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Sunday, October 24, 2010

Boomers Embracing Facebook

This is an article I wrote for SMG which was published in the Seacoast Seniors supplement to todays Portsmouth Herald.

What Is Your Facebook Status?

By Tammi J Truax

It may be hard to believe that e-mail has become an inefficient and outdated form of communication, but that really is the truth of today. Other modes of social networking, specifically Facebook, are the preferred technique of the day. At first, and for quite awhile, the younger generation, I believe they are calling themselves Xer’s, tried to keep it for themselves. As one local teenager was quoted as saying a couple of years ago; “E-mail is for you old people, Facebook is ours.” Wrong again, kids. Facebook is not just for young people.

And that is just as it should be. The internet is a product of the hippie generation, and the hippie objectives of freedom and equality for all, are the great tenants of it. Facebook, like everything else on the web, has to be accessible to everyone in the world. To date that is going pretty well. More than five hundred million people are on Facebook. I repeat – 500 million. That is one in fourteen of us on this overpopulated planet! It is said that if Facebook were a country it would be the third most populated one on earth. But it is better than that, it’s a country without borders. And the fastest growing segment of that population is, you guessed it, Boomers.

Facebook, a privately held company, defines itself as a “social utility that connects people with friends and others who work, study, and live around them.” It was founded in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 2004 for college students to get to know each other and was at first limited to students. Now headquartered in Palo Alto, California, it has several locations around the globe and is still growing and hiring.

The growth has been unparalleled. In just six years going from zero to more than 500 million users, and is expected to have earnings in excess of one billion dollars this year. Currently the fastest growing group joining Facebook is seniors.

Explains local social media consultant John Herman,

John Herman

“Data from Facebook shows that in 2009 the 55+ audience grew an amazing 922.7%. That was much more than any other age group by far. Frankly the idea that Facebook is just for young people is a thing of the past. The service gives everyone a unique way to connect with friends and, increasingly, business partners.”

There seem to be several reasons for the spike in popularity for this age group. The first being that it coincides with seniors slow, but very steady, increased use of the internet. Once comfortable with the internet it is most likely that seniors will at least consider joining Facebook. Some cities offer classes to ease the transition, but a quick tutorial by a teenager will usually do the trick. Of web activities engaged in by Americans age 65+ in November 2009 Facebook was actually the third ranked online destination coming after Google Search and Windows Media Player, and barely beating YouTube. There is no question that in the last year Facebook has climbed in the rankings.

An independent research group, Pew Research Center, reports that social networking among seniors has nearly doubled from April 2009 to May 2010, from 22% of those using the internet to 42%.

“Young adults continue to be the heaviest users of social media, but their growth pales in comparison with recent gains made by older users,” said Mary Madden, Senior Research Specialist and author of the report ‘Older Adults and Social Media’ which was based on telephone interviews.

Seniors who are on Facebook report that there are primarily two reasons why they use it. The first is that it provides a unique way to bridge the generation gap, which in America is often an age and lifestyle separation as well as a geographic one. This really is one of the beautiful sides of it. With the growth of seniors on board there is often a three generation connection. Seniors can keep track of what their children and grandchildren are doing all over the world in almost real time, and the handy and easy photo sharing feature is very popular for this purpose. One post (a message for all of your friends) can go to all of the family members at the same time, so Junior’s grades and Julie’s lacrosse feats, can be shared with both pride and efficiency. Some feel that this type of communication lacks a personal touch that even a quick e-mail message would have provided. That may be, but in the case of seniors, especially those who spend most of their time alone, a social networking service like Facebook can provide an immensely helpful interaction with the outside world, and increase, not decrease, the amount of communication that their extended family members are able to provide. The fact of the matter is, if you want to know what your kids or grandkids are up to you have to get on board. Facebook users of all ages report being frustrated with family members who won’t join because it makes it hard to communicate with them. Event planning, for example, is now routinely done on Facebook. When someone is planning a party or gathering of any kind they send out the invitation via Facebook, and it requires extra effort to include non Facebook users in the festivities. There is a private messaging feature on Facebook, very much like e-mail, for when you want to send a message to just one person, as well as an IM feature for private chatting. These are always available but you don’t have to use them.

Says Terry Abbott of Stratham,

Terry Abbott

“I joined at the urging of my kids. Thought I’d try it out. Found that it was a great way to keep up with the activities of my kids without being intrusive.”

For those who are truly turned off by the idea of interacting with the rest of the world it is possible to set up a family only group page on Facebook, but just requires a bit more work. This type of page though, can be very helpful to elder care management, when a senior is choosing to remain living alone but needs to be checked on frequently by family members. Usually, that type of page is not the choice, because a majority of seniors on Facebook report that they enjoy the second most popular reason for joining Facebook; connecting with people from their past.

Terry continued,

Terry Abbott

“Then the best part was finding a long lost friend that I hadn’t heard from in about thirty five years! And more recently another old friend found me on Facebook.”

