Generations, demographics

Posted on April 22, 2009 under mw2009, ncph2009, public history

In the very last session at Museums and the Web last weekend, Darren Peacock gave a provocative presentation arguing that our current methods of theorizing and evaluating participation in social media are misguided and ineffective, and that we need to complicate our analyses.

He described the emphasis on the new digital generation and so on as a marketing ploy rather than a real description or prediction of how people interact with technology and called for an understanding of the long tail of participation.  He concluded that we need to make explicit bargains with visitors and base our interactions on trust and  mutual expectations.  This requires a better understanding of motivation and rewards.  A lively discussion followed both on the floor and on the backchannel.

What caught my attention was his brief discussion of the inadequacy of the “born digital” rhetoric for capturing how people of all generations and demographics adopt and use the web.

Yet some other recent work from the Pew Internet Project raises questions about generational typecasting when it comes to on-line behavior. Patterns of use are not always as predictable between generations as is sometimes assumed. Gen Y is not the only ‘Internet generation’ (Pew, 2009). Based on such evidence, it would appear that there is no longer such a thing as a typical user of any technology, as generation, life stage, skill, experience and access to technology increasingly fragment user populations. Nonetheless, the temptation to create reductionist user typologies is strong.

The discourse of young people as power users has become a commonplace in discussions of connecting to visitors–but also in internal discussions in our museums and professional organizations.  At the NCPH conference a few weeks ago, folks spent a great deal of time talking about the “new generation” of public historians and how our tech skills and inclinations will be changing the field.  At our closing plenary, some colleagues stood up and actually referred to themselves as “greyhairs” in a discussion of what they see as a passing of the torch to folks currently in school for public history.  At the same time, it was mentioned that NCPH does a good job of integrating grad students into the conference.  Luckily, some of these ideas were challenged and complicated (and thanks to Denise Meringolo for posting about this session):

I don’t dispute the fact that today’s students and new professionals bring fresh perspectives to the practice of public history, not to mention a new web of relationships that will most definitely enable our field to continue its evolution. However, the suggestion that this is a unique generational change might be misleading.

Vivian Rose put the pieces together. Her comments on the centrality of relationships in our work help explain why the field has always been fluid. Public history happens at the intersection of a series of complex personal and professional conversations that challenge distinctions between experts and audiences, curators and professors, “us” and “them,” older and younger.

This generational us and them, greyhairs and students, leaves many people out, and doesn’t start to describe how we actually do history, and creates strange barriers between colleagues.  At mw2009, there was no rhetoric about including grad students and young professionals in the conference, they just did it.  There was an amazing sense of cameraderie, collegiality and crossing of boundaries.  Historians take note. Let’s give up this talking about generational change and actually listen to each other.

6 Comments on “Generations, demographics”

  1. “This generational us and them, greyhairs and students”

    I have to laugh. where does that leave me? I am returning to finish a MA in History at the age of 57 (yep my beard is grey).

    I think in some ways I can integrate the Web with traditional study (they still publish books right!) as well as anyone. I didn’t grow up using the web, however I have learned to use it. Because it wasn’t second nature I am able to gain much online but I have not lost my basic skepticism (I actually miss footnotes online).

    BTW Blogs like these will add much to the expansion of the discussion of Historical issues. Thanks for publishing them.

  2. Yeah, “digital natives” is one of those trendy yet unexamined formulations that metastasizes quickly if not challenged. I used to teach about 100 undergraduates online each semester and I had plenty of 20 year olds who did not know how to change the subject line in an email or attach a file or for that matter to use the shift key.

    Yes, they Facebook, and that and a few other things are held up as signs of digital sophistication. But Facebook is popular because it is dead easy, almost idiot-proof. Facebook is to producing web content as those cash registers at McDonalds–the ones with little pictures of the various hamburgers on the keys–is to retail. Only someone who has never used Facebook would hold it up as a sign of digital sophistication–which is a pretty good description of those who talk about “digital natives.”

  3. It’s funny, when I think of a digital native, my first thought is my father, who now gets a senior discount at movies. He was involved in the early days of the internet, part of CNIDR and the Global Schoolhouse. He got me my first email account, and he picks up new trends before I do (he bugged me into using twitter).

    I’m in my late 20s, and a digital native too, I suppose, but I don’t think the internet really knows how one is.

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