Not just another pencil: Computer-mediated communication from a senior's point of view.
Chapter I Old Folks
Discovering the World Wide Web and computer-mediated communication has been one more amazing chapter in the lives of this century's oldest generation. Younger people in schools, homes and offices use their computers as a matter of course. Learning how to do this is taken for granted as part of life. Members of the oldest generation, however, have discovered and explored the Internet for themselves while the whole system was undergoing constant change. The medium might have slipped by without their notice, but as it happened, old folks around the world have made themselves right at home on the World Wide Web.
Lorna was alone in the room when I popped in at midnight. I asked her if she was ready for the arrival of Harry, a great good friend from Oregon, whom Lorna had met first online and then in person. They had also met each other's families and had come to an exciting decision. He was to arrive the following day, to live with Lorna for the rest of their lives.
Three words appeared: "Harry is dead."
Stunned, I typed, "Oh no - when? What happened?" and then the story came racing across my screen. He had a heart attack and died that evening while packing for the trip. His daughter found him and phoned Lorna who was now in a state of shock. Alone on a farm in Georgia, far from neighbours, she didn't know what to do, couldn't think, couldn't go to bed, had automatically turned on her computer and hit Netscape and then 60 plus.
She kept writing, "I don't know what to do."
Persuading her to phone her son, I waited alone in the "room" for her to return. It was one of those unusual moments when nobody else happened to be connected. Lorna said her son couldn't be there until five o'clock the next morning so I stayed up with her all night. Her grief was uncontrollable. It was impossible to get onto any other topic so we spent five hours "talking" about Harry. When Lorna's doorbell rang at ten past five she flew out of the "room" and I went to bed.
The "room" of course was the "60+ chat room" on the World Wide Web, where hundreds of senior citizens meet regularly and discuss everything that touches their lives. There are chat rooms all over the Internet for people with similar interests to share opinions and add to each other's store of knowledge. The special ones for seniors are where they become such close friends that one would sit up all night to help out with another's private grief, though they had never met in person.
This example is not a rare scenario. Helping each other is common for senior citizens on the Internet, in the chat rooms, by e-mail, and through Web sites. Sorrows are shared and so is laughter. In the privacy of each other's virtual company, old people exchange jokes that might be offensive if told by a younger generation. Laughing at one's own frailties and challenges is acceptable among one's peers, while it becomes cruel ageism outside the milieu.
The ease of posting notes, responses, sudden ideas and spontaneous comments in the chat rooms engenders unstructured, laid-back friendliness far beyond what a casual surfer might suspect.
As a rancher in the southeastern corner of Wyoming, Chip Harding has seen a good deal of its history and experienced many of the things that make Wyoming unique. His family homesteaded there nearly a hundred years ago. His Web site opens with:
"I have driven the old Cheyenne to Deadwood Stagecoach with an eight horse hitch, lived in a tipi, trapped beaver in cold mountain streams, and hunted with a muzzle loading rifle. I have talked to my son during Desert Storm via satellite, and now I talk to friends all over the world on this magic box." When he was a young lad, Harding talked with a Sioux Indian who had been at the Battle of the Little BigHorn when General Custer and his command were killed. Chip rode a horse four miles to a one-room school between neighbouring ranches. There was one other student and one teacher. It was 40 miles to high school and he graduated in a class of 13 students, the largest class in the history of the school, as recorded on Chip Harding's Web site.
Feeling as comfortably at home on the Internet as they did in those one-room schools is common to a growing number of people who don't think being old is an embarrassment, avoidable, reversible, disgraceful, a crime, a disease, or even a social faux pas.
Enjoying the achievement of this significant stage in their lives has included going online and making the most of computer-mediated communication in all its forms. New Web sites built and maintained by senior citizens appear on the Internet in a steady stream, each for a different reason but always reflecting one common factor: the independent nature of the medium.
There are no inhibiting age-related rules and regulations; no particular mission to fulfill. Participants use whatever skills they have at their command and the neophyte is as welcome in the Internet society as the experienced technician.
Nobody controls what you put on the Internet, or requires you to take anything off, unless you transgress your own particular community's code of morality, in which case somebody will undoubtedly let you know, but there are no cops to call. The Internet is self-governing.
This interesting phenomenon of our times has enriched the lives of those old folks who take it on as an adjunct to their daily routine. "I post, therefore I am" makes sense at any age, and the postings of old folks validate their own assessment of their world and their joy in expressing it.
