Thursday, July 3, 2008

Reach Out And Touch Someone

A new study published by JWT BOOM/ThirdAge states less than one-quarter of US Internet users ages 40 and over use social networking Web sites, while three-quarters of 15-24 year olds use them. How will this affect interaction between the generations?
The JWT BOOM/Third Age figures on social networking usage by those 40 and older generally agree with a study by ExactTarget conducted last month.

Instead of using one large category of older Internet users, ExactTarget divided users who were ages 35 and older into 10-year increments, with 65 and over being the oldest cohort. Although 39% of 35 to 44 year-olds used social networks, use fell sharply with age: Only 13% of 55 to 64 year-olds were social networkers, and only 4% of those ages 65 and older. In comparison, three-quarters of Internet users ages 15 to 24 use social networking sites.
My household is currently struggling with this dicotomy and, like new math versus the math being taught today, is another issue that divides the generations affecting how we parent in this brave new world.

I've been using computers in one form or another for over 30 years. I saw my first computer around 1970 on a Boy Scout field trip to Frito Lay. I'm sure it must of been a room full of IBM System/360s like the photo above. I definitely remember the hard drive, which was one of these, which held a whopping 28 Megabytes:

I got to try my hand a programming these beauties as an undergrad mechanical engineering student at the University of Oklahoma in 1976-1977. This was the punchcard days of programming, and I was cursed out by the Graduate Assistant for causing a massive recursive loop with my resplendent programing skills. I switched to Journalism: Radio, TV, Film my next semester.

When I worked for CBS Records in the early 1980s, my job as Single Records Coordinator required me to pull weekly sales figures out of the headquarters mainframe using the Dallas branch office terminal.

In my late 20s, I managed an Apple dealership in New York City. The Macintosh computer had just been introduced, but we still sold Apple IIe and IIc computers. I was getting my Masters degree at NYU, so was also working on IBM PCs.

School was where I was introduced to online bulletin board systems and was a user of The Well, the Whole Earth 'Lectric Link, started by Stewart Brand and his California Whole Earth Catalog folk. My classmate Stacy Horn start ECHO NYC in the early '90s, the East Coast equivalent to The Well, and I was one of her first topic hosts.

So while systems like MySpace, Facebook, and the plethora of other social networking sites promote themselves as the latest, greatest thing, from my vantage point the reason people use these systems has not changed since those early days of The Well and ECHO. People like to connect with others to share common interests and learn new things. They like to feel apart of something larger.

What has changed is that business forces have monetized that desire for connection. The Well and ECHO were subscription services. MySpace and Facebook, et al, are primarily advertising driven models.

It is this commercialized aspect of the network that is most worrisome to me, even more than the privacy and personal security issues that swirl around in discussions of the internet. In the old days, the biggest threat to a bulletin board was an abusive poster (someone who was a bully in an online discussion). Nowadays, the commercial venture posing as a friend seems far more stealthy and sinister.

Do 15-24 year olds realize this? Or is it just a part of the landscape they grow up with, much like the TV advertising I grew up with?

Ultimately, we humans just want to talk to someone. And like the ELIZA experiments of the 1960's proved, we're easily amused and delighted when we can get that connection through a machine.

I remain hopeful that the internet provides connections between humans. But I remain fearful of the connection between humans and disembodied corporations masquerading as machines.

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