Digital ‘Visitors’ and ‘Residents’

The idea of classifying web users as ‘visitors’ and ‘residents’ is a fairly new one, first identified in a paper from White, Manton and Le Cornu (2009). Their final 2011 write-up had the aim of replacing the pre-existing idea of digital ‘natives’ and ‘immigrants’ coined by Marc Prensky in an article back in 2001, but now found to barely scratch the surface.

The system positions all web users on a continuum between being a total ‘visitor’ (one who uses the digital world for specific purposes, and leaves when those purposes are completed, leaving no trace) and a total ‘resident’ (someone who ‘lives’ on the web, with constantly updating social media presences). This video by Dave White, the creator of the paradigm, is very useful in explaining the terms more fully. As with most continuums such as this, the thought is that the majority of users are likely to exist somewhere in the middle of the spectrum.

I do have a couple of concerns about the dynamic here, however. Firstly, after researching for a fair amount of time on this topic, I can’t find a well-constructed study offering any data about how numbers of visitors and residents break-down by age or social class (A rather flawed study by Wright, White, Hirst and Cann appears to offer the only data on the issue, and as a study of students forced to use Google+ for the purposes of their course, there are many ways it can be criticised).

While I accept the theory is useful in any respect, it feels strange that White makes claims that suggest age is not a large factor in this spectrum without having any numbers to back himself up. From my own personal use of the web, I would suggest that the lower-skilled users overall would tend to split in terms of age largely, with older low-skill users likely to be almost entirely visitors, and younger low-skill users likely to be resident but with little to say for themselves.

The lack of empiricism is my main concern, but I am also worried that White thinks he has replaced the natives/immigrants paradigm, which looks largely at skill, with a visitor/resident paradigm that doesn’t include skill on any level. Personally, I’d suggest that both systems could well be coexisting in the way people use the web, while Prensky’s thoughts could benefit from the continuum White employs.


All references are displayed as links in the text.

Prensky, M., 2001. MCB University Press Volume 9 (5). Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants.

White, D. S., 2013. YouTube video on ‘Dave White’s channel named ‘Visitors and Residents’.

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

White, D. S., Manton, M., and Le Cornu, A., 2009. Isthmus: Headline Findings Report.

Wright, F., White, D. S., Hirst, T., and Cann, A., 2013. Learning, Media and Technology, Volume 39 (1). Visitors and Residents: mapping student attitudes to academic use of social networks.


7 thoughts on “Digital ‘Visitors’ and ‘Residents’

  1. Hi Andy,
    I completely agree with your criticism towards White’s work and you raise a lot of important issues. I believe White’s over simplification over who is who on the internet just made categorising a lot more complicated. To pin down the main difference between users solely based on motivation alone (and disregarding age, social class and most importantly technological skill) is just not good enough. I would also like to add that having a spectrum that White has made can arguably be counter intuitive in distinguishing users and may ultimately provide too much room for subjectivity, bias and confusion. Being ‘boxed’ into one type or another is not the end of the world.


  2. Hi Andy,

    It’s good to see you questioning the efficacy of the concept presented by White. I definitely agree that, on its own, Visitors/Residents does not form a suitable replacement for the Native/Immigrant concept. However, I did find some of your criticism to be slightly strange, given the nature of the concept.

    Your call for a “visitors and residents break-down by age or social class” suggests that, perhaps, you haven’t fully engaged with the concept. Rather than trying to pigeonhole people as the Native/Immigrant concept does, the Visitors/Residents continuum instead displays different ways of using the tools available to us on the internet. Rather than a person “being” (permanently) a Visitor or Resident, a person will utilise the Visitor or Resident perspectives (or a point between) whilst on one website, and it is quite possible that when using a variety of sites, any one person could traverse the entire Visitor/Resident spectrum.

    Whilst I will admit that many people might have a default position that they err towards, this concept proposes that these people can adjust their behaviours to change this to suit their needs – removing Prensky’s concept of a permanent “accent”. It is a far more constructive concept, in my opinion, than the restrictive Native/Immigrant binary.



    • Hi Calum,

      Thanks for that comment, you make some interesting points of your own. It was my understanding of White et al.’s work that they believed, while we may do something very ‘visitor’ in one moment and very ‘resident’ the next, that every person occupied a resting point on the continuum that could be said to sum up their overall behaviour.

      Based on that, I was doubting the veracity of claims that age doesn’t really affect where one might be on the scale, as from my experience I would expect it to, probably to quite a large extent. While I understand that the scale is an interesting way to look at internet use, I can’t see that it serves quite the number of useful purposes White would claim it to, either.


      Liked by 1 person

      • I think Andy has fully engaged in the concept and has so in the first two paragraphs. The keyword that Andy had underlined and which I agree with here is ‘usefulness’. How useful is a categorisation system that people can escape from whence they please?
        An analogy (probably a bad one) you could compare this situation to would be people who use the gym (the online web). People could go there, do a work out and leave (visitor) or they could go there and join a Crossfit session with friends or make new friends (resident) and interact. Unfortunately for the personal instructor (online web educator?) at the gym, these two gym go-ers are the same person just on different days. With proficiency/fitness level, age, social class and etc all being ignored, what good does the visitor/resident concept, in this context, do for the gym instructor when he has the task of giving the person a new work out programme or give a fitness assessment?


        Liked by 1 person

  3. Pingback: Digital Visitors and Residents: Reflection | The Progressive

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