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Old People Don’t Get Social Media

I caught this statement in a discussion elsewhere. It went something like, “I don’t think people over 40 get social media, whereas kids love it.” Having seen this sentiment mentioned before, I thought I’d express my feelings on the matter.

I’m 50 years old. I get the whole social media gig. It’s like Woodstock on the ‘Net, where people gather together for several minutes, days, weeks, months and years to hang out, talk, share, listen to music, run around naked and slide in the mud.

What social media doesn’t offer people of my generation is face to face communication. It doesn’t let us hold hands, sing or hug. Instead of raising our lighters as a token of respect and homage to those we admire, social media offers voting and “thumbs up” buttons. There’s no thrill there. There’s no rock and roll. Today’s version of social is “read this, read that”, vote on it, follow or unfollow, friend or unfriend, get answers or be completely and utterly ignored even though you know you’re there.

Social networking on the Internet brings together people who would otherwise never meet each other. Back in the day, we hitchhiked.

Families no longer live in the same towns, so having a MySpace account can help keep The Smiths up to date on what Uncle Bob is doing and when the next baby shower for Sally will be. It’s a sad thing, but with the cost of gas these days, some families only have the Internet as a way to stay in touch. Online photo albums have cheered grandparents the world over.

To think that older people don’t get involved socially online is a mistake. My own parents, in their 70’s, are deeply entrenched in discussion groups on all kinds of topics. They’re in touch with their siblings who are still alive via email and do projects together via the ‘Net, such as genealogy. My Dad sends me workshop and seminar videos and is no stranger to YouTube. Blogher is one community with women of all ages, young and old. One of my favorite Blogher bloggers is older than me. She’s hip and smart.

What I do feel is that social media is not going to make us happy in the long run. It fills a need right now. People are coming together and grouping off into areas of interest or gender, for example. What’s missing is a solid, real feeling of actually being with the people there. We used to call them “Be In’s”.

In most social situations, when you enter the environment, people know you’re there. They see you arrive into the space. They may approach and welcome you. With social media, the goals and missions are different. You can come, drop in, drop out and nobody cares if you were there. They may never know you showed up. Not only that, to participate, you have to give out personal information and obtain a password. You need to configure settings. Its a lot of work just to hang out with people you don’t even know and annoying as heck when you simply wish to stay in touch with a few you do know. If someone spots you, everybody wants to be your friend.

Pot used to do that too.

Today at my house, a friend showed up and after half an hour of chit chat, opened up about some issues he’s having with someone and needed advice. We had a nice talk. Most importantly, it was face to face and I could hug him when he left because I knew he’d like that and it’s what I do with my friends.

Later, another friend showed up and after 10 minutes of banter, wanted advice on her divorce because she saw how my ex-husband and I always put the kids first and get along so well. She wanted to do that too. When she left, she said she wanted to come back because it felt good to talk.

What struck me is both of these people can email me to talk. One has MySpace and Facebook and “Friends”, but doesn’t use them for “real” discussions. The other is a teacher and very computer oriented.

Social networking isn’t the same as one on one talking and sharing. There are no eyes to gaze into and no hand to touch. Conversations are strange, as if you’re sitting on the steps on the street listening to people talk as they stride by you. It’s a fleeting thing. Not sustained.

For me, true social engagement is something of substance. I haven’t felt that on the Internet. I have felt it at rock concerts and rallies, back in the days when we gathered in gigantic groups with signs, blankets, and worn out sandals.

I get social media. I’m happy it’s available. It’s just some social media web sites lack power. They’re missing passion or unity of conscious awareness, although some do try if they’re behind a certain cause. I don’t want to wait for someone to log on to Be With Me because when they are, most of the time I still can’t feel their presence. I just see their words. Sometimes they acknowledge me, sometimes not. I don’t like how that feels.

For me, a really satisfying connection is a lasting one. I want to feel wanted and needed. Social sites haven’t done that yet. I want to come away with something tangible. Something like a feeling or knowingness that I belong to something worthwhile, special, unique, and that I want to return to.

People are still talking about Woodstock.


