Chapter 6: The ‘new’ user – Information Services and Digital Literacy


The ‘new’ user


The chapter discusses the evolution of the ideas of ‘new’ users and how the change of users, their habits and expectations delimit their territories of knowing. The assumptions of generational differences, changes in how we read and seek information, use and non-use of services, changing identities, and the idea of the emergence of a ‘new’ user are partly imaginary but at the same time influential forces that change our behaviour. There is no doubt that the practices of seeking and using information, and knowing have changed and are different from the past. At the same time, the change converges with the continuity of old habits and their absorption into the new technological and cultural environment. Like technology, the most powerful force of change may not have been an actual revolutionary change, but the change in the way we project our expectations and conceptualise ourselves and forthcoming generations in the near and distant future.

Key words


information seeking



An idea of an everyman as an omnipotent information seeker and user of information systems has been one of the most enduring mantras of the information society discussion. A homo informaticus of the new information society is defined by his or her digital competence. The prevailing discourse suggests that the development of search engines has made every one of us capable of searching and finding the information we need. Simultaneously with underlining the new possibilities offered by technologies for anyone, the importance of having digital skills has been hailed to become a new global priority. There is a tendency to see older people as a problematic group who need to learn new skills to survive while computer-game-oriented youngsters have been seen as the forerunners of the new society. The skills they have learned while they grew up have been praised and those born during the two last decades of the 1900s have been called digital natives and the Google generation.

This chapter reviews some of the prevalent dichotomies related to the generational discussion of social media use and discusses the notion of the ‘user’ in the age of the social web. The aim of the chapter is to point out how users and their behaviour can become boundaries of knowing and how digital literacy and information services may or may not be helpful for crossing these boundaries. I use the term ‘user’ deliberately despite the increasing consensus about its problematic nature in information science. As the critics of the widespread exploitation of the term ‘user’ have emphasised (e.g., Day, 2011), the concept of a user implies a particular relation of an actor and an object that is being used. It makes assumptions about the individuals and the primacy of their relation to particular systems. The purpose of referring to users in this particular chapter is not to dispute this insightful observation, but to point out that there might be a reason to make particular assumptions about individuals and emphasise the primacy of certain systems. At the same time, an explicit reference to the idea of ourselves as ‘users’ helps us see the inadequacy of that particular conceptualisation in the context of the economics of ordinary knowledge.

Learned or born

Despite the popular tendency to inflate the novel aspects of our contemporary information culture, it is apparent that some things have changed. We are not informed and we do not inform others in precisely the same way we did some years or decades ago. At the same time, some things that characterise the habits and expectations of a potential user of currently prevailing types of information and information services have emerged and been emphasised. The demographic reality is that a steadily growing number of adults in developed countries have never experienced the time when telephone was not mobile, when there was no broadband and information was sought from a telephone catalogue or printed encyclopaedia. The ‘new’ users are quite literally new. Already in 2005, half of all American teenagers had their own mobile phones (Montgomery, 2007: 132) and the number has grown ever since and not only in the USA, but in the entire developed world. In contrast to the relatively modest numbers in 2000, in 2012 almost everyone has a mobile phone in developed countries (Medierådet, 2008; Rainie, 2010). In Britain, 85 per cent of 8–16-year-olds have a mobile phone (Clark and Hawkins, 2010). In Sweden, 87 per cent of 9–16-year-olds and 96 per cent of 12–16-year-olds have one (Medierådet, 2008). In Denmark, the figures are comparable with those in Sweden (IT- og Telestyrelsen, 2011). But from a cultural point of view, a more important aspect than ownership of mobile phones is that everyone has seen or heard about a mobile phone. The difference between generations is that younger generations (Prensky, 2001) find the availability of technology and technology itself non-remarkable; unenticing goods such as washing machines are for the middle-aged population (boyd, 2008; Schmidt et al., 2009). Younger generations are enthusiastic about other things, for instance, their friends and the outcomes of technology use (Paus-Hasebrink et al., 2009). These generations have aptly been called ‘digital natives’ (Palfrey and Gasser, 2008). Those who have been immersed in the digital age in their work and hobbies have developed a mundane relationship with the new technology and information culture (Kaiser, 2009; Schmidt et al., 2009), but they do not take digital technology for granted. The use and presence of digital technology has been learned and the emergence and breakdown of the related boundaries of knowing is part of everyday life. Their personal relationship to new technologies and digital media has evolved during a period of apprenticeship and they can always compare the present to the situation before these new technologies emerged. Mark Prensky (2001) called these generations digital immigrants. In all age groups, there are people who deliberately avoid digital information and refuse to accept that they belong to a digital generation. Those in younger generations in developed countries sometimes but not always make a conscious choice about this refusal. It is easy to forget that not everyone has a choice.

Besides certain obvious differences between the old and the young, generational contrasts are also a result of deliberate discourses of division and a conscious focus on highlighting children as a group of ready consumers. Kathryn C. Montgomery (2007: 16) describes how children were discovered to be a new, fruitful target group for commercials and marketing efforts during the past century. The interest on children as a group of consumers began in the USA already in the early 1900s, accelerated at the emergence of the youth culture in the 1950s, and gained momentum in the introduction of cable television from the 1970s onwards. Daniel Thomas Cook (Bauman, 2007: 63–4) has described the commoditisation of childhood as a ‘Copernican revolution’, which has led to ‘pediocularity’, an adjustment of commercial strategies to rule in children as a particular group of consumers. The identification of children as a separate group with specific needs and desires was one stage in the formation of the myth of digital generations. Another factor is the diffusion of boundaries between children and adults, and the construction of the new demographic group of ‘tweens’, children aged 8–12. Despite the use of scholarly arguments to motivate the significance of tweens, Susan Linn (2004) argues that the emergence of the new group was related to the social changes in the 1970s and 1980s. Children began to spend more time by themselves when both their parents began working full time. The interest in children as an important group of digital consumers accelerated when it was shown that a large proportion of tweens had access to a broad variety of home electronics, including computers. Younger generations became also the defining group of the digital media culture. Almost three out of four teenagers were online by the turn of the century and continuously the largest user group in the most popular new digital media services (Montgomery, 2007: 107), with only certain exceptions like Twitter (Lenhart et al., 2010). Similar observations have been made also outside the USA (e.g., Medierådet, 2008).

