Face up to social media revolution

On Facebook there is a video clip doing the rounds in which an overly-entitled millennial girl is being interviewed for a job.  To show her competence with technology she lists her several favourite social media sites but bursts into incredulous laughter when asked if she uses Facebook. 

“That’s, like, for OLD PEOPLE,” she replies.  “Like, my PARENTS!”

Or even her grandparents. 

Because while younger media socialites are turning to Snapchat and Instagram, those over 55 have become the fastest-growing Facebook user demographic – a phenomenon which was not envisaged when Facebook was launched in 2004, targeting tech-savvy teens and 20-somethings.

In fact, Baby Boomers, many of whom learned to engage with computers in early middle age, have embraced all social media with enthusiasm – but Facebook remains the firm favourite, despite privacy scares and recent scandal. 

Research shows this is due to three main factors:  ease of use, the need for social engagement and – above all – nostalgia.

Facebook remains the best platform through which to reconnect to the past, not only by having your own page and inviting friends and family to join it but by joining sub-groups such as your old school and your old home town. 

Judith Younghusband comes originally from Aylesbury in England and was thrilled when she discovered a Facebook site called Aylesbury Remembered. 

This was started by a man with an impressive photo archive of the town in bygone days – now other residents and former residents contribute pictures from their family albums. Judith admits to being resistant to the very idea of Facebook until she “friended” the Aylesbury Remembered site. 

“I’m a very private person”, she says, “And was afraid of giving away personal information or being hacked.  Now I have my own page and enjoy communicating with my family and friends, many of whom live so far away I rarely see them”. 

Through the Aylesbury site, Judith connected with a couple of primary school friends and also made new friends.  This year, for the first time in 40 years, she visited her birthplace especially to meet those friends face-to-face and, encouraged by her social media venture, she has now joined WhatsApp and Linked In. Judith’s story is a common one for older Facebook users. 

The Kenya Friends Reunited Facebook page was started by a couple of people eight years ago; they still moderate the sub-group which now has about 8000 members around the world, several hundred of them in Australia. 

It began purely as a nostalgia site friended by those who left Kenya after Independence in 1963 and who wanted to enjoy sharing photos and memories of the country from which they felt exiled. 

“Back then it was just the ageing children of the old European memsaabs and bwanas,” says one of the Australian members. “But since then, many ex-Kenyans of Indian origin have also joined and it’s been interesting to see colonial Kenya through their eyes – and realise they loved it just as much as we did!”.

It is exactly this global nature of social media that lies at the heart of its success. 

People feel directly and intimately connected not only to each other but to the larger world of common interest in a way that has not been possible before. 

This is enhanced by associated direct communication platforms such as Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp which make it easy to exchange quick “notes” in real time – a more embracing service across all devices than phoning or texting.

IT manager and recreational musician Alan Hyde sums it up for most regular Facebook users when he says the main benefit to him has been keeping in touch with relatives in far-off countries and keeping up with favourite bands. 

“It’s also great for organising my own band,” Alan says. “I use my page to book rehearsals, upload videos with songs to learn and keep a calendar”.

Alan also founded a family sub-group which shares genealogical research as well as member-orientated news.  And he is involved with a Scout group that uses its Facebook page to publish photos, upload documents and generally keep the parents informed. 

And then there is Jimmy Cruickshank, at 81 one of the older people surveyed for this article.  Jimmy suffers from cancer and other health problems and is mostly housebound.  For him, Facebook has proved a blessing.

“It’s my window on the world,” he says.  “Until my son introduced me to it I didn’t even have a computer or use email.  Hated all that techno stuff!  Now I do it all.  I don’t really understand Twitter and Linked In seems to be for professional people but Facebook has brought me in touch with old friends, even a former girlfriend!  I’ve been posting some of my old photos and people love them!”   

Jimmy’s reminiscences grew too long for Facebook posts but proved so popular that he was persuaded to start a blog – and now he’s putting them into a book.

“It’s given me a new lease of life,” he says.

Griffith University sociotechnical studies senior lecturer David Tuffley says social media participation has been shown to improve cognitive ability, mainly through stimulating dormant memory.

He has heard of aged care facilities getting people online and giving them basic computer skills especially so they can join Facebook and keep up with their extended families. 

Dr Tuffley describes it as a benign platform that allows people to connect with the world because it is attuned to our understanding of human evolutionary psychology. 

“As a species we love to establish social relationships,” he says, and believes that social media enhances rather than suppresses that evolutionary hard-wiring to engage in deeply instinctual social behaviour

Social media and Facebook especially, has its detractors.  People fear invasion of their privacy, or being attacked by hackers and scammers or the on-selling of personal information for marketing purposes, as highlighted by the recent data harvesting scandal involving Facebook and Cambridge University. 

Others blame social media for fostering illiteracy or making us socially dysfunctional.

“That’s what I used to think,” says Judith Younghusband.  “But now I realise it’s often the socially dysfunctional who don’t engage with social media because they have no friends!   I find it has actually extended my social interaction with others, making it possible to remain connected with many people in a way writing letters and phoning never did.

“It’s the ability for several people in a group to respond and comment and even share a joke that makes it all so much fun; like having pen pals or being at a permanent party even though the guests are far apart!”

Dr Tuffley agrees, pointing out that the social media companies want long-term relationships with their customers so it’s not in their interest to offend us.  He understands the irritation with targeted advertising but points out that we are given a powerful – and free – tool by the providers of digital services and all they ask in return is that we see a few advertisements. 

“Surely if those ads are targeted to our specific interests it’s better than the scattergun approach and can even prove of interest to us,” he says.

Many of the concerns expressed about social media apply to young people rather than their grandparents. 

The image of the teenage smartphone texter, eyes forever on the screen, fingers flying, apparently disengaged from the “real” world has become iconic.  Yet oldies do it differently. 

We still tend to communicate in full sentences and spell correctly.  We don’t clutter up our Facebook page with “friends” to show how popular we are but rather limit our friendships to those we actually know, and are careful to guard our privacy by not revealing unnecessary information.

Unlike our grandchildren who live in the Snapchat moment because they have no past worth remembering, we prefer a platform such as Facebook where our long, rich personal histories can be shared and our memories stimulated.   

More than that, older users are increasingly seeing social media as a way of extending working life and opening up new earning opportunities thanks to the easy, inexpensive, from-home marketing and promotion opportunities offered by Facebook, Twitter, Linked In and others.

According to Social Media Statistics Australia, we are some of the most prolific social media users in the world with Facebook alone boasting 15 million monthly active users.  Of these, about 2.8 million are over 55 and that figure is rising.  This provides social media developers with plenty of creative – and lucrative - opportunities to enhance our lives in the future. 

Dr Tuffley says one of the ideas that might be of particular interest to seniors is the “digital companion” – an assistance program being developed by several companies, including Facebook, to help us manage our lives more easily and efficiently. 

The artificially intelligent companion will function rather like a community care worker only more comprehensively and will be programmed to respond to our mood, body language and tone of voice, so it can interact with us appropriately and effectively.  Hollywood actors are being hired to give warmth and humanity to the AI voice.

He quotes American journalist Kevin Kelly who told a TED (the non-profit Technology, Entertainment and Design organisation) audience that the challenge for today’s technologists is to come up with a technology of self-expression that hasn’t yet been invented for children being born today.

Those reading this article might not be around to see it, but we can at least embrace – albeit with due caution – those digital platforms that give us a wider social experience than was available to our parents.