Digital strategy and communications


Suw Charman-Anderson and I have been continuing our conversation over email on age related matters and the internet. The consequence being that I’ve typed enough words to consider putting them together into a blog post. Hope the following makes sense. It’s an adendum on this set of slides and reseach I did last year.

Suw is currently thinking about how things might be way in the future (circa 2025), and my part of the conversation has been about thinking around the current situation. The thoughts below are very much work in progress.

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It goes without saying, that the general gist of the aging population and looking forward is that there will be an increase in both actual numbers of the 50+ age group will be a higher percentage of the population than currently. Indeed by 2020 it is expected that 50 percent of the population will be aged 50 and over. To extrapolate from the current circumstances and time it is important to clearly identify which age group we are discussing, how they are currently defined, and may be defined in the future.

One of the arguments I was beginning to make with the slides last year is that really, the term Silver Surfer seems to describe someone who we consider to be old, who is using the internet and, importanly, the unlikelihood of this. The term in the language used is partonising. No other internet user group is described so definitely by age, or so commonly. Using this understanding (and looking at the evidence of how each demographic age group is using the internet) the Silver Surfer should be re-considered to be someone who is 65 or 70+, rather than the current 50 or sometimes 55+.

In the research I separate 50+ age group into two. The baby boomer generation, those roughly between the age of 50 and 65, and, for want of a better phrase, the Silver Surfers, those 65+. Data on internet usage of the baby boomers is clearly far higher than those born before and during World War II – which seems to be a fairly clear dividing line.

By 2015 (ie. in 6 years), we may even consider a Silver Surfer to be 75+. ie, though it seems an obvious thing to say, as time passes those who were not brought up within a computer and internet age will grow older and/or those who were have will either have decided to be refusnik or will be part of the digitally discluded (which also includes mobile phone, digital television and radio).

One of the other related arguments that I was beginning to consider in the research last year was that using age to define internet usage isn’t that helpful, as many sites are becoming age neutral in who uses them. For example, the average age of YouTube (34) and other social media (see the slides) are much higher than most expect, although perhaps the median data would show a different story.

Sometimes it’s more helpful to think of these areas by looking at real people and how they use technology, some qualitative data.

Take Andrew. He is 65 and is tech savvy, he sells and mends computers, is a sound engineer, photographer, kind of before his time a bit, likes the BBC archive but doesn’t use social media. His first computer was a Commodore 64 in the early 80s, which he began to learn how to program and to use for businesses purposes. Soon after he bought a computer dedicated to computerising his business operations. He has had a digital camera for a number of years and uses it as a compliment to his SLR. He likes gadgets, he introduced a set-top box for the television soon after Freeview launched. He can probably programme the video, but the household does not own a PVR.

His wife, Jean is 64, she looks at the internet more as a tool to get things done. She is pleased that she’s been able to transfer and distribute her local gardening club news letter and communications onto email, as it’s much cheaper and quicker to do. She has everyone’s email address written down. She’s also pleased that those without email don’t miss the communications but have the email printed out for them by someone who knows them. As a teacher (now retired) she has used lots of different websites in the classroom, but email wasn’t widely used. When trying to transfer the gardening club over to YahooGroups it proved confusing and technically just one step too much, as it was conceptually very different. Mobile phones are handy, but why switch it on unless you need to make a call? Texting? Where’s the button? Freeview is handy for watching old episodes of Morse and all the extra details that can be found about the cricket and Chelsea Flower Show, by pressing the Red Button.

Sally, Jean’s sister, is 61, and she’s much more savvy, she’s a member of Flickr, creates photo/slide shows and uses Skype. Importantly she uses computers a lot for work and has a job where most of the people she works with live abroad, which is why although only a few years younger than Jean she uses the internet far more. She has had a compact digital camera for a number of years and is looking to upgrade it. She’s happy with texting and happy with taking photos on her phone, but has lost the software to transfer it to her computer. She’s enjoying her new flat screen TV but sometimes it seems like there are too many channels to choose from.

These stories highlight a number of areas, but what clearly comes across (other than being able to afford the technology) is how work and the work place can influence digital literacy, which very much fits into the message that Digital Britain would like to be understood, as regards digital inclusion and participation.

Saying all this however, it is reasonable to consider that a different technology may come along for which take up and participation by a large enough percentage of older people will be once again minimal – augmented reality or virtual worlds, perhaps? What needs to be considered is whether that is important. Over to you Suw.

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