Generational differences do not imply that the younger generations or the older ones would be a more or less significant group of users. Nor does it mean that the younger or older users would have fewer problems in finding the information they need. The importance of educating children in media and information competence was a political priority already in the early 1990s, but as Williamson and Asla (2009) emphasise, the Internet is an equally valid source of information for people in their fourth age. Studies on age-relative computer literacy, information behaviour and preferences between online and offline engagement have also shown that skills and discretion are not specific to a generation (Rowlands et al., 2008; Schmidt et al., 2009). Instead of referring to digital natives and immigrants, White et al. propose that it would be more appropriate to discuss digital residents and visitors. Residents are those who are engaged in digital information daily in their work and spare time, and spend a percentage of their life online. Visitors are those who are in sporadic contact with the digital sphere (White and Cornu, 2011; White et al., 2009).

As Montgomery (2007) writes, the public discourse has attributed children with contradictory notions. They have been portrayed as technology gurus, innocent victims and gluttonous consumers of the digital abundance. All these characterisations contain a seed of truth, but at the same time simplify the reality. As Ronald Berk (2009) emphasises, although it is necessary to attach multiple disclaimers to the inflated categories, they can inform us how to work with newer and older generations. According to a Swedish study, elderly users tend to have longer experience of the Internet, even if at the same time the number of elderly non-users was proportionally higher than the number of younger ones (Findahl, 2010). Many children are skilled in using new technologies; many have fallen victim of the perils of the net, and probably have participated in the network economy even more. But the same applies to many of their parents. Both children and adults have developed elaborate strategies of survival in the digital environment, for crossing the boundaries of knowing by evaluating information and finding answers to their questions. At the same time, many teenagers lack elementary skills of evaluation and use of technologies and digital information services (Julien and Barker, 2009; Rowlands et al., 2008). Studies show that the behaviour and skills of digital generations are not necessarily that different from those of older generations (e.g., Chu, 2010; Rowlands et al., 2008). Similarly, the landscape of boundaries is often far more complex than has been expected. The gaps tend to reside in other places than has been expected (Rowlands et al., 2008).

Behaving differently with information

In contrast to the somewhat banal observation that the digital information culture has not changed ‘users’ (human beings are still human beings), it is clear that technology has made and enabled people to do many things differently. Just two decades ago, calling someone by phone was a radically different type of activity than it is today. A telephone had a physical location and when people called each other they could make inferences about where and in what type of a situation the person who was answering the phone was likely to be. Telephones were devices for talking to other people and had little other functionality. The technological but also cultural change has been immense in many respects. Rheingold (2003) noted already at the start of the millennium how mobile phones had begun to change the culture of communication and simultaneously the culture of how people inform and become informed using their mobile phones. At the same time, web-based information searching has largely replaced information searching in books and printed catalogues (Earnshaw and Vince, 2007). However, it is not only the use of particular information channels and tools that has changed – information use habits have evolved as well (Niu et al., 2010).

Rheingold (2003) described how mobile technology and its ability to connect people have facilitated the emergence of a social phenomenon he called ‘smart mobs’ – self-organising groups that behave intelligently and efficiently because of the exponentially increasing number of network links. The network itself is a form of social coordination. The phenomenon that mobs and implicit forms of social coordination may lead to ‘intelligent’ and ‘efficient’ outcomes is not new, but Rheingold makes an important point by underlining the role of technology as a facilitator. A large part of casual information seeking is based on different networks of everyday life, but social media play an unforeseen role in helping people to manage, extend and make their networks visible, and to provide channels for information flows to and from the network. The network effects can make both searching and finding information easier if someone in the network has the knowledge that is being sought. At the same time, mobile devices permit immediacy. Fewer things have to be checked in advance. It is possible to check a timetable while rushing to a railway station. Meetings can be arranged flexibly when the precise time and place can be checked immediately before the appointed time. Information sources such as Wikipedia together with search engines, chat and SMS question and answer services also make information available for immediate use. Both communication and information use practices have changed to exploit and provide instaneity (the possibility of acting and being acted upon immediately at any time, anywhere).

Even if studies have shown significant differences between the searching and information use patterns of younger and older generations (Findahl, 2010; Nicholas et al., 2011), like generational divides, the differences are not necessarily a question of age, but rather of the length of the digital exposure of the individuals. It is easily conceivable that a teenager of the ‘Google generation’ searches for information differently from adults. The interesting question, however, is how information searching and use change as a whole and what is happening when those in the born-digital generation grow older.