As with most innovations, the Internet could well become outdated and, eventually, obsolete, along with so many other things we have experienced. As did the party line, the gramophone and the two-dollar bill, the Internet serves its current purpose but nobody my age will be surprised when it is replaced, or simply vanishes.
One might wonder how the Internet could be a unifying force between these older generations and the youngsters who have never known a world without computers, but it actually does work that way. Though the sociological differences between grandparents and grandchildren today are greater than between today's grandparents and their own grandparents, the Internet enables a meeting that never existed before. While it enables elders to build their own Web based society, it is also open to youth.
In this way, the availability of the Internet makes the elderly netizen valuable to the rest of society. The youth-oriented culture of this century had of late been isolating and undervaluing elders to a great extent. Now that the senior population is making itself known through the common places on the Internet, their own culture can expand, and is once more accessible to youth. The generation gap may have lost its tenure, via the World Wide Web.
The gap, of course, remains, but the Internet is a new span. With the help of carefully prepared seniors' Web sites, youngsters can now find out about a childhood when ocean crossing was by liner, wood warmed our houses, pencils had no erasers. They will come to understand the days when everything was turned by hand, pencil sharpeners, sewing machines, clothes wringers, car engines, meat grinders, axe grinders, telephones and the cream separator. They will converse with people who lived at a time when everyone sat down to breakfast with their own families. They can compare this scenario with the average childhood of today when nobody sharpens anything but just throw it away and buys a new one.
Being defined as elderly has a different meaning for each age group. Folks born in the early 1920s are definitely elderly. Those born in the 1940s often consider themselves to be in the same category because of the changes they, also, have witnessed. Even for these middle-aged people, the number of innovations in their lifetimes is formidable. They were born before television, penicillin, polio shots, frozen foods, Xerox, contact lenses, disposable diapers and birth control pills. Youngsters who today take all these things for granted, can never fully relate to people who grew up in a world without radar, credit cards, split atoms, laser beams, ball-point pens, pantyhose, dishwashers, clothes dryers, electric blankets, air conditioners, and drip-dry clothes. The endlessness of the list makes the point that these old people actually live in two worlds at the same time, particularly if they have joined the ever-increasing population on the World Wide Web.
Adults long before the moon walking era, they typically got married before they lived together, had never heard of day-care centres, group therapy, nursing homes, FM radio, tape decks, electric typewriters, artificial hearts, yogurt, microwave ovens, TV dinners or even TV for that matter.
Wherever in the world they have spent their lives, today's seniors have much in common. They adapted to all those things that came along to simplify their lives, or to complicate them. As the list went on it inevitably included computers, and then the World Wide Web, where the fastest growing user component is the elderly. Although the senior population is now the most important new demographic element, this accessibility has come along unexpectedly. The computer network was not designed with this in mind. In fact, it has been identified with youth, the "hip" culture, scientific pursuits and business.
Contrary to the image of a youth-dominated Internet, the elderly are assuming a greater role in their own development and the world's. The more the Internet expands, the more important its senior users will become.
Forces of nature -- declining birthrates and extending life spans -- indicate the growth of more power in the older population. Their expanding use of the Internet is increasing that power. The people who invented the World Wide Web are fast joining this ever-growing, ever-strengthening older generation and are still engaged in its development.
Personal experience in the medium is more dramatic than numbers, but figures prove the point. Estimating how many people are online throughout the world depends on the methods of collection and interpretation of statistics. Surveys abound, using all sorts of measurement parameters. Observing many of the published surveys, NUA Internet Surveys have come up with the educated guess that over 500 billion people were online worldwide in May, 2002. This includes everyone on the Internet, children, people in offices, everyone. There is no way to know how many of these are seniors, but the statistics are nevertheless interesting. The NUA Survey geographical breakdown is as follows:
Canada and US 182.67 million
Over a thousand people took part in a survey conducted in 1998 by Richard Denesiuk of SCIP (Seniors Computer Information Project), the Winnipeg based Creative Retirement Web site. Of the 1067 users who answered the survey 55 per cent (859) were over 55 years of age, 40 per cent (426) over 65, and 7 per cent (78) over 75.
Among the 208 users under 55, 121 were 46 to 55, 69 were 26 to 45, and 18 were under 25, which might be surprising considering that the entire mission and delivery of the SCIP Web site is oriented to senior citizens. Men made up 68 per cent (728) of the group. As to work, 55 per cent (592) were fully retired, 184 worked part-time, and 278 were still employed full-time.
