In the last 20 years, internet usage has exponentially grown; in fact, according to the UN (2017), there are currently approximately 3.5 billion internet users. Each one of these users engages with the web in a range of ways; David White and Alison Cornu (2011) attempt to describe this ‘continuum of modes of engagement’ with the concepts of digital ‘Visitors’ and ‘Residents’.
Their typology aims to replace the works of Prensky (2001) who categorised users as digital ‘natives’ and ‘immigrants’. Prensky believed that older generations born before the digital age were ‘foreign’ to technology and thus ‘immigrants’ with limited technological capabilities. Conversely, younger generations were ‘native’ speakers of the digital language. His clear distinction stated that even when ‘immigrants’ became familiar with technology; they would never be fluent users, permanently asserting them as technologically inept.
However, despite being influential for over a decade, Prensky’s theory has recently been criticised on two fronts. Firstly, due to the predominant focus on age, users can’t move between the categories despite improving or regressing in competency – his theory was too rigid. Secondly, as Mckenzie (2007) writes, the theory is based on ‘thinly supported claims’. He does not acknowledge other non-age-related factors, such as, internet usage and needs, or access to digital technology; therefore, his theory is also too generalised.
To correct this, White and Cornu (2011) replaces Prensky’s flawed paradigm with one that makes sure not to make the same mistakes; digital ‘Visitors’ and ‘Residents’. As seen below, ‘Visitors’ go online for a specific purpose, and once fulfilled return offline. Whereas, ‘Residents’ use the web to enrich their identity whilst communicating on a variety of social media platforms. Instead of pigeonholing groups according to their age, White and Cornu establish a ‘continuum’ which can change according to the individual’s internet usage.
(Cardiff University, 2014)
I personally find this alternative to be more accurate. My sister was born in the ‘digital age’, but is a ‘visitor’ as she only uses the internet for quick google searches and for the odd shopping spree. Conversely, as a resident, I am glued to my phone and would be lost without the internet. I have also witnessed the ‘continuum’ element. My dad who was technologically hopeless, has somehow upped his game since I’ve been at university; he’s now poking me on Facebook and Whatsapp’ing me dad jokes and old memes. Thus proving that age is not a predominant indicator of digital usage, and that users can transition across the spectrum.