Information behaviour research has shown that the differences in patterns of seeking and using information depend on multiple factors. Information use is framed by different factors in the different contexts of the lives of individuals (Savolainen, 1995; Stebbins, 2009). The perplexities of information behaviour are further complicated by the hybridisation of categories in contemporary society. Technology has provided the means to reduce the boundaries between work and leisure even more than before, as demonstrated by studies of how people allocate their time for work and leisure (e.g., Liikkanen et al., 2005). The advocates of creativity and innovation, like Florida (2002), characterise the convergence as an opportunity to increase dynamism and the openness of options. In scholarship, inter- and multidisciplinary ways of working have been hailed from the 1990s onwards as new categories of relevance (Houghton et al., 2004). But still, some categories, roles and functions differentiate various aspects of people’s lives to a degree that makes it worth organising people, ‘users’, into certain upper-level categories. Boys and girls are different in their information seeking (Large et al., 2002); tasks and their complexity influence information behaviour (Byström, 2000) similarly to scholarly disciplines in the context of academic information searching (Case, 2007). Studies have shown also that such factors as personal preferences, work tasks (Byström and Hansen, 2005) and personality (Heinstrom, 2002; Hyldegård, 2009) influence the way in which information is sought and used. Hjørland and Albrechtsen (1995) proposed that behaviour differs between domains (referring to a domain as a discourse community that is a part of the division of labour in society). The challenge with behavioural differences is the assertive power of categorisations (Bowker and Star, 2000) and a general human tendency to reproduce categorical assumptions. Categorisations invite us to make assumptions of our capabilities and possibilities, and consequently to repeat and propagate these assumptions as powerful knowledge boundaries in our behaviour (Thornham and McFarlane, 2011). Similarly to the consequences of technologies, the appropriated nature of certain assumptions does not make them less real and significant boundaries in our pursuits of knowledge, but it does affect how we perceive them.

Reading differently

Despite the diversification of media use, reading holds a certain privileged position as a form of engaging with information inscribed into various forms of ‘texts’. Reading has changed and simultaneously changed us throughout the history of literacy. The evolution has not been merely social, but has also physiologically changed the brain (Cull, 2011) and made us more receptive of prevailing practices and opportunities to read texts and consume media. At particular moments of history, the continuity of change has been intercepted by radical discontinuities. During the centuries after the introduction of the printing press reading practices changed fundamentally from the era of handwritten literature (Burke and Briggs, 2005: 50). Reading has continued to change in the age of digital information. Sellen and Harper (2002) compared how people use and process documents available on paper and in computer systems. Computers were noted to be superior in creating and recreating documents, storing, giving access, and retrieving and distributing texts. Paper was considered to be more suitable for making creative use of documents – for example editing, collaborating and focused reading. Online reading has been characterised in multiple studies to be shallow (e.g. Liu, 2006). More time is spent on browsing and scanning than on focused reading of texts. The use of digital libraries by scholars has been described as bouncing, ‘squirreling’ or ‘power browsing’ (Nicholas et al., 2008, 2010), a form of intensively focused search and collection of resources for later use. As Hillesund (2010) notes, however, the changing habits of reading have not really passed technological boundaries. A new technology and form of materiality affect the way in which people read in the new technological and material contexts to such a degree that it is difficult to translate earlier desirable modes of reading into the context of new materialities. The material forms of presenting texts afford and constrain particular ways of reading them. For instance, power browsing is impossible outside the digital environment. Similarly, as Hillesund (ibid.) concludes, it has been very difficult to provide opportunities for intensive reading in the digital environment.

The series of studies on reading habits conducted in different countries provides somewhat indecisive evidence on changes and continuity. The evangelists of electronic communication (e.g., Kurzweil, 1992; McLuhan, 1962) have heralded the death of the printed book from the early 1960s onwards, but practice has shown that codex, the familiar form of the printed book, is very long lived. The survey result that 85 per cent of young people in Britain have a mobile phone while only 73 per cent own books (Clark and Hawkins, 2010) is only an indirect indication of how much children and teenagers read and use a mobile phone, or whether the two activities are linked in any meaningful fashion other than the fact that it is possible to spend time reading and using a mobile phone at the same time. Ebooks have only recently begun to appear as a serious option. As Nicholas et al. (2008) showed, the revolution had already begun in the context of scholarly ebook use in the late mid-2000s, just as the use of digital articles in the sciences began to escalate at the end of the 1990s (Flaxbart, 2001; Obst, 2003) and in humanities in the early 2000s (Tenopir, Hitchcock et al., 2003). In belles-lettres, a profound change has begun only recently. Interestingly enough, this coincides with the introduction of a series of new generation reader devices, which have been successful in combining the flexibility of digitality with many of the qualities of printed books. Pattuelli and Rabina (2010) found in a study of ebook readers that participants considered the portability and convenience of being able to read ebooks everywhere was more important than the usability of the device. The pivotal aspect of ebook reading might well be the awareness of reader devices as ‘real’ objects that individual users are able to conceive of as a part of their everyday lives.

The primacy of the printed codex and its surrounding ecology of information has become a formidable barrier, which demarcates and defines the ongoing discourse on reading and information use. An idea of the book has become a boundary that seriously curtails our informational territories and the way we economise in our reading, and – perhaps even more – determines how in academic studies reading is still largely conceptualised essentially in very ‘bookish’ terms. As Weinberger (2010b) has noted, the future is unlikely to be one of digital book look-a-likes, but in a broader sense one of the web and digital information. At the same time, however, in contrast to Weinberger, it might be useful to consider the qualities of the form of a traditional book even in the digital environment.

Even if the physical medium is central to the evolution of reading behaviour, reading is more than a question of engaging with a digital or printed document. An ebook, as it is typically conceptualised in contemporary discourse, is not the only alternative to a printed book. In Britain, it has been estimated that people read more in the twenty-first century than in the 1960s, when all types of texts and reading are counted (Southerton et al., 2007). The growing amount of alternative texts and media has led to a diversification and reorganisation of reading. In sciences, the central unit of information has changed from a journal to an individual article because of the possibility of accessing articles directly in digital libraries (Tenopir, King et al., 2003). Texts are read increasingly in advertisements, guidebooks, videos, email messages, blog posts, microblogs and status messages posted on social networking sites. Even if many of these ‘new’ texts share their characteristics with oral communication and are different from ‘the literature’, they are texts as any other type of a text (Mackey, 2002). At the same time, in many European countries, the level of reading traditional texts in books has been relatively stable for years (Antoni, 2006; Hanifi, 2007; Nilsson, 2011) and there is no clear evidence that increased use of the Internet would have had a radical impact on the level of book reading (Du, 2009; Rosa et al., 2006; Ross et al., 2006). One matter that has changed is the demography of book readers. Highly educated middle-aged females read more than before, but reading has declined in younger age groups (Antoni, 2006; Hanifi, 2007; Nilsson, 2011). In a Swedish study, young, less-educated sport enthusiasts were identified as a group that read least (Antoni, 2006).

