“Getting Back in Touch” via Facebook – Digital Natives vs. Digital Immigrants

by Brian on February 19, 2009

in A Parent in Israel,Just For Fun,The Old Country

Lately, my wife Jody and I have spent a lot of time getting in touch with old friends via Facebook. It started when I received a friend request from Larry. Larry and I were best buddies growing up. But after I moved away, we fell out of touch. I’ve looked for him from time to time via Google but never found any contact information. It had been 20 years since I last spoke with him. But through the wonder of social networking, we’re back in contact.

Larry connected me to another high school friend who connected me to a college colleague. It’s been a blast.

And it got Jody and I thinking: What if there had been a Facebook when we were teenagers some 30+ years ago. The whole concept of “getting back in touch” with old friends as we are doing now simply wouldn’t exist. We’d be connected from the start and would stay that way (unless we were “unfriended” for some unforgivable offense).

As we shared status updates, we’d always know what achievements the high school jock had attained, or what type of relationship an old flame was in (undoubtedly “it’s complicated”).

That’s just one of the differences between us old fogeys and the “digital natives” – a term from the book Born Digital: Understanding the First Generation of Digital Natives by John Palfrey, director of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society – to describe young people born after 1980 for whom the Internet was already a given by the time they hit surfing age.

Lev Grossman at Time Magazine wrote a funny piece this week that echoes what I’m saying. He lists a number of reasons why social networking tools such as Facebook are even better for “digital immigrants,” as Palfrey refers to us, who didn’t grow up with social networking. Among his conclusions:

1. We’re no longer bitter about high school. Digital natives may be “hung up on any number of petty slights,” Grossman says, but when a person who insulted us way back when asks to friend us today, we say sure. Because we’re bigger than that now.

2. Facebook isn’t just a social network; it’s a business network. Sure, LinkedIn may “officially” be the professional social media tool, but it’s Facebook, with its 175 million users (and counting), where we make most of our work connections.

3. Facebook lets you share pictures of your children. Digital natives may be snapping shots of friends at school or the beach, but we’re just kvelling by posting albums of our grand kids.

4. Facebook means you don’t have to remember e-mail addresses. Just log on and search. You never have to leave the walled garden.

5. We’re more careful about our privacy. You won’t see us posting half-clothed drunken pictures of ourselves at a fraternity party that may lead to a potential employer, looking to vett a job candidate via Google, to disqualify us without even getting to the interview.

Indeed, the relationship to privacy is probably the biggest difference between digital immigrants and natives, the latter of whom have no problem living their lives entirely in public.

For example, my teenager daughter Merav last night bemoaned the fact that her grandparents asked about her new boyfriend. “That’s my private business,” she wailed. “They have no right going there.”

“But you posted it all in your status for everyone to see!” I countered. She stormed out of the room.

Now, in a controversial move that had the blogosphere up in arms this week, Facebook tried to quietly change its Terms of Service to so that if a member quits the site, his or her content will no longer be deleted.

The newly added clause read:

“The following sections will survive any termination of your use of the Facebook service: Prohibited conduct, user content, your privacy practices [and] gift credits,” among other types of data.

Facebook probably had no alternative: Once you post content, everyone else can see it and, as a result, it now becomes “owned” by the public. An example, from Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg in a blog post defending the change:

“When a person shares something like a message with a friend, two copies of that information are created—one in the person’s sent messages box and the other in their friend’s inbox. Even if the person deactivates their account, their friend still has a copy of that message.”

Not much of an apology, the blogosphere complained, and even The New York Times picked up the story.

In the end, the power of crowd won the day. Yesterday morning, every member’s Facebook home page included the following prominently placed message:

“Over the past few days, we have received a lot of feedback about the new terms we posted two weeks ago. Because of this response, we have decided to return to our previous Terms of Use while we resolve the issues that people have raised.”

The drama is undoubtedly not over yet, but round one goes to The People.

Nevertheless, none of this is likely to change the way people use Facebook. Most younger Facebook users don’t care and it won’t be long before they’re out of school and in the mainstream. The Berkman Center’s Palfrey points out, going back to the job interview example, that soon “employers are going to be digital natives themselves and [will] be a lot more lenient about what tattoos [i.e., those incriminating photos] may still show up.”

Even as a relative newcomer to Facebook, I’m not going to complain because I get so much out of the system. If I ask a business question, I immediately get a slew of responses. If I post that I’ve caught a cold (like I did this week), in come the condolences from around the world (a phenomena that goes a long way to helping span the wide divide between Israel and “the old country”).

And when I want to get in touch with an old friend, like Larry, there’s nothing to compare. I’m living my life in public too. It’s just one more way the digital generation gap is blurring.

Click here to read the full interview with Palfrey.

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