Grown Up Digital, by Don Tapscott

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Venkatesh Rao, Contributor

February 7, 2009

8 Min Read

Since my ongoing series on a social media capability maturity model looks like it is going to be quite a trek, I thought I'd throw in some variety. Don Tapscott (@dtapscott, he of Wikinomics fame) has a nearly-new book out called Grown Up Digital (McGraw Hill, October 2008). It is sort of a sequel to one of his earlier books, Growing Up Digital, (June 1999). In a sense, the new book bookends a decade-long longitudinal study of Millenial digital natives (the term Millenial seems to be the most common, followed by Gen Y, and Tapscott's own neologism, "Net Generation"). So what happened in the decade during which Tapscott's own Millenial kids, Nikki and Alex (they feature prominently on the anecdote track), grew up, and why should you, Enterprise 2.0 enthusiast, care?The Angelina Jolie StuntWhen I do reviews, I play a little game of trying to spot what most readers are likely to consider the Aha! bit in a book. In Growing Up Digital, I think the moment is a little anecdote about an April Fool's day prank Tapscott played on his colleagues at his company. He had his admin send out an email announcing that:

"Through Don's connections at the World Economic Forum,... Angelina Jolie... wants to come to Toronto for a meeting to discuss transparency in the global economy... please confirm your attendance..."

The response perhaps, says as much about generational divides as many mountains of analysis:

"...not a single young member of my staff fell for the joke. I would get responses like "Nice try" and "You and Angelina. Right...However, associates my age reacted in a completely different manner. They were falling over themselves to join the afternoon discussion and attend the cocktail party. I believe the expression is, they fell for it hook, line and sinker. And they were not happy to find out that Angelina was not going to appear."