Even if the focus of the concerns of many librarians, information professionals and academics has been on the fluctuations of reading and information seeking, it is useful to keep in mind that the consumption of information is closely intertwined with the production and organisation of texts (Huvila, 2008, 2011a). Besides being a necessary premise for the existence of texts, writing is often a significant part of reading. Technology-based formats prevail in writing as well as in reading (Clark and Dugdale, 2009). Even if digital media are often blamed for deteriorating writing skills, studies show that the heterogeneity of digital media offers different kinds of writing opportunities for different kinds of writers and thus increases the enjoyment of writing (ibid.). Digital media also provide a new venue for writers to be in touch with their readers, and for readers to share their experience of reading with others. Various forms of social reading, including reading out loud, talking about books with other people, organising reading circles and book clubs, are phenomena that predate the age of digitality and the Internet (Wiegand, 2007). As Jenkins (2006) has described in his account of ‘Harry Potter wars’, the way digital technologies have provided new opportunities for crossing and erecting boundaries and reconfiguring the economics of the social practices of reading has changed. Jenkins describes how a teenager launched a digital newspaper on the Internet for the fictional Hogwarts School and how 102 children all over the world participated in the editorial work. It is obvious that a boundary had been crossed in comparison to the recent past when the circulation of similar types of fan fiction was confined to individual neighbourhoods. But there are also new boundaries. Even if largely unsuccessful, the efforts of Warner Bros. to forbid Harry-Potter-based fan fiction as infringements of their intellectual property illustrates how property rights suddenly may become a significant boundary for noncommercial forms of social reading and fan fiction.

Despite the prevalence of the desire to emphasise permanence and revolution, the landscape of reading and information use presents itself rather as a complex amalgam of continuities and discontinuities. Some behaviours and technologies like wired telephones and letter writing have almost disappeared from everyday life. Fewer people share music by borrowing physical objects like CDs or more arcane forms of media. In an OCLC study in the USA investigating where people obtained information from, 45 per cent of respondents said they were extremely familiar with search engines but only 34 per cent were extremely familiar with library services (Rosa et al., 2006). As noted earlier, some behaviour, like book reading, has only declined a little. The major short-term change has been the increase in the diversity of possible behaviours. Not everyone uses search engines in the same way (Davis, 2002). Individuals prefer to be able to access information using different methods and approaches (Rowlands and Fieldhouse, 2008). So far the essence of the change in our reading habits is not that we would necessarily act differently as individuals but that we have more opportunities to behave differently from our neighbours. Reading books, different styles of web browsing, using a mobile phone and microblogging are all forms of behavioural tribalism presented by new technologies. The long-term effect of the differentiation and emergence of new constellations is yet to be seen. It is clear that habitual and consequent changes in the boundaries of knowing will be both more and less radical than we can imagine, and, as Chartier (1995) noted already in 1995, the transformation is going to have both positive and negative consequences.

Users and non-users

The smart mobs of Howard Rheingold (2003) discussed earlier are in many respects an example of the digital era. Even if the phenomenon of a self-organising crowd itself is not digital, the emergence of the particular type of smart mobs is heavily dependent on the availability and co-occurrence of certain technologies and ideologies. Participation in a smart mob is unhierarchical, but highly conditional on the presence of a group of people with certain coinciding boundaries of knowing. Rheingold (ibid.) describes how the personal and collective boundaries of socialising and information exchange are outlined by an active use of mobile phones, shared interest in the rave culture and fandom of similar types of celebrities. Smart mobs are only one example of the emergence of new boundaries that are common to a particular group of people and in stark contrast to others, however. A corresponding informal concurrence of boundaries can be traced in the evolution of information behaviour and reading practices. The individuals who have become active users of search engines, certain types of ebooks or participants of digital fandom have developed new boundaries that define their sphere of ordinary knowing and separate it from the established informational and literary practices.

The presence of coinciding boundaries among particular individuals underlines the presence of the opposite: those who are not engaged in the prevalent modes of reading and seeking information. It is relevant to ask who those who reside outside coinciding boundaries of, for instance, the smart mobs or digital fan fiction are. Thomas Friedman (2005) argues that the world has become flat, but as his critics including Richard Florida (2005) have pointed out, the world is at the same time very spiky. The configurations of the use and non-use of digital and non-digital information have changed, but the Internet has not quite become a universal equalising force. The boundaries of knowing have not disappeared, but rather changed. Not everyone participates, and often the deeper levels of engagement can be pinpointed to very specific geographical areas and particular groups of people. As already discussed in Chapter 5, in the context of the culture of participation, several researchers have underlined the significance of the plurality of participation.

The emergence of the digital information culture and ‘information society’ has changed many aspects of everyday life but, as Christopher May (2002) rightly emphasises, the changes have not necessarily been as profound as they have been portrayed. As we have seen, ‘incomplete’ competences or peripheral participation in the digital domain is not an issue related to particular groups or generations. We all belong to a Google generation and are simultaneously users and non-users in one way or another (Connaway et al., 2008), but at the same time, no one is likely to be as powerful a member of the digital information culture as the utopists would like to suggest. The development of search engines and information services have changed the habits, expectations and assumptions of the economics of knowing among large groups of people, from the young to the elderly, in the developed world, both directly and indirectly. Active users are not the only group affected by the changes. Existing technologies affect the lives of those who are voluntarily or involuntarily excluded from using them. In this context non-users become a specific category with a similar and equally close relation to the presence of particular systems and services as active users of the same facilities.

