Digital Immigrants vs. Digital Natives

The word “digital” can fool you when you hear about how difficult it is for digital natives and digital immigrants to communicate. There is a generational gap between these two groups that originates from the very different worldviews they each represent.

What is Digital Natives and Digital Immigrants?

Digital immigrants mean people born or brought up before the widespread use of digital technology.

Digital natives is the generation of people born during or after the rise of digital technologies.

When did you go online for the first time?

If you ask somebody if they remember the first time they visited the web through a computer, where they were and what they looked at, the digital immigrants usually remember and the digital natives wonder why you ask a strange question like that! To the latter, it’s as crazy as asking the digital immigrants if they remember the first time they read a newspaper, where they were and what the article was about!


Digital natives view the world horizontally, and rather than dividing the world into hierarchies, they see everyone as existing on an equal level. They embrace the benefits of sharing things and ideas with each other and they break traditional boundaries. Digital Natives are truly driven by values. Many of them are distrustful of traditional, cultural and social institutions. In opting out of these institutions, they have declared themselves micro segments of one — like free agents.

The advantage of a digital native’s worldview is the genuine democracy and equality that comes out of their rejection of centralized and control based forms of governance. The downside is that they’re unlikely to build anything that requires intensive capital, tangled complexity or tremendous magnitude — going to the moon, curing cancer, recreating the power grid; large-scale projects that need vertical organisation by goal-oriented, focused people.

Where digital natives imagine a world with little institutional structure and open access to people of diverse backgrounds, the culture of digital immigrants is a meritocracy. Typically a more aggressive, competitive and results-obsessed generation, their younger associates often see them as cutthroat. The advantage here is productivity: Digital immigrants are goal oriented as opposed to the value orientation of the digital natives. While they have the ability to get things done quickly they may overlook the long-term consequences of their actions. A common manifestation is “win at all costs” worldview.

The funny thing here is that digital immigrants, for the most part, invented the complex technologies and systems that digital natives use fluently — Internet, microchips, cloud, etc. In this way, digital natives and digital immigrants can and must grow to work together and learn from each other.

So what can digital natives teach digital immigrants?

  • To collaborate across boundaries, with a variety of people
  • To make a place in life for values
  • To build solutions that are horizontal

What can digital immigrants teach digital natives?

  • To achieve goals, often quickly
  • To use focused resources in building things, possible to scale
  • To revitalise or repurpose existing organisations

Digital immigrants may have invented the technologies that digital natives use but they did not accurately anticipate how they would use them. For example, text messaging/sms was developed in the 1980s as an easy way for service engineers to quickly communicate regarding outages and replacement parts. It would have been unimaginable then that young people would chat and use Twitter using the service instead of talking on the phone. It is the combination of the two worldviews that has produced for better or worse a new form of communication and multibillion-dollar industry. If you allow an opening in your organisation for an on-going dialogue between digital immigrants and digital natives, you will achieve things that otherwise would not happen.

I believe that we will see a full circle soon: The children of the digital natives will act like the digital immigrants, in a refined and improved way. The reason is that historically we tend to see the world differently from the generation who is before us, and generations are simply oppositional in nature. And they do not have to be at odds with each other. It’s about talking with and learning from people who you normally would not work with, who see things differently from the way that you do. So, what will you do to start a dialogue with a generational stranger, your digital other, in your company?

The digital immigrants vs. digital natives metaphor

It’s not about what people know, or can do, with technology. Everyone has to learn in one way or the other. It’s about culture and attitudes.

The digital immigrants lived in two cultures: The pre-digital and the digital. The digital natives only know the digital culture. Many of the digital immigrants’ attitudes and preferences were formed, and reflect upon, in the pre-digital culture.

The digital natives vs. digital immigrants metaphor is a shorthand way of expressing that many of the attitudes formed by those who grew up in the old, pre-digital culture clash with those of the natives, whose attitudes were formed in the new, digital culture — independently of what each may “know” about how online and digital works.

What does the culture look like in your company? How do you handle integrated teams of digital immigrants and digital natives in your organisation? And do you yet have natives in top management or in your board?

If you want to learn more about best practices for organising modern marketing and communications teams please get in touch with Zooma.

This blogpost is originally published at

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