‘digital residents’ & ‘digital visitors’: what’s your online approach?

Digital ‘residents’ and ‘visitors’ form a metaphor for people’s engagement with online technology.

Residents live a part of their life online. They use the Web for work, study and recreation; they are comfortable expressing themselves and their opinions in online communities and maintain a digital identity through social networking sites (White, 2008).

Visitors are those who use the Web more sparingly and selectively. They have a functional approach, setting time aside to perform specific tasks such as booking a holiday and afterwards disengaging. Visitors have little interest in and are sceptical of online culture (White, 2008).

These terms were created to update Prensky’s initial concept of digital ‘natives’ and ‘immigrants’ (2001). Prensky categorised digital users by drawing a connection between computing competence and age: those born in the digital age were privileged learners able to absorb the digital language naturally as they grew up, unlike older learners whose age supposedly handicapped them.

White (2011) challenged the metaphor underlying Prensky’s theory, arguing that learning technological skills is not so similar to learning a second language. This followed a general shift from thinking about a digital language to an idea of digital literacy.

For me, a Resident describes my Aunt, and a Visitor my brother. My Aunt has a busy London lifestyle and is always engaging with social media, she also maintains a professional online profile as a popular published Nutritionist with a website and blog. In contrast, my brother is suspicious of social media and keeps a very low online profile. He is, however, very technologically able, but while he uses his ability for learning and entertainment, he retains a classically Visitor status. This proves the complexity of individual digital literacy and forms a contrasting example to Prensky’s age theory.

White (2014) asserts that Resident and Visitor are not binaries but form opposite ends of a spectrum, on which most people fall somewhere in between, adopting ‘resident modes’ and ‘visitor modes’ alternatively. While I find this reasoning much more open-minded than the previous theory, how to analyse my own digital identity remains unclear. Furthermore, I am unsure of the most desirable position on the spectrum. White (2008) states that ‘Both sides of this argument are correct… it’s a question of approach and motivation’. He certainly forms an interesting and ambivalent distinction, which refuses to be based upon age, gender, or even skill.

It will be interesting to observe the next metaphoric update in the development of the digital world.


Word count: 408


Harris, L., Warren, L., Leah, J., & Ashleigh, M. (2010) Small steps across the chasm: Ideas for embedding a culture of open education in the university sector. Education Technology & Social Media (Special Issue, Part 2), 16(1).

Prensky, M. (2001). Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants. On The Horizon, 9(5), 1-6.

White, D. (2008). Not ‘Natives’ & ‘Immigrants’ but ‘Visitors’ & ‘Residents’. TALL blog.

White, D. (2014). Visitors and Residents (video). University of Oxford.

White, D., & Le Cornu, A. (2011). Visitors and Residents: A new typology for online engagement. First Monday, 16(9).


Featured Image. https://speechdudes.files.wordpress.com/2011/12/digital-native.jpg.

Infographic. Made in Microsoft Word.





7 thoughts on “‘digital residents’ & ‘digital visitors’: what’s your online approach?

  1. Hi Catherine,

    Thanks for a very interesting read!

    I like your detailed description of “visitors” and “residents”. Particularly the use of examples from your own family. Also, I had not previously seen White’s use of a second language as a metaphor for digital skills and literacy. Furthermore, you skillfully weave Prensky’s original concepts into the wider discussion on White’s work.

    However, I have a couple of questions about your post. Firstly, where do you see yourself on the spectrum between visitor and resident? According to Prensky due to your age and education that would make you a native but how far do you consider yourself a resident? Also, you finish with the tantalising sentence “It will be interesting to observe the next metaphoric update in the development of the digital world.” My question, therefore, is what do you imagine the next metaphor for people interaction with the digital world? Or is it simply too complex for a simple word (native) or scale (resident)?

    Thanks again,
    Mark Cole.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Mark,

      Glad you enjoyed the post and thanks for commenting.

      I think I would fall half way on the spectrum, as although I enjoy maintaining a social online profile, I would not consider myself a true Resident because my digital presence does not extend to other aspects of my life. I understand this is the case for many younger people and for this reason, I think it could be helpful to have some in-between terms on the spectrum which we might better associate with. This is also how I imagine the next stage of metaphoric development in individual online approach to unfold, as I believe Visitors and Residents to be a good foundation concept.

      It is a tricky question though and I would be interested to hear any thoughts you may have about its future.



      Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi Catherine!
    I really enjoyed reading your article and I thought it was very well written. I completely agree with your view that White’s argument was much more open minded then Prensky’s as he restricted the causation of the divide to age; which your example of your aunt and brother challenges. However, when you say you are unable to place yourself on the ‘continuum’ between Visitor and Resident, and that you are unable to find the most desirable place to be; I may have a few points to enlighten you.
    In my opinion, I believe it is an adjusting scale like White suggests. Where you are on the scale changes depending on the context of your activity. You may be able to generally identify as one identity, for example in general I identify as a Resident, but when you break it down into different contexts you see that where you are on the scale shifts. When you break it down it is easier to separate your uses into an additional vertical axis of personal and professional in addition to your ‘Online Approach Spectrum’ in your post For example, although I mostly identify as a Resident, I am a visitor when it comes to a professional context (which I wish to change).Trying to fit yourself into one identity may be proving hard because like me, you identify differently for your different uses of technology and therefore you can’t make yourself fit into one box.
    Expanding on this, your most desirable place to be on the scale will also be different depending on what you are using the internet for. Personally I love to have a social life online; therefore for me the most desirable identity is Resident. The desirability of both identities will change depending on the person, and then on their context.
    I hope this way of thinking helps you in finding which identity you identify with, and I’d love to hear your response.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Hi Emily,

    Thanks for the in depth response to my post. I found your detailed explanation breaking down the field between Visitor and Resident useful when thinking about my own online approach. It is interesting to consider contrasting personal and professional approaches.

    See my reply to Mark above for where I consider myself to fall on the spectrum (similar to yourself and lots of student-age people I believe!) and my attitudes to the concept moving forward.

    I agree with you that the desirability of your position on the scale depends on individual outlook.

    Thanks again,


    Liked by 1 person

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