What happens when old people go online.

All things elderly.
Sept. 11 2008 5:05 PM

Geezers Need Excitement

What happens when old people go online.

Read more from Slate's Geezers Issue.

Illustration by Deanna Staffo. Click image to expand.

The jokes are hilarious: "Elderly Woman Destroys Internet," and "Google Launches 'The Google' For Older Adults" from the Onion. On College Humor, there's a regular feature about the idiotic things that parents do with computers. (A sample: "My dad thinks that the faster you click on the go button on Internet Explorer, the faster the Web page will load.") Alas, the stereotype of the technologically clueless oldster is unfair. It's only those old folks who never go online who say things like: "Can't you look it up on the Google?" According to the Pew Internet and American Life project, over-65 Web users are just as proficient as the young though less adventurous in the kinds of things they do. Perhaps we shouldn't be so surprised. Old people have lots of free time, an unhealthy obsession with their bodies, and arcane hobbies. They're practically teenagers.

The researchers at Pew released a report on "Older Americans and the Internet" in 2004, which found that 22 percent of seniors go online while "most seniors live lives far removed from the Internet, know few people who use e-mail or surf the Web, and cannot imagine why they would spend money and time learning how to use a computer." Sometimes I think that they are the lucky ones. More recent data from May 2008 show that 35 percent of seniors now use the Internet. E-mail is the top motivation for getting up to speed. Health information, checking the retirement account, and genealogical research are next in line. Seniors, rather poignantly, look up more spiritual and religious information than the younger demographics.

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Seniors blossom into silver surfers if they have a family member who motivates them (pictures of grandchildren can be an awe-inspiring force) or, in the case of many men, if they had the Internet at work before they retired. Earlier this year, when John McCain confessed that, with respect to the Internet, he's "an illiterate that has to rely on my wife for all of the assistance I can get," he proved himself to be an anomaly for a college-educated 65-plus white man. Seventy-five percent of his peer group can drive a browser.

All of these numbers will soon be dwarfed by what Pew calls the "silver tsunami." The baby boomers, aging into the senior bracket, have made wired seniors the fastest-growing demographic group online. How will this change the Web? As far back as 2002, usability expert Jakob Nielsen was offering advice on how to improve Web sites for the old. "Among the obvious physical attributes often affected by the human aging process," he writes, "are eyesight, precision of movement, and memory." He recommends using larger font sizes and avoiding "hierarchically walking" menus (such as Slate's) that require dextrous mouse-work. So perhaps the Internet will become some Large Type, easily clickable, grown-up version of itself. But what about the intangible effects of the silver tsunami? More golf swing videos on YouTube? More all-caps fireworks in Maureen Dowd's Times forum? LOL Rolling Stone?

The most likely scenario is more of the same. Boomers already sort of get the Internet. (How to spot a middle-aged Internet addict: They know who firedoglake is.) The coming tide of Web-centric seniors makes today's seniors unique. They are the last cohort to potentially buy computers and go online in a truly clueless manner. Moments like this one from the College Humor feature will go the way of carbon paper: "We decided to get my dad a new laptop, and his first words upon opening it up were, 'Thank God! All the keys are in the same place. I thought I was going to have to learn a whole new setup.' "

As with any burgeoning demographic, entrepreneurs are in a rush to exploit it. There's an old-people social networking hub called Eons and an old-people search engine called Cranky (associated with Eons). But old people don't need a chain-link fence to play behind, as they are prospering just fine on the real Internet. They've made their presence known on Facebook, with groups like "I am too old for Facebook—but I don't care" and "Oldies but Goodies." That last group bills itself as a place for "good, clean fun" with "NO SUGGESTIVE POSTS OR PICTURES PLEASE." It's a bit like stumbling into a Midwestern church social. Current games in the discussion area include changing the punch line for the old joke about the minister's parrot, something called "the Alphabet game," and "Finsih [sic] My Sentence With a Rhyme." Any time.

Seniors have also infiltrated that other realm of teen spirit, YouTube. After all, the Web cam, unlike grandchildren, doesn't leave to play Nintendo DS upon hearing the words: "Let me tell you a story. ..." The most famous cam-grandpa is geriatric1927, aka Peter Oakley. He's 82 and describes himself as a "widower living alone in the country in the middle of England." His first video showed an astute appreciation of how to succeed on YouTube: Flatter the YouTube community. Since then, he's racked up millions of views, endured a hoax video about his death, guested with the oldster pop choir the Zimmers, and showed off some nice sweaters—all without losing his humility or excellent diction.

What's striking about old people on the Internet is they seem to be having fun on there. The Internet is not work, nor is it networking, nor someplace to brand yourself. Seniors often do the amateurish, experimental things that made the Web so interesting in the first place, like, say lip-synching to "Chiquita Banana." They're communicating, telling stories, and putting the Internet in its place: just another part of a long, strange life.

Michael Agger is an editor at The New Yorker. Follow him on Twitter.

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