September 2012 Archives

Micro-generations and libraries

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The term "generation gap" was popularized in the 60's and generations have been categorized, studied and targeted by marketers ever since. The use of Baby Boomer, Gen-X, Gen-Y is well documented and in common use. Digital Natives is another term has been used to describe characteristics of youth, specifically around how they consume content, manage social lives, and spend their free time. OCLC Research has been studying Digital Natives and related generational cohorts, in particular to learn more about their use of libraries and how they conduct research. See Lynn Connaway's work here, for example.

Recognizing that use of technology varies by generations, I often test my assumptions for new service ideas on my children, ages 9, 16 and 20. I ask them about what is new, what is tired and what they wish existed. Yes, I am a different kind of helicopter parent! After many years of doing this, I have noticed some quite dramatic differences between my children, their friends and their use of technology. In casual work conversation I have started using the term "micro generation" to describe these differences. My colleague in the Innovation Lab, Tip House, suggested I write this as a blog post on these micro-generations.

Micro-generations describes the differences between technology users in roughly four-year bands. Their band tends to be defined by their school mates and when they gain access to technologies. For example, if SMS became accessible and affordable when they were in middle school (11-14 years old), it tends to define their use of that technology for a period well beyond those years. Depending on their adoption rates of technological change, they may be a leader or follower within their band but this is heavily influenced by those in the same school building, not just their grade level. I will not embarrass my children by using their real names for the following examples... and I added a fictitious older cousin to describe my view of micro-generations.

Jessica, a Mobile Immigrant

  • Born 1986-1990
  • She didn't get her own phone until at least High School, but her parents have owned a mobile phone as long as she can remember.
  • She started using a computer just as the web emerged, but she has been quick to adopt mobile access such that mobile access is her primary means of connectivity now.
  • Jessica still thinks of the phone as a separate, optional device to her laptop and still struggles a bit with device choices.
  • Jessica has graduated college but cannot find work in her degree area.
Christopher, an SMS Native

  • Born 1990-1994
  • He received his first cell phone on a family plan with SMS access in 7th grade.
  • He fought with his parents over text message limits and laughed at his parent's clumsy use of mobile devices.
  • He was capable of texting at rates of 10-12,000 messages per month on a 12-key flip phone, with his eyes closed.
  • Mobile devices are Chris' primary access to entertainment reading but increasingly, he is using them for textbooks.
  • Chris is still in college and has made a few low-key attempts at starting a business.
Ashley, a Feature Phone Native

  • Born 1994-1998
  • Her first phone was a feature phone with QWERTY keyboard and unlimited text messaging.
  • She fought with parents over "accidental" ringtone downloads and web KB data usage
  • She texts with friends but prefers to talk in person and she has been pulled toward the less-mobile web by Facebook and StumbleUpon.
  • Ashley is in high school, accumulating a lengthy resume of college application fodder. She doesn't think the best careers will be at large corporations.
Jacob, a Smart Phone Native
  • Born 1998-2002
  • Jacob's first phone is an iPhone hand-me-down from his parents. He doesn't have a wireless contract but is connected solely via home or free WiFi.
  • Jacob loves Angry Birds and other games on his iPhone and easily installs games on his mom's e-readers while at his sister's school events.
  • Jacob easily picks up and uses any mobile device without an opinion on Apple-Google-Microsoft. He uses what works and disregards anything that doesn't. If he is prompted to upgrade an OS on a device, he just puts it down and moves to something that works. He rarely uses a computer to access the web for anything.
  • Jacob is trying to be big-man-on-campus in elementary school and wants to be a professional soccer player. 
Why am I naming these generations in terms of mobile?

I believe we are at the precipice of the next revolution in technology. I don't see the current iterations of apps and web services leading to a revolution... but rather negatively creating an environment with a void to be filled. The business and software architects of the services we use today are likely building on a foundation of knowledge that is pre-mobile. In the best case, they are pasting mobile access onto sites which were born on the web. More likely, they are building mobile access to businesses that pre-date the web.

Consider modern information technology revolutions and their widespread adoption: Email, Internet, Web, and Social. The triggering events are spaced out about every 4-7 years. Could it be that the driver for each of these changes was the incoming micro-generation being unhappy with the tools of their predecessor? What micro-generation is joining the workforce today? The Christophers are about to enter the workforce as the first micro-generation of mobile natives! They have been using mobile devices for almost 20 years. Let's face it; the job market is not exactly kind to graduates today. I can imagine they have some really good ideas, and they aren't going to wait around for permission to operate in existing environments.

The next revolution is coming. It is not search, social, and e-content clumsily forced through a mobile pipe. It will not have its foundation in the web. It is not Google, Amazon, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest or Instagram and certainly not an ad-supported app glued inside those environments. It will be something that the mobile natives will invent to solve what they see as a big problem. Let's make sure we pay attention to them.

If you are under 25, no pressure... oh never mind, they are not reading blogs!

Mike Teets
OCLC VP of Innovation

PS: Some further reading from Forbes: "Why Google and Facebook might completely disappear in the next 5 years," and "Wait... did this 15-year-old from Maryland just change cancer treatment?"