The close rapport between the use and non-use of digital information services is similar to a reflective analysis of the use or non-use of cars made by Sally Wyatt (2003). She discusses insightfully how cars and driving affect the lives of people who have chosen not to drive, have stopped driving or have never started. Urban and rural landscapes, the global transportation system and even schedules on how quickly people are assumed to be able to travel from one place to another are shaped by the existence of cars. In a similar manner, the presence of digital information and the Internet have a deep impact on how people live their lives, even if they reside outside the digital sphere. The presence of the Internet changes general assumptions of the economics of searching and finding information, and of what it is possible and impossible to know. These assumptions are independent of the actual use made of internet services. One of the most striking examples is when telephone operators of broadband providers attempt to help users repair a broken internet connection by referring them to instructions on the Internet.

In the context of discussions about digital literacy and the information society, the externality of certain individuals and groups has often been traced back to social issues. The emergence of digital boundaries of knowing with the direct social consequences of exclusion is a very real phenomenon, which tends to coincide with other forms of social marginality. The digitally poor are often also poor according to other measures. Sara Bentivegna (2009) has studied digital divides in Italy, a country with a relatively low penetration of Internet use in the developed world. She uses statistical analyses to outline a picture of Italian realities that closely resembles earlier findings (e.g., Norris, 2001; Servon, 2002) on how the Internet tends to reinforce existing social differences and hierarchies. Those who were always capable of finding information can now do so using the Internet; those who always had difficulty finding information find it even harder to find it on the Internet than to find it using other means. Bentivegna concludes that the winners, those who are better informed, tend to be people with a higher socio-economic status, and the losers are those with a lower status (2009: 18), but she also draws interesting parallels with the Italian life-style, the shortage of flats, the popularity of mobile services, and their impact on the patterns of digital information use. She explicates the process of widening divides in a model of cumulative inequality (disugualizazione) (2009: 40).

Social and individual factors influence the availability of resources, access, competencies, appropriation of technologies and social participation and inclusion, which feeds back to the shaping of social and individual premises. As Virginia Eubanks (2011) shows, a paradox of the divide is that many of the measures to promote enhanced and equal opportunities for engagement fail to reach the most marginalised groups. Digital inclusion as a matter of access to digital technologies does not automatically imply social inclusion (Verdegem, 2011). Socially marginalised people do not necessarily lack technology or information (Eubanks, 2011). Even if social and digital participation seems to be related in many studies, social, political and knowledge-related divides have changed very little if at all as a consequence of addressing the lack of access to technologies (Smith et al., 2009).

Acknowledging the intricacy of boundaries and divides, Pippa Norris (2001) makes a distinction between three different forms of gaps. The global divide is a divide between different countries; the social divide is the difference between social groups; and the democratic divide is the difference in how digital technologies and services are used for engaging in the public sphere. The major concern of digital literacy programmes has tended to be the global and social divides, unfortunately often with less successful outcomes (e.g., Graham, 2011; Warschauer, 2003). At the same time, there has been considerably less discussion about the democratic divide, how different groups of people use services differently (Bonfadelli, 2002). Elad Segev and Niv Ahituv (2010) have studied the characteristics of popular searches in Google and Yahoo! in different countries and found considerable differences in the breadth of topics searched by people from different nationalities, for example, Americans, Russians, Germans and Swedes. The results support earlier arguments that the Internet helps people to focus on their own topics of interest. As Segev and Ahituv (ibid.) remark, this can be a positive virtuous circle (Norris, 2000) for active digital engagers, but at the same time, a way to narrow one’s personal perspective and filter out any contrary opinions (Sunstein, 2004). The intricacy of these ‘filtering divides’ and consequent ‘filtering boundaries of knowing’ is that they both are and are not social boundaries similar to the high-level divides observed in analyses of national statistics.

The multifaceted and highly complex nature of digital divides (DiMaggio and Hargittai, 2001) has led to questions of the analytical usefulness of the notion of divides. Mark Graham (2011) suggests that greater care is necessary when using the metaphor and calls for sensitivity to contextual differences of various types of digital divides around the world. Mark Warschauer (2002) has suggested that it would be more appropriate to refer to the technologies of inclusion. Many individuals choose to exclude themselves voluntarily from digital modes of participation even if the prevailing tendency is to conceptualise non-use in pejorative terms as involuntary exclusion or dropping out (Wyatt, 2003 According to a study from the late 1990s (Katz and Aspden, 1998, cited by Wyatt, 2003), by that time, older people stopped using the Internet for economic reasons and because they found it difficult to use. Younger people who quit did so more often because of lack of access or interest. Other typical self-reported reasons for non-use of the Internet were the lack of any need to do so and a preference for using alternative technologies or services. Wyatt et al. (2002) elaborate the findings and distinguish four voluntary and involuntary forms of non-use. Resisters have never used a technology and refuse to do so. Rejecters have stopped using a technology for specific or non-specific personal reasons. The excluded, the category most often related to non-use, have never had an opportunity to use a technology because they lacked access. Finally, the expelled have involuntarily stopped using a technology, for instance, because of its cost or the loss of access to an institution.

Digital information culture is not a monolith that would imply the prevalence of a common set of strategies of using technologies in different cultural or social contexts. Similarly to the ubiquity of passive television spectatorship, the use of digital technologies and services is based on equally powerful internalised models of their role. If a particular group assumes a certain digital technology or a service to be an empowering boundary crossing instrument of engagement, it can be used as such. In contrast, if the same technology or service is appropriated as a passive and leisurely hideout for avoiding intellectually challenging activities, it erects a strong boundary of knowing between the refuge and the outer world. Segev and Ahituv (2010) suggest that such differences vary nationally, and Eubanks (2011) observed that there are significant differences within individual societies. In contrast to the majority assumptions of the positive effects of digital participation, these observations may suggest that in a culture of passive use of predominant technologies and services, their non-use may actually be a sign of conscious engagement in alternative and more dynamic economies of ordinary knowledge. In a passive culture, digital literacy might not be a boundary object that helps to cross a bounded sphere of knowing to a more diverse and pluralistic sphere of knowledge. On the contrary, it may be a convenient strategy for avoiding confrontations with contrary and, in a sense, less useful knowledge.

