For a while now, I’ve been thinking and writing about how Web 2.0 fits in the lives of people my age: how technology affects memory (especially how human and computer memories differ); how the omnipresence of the Web may affect our capacity to forget and grow and mature; and how Facebook serves as a kind of time machines. I’ve now started a Facebook group on “Digital Middle Age” around these subjects.
There’s an assumption that anyone over about 24, pretty much by definition, will find games, new media, and Web 2.0 to be a Strange Foreign Country. Partly this is an extension of the reigning assumption that only the young really “get it” when it comes to new technology. Witness Pamela Satran’s gently humorous pieces in More.com explaining how not to act old on Facebook and Twitter. (Okay, a magazine aimed at women over 40 is likely to play on age anxiety more than most; but easy way the articles take for granted that teenagers know the “right” way to behave (certainly the first time in human history we’ve assumed that!) is still pretty striking.)
But the articles overlook the fact that their readership grew up with PCs, spent thousands of hours in front of computer screens, and is perfectly familiar with the Web. My cohort is one that grew up with computers, but not with social media. I was in high school when the first personal computers appeared. I spent hours with my high school’s Apple II; I crunched the numbers for my senior thesis using Lotus 1-2-3; wrote my dissertation on a Mac; and got my first e-mail address when I was a postdoc. People my age have all the technical facility (I refuse to use the word literacy) necessary to rapidly take up services like Twitter and Facebook. There’s a good reason older users are the fastest-growing user populations in the Web 2.0 world.
But unlike the teenagers and college students are using these services, we have lives that have taken place offline, largely outside the gravity well of the Internet. These services aren’t just continuations of our current lives: they can reconnect us to people we haven’t been in touch with for twenty years. Watching myself and my friends online, I sometimes think I’m watching a collision of two very different kinds of social worlds. And if like me you’re seriously interested in the social impacts of new technologies, studying these kinds of collisions and transitional groups (like people my age) is a particularly valuable way to see how new technologies affect the way people work and play and socialize and think.
And while teenagers are an interesting subject because they’re reckless, extreme, irresponsible, and everyone worries about them– when you’re not certain they’re dead in a ditch, you’re yelling at them to get off your lawn– I think its safe to say that their parents have large amounts of disposable income, access to credit, a majority vote in household technology-related decision-making, etc.– all the things that ought to make them very interesting not just to academic geeks like me, but to advertisers and publishers. (We also have more to lose: drunken blog posts or sexting may be bad when you’re 19, but accidentally Tweeting trade secrets is a lot worse, if only because mortgages and parental responsibilities multiply the potential impact of big mistakes.)
So, as part of my ongoing effort to understand how media have affected this transitional generation, I’ve created the Facebook group. It’s open to everyone who’s in Facebook, and my hope is that it’ll help me better understand how social media function in the lives of people who already have lives. Does reconnecting with people from high school really matter? Does it change your life in some non-trivial way? I think it can, but data is not the plural of anecdote– especially when you just repeat the same anecdotes (your own) over and over.
Maybe there’s an interesting article here. Who knows. We’ll see what happens….
[To the tune of Daryl Hall & John Oates, “Out of Touch,” from the album Big Bam Boom (I give it 3 stars).]