Social media usage among baby boomers is increasing, but it still lags in usage as compared to successive generations. Introduction to the internet for most boomers is focused on email and basic e-commerce applications. Somehow many boomers managed to live without computers really touching their life for several decades, and when the internet arrived, they were not early adapters of the trend, but found themselves dragged into its use. Now social media is truly a part of our social fabric and has many benefits, and yet many baby boomers still hesitate to embrace social media applications in a similar way they resisted adapting the computers and the internet. Hesitation to go online is often not because of lack of interest but because many technologies and social technologies are not developed with older people in mind.
What is social media?
When I ask baby boomers what they believe social media is, I get varying answers, but in the end the answer is usually popular social network sites such as, Facebook. So I offer this definition for future reference:
Social media includes web-based and mobile technologies for social interaction as a super-set, which goes beyond social communication. Enabled by ubiquitously accessible and scalable communication techniques, social media has substantially changed the way organizations, communities, and individuals communicate.
Facebook and other social networking sites are just one element of social media. There are currently six different categories of social media: collaborative projects (e.g., Wikipedia), blogs and microblogs (e.g., Twitter), content communities (e.g., YouTube), social networking sites (e.g., Facebook), virtual game worlds (e.g. Social Life), and social markets (e.g. Groupon). Technologies include: blogs, picture-sharing, vlogs (a form of blogging for which the medium is video, and is a form of Web television), wall-postings, email, instant messaging, music-sharing and voice over IP. Many of these social media services can be integrated via social network aggregation platforms (the process of collecting content from multiple social network services, such as Twitter or Facebook). These categories will continue to evolve as new forms of collaboration is introduced.
A good analogy is, “social media is to social networking as fruit is to bananas.” There are other forms of social media as there are other forms of fruit.
Adoption Rate Lags for Boomers
A Pew Internet & American Life Project (Rainie, 2010) compared internet usage of baby boomers to internet usage of the millennial generation, ages 18 to 32. Results found that boomers internet usage is very similar to millennial usage in regard to emails and e-commerce:
Emails: Boomers 91% vs. Millennial 94%
Search Engines: Boomers 88% vs. Millennial 89%
Health Info: Boomers 78% vs. Millennial 85%
Get News: Boomers 74% vs. Millennial 83%
Research Products: Boomers 81% vs. Millennial 83%
Buy Goods: Boomers 70% vs. Millennial 81%
Travel Reservations: Boomers 68% vs. Millennial 62%
Banking: Boomers 55% vs. Millennial 58%
Auction: Boomers 27% vs. Millennial 26%
The overall composite score of this survey is boomers 70 percent and millennial 73 percent. Clearly, usage is very similar between generations for internet applications involving the basic search functions, email use and e-commence of the internet. But when social media usage was surveyed the differences were quite significant:
Video Sharing Sites: Boomers 45% vs. Millennial 85%
Use of Social Network Sites: Boomers 39% vs. Millennial 81%
Rate Product/Services: Boomers 27% vs. Millennial 38%
Read Blogs: Boomers 26% vs. Millennial 51%
Post Comments: Boomers 25% vs. Millennial 33%
Share Creations: Boomers 23% vs. Millennial 38%
Have Websites: Boomers 11% vs. Millennial 18%
Twitter: Boomers 10% vs. Millennial 29%
Blog: Boomers 8% vs. Millennial 18%
The composite score for use of social media is boomers 23 percent and millennial 43 percent, boomers social media usage is nearly half of millennial usage. Now, this research is a couple of years old and the overall adoption has proportionally increased, but it’s unlikely that the gap between generation has changed substantially. Many boomers have established a presence on sites like Twitter and Facebook which counts for social media usage, but rarely is it used to communicate with others in their generation. Instead, much of the increase in Twitter and Facebook accounts by baby boomers are related to business and not for personal use. The reason for this is in part how baby boomers were educated and how they organize data.
A Generation Gap May Explain Differences
The bifurcation in social media use can be explained in large part by the differences in early development of each generation. Oddly enough differences between people of a younger generation and their elders are termed the generation gap. A term popularized in Western cultures during the 60s and at a time when baby boomers were expressing their displeasure with society.
It is a fact baby boomers were raised in an environment that was much different than the millennial generation. Baby Boomers grew up in an era that was much more structured. Boomers played by the rules and focused on building careers. They would wait for news in newspapers, write letters to communicate with distant family and friends, write checks and go to a bank to do business, and participate in face to face meetings at the office.
The millennial age prefers more informal arrangements. They are known to be more independent, flexible, and incredibly sophisticated with technology. They grew up with technology and have been exposed to it since early childhood. From the internet, IM and MP3s to handheld video games, mobile phones and texting, the millennial generation is used to tactile, instant, and constant communication. They prefer to communicate via blogs, IMs and text messages, rather than on the phone or face to face, methods preferred by Boomers.
These differences are evident in the study above. E-mails and e-commerce applications are accepted by baby boomers because these applications are very structured, for example; there is a section for the address, subject, and message within e-mails. In e-commerce, there is a product selection, a shopping cart and checkout process. A structure well defined and in keeping with the way boomers were trained to think in life. Not surprisingly, these applications were developed by a generation of baby boomers.
In contrast, a social media application works in a virtual setting and requires much more abstract thinking. For example, a social network is made up of “friends,” many of who you may not know. Messages are sent by leaving comments instead of directing it to a particular individual. It’s a different way of thinking for baby boomers, so it is difficult for a structured mind to comprehend. The advancing computing concept of “The Cloud” is another virtual concept that is difficult for many baby boomers to understand. A commonality between the advancing computing concepts and social media is that they are being developed and driven by members of the millennial generation.
With upcoming advances in technology and the Internet, we will continue to see bifurcation in adoptions of these advances primarily because of the differing perspectives in the formative years between the creators and the baby boomer users. Although bifurcation is evident, there are many important benefits for baby boomers to stay involved and to participate in a virtual world. Exploring these benefits will be the subject of subsequent articles.