These types of connections are the other beautiful benefit of Facebook, if you want to be found you will be found. And your findability is largely in your control. When you set up a Facebook page you set your own privacy levels (but you must be sure to do so) and you choose whether or not to reveal information like previously used last names, schools attended and professional or other affiliations. You can keep your privacy settings as tight as you want to. (Do avoid revealing your complete date of birth and address). Still, there are those who find the loss of privacy on Facebook to be so threatening that they will not join. One gentleman I talked with told me that he considers it an unprecedented, and even dangerous, invasion of privacy, and though he believes his own elderly mother is on Facebook he will not join, and finds skypping with her to be the ideal method of communication. I’m sure all of her grandchildren would beg to differ.

My own family is probably a pretty typical example. I am middle aged, smack dab in the middle of the expected life span. I have two siblings. My big brother has not joined Facebook though he tweets daily. When asked if he’ll join soon he said, “I’m no closer to Facebook’n than you are to going all a’twitter.” My sister has a Facebook that she uses minimally. I use it several times every day. (As a writer I find it crucial for networking, and as the mother of teenagers I find it essential that I monitor their use of it, and honestly do learn quite a bit about their lives through it.) All six of the grandchildren in our family who range in age from 14 to 29 are on Facebook with varying degrees of activity. I can tell you that I really have gotten to know a couple of my nieces and nephews much better since we became Facebook friends. Our only surviving parent, my 76 year old father, is not on Facebook and will not consider getting on, telling me “It has no relevance to my life.” I know all of his grandchildren would beg to differ. His wife, who admits she has been receiving a lot of pressure both socially and professionally to join, also hasn’t, saying for her the issue is time. It can be time consuming, but this is another area where you have complete control. You can check your Facebook once a day for a few minutes, or obsessively update your status every hour from anywhere using your phone. The choice is yours.

Connecting with people you have never met is another possibility, and again, one that is optional. You do not have to accept strangers as friends if you don’t want to, and if you feel you need to, you can unfriend people you have accepted. Still some people find these types of connections rewarding.

A maturing friend of mine when asked why he uses Facebook said he is

Shayne Kevin

“Looking for the love … I would say it can be found about as often as in Market Square, …, but many more voices can be heard, and heads potentially turned, than in Market Square, and there are no buses idling here.”

My friend on and off Facebook, Pat Parnell of Stratham, is an enthusiastic new Facebooker. She told me she had to join in order to view photos the family had posted of a granddaughter’s MFA exhibit. She has since begun communicating daily with her sons and grandchildren, as well as neighbors and colleagues, and takes great joy in getting regular updates and photos of her great grand children who live far away. (That’s four generations!) She has experienced profound validation from a former student friending her who is now a teacher himself, and who reminds her of things she taught him forty years ago that are still important to him. She took great comfort in being able to post and share memorial information after losing her husband, and is tickled that she now corresponds with one of his cousins she never knew about who friended her from Ireland.

She told me,

Pat Parnell

“There are unexpected pleasures in your life from Facebook.”

A similar philosophy must have been felt by Ivy Bean, who was the oldest known Facebook user when she died at the age of 104 with 4949 friends and another 9000 waiting for her to accept their friendship requests. For the last three years of her life Ms. Bean used Facebook daily to connect with all sorts of people when she could no longer get out and about.

Seniors who use Facebook do not report that real networking, one of the primary uses of it for working people of all ages, is something that they care about, but there is some evidence that they are networking. Just two examples I easily found on Facebook of groups that seniors are befriending are; The American Senior Benefits Association which claims to be a non-profit that provides “Quality benefits, targeted advocacy and education for today’s 50+,” and Seniors for Pets, Inc. which says it is “a non-profit organization whose mission is to help needy senior citizens obtain veterinary care for their pets.” Of course, you can join any groups you want, and even form your own group if nothing on Facebook meets your needs. You can share or learn about any interest you have with other like minded folks from your own page. Liz Wilson of South Berwick has found it to be a reliable way to get great recipes. People often use Facebook to ask for advice when they are mulling over a decision, or to bounce ideas off others. And of course it is a place where you can speak your mind and share what is important to you.

There are undeniable health benefits to social networking for seniors as well. We have all read the research about the importance of not just ongoing social interaction with others but active engagement of the brain every day. Social media tools, just like the recommended music playing or Sudoku puzzles, fill this need. And while you don’t need to play the games available on Facebook, just participating in the great social experiment of it can be a lot of fun.

That is the bottom line with Facebook which is what the representatives at the company try to explain to critics. FaceBook is what you make of it. And your cyber self is going to be a reflection of your real self. It is you.

Tammi Truax

“ Personally, I see it as another way of creating community, and I love the way it makes this great big world of ours a little smaller, and quite a bit friendlier.”

Many people were afraid that the invention and popularity of the telephone meant an end to normal human contact, and you know how that turned out. Facebook, like it or not, is a part of our culture now, our global culture, and like the telephone, it is much more than a trend. It played a real role in the last presidential election that changed the face of politics forever. Last Saturday night two separate skits on Saturday Night Live were about using Facebook, and the movie about its founders is well on its way to being a box office blockbuster. The number of people with Facebooks continues to grow each day. New features will be added as the changing demographics of users make their needs known. And someone, somewhere, wants to be your friend.

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