Older people are heading online at record rates. The subtext is clear: flock to Facebook! Turn to Twitter! If you’re reluctant, you’re not alone—but the social media masses are catching up with you. 

Staying active on those networks can have benefits—a US study showed that seniors who started routinely using Facebook scored 25 percent better on tests that measured cognitive skills.

If you’re of that generation, the years of media prattle on the subject have kept a few key secrets hidden from view.

 

Social Media and the Generational Divide

As I edge towards middle age myself, I see that members of my parents’ generation have internalised a belief: social networking is something that, due to some ineffable generational divide, they are simply incapable of understanding.

That attitude comes with a lingering fear that, should they try, they will somehow get it wrong. They will say the wrong thing, do the wrong thing or behave in a way that will cause the mass rolling of eyes and the loud groaning of “Dad!” But here’s the first secret of social media: everybody feels this way.

The generational divides we employ to dictate how we use technology are actually not generational at all. I recently found myself at a dinner with a young actor who was muttering darkly that her work as a producer demands that she join Twitter, but she consistently feels like she doesn’t have anything witty to say.

I am also surrounded by peers who find Facebook insufferable and use it only when they need to look someone up or answer a message. It’s the same resistance I hear from my parents’ cohorts, with the significant exception that they have somehow convinced themselves that age is the barrier, rather than the vagaries of individual taste.

 

The Second Secret of Social Media

Here’s the second secret of social media: everybody uses it for more or less the same reasons. Older generations often sign up to stay in touch with children, nieces, nephews and grandchildren. We talk about this kind of contact like it’s some old-fogey activity, but it is exactly why many younger people use those services.

Contrary to what you might have read, social media isn’t some kind of exhibitionist kabuki of the soul, in which youths with no concept of privacy flaunt their lives for others.

The truth is simpler: most people use social media to gently keep tabs on one another, to see how those they care about are doing without needing to ring them up on the phone every night. It’s true that the communications of 15-year-olds often end up being more dramatic than those of 30-year-olds, 50-year-olds or 75-year-olds, but then, the performance of youth is freighted with the act of growing up. The more seniors that join, the more relevant the conversations taking place on these sites will become for their contemporaries.

 

Am I doing it wrong?

And this is the last secret of social media: everyone gets to use it their own way. Newcomers—younger and older—who worry about “getting it right” are assuming there’s a right way to get it.

Turns out, there isn’t. Even inveterate users take to some online activities over others. Personally, I talk a lot on Twitter but shun Facebook. Plenty of people use both. Many younger users are moving to Instagram. And perhaps most significantly, some people post nothing but are avid consumers of social media as readers.

My mother, for instance, assembled a coterie of Twitter users to follow—a mix of writers, readers and relatives—and happily reads along without feeling any pressure to opine. Getting the hang of Twitter’s often arcane lingo took a while, but within months she became a keen observer of the eddies and currents of conversation that the service hosts.

Social media companies seldom promote the idea of mere readership, since they’d rather see people pumping their networks full of pictures and posts, but there’s no rule against being a fly on the wall. It’s a fine way to engage.

We’re quick to forget that the internet wasn’t invented by 13-year-olds; it was created by today’s seniors. So don’t let the talk of age divides put you off. There’s nothing to stop seniors from reclaiming the network their own generation created.

Image Source:

Twin Design / Shutterstock.com

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