Don’t Forget The Baby Boomers (Instagrandmas and all)

As I said in my Tweet last week that unknowingly foreshadowed this week’s blog post topic: “It seems like all studies of social media are fighting an uphill battle- by the time they’re published it is already outdated.” Could anything be truer? All of the assignments we’ve read as a class thus far in the semester seem antiquated, even if they were just written a year or two ago. In fact, an article about social media from last week would seem outdated today, and today’s news would be old by tomorrow. In this era of social media, technology changes at a rapid pace, and academia is often left behind.

However, studies done about social media that now seem outdated can prove to be a great benefit to us, the students, historians, and archivists of media technologies. These old articles, with their lengthy details and statistical data can provide is with insight into a social media platform of the past that now seems as far away from us as, say, the Gardens at Babylon. One particularly outdated article that stood out for me was Eszter Hargittai’s “Whose Space? Differences Among Users and Non-Users of Social Networking Sites.”

In this article, Hargittai attempts to understand why certain groups of people use social media more than others, and whether demographics and psychographics have any effect on their overall usage. She surveyed students at the University of Illinois, Chicago, to garner her sample and based her statistical data on their responses. The main problem I have with her study is that she only focuses on young users of social media, ages 18-29, because at the time of publication social media was just beginning to gain traction. She writes, “Large-scale questionnaires have mainly focused on adult populations, with relatively few young people represented in their samples. Yet, young people are known to be some of the most likely to participate on some SNSs…” (279). Here, Hargittai gives no definition of the age she considers an adult, but I would assume she means ages 30-50, belonging mostly to Generation X. It is clear that in 2008, studies of this topic were turning away from understanding adult (Gen X) usage of the Internet and attempting to investigate how young people engage with social media. I argue that a shift needs to be made in light of the growing baby boomer population on social media.

Hargittai focused on Facebook, MySpace, Xanga, and Friendster as her chosen social media site, and in the survey of college students Facebook was the most popular site, followed by the soon-to-be-deceased MySpace.  However, it is important to note that at this time period, Facebook had either just begun or was about to open the floodgates and let users of all ages join, and Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr, and Pinterest were either slow-growing start-ups or a twinkle in their creator’s eye. However, a study only one year later, in 2009, showed that usage of social media among baby boomers jumped from 30% in 2007 to 46% in 2009. While the even older matures (ages 63-75) jumped from 10% to 36%. Facebook was shown to be the most popular social networking site as well (just like us youngsters!) with over 73% of baby boomers being active users. Even more surprising, over 90% of World War II generation social media users were actively engaged in Facebook in 2009, with the numbers growing larger each year. Hargittai missed a glaring trend in social media that was about to emerge. Instead of focusing on why young people are so engaged in social media, we should be asking ourselves why the older generations have grown so accustom to it as well.

Even more recently, a study concluded at the end of 2011 and written about in an Examiner article in May showed that in the past two years alone, social media usage among Americans aged 65+ has grown by more than 50%. Nearly 3-in-4 baby boomers use social media, while 82% of those aged 55 to 64 use social media regularly as well.  Another point of interest in Hargittai’s article is that she claims that use of one social networking site is not contingent upon another. While this still may be true, it is hardly ever the case that a regular social media user chooses just one site when almost all social media sites are now interlinked. Instagram is owned by Facebook and can sync to Twitter, Pinterest can sync to Facebook and Twitter, and all users,  even the older ones, tend to be active users across several platforms. Hargittai also suggests that parents of these 18-29 year old students restrict their kids’ usage of the internet while at home, or that these students have to share a device while living at home, leading to decreased activity on Facebook (291). She completely ignores the burgeoning mobile social media market that was rapidly expanding in 2008, even for sectors of the population with lower incomes. It is this assumption that parents limit access to the Internet when in the family household that gives me reason to believe that Hargittai is not interested in the ways in which an older generation (not 30 or 40-something internet pioneer adults but baby boomers) might utilize this new social media technology.

Hargittai missed a major moment in the turn of social media technologies away from exclusivity to either teens or adults into a platform to be used by all. Instead of examining how older generations use the technology, most academics and studies focused on the younger generation since we tend to be the most active users. Studies about youth presence on social media has become a tired and cliché trope of this age, whereas older Americans are just now starting to embrace all the affordances of these technologies.

Side note: The reason I felt compelled to write this is because my Grandma has mastered Facebook and just recently became obsessed with Instagram which she uses on her iPad. She is not a baby boomer but a member of the World War II Generation. When she was born, color photography film rolls were not yet mass produced. It is amazing how quickly she adapted to the changes in technology. I think focusing on this is much more compelling now than beating the dead horse again and again about how teenagers and young adults use social media. Here is a snapshot of my Grandma’s Instagram profile. Take a look at the types of pictures she posts, her number of followers, her profile picture… and suddenly this technology seems a heck of a lot more interesting. Why does she use it? Are other Grandmas on Instagram, Facebook? Do they use it any differently than we do? Feel free to leave your analysis of this or questions in the comments.

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