The Growing Technological Generation Gap

On the internet, things change fast. What’s popular one day may be gone the next. Remember when everyone was playing DrawSomething? Or when MySpace was the dominant social network? The cycle has grown so predictable that some analysts begin ringing death knells within days of a successful product launch.

The quick-moving nature of the digital world means that younger users come of age in a vastly different media environment than those who were born just a few years apart. Those of us in our twenties will probably remember the prevalence of AIM as a communication tool, while those who are in college likely never used it. We probably remember the magic of Facebook in its early years, while newer users treat it as a mere utility.

In 2010, the New York Times published an article on this subject entitled “The Children of Cyberspace: Old Fogies by Their 20s.” In it, tech journalist Brad Stone writes:

“Now in their 20s, those in the Net Generation, according to Dr. Rosen, spend two hours a day talking on the phone and still use e-mail frequently. The iGeneration — conceivably their younger siblings — spends considerably more time texting than talking on the phone, pays less attention to television than the older group and tends to communicate more over instant-messenger networks.”

In a recent essay on Medium, Branch co-founder Josh Miller describes his fifteen-year-old sister’s response when asked about the social media landscape among her friends. Her answer is surprising:

This is all anecdotal, and reflects one girl’s perspective of one clique at one high school. History repeats itself, though, and these trends line up with the predictable cycle. On the internet, there’s no such thing as “too big to fail.” Think of the past: AOL’s foothold was secure. MySpace was the unsurpassable king of social media. Delicious was a key component of the digital ecosystem. Every great service will eventually fall from grace.

The younger a person, the more pronounced the effects of these micro-generation gaps. The New York Times continues:

“But [ebooks, tablets, smartphones, and video chats] are also technology tools that children even 10 years older did not grow up with, and I’ve begun to think that my daughter’s generation will also be utterly unlike those that preceded it.

Researchers are exploring this notion too. They theorize that the ever-accelerating pace of technological change may be minting a series of mini-generation gaps, with each group of children uniquely influenced by the tech tools available in their formative stages of development.”

We’ve tied up so much of the human experience in transient things that generation gaps now occur closer and closer. Even kids two years apart will have grown up in completely different media environments: A middle schooler who spends much of their time on Tumblr speaks Tumblr

Throughout most of our history, technological shifts have happened gradually and without much perceptible cultural disruption. Even an event as massive as the invention of the automobile didn’t cause cultural alienation — those who hadn’t been in a car could still understand the basic concept, and even the development of the road system and car culture didn’t cause a full divide between “car people” and “non-car people.” Anyone can get something from Kerouac’s On the Road, even if they don’t identify fully with the subculture which birthed it.

On the other hand, try explaining Facebook to someone who’s never used a computer and you’ll have a much harder time. The generational divide between my grandma and I, born about 60 years apart, is vaster than that between a citizen of the Roman Republic and a farm laborer in 15th-century Britain.

Mass media changed everything, creating cultural gaps across time as well as geography. The world moved more slowly before we had daily mass communications, and it was safe to assume that each century would be similar to the previous. Governments changed, tools were invented and refined, but the human experience was always shaped by the same basic forces. Now, as simple a decision as which apps we use can alter our cultural affiliation within the greater digital society.

We should avoid falling into the classic Whippersnapper/Old-Fogey Syndrome. It’s natural for the older generations to yearn for the media environment of their youth, and for the younger to assume that their environment is superior due to sheer newness. A digital native might thumb his nose at 90s nostalgia (I want my Tamagotchi back!), just as a 90s kid might decry the addition of new Pokémon to the original 151. Neither culture is necessarily better, but they are undeniably different.

The long-term effects of this phenomenon are unclear. The digital world is still too new for us to have conclusive research on just about anything — we’re charting new territory. Much depends on whether technological development is truly exponential — if so, these gaps will get more and more frequent — or if it will eventually plateau. Personally, I believe things will smooth out, leaving the members of different micro-generations with their own smaller cultural experiences that are part of the larger whole. Perhaps we will all wind up speaking different dialects of the same digital language.


So what does this mean for us — the designers, developers, and entrepreneurs who are building the products that inhabit and influence this changing digital landscape?

First, it reminds us of the responsibility we have to our users. Our products have the capacity to change the way people think and communicate, and while we can leverage this power to sell more ads, we also have an obligation to our constituents. Facebook is a perfect example. While the ongoing debate about its privacy controls is relevant right now, the outcome will also influence the thinking of an entire generation of users. Over a billion people will have their views of privacy shaped by a single company’s terms of service — the younger the user, the more influenced they may be. Facebook’s decisions will literally change the world in ways none of us can foresee. Should those decisions be made with nothing more than short-term profits in mind?

Second, it demonstrates an opportunity. The ability to manipulate people think can be used for better or for worse, but if we’re conscious that our actions have ramifications beyond the immediate present, we can build the future we’d like to see. Facebook, Google, and Apple all think this way — there’s no reason why smaller startups can’t jump into the fray. As the ever-quickening march of culture has shown us, we can effect change faster than ever before.

A few other reasons we should care about the quickening pace of technological generations:

What do you think — do you agree? Disagree? Leave your thoughts in the comments below, or engage with us on Twitter at @industry.

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