Wyatt (2003) emphasises the significance of considering non-use as a part of technology studies. Otherwise we are facing the risk of assuming that using a particular piece of technology is a norm. When technologies become more popular their manufacturers are under increasing pressure to make them ever more usable, as more and more non-users are assumed to become users. Wyatt also points out the positive implication of considering non-users to be a relevant group of individuals with legitimate reasons for their behaviour. Although non-users are sometimes viewed pejoratively, decisions not to use a technology can be made for sensible reasons. This has a wealth of implications for the design and evolution of information technologies and services for this form of engagement.


After discussing the impacts of technology, participation and use it is apparent that only a part of the emerging boundaries is attributable to technical changes and their direct affordances. How people conceptualise a particular technology or service, or the notion of participation, can be more important than what the technology is or how they participate in practice. The same observation applies to us and our behaviour. The things we do are only a part of the story, as the accounts of non-use and non-users indicate.

A famous cartoon of Peter Steiner from 1993, originally published in The New Yorker, portrays two dogs in front of a computer (Steiner, 1993). The cartoon epitomises the complexity of anonymity, privacy and identities on the Internet and has been cited in numerous presentations and texts (e.g., Tredinnick, 2008; Wellman and Giulia, 1999) since its publication. One of the dogs sitting by the computer explains to the other how ‘on the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog’. The cartoon comments aptly on one of the most debated aspects of the Internet and social web: identity. In the early 1990s, the apparent opportunity to remain anonymous was a major attraction of socialising on the Internet.

The concept of the ‘author’ was established in the late eighteenth century, described by Michel Foucault as the ‘privileged moment of individualisation’ (1994). It meant that documents were supposed to be affiliated to a specific individual. Individuals could achieve a degree of anonymity as members of corporate bodies or by using pseudonyms to hide their identity from the general public, but even this degree of anonymity often required a contract between the author and the publisher. The Internet seemed to provide a context and means to assume pseudonyms and preserve anonymity without any social obligations. Internet service providers showed little interest in the identities of users and the seemingly unlimited cyberspace seemed to clear their traces.

The question of identity is more complex than the simple matter of concealing whether an individual is a dog or not, however. Almost half the experts consulted by the Pew Internet & American Life Project believed that by 2020 anonymity on the web will be sharply curtailed (Anderson and Rainie, 2009). The social web gives people an opportunity to be something they would like to be. Like anonymity in the 1990s, the opportunity is partly a myth, but it is experienced as a very real phenomenon. Dominique Cardon (2008) has proposed an axial model of the services on the social web by classifying them on the basis of their place on the axis of subjectification (to be, to do) and simulation (real, projected). We have an opportunity to choose whether we engage on the web as what we are or by what we produce, or as ourselves or a projection of ourselves. At the same time, as Cardon’s model suggests, we do not have complete control of the choice. People may or may not choose to rely on the projections or ignore them (Chesney and Su, 2010).

Regardless of the strategy, the social web is about making and reshaping identities instead of assuming an anonymous non-identity. It is still doubtful whether we can trust that the person we are communicating with is not a dog, but the main change since the 1993 cartoon is that the dog cannot be sure whether it appears on the web as a human being, dog or cat. Mika Mannermaa (2008) has argued that in the ubiquity of the digital environment we are no more under the surveillance only of corporate or governmental actors. The earlier ‘big brothers’ we knew by name have been replaced by ‘some brothers’ or somebodies. Every one of us now has the ability to survey and the condition of being under constant surveillance at the same time. The myriad of official and unofficial, factual and fictional information about all of us that floats around on the web can easily be pooled using search engines and a selection of other web services that mine data from a broad variety of publicly available digital sources. It is impossible to maintain full control of who we appear to be. Palfrey and Gasser note rightly that not all of the information that is somewhere out there is directly a part of our identity. They call the superset of all digital information on ourselves our ‘digital dossier’ (Palfrey and Gasser, 2008: 41–2). The dossier contains information we have opted to publish ourselves, but also a myriad of information from public authorities, commercial enterprises, our friends, relatives and colleagues. Only a part of the dossier is directly related to our identity as we see it, but for some it may be difficult to distinguish our identity and its projection in the digital domain.

The intricacy of identities and identity play is linked to their central role in human existence. A radical change in the contemporary context is that the patterns of identity play have changed in the transient digital contexts. The nature of identity is changing. As Palfrey and Gasser (2008: 17–19) note, in agrarian societies of the past, the principal identity was largely given. Identity was not static and, as many studies have shown, there were considerable exceptions from the predominant norms (e.g., Davis, 1983; Ginzburg, 1976), but despite the anomalies, the options tended to be limited by many practical obstacles. In the past, most people could be in touch with only a relatively limited number of people. Even those who travelled a lot were unable to socialise in an unlimited number of communities. Identities were mixed less than today and it took physical effort to pretend to be someone else (as in Davis, 1983). A scholar could interact with scholarly colleagues in the workplace and with his fellow football fans at home. Those in the scholarly community did not need to know about the boyish habits of the football gang and the manly brotherhood of football enthusiasts did not need to know about any sissy scholarly discussions. At present, it is possible to construct and, to a degree, maintain a number of identities in different digital contexts without any assumption that you would have to meet your digital acquaintances in physical reality. On the other hand, a single search on a popular search engine can reveal the hidden scholarly and football sides of your life to anyone. It becomes close to impossible to maintain a conscious boundary between them. You are also likely to have ‘friends’ on Facebook or other social networks who belong to both groups. Identities become more diversified, but at the same time more mixed – for good and bad. It is difficult to control what parts of your digital dossier are mixed and how, and where the boundaries of how you know about others and others know about you are defined and where they reside. A single ‘user’ becomes a multifaceted personality with multiple converging and contradictory identities and frames of reference. There is no sense in making an assumption of the distinction between online and offline identities as there was before.

