In a recent post, I looked at the terms digital immigrant and digital native, and how they have now fallen out of favour. Here I take a look at some of the alternative ways of perceiving or categorising Internet users.

Photo by babasteve

While many of us are still apparently stuck on the digital immigrant/native distinction (more on that here), the field of digital anthropology has come up with some novel ways of distinguishing between groups of Internet users.

Digital tribes

The Digital Anthropology Report of 2009 from the University of Kent is based on the analysis of around 2000 UK-based users of technology. It identifies six ´digital tribes´ who use technology and the Internet in fundamentally different ways. What are these tribes, and who belongs to them?

  • Digital extroverts (9%*):
    Unsurprisingly, these are the early adopters, or advanced users of technology
  • Timid technophobes (23%):
    People with limited technology skills, who are generally suspicious of all things digital
  • Social secretaries (13%):
    Those who  use technology particularly for social means and ends
  • First lifers (12%):
    Those who are neither for or against technology per se, and will only use a few applications that they find particularly useful
  • E-ager beavers (29%):
    Those who use technology a lot, but are less confident in creating digital artefacts than the digital extroverts
  • Web boomers (8%):
    An older group of Internet users who mainly use the Internet to access information online

[* percentages refer to the numbers of survey participants who made up each ´tribe´]

Which digital tribe do you belong to? Try this poll!

Tribes & (online)

So what do these tribes mean for those of us who teach online? A course participant´s familiarity and comfort with online learning is affected by her overall attitudes to (and past experiences with) technology. We find in our online teacher training courses, that ´digital extroverts´ might take 10 minutes to complete a specific task using a web 2.0 tool. But a ´first lifer ´or a ´web boomer´ may take 4 or 5 times longer to do the same task!

Here are some tips for online course design and for tutors. They can help deal with the varying levels of skill and confidence displayed by tribe members on your course:

  • Always provide approximate timings for tasks in your online course. But provide a reasonable time band rather than a categorical single time. So, say a task  will take ´10 – 20 minutes´, rather than ´12 minutes´. The more complex the task, the wider the time band should be (e.g. ´60 – 90 mins´, rather than ´60 – 70 mins´).
  • In your pre-course information, make your participants aware that different levels of technical skills and experience are likely to impact on how fast they work.
  • Collect information on your participants prior to the course start. You could use the course enrolment form, or an online questionnaire. Include questions that will elicit enough information for you to gauge each participant´s tribal affinity. This will help you see which participants are going to need more support working online, and you can approach them privately and directly if necessary.
  • Depending on the group, tell them about these digital tribes. Create an online poll like mine above. Share the poll results and discuss the implications, as one of your initial course socialising tasks.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on the six digital tribes described above. For example, do you think this kind of categorisation is helpful or constraining? What are the implications for you as an online tutor? What practical advice, tips or personal experiences can you share?

Nicky Hockly
The Consultants-E
March 2011