Information Behavior of the “Google Generation”

Just came across the results of a new study commissioned by the British Library and JISC about information behavior of the “Google generation.” These are people born after around 1993. Here is a direct link to the full report.

Broadly, the intent is to see if younger people search for information in new ways and the consequences that might have on their own research behavior later as well as on how information system get developed.

“The untested assumption is that this generation is somehow qualitatively `different’ from what went before: that they have different aptitudes, attitudes, expectations and even different communication and information ‘literacies’ and that these will somehow transfer to their use of libraries and information services as they enter higher education and research careers.”

Since a longitudinal study (the optimal method) was not feasible, the researchers first reviewed literature on information behavior of young people from the last 30 years. This was supplement with fresh data by looking at online search behavior, profiling users by age.

The study identifies six key characteristics of digital information seeking. These should ring a bell to you, but I’ve not quite seen them formulated like this:

  • Horizontal information seeking – Skimming lots of information quickly
  • Navigation – “People in virtual libraries spend a lot of time simply finding their way around: in fact they spend as much time finding their bearings as actually viewing what they find.” (Note that “time” is the critical aspect of this behavior).
  • Viewers – People don’t spend nearly as much time reading online as in the traditional sense. The researchers call this “power browsing.”
  • Squirreling behavior – Stashing away information in forms of downloads for later use, particularly free content (though it’s rarely re-visited by the downloader).
  • Diverse users – One size does not fit all for any one system.
  • Checkers – “Users assess authority and trust for themselves in a matter of seconds by dipping and cross-checking across different sites and by relying on favoured brands (e.g. Google).” Note here the emphasis on “brand” in relationship to Google.

Some observations made in the study about the Google generation:

  • Information literacy is not higher among young people. Their adeptness with computer may actually hide a deeper, more-troubling illiteracy.
  • Young searchers find information fast, but spend very little time assessing the quality and authority of information found.
  • Active contemplation of information needs is often low, and young searchers prefer to express themselves in natural language.
  • Determining relevance in a long list of documents is difficult for younger searchers.

They sum up: “There is little direct evidence that young people’s information literacy is any better or worse than before.”

This suggests to me that things like brand and ease of use will become more important for this generation. But that’s not necessarily a good thing, now, is it? Still, the design of systems in the future will change and become much more critical than the technologies that drive them alone.

While the Google generation is generally better with technology, there are some myths around this group. For instance, they are not expert searchers, and they may not find their peers (i.e., social networks) more credible than traditional sources of authority. Nor does the Google generation necessarily prefer smaller bits of information to full text compared to an older generation.

Further, increase in reliance on the internet for information is changing across all generations, even the Silver Surfers:

“In many ways the Google generation label is increasingly unhelpful: recent research finds that it is not even accurate within the cohort of young people that it seeks to stereotype.”

Getting information skills is as critical as even with the Google generation.

About Jim Kalbach

Head of Customer Experience at MURAL

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