The first generation of Americans to grow up in a digitally connected world both rely on and distrust the connectedness they take for granted.
I engage with millennials in my work as a business school lecturer and investor. Digital natives are now the largest demographic in our society, slightly edging out baby boomers. Their views on the digital world — both the veracity of the information they receive and how they manage their own digital persona — are illuminating and somewhat disheartening.
In speaking with them, it strikes me how clearly they distinguish between the real world — a world of physical connection with close friends — and the digital world.
“I do not think that who we portray ourselves to be online is who we are in the real world,” offered Jennifer Rosen, a student at University of Maryland. “People dress, pose and post in a certain way so that they can try to establish an image of themselves.”
“I believe that who we are on the Internet is not a true showing of who we are actually are as a person,” added Greg Cistulli, a student at Christopher Newport University. The Internet does not provide us with insight into others, he says, because “people only put what they want others to see.”
I hear this type of commentary a lot. Millennials use the Internet as a promotional tool, as a way to stay connected on a superficial level with a broader group of people, and not as a way to create “real” relationships. In a way, they view social media more like a large, multiplayer video game than as reality.
Yet, it is a game they feel that they must play, because the digital world is engrossing. “I know that if I leave my phone away from me for even a few hours I feel like I missed quite a bit in life,” says Deepak Salem, a student at University of Maryland.
Evan Monroe, a student at Christopher Newport University put it best “More often I find myself communicating” through digital means such as texting and Snapchat “instead of face-to-face conversations or even phone calls.” Yet he doesn’t welcome this tendency. “I believe that this is the future we are moving towards and I do not believe it is for the better.”
Digital natives also stay informed through their connectedness. A study released last year by the Media Insight Project proved that digital natives get most of their information about the world around them from social media. In one sample, the study found that out of 24 sample news items, 20 were sourced to digital natives through social media. They may have friends in the real world, but that is not where they get their news.
This is troubling. Digital natives gather news from an information source that they may not even trust for veracity. As one digital native described it to me, “there are very few occasions when I think that something is completely true on the Internet.” So the doubt exists, but the time and patience needed to fact check or use critical thinking doesn’t.
As we head into the Nov. 8 presidential election where digital natives just might determine the outcome and the future of our democracy, where they are getting their news is an unexpected concern. Years ago, as I and others worked to commercialize what was known in its first iteration as the World Wide Web, we believed that by creating connection and sharing news broadly and easily, we would foster a world where democracy could function more effectively. But now that the Internet is a living part of every digital native’s life, the fact that it is seen with cynicism and mindful neglect makes me wonder whether we achieved this goal.
Jonathan Aberman is a business owner, entrepreneur and founder of Tandem NSI, an Arlington-based organization that seeks to connect innovators to government agencies. He is host of “Forward Thinking Radio” on SiriusXM, a business and policy program, and lectures at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business.