The transience of identities is also a generational issue. Generation matters even if it is not perhaps such a determinant as some authors tend to argue (e.g., Tapscott, 2009). Our digital dossier is a collection of elements we have self-posted to the Internet and material originating from other sources we cannot control (Palfrey and Gasser, 2008: 43). The downside of the generational gap is that digital immigrants have been adults all the time the web has existed. For teens and children, the web has always existed and their digital dossier began to accumulate before they knew what the web was. In some cases babies have blogs before their birth. The dossier contains and will probably always contain traces from childhood and teen years that might be difficult to subscribe to later. This may be seen as a threat and less enthusiastically as a change. The change may not be inevitable or for good, but the changes in the nature of identity, privacy and trust may suggest that the ambiguity is something people can and will learn to cope with. The instability and conscious formation of identities is a natural part of teens’ development before reaching adulthood (Montgomery, 2007: 109), so it is hardly surprising that it is easier for teenagers than their parents to adapt to the new forms of the digital play of identities. In a digital world, people are not supposed to grow up in the sense of forming, in principle, one coherent identity. It is legitimate and expected that people will explore and play with identities forever.

The volatility of identities is not without consequences. Like the appropriations of technologies and the emerging forms of participation, the fluctuations of our identity in different digital information landscapes play a role in how and where our bounded context of knowing takes shape. We come to know things as members of communities. The memberships build our identities and our identities influence the imagined and practical aspects of togetherness in a community and shape what we consider to be the economic context of knowing. The identities we self-assume and are prescribed by others have consequences, but even more significant is the perpetuity of the process over how identities are reformulated in the course of constant experimentation.

The making of a ‘new’ user

The idea of changing users and behaviours is reciprocal to the changes induced by all of us. Even if some of the differences in information seeking and use are very real, the eagerness to see change has resulted in a series of popular conceptions of the birth of a fundamentally new kind of people. It would be too hasty to deny the possibility of a substantive change in who we are in the digital environment, but both the present debate and the earlier changes in how people use media and information suggest a fusion of continuity and change. As Asa Briggs and Peter Burke (2010) note, media are a system that is in a state of perpetual change, but the same observation applies to our worldview and, essentially, the idea of who we are. Jack Goody (1977) made remarks on how a transition from an oral to a textual culture changed the way people conceptualise history. History turned from being a part of the present to a distinct past. Our relation as users to the instruments we are using is reciprocal, and thus difficult to understand from radically instrumental or socio-constructive perspectives, as Briggs and Burke (2010) underline.

The ubiquitous availability of digital information, multiple media forms, the existence of and ease of searching and communicating on the web, and constant invitations to participate affect our assumptions of how other people behave, how we are expected to behave and what we can take for granted. The double role of technologies as instruments and agents discussed in Chapter 4 is not restricted to technologies and services. It applies similarly to us. Teenagers and their parents do not share information on the web only because they are constructing their identities or hoping for reciprocity (Palfrey and Gasser, 2008). They are doing things that have become a norm within their respective boundaries of knowing and making decisions. Even if society has become more diverse, the grand challenge in mapping the landscape’s boundaries of knowing may be not facing individual users and their concerns, but coping with the implicit change in their assumptions and attitudes. It is easier to encounter real individuals than to confront generic individuals or collective assumptions.

As technologies and cultural expectations change in our vicinity, we collectively change our assumptions of ourselves and others. A ‘new’ user becomes an assemblage of expectations. In contrast to the tendency to portray youth pejoratively (Bernier, 2011), the information debate has been overwhelmingly positive. Writers and academics like Don Tapscott (2009) and Richard Florida (2002) have hailed the rise of new generations whose members are very unlike their predecessors. Some of the claims are based on observations and research data, but much of the revolutionary change in user behaviour may be seen as a hybrid of projections and constructs. Andrew Keen (2008) has criticised the cult of the omnipotent amateur. Similarly, researchers have questioned the existence of a creative class (Florida, 2002). Bennett et al. (2008) have analysed the debate about digital natives and argue, referring to Stanley Cohen’s (1972) concept, that instead of being empirically and theoretically informed, the discussion could be considered an educated form of ‘moral panic’. A particular group, in this case digital natives, is portrayed as a threat to societal values and norms beyond the evidence that supports the claims. Similarly to the way in which new technology can help to challenge the assumed roles of pupil and teacher (Lewis and Finders, 2002), the notion of ‘new’ user challenges assumptions about the boundaries of knowing and strategies of crossing them.

Besides being a negative outcome of a ‘moral panic’, the ‘new’ user can also be a positive notion. In a library context, the idea of the desirable characteristics and skills of new librarians and ‘new’ users (Huvila et al., forthcoming) may partly be seen in the same way as the earlier stereotypes of librarians as ‘mind reading experts’, and users as uncertain laypeople (Radford and Radford, 2001; Tuominen, 1997). ‘New’ users may exist as a day dream of how we all should behave, but they can also be an incentive for change. The change might be integration, as Sharon Stoerger (2009) suggests in her notion of a digital melting pot, but it is only one of many options. Very little is absolute about the traits and preferences of digital natives and immigrants, or residents and visitors, and how different concepts relate to the dominant boundaries of knowing in contemporary society. Even if discussions of digital natives are considered an educated form of ‘moral panic’ and the concepts of the digital native and Google generation were essentially negative constructs of how predominant assumptions about the most significant boundaries of knowing are erroneous, the same concepts can be used to formulate a positive idea of boundary crossings aligned with how we tend to economise in our pursuits of knowing.

