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born digital

Contributor(s): Ivy Wigmore

Born digital, in reference to people, is a description of individuals who have grown up with the current state of ubiquitous computing and communications, typified by technology like smartphones, social media and near-continuous Wi-Fi networks.

These individuals are sometimes described as “digital natives” – people for whom the current state is a natural and comfortable environment because they were born into that scenario and have known no other world. The term contrasts with  “digital settlers” – people who didn’t grow up with the current technologies but who have adopted them and adapted to the changing environment -- and “digital immigrants” – people who grew up without the current technologies and who have come to them so late that they are still largely baffled by them.

Demographics for digital natives are usually considered to include the millennial generation (sometimes referred to as "Generation Y"), who came of age roughly around the turn of the 21st century, and the generation following them, sometimes referred to as Generation Z. Some researchers also include later-born members of Generation X, which preceded the Millennials.

Authors John Palfrey and Urs Gasser popularized the term in their 2008 book, Born Digital.  According to Palfrey and Gasser, for digital natives, there is less recognition of geographical, cultural and workplace boundaries. The BYOD (bring your own device) trend, for example, is usually thought to be a result of the Millennials' desire to be constantly connected. The authors maintain that the traits, habits and expectations of digital natives mean that they require a new approach to education and workforce management.

The term born digital is also used in reference to things other than people. Born digital resources, for example are materials that were created in a digital format rather than created in an analog format and digitized, and a born digital company is one that has always used and embraced the same technologies that digital natives take for granted.

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This was last updated in October 2015

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