Visitors and residents: understanding digital behaviours

Understanding digital behaviour can help us improve the way we deliver and facilitate access to information.

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Digital natives. It's a phrase that's been commonly used in the media for some time now. Whether it's in scare stories about the "decline in reading" to a supposed shift in work environments to how people engage in the democratic process, it's a term and an idea that is pervasive when it comes to how we talk about the ways in which people use the internet. Pervasive, and yet entirely misguided. There is, of course, no such thing as a digital native, it's a lazy reductive media term to describe a much more complex set of behaviours.

The theory of digital natives emerged as a result of a paper by Marc Prensky called Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants [PDF] in which he noted a radical change in students thanks to their immersion in new digital technologies. Prensky labelled these students as "digital natives - 'native speakers' of the digital language of computers, video games and the internet". Alternatively, Prensky identified those that were not born into the digital world but have latterly adopted the technologies as "digital immigrants" - ultimately dividing individuals between the two groups when it comes to digital technologies.

Of course, this theory now sounds not only misguided, but dangerous given the assumptions it makes about individuals and how they engage in digital spaces. Indeed, since espousing this theory, Prensky has moved on from this notion of natives and immigrants inhabiting digital spaces. However, this theory still maintains a hold on media narratives due to the simplistic interpretation of a complex idea that divides people neatly into two camps. So if even Prensky has moved on from this model, how can we effectively describe and identify the use of digital technologies?

In 2011, David White and Alison Le Cornu posited a new way of looking at how people engage with digital technologies. Acknowledging the flaws in Prensky's theory, they argue that the actual picture is far more complex. For White and Le Cornu, engagement with digital technologies isn’t so much a fixed thing (ie you are either a "native" or an "immigrant"), rather they propose that engagement with digital spaces is actually on a continuum. In their paper, Visitors and Residents: A new typology for online engagement, they introduce the concept of two particular types of behaviour - visitor behaviour and resident behaviour. These behaviours are defined as follows:

Visitor – visitors get what they want and go, they don't see the internet as a social space and have no interest in prolonged engagement.

Residents – residents see the internet as a social space and are happy to engage with others.

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