Despite their seeming contrasts, the pejorative projections of the outcomes of digitality are close to the utopian ideas of ‘new’ users as individuals who are liberated or suppressed by their aptitude or propensity to use the digitality that functions in a McLuhanesque (1964) sense as an ‘extension of man’. Digital media companies tend to have instrumental visions to ‘organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible’ (Google, 1998–) or to build a ‘social utility that helps people communicate more efficiently with their friends, family and coworkers’ (Facebook, 2004). Many political action plans have assumed a similarly instrumental voice of empowerment instead of focusing on the outcomes by propagating a positive vision of the new generation of ‘users’. For instance, the reports Digital Britain in the UK (DCMS and BIS, 2009), Improving Canada’s Digital Advantage in Canada (Government of Canada, 2010) and A Digital Agenda for Europe for the European Commission (2010) manage to conclude little more than a general aim to ‘maximise the social and economic potential’ (ibid.) of the technologies. From a technological point of view, the problem of these instrumental proposals is that they are not very instrumental in practice. The proposals portray digital technologies as an ultimate boundary object that almost magically empowers and helps people to cross all conceivable boundaries and change themselves into new beings. They present very few concrete ideas on the future state of affairs at the level of individuals and society, and are perceptibly vague in how the technologies are planned to be used as instruments to serve people. In contrast, the proposals are far more consistent in constructing implicit ideas of the ‘new’ user, a perfect individual with a capability to benefit from the technologies. The outcome is not an apparatus for crossing the contemporary boundaries of knowing, but rather one that redefines the boundaries that fit with the proposed set of technological boundary objects.

Kittler and Johnston (1997) criticised those with instrumentalist views (particularly those of McLuhan) for undermining the autonomous role of technology. Paul Virilio (2004) placed a similar emphasis on the predominant role of technology by claiming that societal changes are driven by technologies and military projects. Researchers in techno-positive schools of thought, including cybernetics (Wiener, 1948) and transhumanism, and the related branches and theories of science including artificial intelligence research, engagement theory (Shneiderman, 2000) and affective computing (Picard, 1997), have expressed various scenarios of radically positive potential effects of human–technology interaction. At the extreme, technology is seen not only as a significant factor that affects human development, but also as a force that reduces human issues to essentially solvable problems. In comparison with the rather vague ideal of the instrumentality of technology as a means of empowerment, techno-deterministic evolutionary and revolutionary points of view may be criticised as utopian and dystopian. At the same time the idea of an autonomous and influential role of technology, and more generally of instruments and infrastructure, balances the collectivistic and individualistic assumptions of userism.

As a direct sequel to the digital native debate, Prensky (2009) proposed a notion of ‘digital wisdom’, an enhanced state of being wise with the help of digital technology. The proposal is not novel per se. It builds on a series of ideas explored and discussed in cybernetics and transhumanism. The focal aspect of the proposition is that a departure from the already decade-old stagnant dichotomy of digital natives and immigrants is highly welcome. A negative notion of a new generation may be useful during the first steps of a debate, but ceases to be productive without consideration of its practical and theoretical implications. The contrasting positive view of change may be argued to suggest a more proactive approach to addressing the same challenges. The change can be a simultaneous process of making a ‘new’ user, erecting an appropriate set of boundaries to help individuals in their pursuits of knowing, and defining boundary objects for crossing them whenever necessary.


It is clear that any grand vision of the ‘user’ of tomorrow is bound to be an equally grand simplification. As Susan Myburgh (2011) notes, even if a stereotypical ten-year-old boy reads Harry Potter, a specific ten-year-old might not. The dichotomy of digital natives and digital immigrants is useful in underlining the different premises of the generations when they first set foot in the digital territory, but explains very little of the long-term adeptness and enthusiam to use digital media. The Google generation study (Rowlands et al., 2008) demonstrated that we are all exposed to search engines and social media and thus a part of the Google generation. As Eric Brewer (2009) has commented, ‘search engines have become a part of the global culture, reaching a vast and diverse audience’.

Even if many of the generational, gender-specific, community-based and individual shifts in patterns of information use have been confirmed by empirical research, it is apparent that a number of the changes are constructed and imposed on us by ourselves and our peers. One of the central outcomes of the digital native debate is that it has shown the limits of the characterisation of individuals and groups of people. Collective portrayal might be useful for generic purposes, but it does not necessarily help to understand how individual representatives of a generation cope with their boundaries of knowing. In contrast, it confirms the observations that assumptions about different generations have a tendency to influence individual behaviour (Pohjalainen and Talja, 2011). Even if digital natives or the Google generation did not exist a priori, the debate turns an assumed category into a real one. Imagining the change is influenced by the presence of assumed and genuine boundaries of the system we are ‘using’ and the shifting assumptions of the rationale of our use of it. The digital media are a playground of transient and intangible identities. Defining new ‘users’ is far less a matter of creating changes in the opportunities to be something or behave according to an existing blueprint than one of actively forming an idea of who the users are and who they are supposed to be. Rather than being particular individuals, ‘users’ are sums of individuals, their imagined and real pursuits, and their engagement and non-engagement with particular infrastructural technologies and services.

Despite the warranted critique of the term ‘user’, it has certain virtues in this particular context of reciprocal making and reshaping. ‘User’ is not particularly useful as a general term for substituting the notions of an individual or a person, but it functions perfectly well as a representation of what it stands for: the agency of the notion of use. An emphasis on the reciprocity of the process of making a ‘user’ and its systemic (technological and non-technological) setting can help to push stereotypical ideas of generations back into the context of the discussion of how people behave in a changing setting, and how they know what they know within its confines. The effect of digitality is reminiscent of Julian Warner’s (2010: 161) argument that technological change should be seen as an opportunity to improve human interaction with recorded knowledge. Digitality is not a single instrument to break the boundaries of knowing or revolutionalise its economy even if we would be users of digitality. Both digitality and its use are opportunities to change or, in a positive sense, improve our ‘use’ of the ingredients of knowing.