The distribution survey of this service revealed users in every Canadian province and territory as well as 436 in the US, and 65 in Europe, Asia and elsewhere. The distribution by provinces was: Ontario 205, Manitoba 97, British Columbia 68, Alberta 58, Quebec 36, Nova Scotia 20, Saskatchewan 10, Prince Edward Island 4, New Brunswick 4, Newfoundland and Labrador 2, Yukon 2, and North West Territories 1.
Denesiuk asked his users when they had first used a computer.He found that although 84 had started under the age of 25, there were 142 who were introduced to computers after they were 65 years old, and 22 users who had not begun to use computers until they had passed their 75th birthday.
Of these users, well more than half, 607, had taught themselves how to use computers, 230 had learned on their jobs, 123 had taken a class to learn, and 101 had learned from a friend.
Asked about their primary use of computers, among those surveyed, 463 stated that it was for communication and accessing the Internet, 340 said it was for word processing, 147 for making spreadsheets and other data bases, 78 for graphics and desk-top publishing, and 22 said they used computers mainly for playing games. Secondary computer uses were in roughly the same order with 353 for Internet and communications, 354 for word processing, 125 for spreadsheets and databases, 122 for games, and 96 for graphics and desk-top publishing. Among the 1050 users who accessed the Internet, the primary purpose for most, 586, was to go into the World Wide Web. Another 384 mainly used it for e-mail, while the primary purpose for 36 was for usenet and newsgroups, 13 favoured file transfer protocol, and another 31 listed their primary use as "other". Secondary Internet uses were 486 for e-mail, 361 for World Wide Web, 95 for usenet and newsgroups, 49 for FTP, and 49 listed "other".
Among all the users surveyed, the highest level of formal education for 13 users was less than grade nine, for 92 was grades 9 to 12, for 121 high school graduation, for 263 some community college or university courses, and 570 held community college certificates, university, or college degrees.
Although computers are accessible in various public places, and becoming more and more generally available in schools and colleges, most of the steady users own their own equipment. For this reason, the income of the user becomes a significant factor. In the Manitoba survey, the following findings were recorded. Only 29 users earned less than $10,000 a year, 185 earned over $50,000 and among these, 68 were reported to have annual incomes over $100,000.
By far the majority of the people on this planet don't have access to the Internet, at least one entire nation, North Korea, bans it altogether, so it is a mistake to imagine that we are all interconnected. Half of the adult population in America does not have Internet access and 57 per cent of non-Internet users have no interest in using the Web. The latest findings from the Pew Internet Project reveal that 32 per cent of those without Internet access said they 'definitely will not' go online in the near future, representing 31 million Americans. Only 12 per cent of non-users said they 'definitely will.' Demographic findings suggest that 87 per cent of those aged 65 and over do not have access to the Internet.
We do know, though, that every day, every hour, new users are connecting, putting up Web sites, and that more and more of them are in the category that NUA calls "Senior Internetizens." Most of the statistics available refer to the US but it is likely they apply equally to Canada.
The over-50s are now the fastest growing part of the US Internet audience, according to The Media Audit. Internet users in this age group grew from 19 per cent of all Internet users in 1997 to 38 per cent of all users in 2000.
The Media Audit considers this demographic group to be valuable to marketers, because it is more affluent than the general population, and the number of over-50s is growing steadily. The Media Audit reports that almost a third of the over-50s with Internet connections have annual incomes higher than US$50,000, fifty per cent have not yet retired, and close to a third have liquid assets over US$100,000. Media Audit has also discovered that 47 per cent of these over-50s also own wireless phones and over 21 per cent have bought something online five or more times in the past year.
Statistics regarding old folks on the Internet are hard to pin down as they change hourly, but still it is interesting to note trends. Back in September, 1997, the most comprehensive survey of Internet users aged 50 and over, carried out by Excite Inc for The Third Age Media Inc, found that 14 per cent of all Internetizens are described as Third Agers.
A report by the Baruch Collete-Harris Poll (1997) states that 19 per cent of Internetizens are 50 or over. A 1998 survey by BC-Harris found that 8 per cent of adults aged 65 and over were online, and this group represented 3 per cent of the total adult online population.
Activmedia's March, 1998 survey shows that senior citizens were one of the fastest growing segments of the online population. Their survey also revealed that older Internetizens believed that the World Wide Web improves relationships.
In August, 1998, NUA declared that Internet users over the age of 55 were highly educated, affluent and had a higher tendency to purchase online than younger surfers.
An October 1998 study, conducted by SeniorInternet and Charles Schwab Inc., found over 13 million US adults over the age of 50 with Internet access and this number was already growing rapidly.
