UK Web Focus (Brian Kelly)

Innovation and best practices for the Web

“How the Google generation thinks differently”

Posted by Brian Kelly on 9 Jul 2008

I was pleased to receive an email message this morning from Gill Smith, the Communications Officer here at the University of Bath. Gill’s ‘finely-tuned antenna‘ (a daily Google alert for news articles on “University of Bath” OR “Bath University” had alerted her to an article published on today’s Times (as an aside I should say how pleased I am that staff in our Corporate Communications department seem to be routinely making use of RSS).

Although I disagree with the title of the article – “How the Google generation thinks differently” – I am pleased with the second part of the byline: “Digital-age kids process information differently from parents. Our writer admits misjudging how her son was learning“.

The article describes the background to the story, which was published in the Women’s section (I mention this to make clarify that the article aims to give the perspective of a concerned parent rather than a scholarly article). In brief, the mother of a 15 year old boy is concerned that her son is spending a lot of time on the Internet, partly listening to music and chatting to friends and also doing his homework. As a journalist she spotted the opportunity for an article, which was based on reading the literature and talking to a number of experts in the field.

In our telephone interview I argued that (a) teenagers doing new things that parents didn’t really understand is nothing new and (b) the way teenagers use Google is not very different from how the parents do – whether we’re professional in academia or in the press. And, indeed, Catherine admits in her article:

Google has been my godsend as a writer. Research that once required hours of trawling through reports and cuttings, and days of fielding calls to source experts, can be done in a few clicks of a mouse.

It seems that my advice that she should encourage her son to make use of the Internet, but to ensure that she advises him on best practices has been taken:

I recovered quickly enough from my hissy fit and returned my son’s laptop the next evening. The proof of the pudding would be in his results, I decided, and now that they have come in, I have to concede that the social networking/internet surfing/revision combo threw up no surprises. From the pleasing to the mediocre, his grades were predictable.

I’m pleased that the 15 minute phone interview had such a positive impact in the O’Brien household. And it’s even more pleasing that this may be read by the hundreds of thousands of readers of The Times :-)


After I published this post I bought a hard copy of The Times and found that the article (page 10 in the Times2 section) had the title “Why I confiscated my son’s computer (then gave it back)“: a much more appropriate title, in my view, although the same byline is used.


12 Responses to ““How the Google generation thinks differently””

  1. ajcann said

    At least she didn’t try to prohibit just Wikipedia, which is the normal whipping boy for these phobes.

  2. Paul Walk said

    google alerts? RSS?

  3. Hi Paul – I’m so used to using RSS that I forget that now all services have embraced it. I’d forgotten that Google Alerts can only be received via email – for some strange reason. Google doesn’t provide an RSS feed for the alerts, despite having announced an RSS alerting service for Google News back in 2005.

  4. Tony Hirst said

    You can subscribe to an RSS feed fro a new search – I have several for the OU on the “OU in the News” tab on

  5. Brian, is there any reason you never modify or update your posts when you’ve made an error, and instead make users plough through the comments to see if anything you’ve said is wrong?

  6. Hi Phil – I sometimes fix typos, layout, etc. but I am reluctant to change the meaning of a published post, even (or perhaps especially) if I make mistakes. In part I don’t want to undermine the authority of any comments or the integrity of any threaded discussions – for example, in this instance Tony Hirst alerted me (and other readers) of the OU’s use of RSS for Google alerts – fixing my error in response to Paul’s comment would make his comment appear inappropriate. There is also the question of integrity of a published resource and the copies of the original resource that syndicated.

    If you spot an error one way for me to deal with it is to email me. I may then be able to fix the mistake before any discussion starts.

  7. […] my colleague Brian Kelly’s post, I read Catherine O’Brien’s How the Google generation thinks differently on the Times […]

  8. Paul Walk said

    Interesting though Tony’s use of RSS from Google’s News search service is – it’s not the same as Google Alerts (which I think searches more widely). Having said that, Tony’s approach would seem to be a better one in this context in any case.

    I use Google Alerts for very wide searching of simple terms – i.e. ‘UKOLN’. If I could get this delivered easily with RSS I’d be happy.

  9. Tim Beadle said

    Re: changes to blog posts – if you use the del and ins html elements, to denote sections you’ve deleted and inserted respectively, you get geek points and preserve the evolution of the blog post without getting all Ministry of Truth about it.

  10. Hi Tim I used the del and ins tags in a recent post but I felt this looked very ugly and was confusing. I have used this approach when I’ve changed a small amount of text, but I don’t think it scales. I hope I get some geek points for having used this approach, though :-)

  11. Tim Beadle said

    Brian – geek points for you, then :)

    You’re right, the default rendering is ugly. Perhaps some judicious CSS would help.

  12. […] One example might be blog posts. These can receive comments from the moment they are posted and well into the future. Not only this but many bloggers go back and edit previous posts and delete comments. This matter was recently discussed on Brian Kelly’s UKWeb Focus blog. Phil Wilson asked: “Brian, is there any reason you never modify or update your posts when you’ve made an error, and instead make users plough through the comments to see if anything you’ve said is wrong?” (UK Web Focus Blog) […]

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