Now, before I get flamed again (the memory of my SM vs. KM posts is still fresh) for bringing up generational differences in attitudes and behaviors, let me hasten to add that gullibility and skepticism are, like any other trait, variables with a mean and a variance that probably arise out of some complex expression of nature in a given environment of nurture. I am sure there are Millenials predisposed to believe everything and Boomers predisposed to suspect everything. But let's dig into this example a bit and assume it is indicative of differences in mean behavior.Skepticism as an Example of Generational DifferencesThis anecdote is illustrative of the environment Millenials have grown up in. They have, for instance, grown up in an era where the idea of a "newspaper of record," far from representing The Truth Delivered With Gravitas, is mostly a sad and comical anachronism from a more innocent age. This is a generation that had to teach its own teachers that yes, Wikipedia actually represents knowledge. A generation that had to teach its parents, raised on unquestioning trust in their institutions (whether left, right, mainstream or alternative) a philosophy of "trust, but verify." There are probably many older adults out there who have their kids to thank for protection from phishing scams and Nigerian economics.It takes a while to get used to thinking around generational attitudes. For instance, those worried about the erosion of credible media institutions (I've heard from quite a few in recent times, so it is becoming my stock example) often wring their hands in desperation worrying about who or what will replace the trained and well-funded investigative journalist in creating checks and balances that limit the power of evil corporations and governments. Even when they acknowledge the merits of citizen journalism, professionals often qualify their remarks with "but somebody with proper journalistic training is needed to guide citizen journalism." The attitude is based on three things. The first is the idea that the free press is not just sufficient as a social check and balance, it is necessary (i.e., no other institution or social force can play the role). The second is a convenient blindspot towards institutionalized media biases, and over-concern about individual ones. But the third is pehaps the most subtle: the hand-wringers miss the point that the level of reader skepticism is a big factor in the success of the institutions of "social truth." Noisy and unreliable sources, when aggregated and shared by a network of skeptical minds, can topple dictators and presidents just as well as a Woodward and Berstein duo working hard for two years.In other words, just the fact that the Millenials have a "trust but verify" attitude towards their preferred noisy news sources (twitter-filtered news streams from effectively the entire connected world) may help make unmoderated-by-professionals citizen journalism a functional social institution. Clearly Tapscott believes in this type of reasoning. When I asked on Twitter, "which would you be more wary of? biases of uncoordinated crowd reporting, or biases of trained individual journalist?" Don's response was: "Depends on the journalist, but I'll take the bias of a big crowd most often." With all due respect to Pulitzer-winning journalistic heros from the glory days of the Philadelphia Inquirer, so would I. This sort of anecdote, and this sort of attitude to analysis, informs the whole book, so let's zoom out and do a quick survey.The BookThere isn't a great deal that can be said in summary about the overall narrative point of the book, since it very detail-oriented and almost structured like a reference work. The book is divided into three parts. Part I, titled "Meet the Net Gen" paints a deft portrait of Millenials through an astute mix of statistical and anecodtal evidence. Some of the content here, such as the chapter on "Eight Net Gen Norms" is clearly repurposed from Wikinomics, with some modifications. The eight norms Tapscott posits, in case you are curious, are freedom, customization, scrutiny, integrity, collaboration, entertainment, speed and innovation. Compare this to the list in Wikinomics: speed, freedom, openness, innovation, mobility, authenticity and playfulness. You shouldn't pay too much attention to the specifics of this conceptualization of the Millenial value system and the significance of the changes. What is useful is the discussion, with its mix of anecdotes, survey data analysis, and discussion of key issues relating to specific themes (the section on that has a nuanced discussion of music copyright issues for instance). It is going to take a fundamentally more analytical, rather than empirical, book to uncover the true contours of the value system of Millenials (if indeed, a fundamental one exists). This is good data though.Part two, "Transforming Institutions" focuses on how the massive forces being unleashed by the newly energized and uncovered social graph are creating institution-redefining forces. Tapscott picks four fundamental institutions to analyze: education, employment, markets and families. The last, covered in a chapter titled "The Net Generation and the Family" is particularly interesting; I wouldn't have picked it as one of my top four to drill-down into (but then, I am no family guy). Though the lack of ritual inter-generational conflict between the Millenials and their parents is not news (the 'move back home after college' trend has been widely remarked upon), it does perhaps deserve more analysis, since it represents a fine tradeoff between conformity and pragmatism. Issues like online sexual predators, YouTube videos of teen girls beating up their peers and so forth of course do highlight the new challenges to parenting, and get quick treatments. But overall, this particular chapter is somewhat disappointing, since it reads more like a somewhat personal take heavily informed by his own family experience (Nikki and Alex, as I said, feature prominently). The family as a fundamental institution probably does deserve a place in the top four, but the analysis here could be broader and conceptually deeper.Part three: transforming society, has three chapters. There's an Obama-focused one on democracy, one on grassroots social and civic engagement, and a concluding chapter titled "In Defense of the Future." It is interesting that Tapscott felt that this chapter was necessary, and I tend to agree with his choice in highlighting this issue of "defense." In a section titled "The Dark Side Revisited" he systematically tackles a series of accusations that have been made against the Millenials: that they are the dumbest generation and don't read books, that they are screen-addicted social incompetents, that they are narcissists, and that they are careless about privacy. Overall the treatment is fair, and necessary. Perhaps more than any other generation in recent history, the Millenials have been battered by more than a ritual level of "Good old days/decline and fall" bludgeoning by older adults who only see decay and decline everywhere.Throughout the book, there is a good deal of useful abstraction of the content into end-of-chapter lists of "7 principles" (which sometimes read, I have to say, like hasty blog posts, but mostly serve their purpose). For the data-hungry, there are tons of statistics, and for the reference-trackers, tons of citations and endnotes. The book is by no means a conceptual heavyweight -- don't look for deep organizing frameworks and analysis, or for spectacular high concepts, parables and overarching metaphors (that's Dan Pink's job). Don't look for startling new information and insight either -- this book is primarily a work of integration and synthesis. If you want a solid and well-crafted data-driven take on the new generation, informed by an overall positive and enthusiastic belief in their potential, go for it. It definitely belongs in the Enterprise 2.0 bookshelf.

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