A survey in September, 1999, by Greenfield Online found that 92 per cent of US seniors with Internet access had window-shopped online, while 78 per cent had actually made online purchases.
The Pew Internet & American Life Project Fifteen reports that 15 per cent of US senior citizens are now believed to have Internet access, and 69 per cent of those go online every day. Only 40 per cent of online seniors are women although women outnumber men in that age group by 141 to 100. The majority of new users over the age of 65 in the US now are women.
This US survey has discovered that online seniors are more likely than other seniors to be married, well educated, and have high retirement incomes. Pew also concludes that the number of Internet users in this group is set to rise, as 51 per cent of 50 to 64 year olds now have Internet access.
Among specific interests, music sites apparently have a special attraction for online Americans over 50. A 2002 Media Metrix report finds that 6,811,000 Americans aged 50 and over have visited music-related Web sites in the US. Sites that were popular with the over 50 age group included music-entertainment, online retailers, and multimedia software download sites, with visitor numbers up 92 per cent from 1999.
The number of unique visitors 50 and over to music and entertainment sites specifically has grown from 2,033,000 in June 1999 to 4,703,000 in June 2000. The top sites were Real.com (2,736,000 visitors 50 and over), Windowsmedia.com (966,000), and others like Mp3.com (448,000). Older Americans are also using online music retailers to purchase music. In June 2000, sites like Amazon.com, Barnesandnoble.com, Buy.com, and Bmgmusicservice.com were visited by 4,355,000 people over 50 .
Another survey conducted by Btopenworld, reports that going online has become the number one hobby for British pensioners with 83 per cent of seniors in the UK going online on a regular basis. This study indicates that pensioners use the Internet mainly to keep in touch with friends and family, sending an average of four e-mails a day. The Internet is particularly popular with older women, according to the Btopenworld survey findings. Nearly half of female seniors go online for the first time after they retire, and 35 per cent of these say that the Internet has offered them a wider circle of friends.
According to the Btopenworld report, the Internet has also helped older people to feel more comfortable with modern society. Almost two-thirds of "silver surfers" in the UK said they felt more open to new experiences after having been online, while 42 per cent felt they were more tolerant of the way the world was developing. The BBC Online Network has reported that UK seniors with Internet access claim that being online has strengthened their relationships with their family and friends. New survey results from Age Concern show that older Internet users or "silver surfers" say learning how to use the Internet stimulated their minds and gave them something in common with younger people. Ninety per cent said e-mail was the biggest benefit of going online, and 80 per cent said that going online had been an "empowering and liberating experience." Over 4 million older people in the UK have Internet access.
A recent report from NetValue states that the number of older people going online in the UK has increased by nearly 90 per cent since 2001. More than two million UK seniors now regularly use the Internet, accounting for 13 per cent of the total home online population. Online banking is particularly appealing to seniors with more than 40 per cent of them regularly banking online. According to NetValue, nearly 25 per cent of all people visiting banking sites in the UK are aged 50 and over.
Spearheading the growth in online banking are the Australian senior Internet users, according to the Market Intelligence Strategy Centre. The number of registered online banking users in Australia almost doubled in the past year to reach 5.23 million at the end of March 2002, up from 2.77 million in 2001. Users aged 50-plus recorded the biggest growth rate of 113 per cent to reach 775,000 for the 12-month period.
All these statistics are already dated but indicate a trend. The aging population, expansion of computer-mediated communication, and the fact that the age of the participant is not apparent on the Internet, indicate hope that the wisdom deficit which afflicts so many aspects of today's society may be diminished. Business can give a man a gold watch and send him off to play golf at 65 and government can kick him out of the Senate at 70 but on the Internet his age is not a factor.
A growing use of the Internet has been "blogging" - a term derived from Web logging. "Blogs" started out as online diaries and have developed into a many faceted genre. There are blogs on every esoteric topic and also many interesting commentaries on the passing scene. These usually contain links so once they have caught your attention they might hold it for hours as you go surfing with their authors.
Enjoyable as these are to read, the greatest benefit is often to the writer for whom his daily blog may be therapy, catharsis, or simply self assertion. In the hands of skilled and brilliant people, blogs can be more useful than traditional journalism and become valuable sources for their regular readers. Blogging is a way of being published without the interference of an editor or the owner of a newspaper or magazine. This has become a popular means of expression for some elderly people with something interesting and useful to say.
The gap is closed, the thought speaks for itself. Solutions to our most pressing problems will be presented by our wisest and most experienced citizens. The means are provided on the World Wide Web and our elders are preparing to make best use of the facility.