Will the Real Net-Geners Please Stand Up ?

It’s probably no surprise that most Net-Geners are not exactly the tech-saavy, content creating, luddite-hating breed that some imagined them to be. They are not even a particularly homogeneous group. They still divide out among the lines of culture, gender and socioeconomic status – particularly in the area of digital literacy.

Sure, the 18-24 year olds of today are way more socially motivated and digitally connected (see MySpace/Facebook) than previous generations. But, maybe the more interesting question is: why? Does one person really need 100 friends and are friends so dispensable that they can be dropped at a moment’s notice when one decides to quit Facebook “cold turkey”?

Maybe the real Net-Geners are just as consumer driven as previous generations, except now the commodity is social connection. Might Facebook be the new face of consumerism ? I don’t know.

In my own observation of the Net-Gen students I am connected to in my work and as a parent, I see a slightly different picture than the one that is most often portrayed. I see a group of smart, thoughtful, network saavy people who learn most things quickly and are not afraid of technology, even though they may only be using it in the most superficial way.

Here are a few mashed together comments from some (perhaps not so typical Net-Geners) that I’ve interacted with:

We’ve grown up with computers, they’re no big thing, just a tool to do stuff with. And what we don’t know how to do we learn about – from the web, from our friends, …and if it’s not easy to use, we’ll move on.

I use Facebook, but they do the work for you – setting up a page is easy – I really don’t know how it works.

I enter text on a wiki that I am using for my project – but it’s pretty basic. I don’t really know what a wiki could help me do.

I don’t know what Netvibes or Pageflakes are or why I would use them.

RSS? What’s that? Why would I want to know?

I tried out some of the tools we were shown on the weekend and thought about how I could use them. They are amazing and will help me alot. Glad I know about them now.

I am recovering from Facebook this term. I just quit.

So, it seems, that, at least these Net-Geners, want to be introduced to the tools, supported in how best to use them and have a listening ear when social pastime becomes addiction. Most of this is consistent with findings reported in a recently summarized survey on student use of technology out of Arizona State University. While the majority of students surveyed used technologies that supported social activity (using IM, listening to and sharing music, checking MySpace/Facebook accounts) less than 8% were creating podcasts, videos or audio recordings. It seems that the 1% rule applies to many Net-Geners.

And then there’s that 1%. There are techno-curious and inspired students learning about and using technologies that are not yet widely supported an an institutional level. And some are doing this because they want to – not because they need to.

Consider this example from Mani (a UBC undergraduate) who developed this blog for a student directed seminar on Iranian History and Literature. What was important to Mani in getting this project off the ground? He says:

information, support and access to resources.

Is this so different from anyone, in any generation who is learning something new?
LEAP provided the information. OLT provided the support and the access.

Maybe Net-Geners (whomever they are) need us to provide support and guidance and a little balance at a time when their worlds are (maybe) a little crazier than ours. And we need them to inspire us and the generation that comes after them. And, maybe, we can all take a breath and ask ourselves why we do what we do? How does it enrich our lives, What does it take away? What are the tradeoffs? We all live in a world where attention-deficit has become the norm. Do we like where we are?

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