Whose Eyes Are Checking Out That Digital Content?

In his recent post over at the Changing Aging blog, Kavan Peterson describes a short video, Forwarders. Intended as a parody of people who continuously forward e-mail, the video reinforces stereotypes about elders and aging. It’s sad that this short film focuses solely on one older adult, especially since so many people of all ages are extreme (and irritating) forwarders.

generational tutorialsWhile it’s intended to be funny, the video’s other message is that old people with wrinkles are silly and inept — at least that’s my interpretation. I’ll bet that the video producer — I am guessing an adolescent or young adult — probably cherishes a fair number of lifelong relationships with grandparents. This parody promotes a stereotype that could have been alleviated simply by adding in a few younger characters who also need reforming. (I posit a guess about the creator/producer’s age after looking over other published web content.)

The video and others like it also raise a question. How do we help 21st Century learners who are natural Internet content “whizzes” to understand that everything uploaded is subject to interpretation?

As a teacher who concentrates on educational technology, I frequently hear the refrain, “But I did not mean to hurt that person,” usually after a student has created and uploaded what he or she considered to be amusing content. Sometimes it is, sometimes it isn’t, and sometimes various readers or viewers interpret the message differently. What my students slowly learn is that digital content may be funny to one person, not funny to another, and for some individuals downright insulting.

In today’s connected society digital natives — born into a world of computers, cell phones, and various other gadgets — find it easy to create content, but sometimes they forget that what they do and say (and upload) circulates far and wide. Different people will watch and may reach different conclusions about the work. One person’s joke can unintentionally malign others. Humor that is appropriate for a person at one age is not so funny when it’s uploaded into the world at large for everyone to see. Digital natives need to learn and respect the ways that different people view the world through slightly different lenses. Most professional writers of parody think long and hard about every detail of a project, interchanging those lenses as they create.

The rest of us, but especially boomers, grandparents, and elders, are digital immigrants, and we’ve had to learn how to navigate in a vastly different, connected culture where huge communication transformations require us to master entirely new rules-of-the-road. For those of us who remember once-a-week phone calls home, station-to-station and reversing the charges, and letter writing, all these new communication options — instant contact with everyone in our lives and the ability to share with all of them at the click of a mouse — are miracles.

From Older Adults and Internet Use, Pew Internet, 2012

From Older Adults and Internet Use, Pew Internet, 2012

Our digital natives intrinsically understand connectedness. What may be missing from their work is an emphasis on values — respect, integrity, privacy, and thoughtfulness — revered concepts that haven’t yet caught up with our instant culture. Moreover, these values sometimes get lost when we teach natives, because so many immigrants — parents and teachers — are in awe of their technology prowess. Digital natives do not always think carefully before they create, and sometimes they make unexpected and public mistakes.

Digital immigrants, on the other hand, understand the values but use far more effort and time figuring out the basics of connecting their digital gadgets and computers, and they often frustrate their younger native brethren by forever consulting user guides and instructions. Digital immigrants are prone to overgeneralizing the new concepts. (Now that I can send e-mail to everyone, I’ll do it!)

Interestingly, in 2012, according to the Pew Internet and American Life Project, the majority of people over 65 use online digital tools, so digital immigrants are not shy about going online, and this age-group is also the fastest growing segment of the digital population. Unless I am missing something here, in most families the digital natives and digital immigrants have a perfect opportunity for intergenerational tutorials and information sharing. But they have to know that they need help from one another.

The problem is, when we are talking about technology skills and values in families few of us,  look around and think about what other family members need to know or what may be misunderstood. We are way too quick at handing over a gift iPad, or computer, or new wireless phone to family members of all ages without being certain that they have the skills and values required to make these devices work well in a connected society, and we often find ourselves reacting to or laughing (or crying) about unexpected, unintentional, and extremely public mistakes.

Few of us would make fun of an immigrant misusing idioms or over-generalizing words, and extreme e-mail forwarding is just another type over-generalization. Yet the perceived nature of the Internet as a playground seems to give people license to produce and upload material that does not even  reflect the values of the creator — just like Forwarders. As we teach new skills to digital immigrants and learn from them, let’s be sure that they master the social expectations as well as the technical knowledge.

If digital natives and digital immigrants are to learn and thrive in a connected world they must  examine their work from varying perspectives, learn the social expectations, and respectfully collaborate together.

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