Multi-Generational Communities in the Digital Space

In our increasingly globalized society, today’s workplace is composed of a magnificent and unprecedented degree of diversity. Individuals from all generations, ethnic backgrounds, and cultures, seamlessly interact in the shared pursuit of collective prosperity. The meet these goals, effective communication is imperative, which is in itself not a new challenge, but has been made more complex as a result of the digital revolution. To identify instances in which misunderstandings may occur, it may prove beneficial to also reject traditional demographic cohorts, known as generations, in favor of a more relevant measure: relationship to the Internet epoch.

I had the pleasure of interviewing an individual who might be described as a “younger boomer,” or perhaps an “older Generation X’er.” Indeed, she has always viewed herself as being born between the generations, identifying with a number of qualities commonly attributed to each of the two. One thing that is for certain, however, is that she had the opportunity to witness the extraordinary transformation in the way we communicate, from the advent of the personal computer in the early 1980s, to the ubiquity of social media in the mid-noughties. “I distinctly recall registering for my courses as an undergraduate using IBM punchcards, which were fed through machines that automatically calculated enrollment figures,” she reminisced. “Being from a small town in rural Tennessee, it was my first exposure to digital technology; I had never imagined I would someday use computers daily in my banking career—much less for pleasure.” She admits that, while at times the learning curve was steep, the convenience provided by computing made the experience less arduous—and perhaps a bit exciting.

Today, she uses the Internet primarily for social purposes, as is the case for the vast majority of Americans. She believes that the transition from traditional means of communicating to digital media has been more seamless for her generation than is commonly believed. For example, her alma mater’s alumni organization has transitioned exclusively to a digital directory, and coordinates all member events through Facebook. Her church congregation, too, which might be described as predominantly traditionalist, has embraced social media as an effective means of outreach and ministry. While she admits that while there are some detractors and luddites, most of her generational colleagues are avid users of social media—and by a significant margin. A quick look at her Facebook feed reveals a selection of political observations, family photos, and event invitations, primarily from similarly aged friends & family. “It’s my kids who I wished updated more regularly! They’re the ones who convinced me to sign up years ago, only to leave me stranded with the old folks!”

So why had Facebook proven so popular among her demographic cohort? And do they really “get” what it’s all about? She argues that, while baby boomers may not always prove to be as digitally proficient, they do have a greater appreciation for its convenience and benefits. Lest we forget, it was this generation who witnessed the commitment of unprecedented resources to advance technology in the Space Race, culminating in Neil Armstrong’s footsteps on the moon in July of 1969. The technology used at the time was, in fact, much less sophisticated than that used in a graphing calculator, but it accomplished a feat of ineffable greatness. “But I suppose there are two sides to the coin, ” she opines. Those of humble beginnings may object to the trivial or leisurely use of such powerful technology, or find it altogether unnecessary.

Ultimately, however, she believes that social media and the Internet is here to stay, and uptake among older generations will continue. “People have always needed to feel connected, either through paper correspondence, telephone, or email; that’s something that isn’t going to change.” Fear of change, too, is an inherent piece of the human experience, but with a bit of curiosity and patience, we can bridge generational divides to make the Internet an indiscriminate and fluid space.

Other thoughts
I would suggest that the usage patterns of my interview subject and myself are not necessarily typical of our respective generations, and this supports the thesis of my post: I am not wholly convinced in the benefit of dividing the digital public into traditional demographic cohorts; the exception may indeed be the rule. However, some commonly held beliefs about how younger and older generations use social media were consistent. For example, while my interviewee spends more time on social media than I do, much of her time is spent engaging on a single network (Facebook) and through a single medium (personal computer). While I spend less time on social media overall, my time is divided among a handful of networks (Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn) and through multiple platforms (personal computer and iOS). Although my sessions are significantly shorter, they are perhaps more numerous and more evenly distributed throughout the day.

Conventional wisdom would suggest that, in structuring a social media campaign to engage the largest possible audience, distinct approaches are necessary to reach older and younger generations. An email campaign formatted as a newspaper article with an embedded video would seemingly appeal to baby boomers, because the digital versions of familiar media are being utilized. Similarly, mobile applications would appeal to members of Generation Y, because they grew up in parallel with the platform. I would caution, however, against a tendency to rely solely on these stereotypical usage patterns in developing a social media campaign. Age, I would argue, is becoming an increasingly less relevant measure of demographic significance in the digital sphere, and perhaps more progressive approaches will be necessary in the future.

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