  1. June 21, 2008    

    This is a wonderful post Kim and one that many involved in our space should be conscious of.

  2. June 21, 2008    

    Is it okay that I grinned when I saw the “stumble it!” link at the end? I guess there’s no “woodstock it” button available :)

    I agree with a lot of what you are saying, but for me, social media doesn’t take the place of face-to-face interaction. I get plenty of that. It’s in addition to the real stuff.

  3. June 21, 2008    

    from one “older than forty”…

    your article really zeros in on the missing ingredient of social media. i think it’s an important item to remember…especially for those growing up now in the internet age.

    great stuff! thanks kim!

  4. June 22, 2008    

    Thanks Eric! I do wish that getting to conferences wasn’t so expensive, because the face to face time is always so much better. I feel more “real” then. It’s a more honest presentation of me to others, when done in the physical. In cyberspace, its easier to take on personas or filter and edit ourselves. SM may be confused as correseponding with “real” people but it’s not. Behind the veil of a keyboard we can be anybody.

    I’m not saying this is wrong. I’m saying that sooner or later, this won’t satisfy us anymore. And those of us who remember huge gatherings like Woodstock and ” Be Ins” understand that the reason for them, besides the drug experience, was the simplicity of being with people. Meeting strangers and talking to them.

    At one Grateful Dead concert, a handsome guy saw me running from security as I made my way down front towards the stage. This man lifted me up with his strong arms, lifted me onto the chair he was standing on, and shared his space with me for the rest of the concert. At the end, he handed me a rose. I never got his name. But I remember him and what he did.

    I look for moments like this in the new socially driven sites and I see we have walls up still. People are talking but not connecting. The majority…sometimes you see glimpses of honest human to human communion. But they’re brief and interrupted by others who drop in with their stuff. It breaks the flow of energy.

  5. June 22, 2008    

    Lori…good (funny) point. I do understand that SM enhances our ability to reach out, etc. I work from home and most days the only contact with people I get is via SM and places like Twitter. But, having had other experiences that more powerful and memorable, I find myself thinking that SM is a bandaid, not the answer. We still need physical contact.

    That said, I’m working on ideas to try to bridge this missing element. Won’t be easy, but we have the Internet and I’d like to make it work for us.

  6. June 22, 2008    

    I saw the Dead back in 1995, but didn’t get the same communal feeling that you did…perhaps because I didn’t inhale :.)

  7. June 22, 2008    

    My husband is active duty air force and we move a lot. Social media allows me to keep in touch with family and friends who are far away. But, also it takes awhile to forge bonds with real life people and I am often not at a location long enough to forge those bonds. I can take my online friends with me no matter where I happen to be living. I am 39 and not entirely sure which category that puts me into.

    I enjoyed your post very much. You have a valid point that online contact is not the same as face to face. I wonder if I didn’t have the online friends would I be more able to make real life friends or would I just be very lonely. I am also a stay at home mom and don’t have the luxury of meeting people at work.

  8. June 22, 2008    

    >“I don’t think people over 40 get social media, whereas kids love it.”<

    I think the kid may have been right.

    I don’t get it.

    I spend VERY little of my own time on SM sites, because every time I’ve tried to “get it” I found myself digging through a haystack of crap to find a needle of communication worthy of the time spent digging.

    I loved your post, (of course I would being old), but i do wish I was smart enough to figure out how to offer and engage in the benefits of social sites without the link whores, the boardwalk hawkers, the stalkers, the perverts, the political deviates and all the rest with ulterior motives.

    I’m the first to admit I’m a little cynical,(Ok a LOT cynical), for the joint huffin, peace symbol necklace wearing, I ain’t cuttin my hair for nobody, old hippie values my past has awarded me, but even after all that water has passed under the bridge, I still prefer one honest pot smokin hitchhiker to all the “hidin behind the keyboard veil” link whores in the world.

    I don’t get it.

    Peace Y’all

  9. June 22, 2008    

    I totally agree, I don’t think it’s a matter of us older ones “getting it”, it’s more that we’ve had other ways to communicate for so long that social media is just another channel. Nothing can take place of face to face communication. One hour face to face is worth more than a hundred hours of social media, IMHO.

