Mark Zuckerberg, the 24-year-old founder of Facebook, is a fan of Don Tapscott. And the admiration is mutual.
Early in Grown Up Digital, Tapscott fleshes out an anecdote that Zuckerberg has recounted a few times in lecture theatres and at technology conferences about his time at Harvard. Facing his first round of exams in 2004, Zuckerberg was acutely aware of how he had neglected to read any of the set texts or even attend lectures for a module he was taking on ‘Art in the time of Augustus’. The reasons: he was too busy creating a cool new web environment to help students get to know one another and share information.
A few days before the exam, Zuckerberg was, in his words, “completely screwed”, writes Tapscott. But he had an idea: create a website showing images of the key works of art from the course, with a discussion board under each. Within 24 hours, his classmates had provided notes so cogent that everyone, Zuckerberg included, passed the exam with flying colours.
For Tapscott – digital visionary, management guru, social scientist – this encapsulates the radically different mindset and behaviour of the Net Generation.
Back in 1996, Tapscott and fellow researchers interviewed 300 people under the age of 20, with the goal of understanding the impact that the then-nascent Internet was having on youth. The result was a seminal study, Growing Up Digital.
The research for the follow-up, Grown Up Digital, was much wider. A $4 million budget allowed Tapscott’s nGenera team to interview 11,000 people who have “come of age” in the Internet era, with the eldest hitting 30 in 2008 and the youngest turning 12.
This first generation to have not known a world without the Internet, mobile phones or iPods are a very different group to their baby-boomer parents or indeed their immediate progenitors, Generation X.
Eight characteristics set them apart, says Tapscott. “The Net Generation are the first real global generation; they are smarter, quicker, and more tolerant of diversity. They care about justice and society. They prize freedom, and freedom of choice. They want to customise things and make them their own. They’ll scrutinise you and your organisation. They insist on integrity – being honest, considerate and transparent, and living up to commitments. They want to have fun – even at work and at school. Speed is just normal. Innovation is part of life.”
The most fundamental shift is that the Net Generation is the authority on the new world – they know more about it, and are better placed to deliver value from it. As Tapscott points out: “Society has never before experienced en masse this phenomenon of the knowledge hierarchy being flipped on its head. What we are seeing is the first actual generation difference.”
For one, he asserts, Net Geners’ brains are different. “They process information and behave differently because they have developed brains that are functionally different from those of their parents.”
This is influenced by constant multi-tasking – homework for kids all over the world, for example, is done with Google open, the TV on as background, iPod headphones in place, Facebook/MySpace active and text messages coming and going, Tapscott observes.
For Tapscott’s generation, that would mean a complete loss of productivity; for Net Geners, he claims, but without much supporting evidence, it just makes them smarter.
Of course, the story is not all positive. There are plenty of studies that suggest the Net Generation has a worryingly short attention span, relies on Google rather than memorising information, commits far too much private detail to the Internet, is driven to plagiarise, and has little regard for intellectual property.
Digital technology is like air to the Net Generation, he says (repeatedly). They don’t talk about the Internet or mobile communications as technology, they talk about playing or working or communicating – the Internet is just the medium. To think otherwise is the equivalent of their parents thinking that the ballpoint pen is a breakthrough in communications every time they write a note. For both, the technology is transparent: it simply exists.
Why does any of this matter to business? If you understand the Net Generation, you will understand the future, says Tapscott. “You will understand how institutions and society need to change. In the culture and digital experience of these young people, you will find the new culture of work, the new marketplace…”
Tapscott is perhaps over-impressed by the positive aspects of the Net Generation, especially as he is really talking about those from income brackets where it would be unthinkable for a pre-teen to be without a MacBook or an Eee, WiFi, high-speed broadband, an iPhone and a Nintendo DS or Wii.
His gushing awe of the Net Generation may underscore a lack of objectivity, but Grown Up Digital is a timely, entertaining and stimulating exploration. It will certainly open the eyes of many from the pre-Internet generation. For anyone under 30, though, the reaction is likely to be more LOL than OMG.
Grown Up Digital: How the Net Generation is Changing the World. By Don Tapscott. Published by McGraw-Hill. ISBN: 9780071508636. Price: £15.99.