve read articles that point out the younger generations are afraid they will end up doing things in life they hate. While there’s an entire book on this single bullet-point alone, the larger message I hope print-focused authors/writers can take away is: As long as you’re doing what you love, does it matter if the expression takes a digital or physical form? Or that a publisher rubber-stamps it?

    I guess you could argue your passion might be specifically for the physical/print form, but people fool themselves about that all the time. Growing up in a print culture, we’re inclined to think of print first, but digging deeper, we usually have concerns that aren’t tied to PRINT BOOKS, but tied to READING AND WRITING. (Again, see this post!)

It will sound a little crass/business-y for me to say it, but realize that if you’re a writer focused on getting into print, you might not be as competitive against other writers without the print hang-up—who can express their creative potential in other dynamic and powerful ways, and sometimes reach more people doing so.

Photo credit: cole007

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6 thoughts on “What Digital Natives Can Teach Us About Publishing

  1. Steven M Moore

    Hi Jane!
    Here’s a slightly different wrinkle on the oxymoron "digital native": the phrase "digital savage" is more appropriate! Such a person is a specific kind of technological savage. People used MS Office and e-mail and thought they understood computers. Now people fly through apps, those puny little programs on iPads, iPhones, and smart phones, and think they understand what they’re doing. People use their remotes to browse 999 cable channels. Very few have any clue as to how any of modern digital technology–computers and communications–really works. Moreover, they don’t care–so it might as well be magic. Hence the word savage, although some might find "user" to be less insulting.
    Arthur C. Clarke once stated that in any encounter with a really advanced alien civilization, we would consider their technology to be magic. He failed to imagine the same thing happening within our own culture. People generally don’t call our technological wonders magic, but they are–real magic, not Harry Potter magic. What people don’t realize is that by not understanding at least a little of the magic, they are at the mercy of those who do, and the latter may not always be working in our interests, but theirs. C. M. Kornbluth wrote a very funny short story titled "The Marching Morons," where a benevolent elite controlled the rest of humanity. Let’s not let this happen to us because that real elite may not be so benevolent.
    In a sense, our digital and/or technological savagery just reflects the sorry state of education. I don’t know the solution to the problems, but I do know we shouldn’t cover them up.

  2. David Weedmark

    Hi Jane,
    I think your last point is of primary importance. I’ve spoken to many writers/aspiring-writers, young and old, who hold the idea of a published book aloft, as some fruit to picked some day in the distant future. The stigma of digital media reminds me of how people once looked upon paperbacks (in the era of dime store novels) compared to "literature". Older writers seem to focus on the form of the book (being in print), whereas younger writers focus more on the authority it appears to wield, that it has gone through a process of approval, academic or otherwise. In either case, this stigma is a powerful tool of procrastination. Although digital media has much more reach than a book has ever had, too many talented writers put such little thought into their online content – writing quickly without a goal in mind, and seldom proof-reading – while leaving their "serious" work for some distant day that may never arrive.

  3. Porter Anderson

    Nicely handled, Jane, and timely, too, ahead of the digital focus in the TOC (Tools of Change) conference next week.

    I second your thoughts on the implication many writers feel — that we’re behind or outdated — when we’re not right on the crest of tech waves rolling around us: "Everyone needs to learn digital literacy skills. We are not born with such skills, and this is why I’m not fond of the "digital native" label." Well said.

    I also like what Dr. Lowell is saying in his comment above, "Finding the 10% that’s relevant to ME is really the important notion."

    As you’re both saying, the wide-open accessibility of the digital movement involves connection for any reader, to the right content and the right relationships, something @DanBlank at We Grow Media consistently points out to authors.

    Congrats, and keep an eye on #toccon on Feb. 14-16 — I and others will be tweeting sessions from the conference relative to just these issues. Many thanks for this clarifying, thoughtful post. -p. (@Porter_Anderson)

  4. Jane Friedman

    WONDERFUL comment. Thanks so much for taking the time to read and share. Yes, you’ve clearly studied this issue up-close, far more than I have. If we’re in the same neck of the woods sometime, a coffee (or bourbon) is in order …

  5. Nathan Lowell

    Hey, you kids! Get off my LAN!

    First, the "digital native" construct that Prensky posits in his 2001 work is based on a research methodology that’s pretty badly flawed. As a way of labeling a group of people who’ve been born since 1970, I believe it’s of marginal utility. Their minds are not "wired differently," they’ve just got more practice. Adults aren’t excused from not learning the language because it’s not a language. Fluency is a factor, but fluency is dependent on experience, not "wiring."

    Second, these three qualities really do represent the values held by those who are active in the New Media space–regardless of when they might have been born. Podcast, vodcast, blogging — all the recognized social media outlets and more — represent connection. We’re all content producers, all content consumers. Value is in the story, regardless of what your story is or how you tell it.

    That is not to go back to the "Content is King" mantra because Sturgeon’s Law holds that "content is crap" … or at least 90% of it is. Finding the 10% that’s relevant to ME is really the important notion. Connection and passion provides the basis for a network of relationships where I am able to find the stuff I like faster and easier. Further, media neutrality (actually a preference for digital media) means I can get that content faster and cheaper than I have ever been able to before.

    On the other side, as an author, a producer of content in both audio and text, as a story teller in glowing phosphors and digital beats, the relationships which allow me to find that content I most care about is a two way flow. Those same relationships become conduits directly to my audience. Those people who are most passionate about MY work because for them I’m part of the 10%.

    And yeah, I’ve studied this stuff a lot in the last thirty years.

    Nathan Lowell, Ph.D.
    Digital Aboriginal