  10. June 22, 2008    

    what I get upset over is when some people will not even try and have this huge phobia to even sign up for twitter. I mean, how do you know if it’s for you if you have not even bothered checking it out. Anyways, the next generation will not survive without social media and I don’t mean media we have right now, but all of the new toys and gadgets kids will grow up with in the future. Cell phone that we use will be in the museums then and people are going to giggle when they look at one saying “I can’t believe people used to communicate like that”. ;)

  11. June 22, 2008    

    THe only thing that changes is change itself, not people.
    In every generation, the ‘youngins’ think the ‘oldsters’ don’t get whatever the newest thing is.
    Actually, people with more experience can look at something and winnow the wheat from the chaff a lot faster than someone with less experience – what younger people will deride as ‘not getting it’ is often skilled use.

    (Of course, while some portion of the older generation *doesn’t* in fact ‘get it’, there are plenty of young people who don’t either – whether or not they think they do :) )

  12. Vaughan's Gravatar Vaughan
    June 23, 2008    

    To get the physical connection with like minded people I use meetup.com

  13. June 23, 2008    

    Older people (boomers and 70+) that I know love to exchange ‘funny’ e-mail messages. They seem to get their computers melted down with malware about as often as my sister-in-law who loves myspace and slingo.

    Market penetration for social media in the older set will mostly be a function of making a community that appeals to their interests. My mother-in-law is an Oprah worshipper; she held off from using the internet until she had to for a job… Now she’s an internet addict. Could social networks replace what she gets from Oprah — yes, and it’s just a matter of time.

  14. June 23, 2008    

    I guess being involved in Social Sites doesn’t limit on age group..^^ In here everybody is young.

  15. Mike's Gravatar Mike
    June 23, 2008    

    This is a beautiful post, Kim.

    I’m 26, and have had a computer and internet access for the last ten years. For a long time I spent most of my time online. I was a bit anti-social in my adolescent years having weight/skin issues. Social media on the internet allowed me to communicate freely and enjoy appreciation for my words without consideration of my looks. But alas, you’re right, it is no substitute.

    Now I’m always looking for an opportunity/excuse to get off the computer and interact with people in person. The trouble with this line of work, though, is that seems to become a competitive disadvantage. But it is one I’m willing, maybe even happy, to stomach.

    For what it’s worth, I think by the very nature of your post you’ve done a little something to wake us up, or to remind us of what we may be missing. For that we should be grateful.

  16. June 23, 2008    

    Some great thoughts here, Kim. Although I do think there’s a lot of legitimate value to social networking, I agree that it has to be part of a more balanced life and an extension of “real” relationships. I’ve found online communication to be a great complement to friendships and a way to stay in touch with people and grow relationships, but I’ve also realized how often a connection I’ve made online is little more than a convenient illusion. It’s funny to me that we already take the internet for granted after such a short time, and yet we’re barely beginning to realize just how much it will change how we live.

  17. June 23, 2008    

    Was talking to someone about this post and he was saying how frustrated he gets with just email, and how easily they’re misunderstood. He avoids SM because of the fear that it would just be more of the same. Without seeing a face, hearing inflections in a voice, seeing body language…he feels we don’t get the whole true communication that’s intended.

    I agree, and have been experimenting (quietly, elsewhere) with figuring out ways to substitute the inability to communicate and be fully understood, with visuals and music. So far, what strikes me is that what I’ve discovered is creating more confusion because we interpret sound and images so differently – far more wildly then pure words on a page.

  18. don's Gravatar don
    June 23, 2008    

    I think its not just the physical touch that is missing in social media networks. I can hang out with people I love on the phone, and still feel more fulfilled than with SM. No touch, but the nuances in the tone of voice and real time interaction is so much more fulfilling.

    There is also the self censoring effect when we write and edit what we write. And we have to censor, because we know in the virtual world, things we write about linger on virtually forever. With physical interaction, once we say it, its out there, but it fades away into golden memory.

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