By Sara Toth
1:06 PM EST, December 12, 2011
During the 1960s, baby boomers were a part of social revolution. Almost a half-century later, they’re a part of another social revolution, but this time it’s social media, as older generations are turning to sites like Facebook and Twitter in record numbers.
More than 800 million people worldwide use Facebook, its founder Mark Zuckerburg announced in September, and nearly half of all Americans have accounts.
According to data collected by iStrategyLabs, a social media marketing firm, at the beginning of 2011 there were 15.5 million Facebook users in the United States over the age of 55. That’s an increase of nearly 60 percent in just one year, up from 9.7 million users over the age of 55 in 2010.
George Clack, of Columbia, is part of that demographic. At 65, Clack has been retired for two years from the U.S. State Department but still works as a social media consultant for the Foreign Service Institute, teaching introductory social media courses to state department staff.
His own entrance into social media came at the hands of the government, too, when he attended a social media presentation four years ago and had “a conversion experience.”
He dove in, joining Facebook and Twitter, and over the last several years has witnessed the exponential growth of Facebook and the number of senior citizens using the site once exclusive to college campuses.
“I’ve been predicting this for a while,” he said. “The very natural constituency for Facebook is the baby boomers. They’ve reached retirement age or are in the process of reaching it now, and when you have time you can devote time and effort to social media. The baby boomers are out in force in places like Facebook. The revolution has begun.”
Members of that revolution were present at Howard Community College’s Gateway Campus in September, when two new continuing education classes debuted: introductory courses in Facebook and Twitter for those 60 and older.
Some wanted help setting up their Facebook pages; others wanted to know how accurate the movie “The Social Network” was in telling the story of the website’s birth. All were interested in learning more about the site they had heard so much about but were varying degrees of skeptical toward.
Learning to navigate the site requires a degree of comfort in sharing photos, posting status updates, searching for people and adjusting privacy settings. When it comes to Twitter, there’s the challenge of breaking all those grammar and usage rules once considered sacrosanct to compose a “tweet” in 140 characters or less, and learning lingo like #hashtag.
“Privacy issues hold me back,” admitted one woman in the Facebook class. “I’m scared I’ll open a can of worms.”
It is a concern felt by many, Clack acknowledged.
“People who have grown up on social media are infinitely less inhibited than older generations,” he said. “It can be a shocking shift of paradigms in your mind. Most people aren’t used to creating a sense of themselves as a public persona, as a brand. Kids now grow up creating a brand of themselves, even if they don’t realize it. It’s a big leap for those in their 60s. There’s a lot of reluctance.”
Others, however, are inspired by the power of social media, with a class member mentioning Arab Spring -- the series of revolutions in North Africa and the Middle East during spring 2011 that were spurred on by Facebook and Twitter.
Most, however, were like Sally Fuller, 65, of Woodstock, who joined Facebook to see photographs of her grandchildren. She soon realized the site had other benefits.
“A friend I hadn’t been in touch with for a long, long time found me,” she said. “It was good to hear from her.”
Joyce Blight, 60, of Columbia, does not have a Facebook account yet, although she has been using Twitter since August. She’s interested in social media, not for friends or family but for business.
Blight started Collegiate Readiness Workshops, a new seminar-based company intended to prepare high school students for higher education, and she’s hoping to use the social media platform to reach potential customers. Her customer base is, after all, Facebook’s key demographic: students.
“That’s where they are,” she said. “And it’s where their parents are, too.”
Fuller, too, has a business connection on Facebook, where an organization she’s part of, Fidos For Freedom, has a growing presence on the site. On a personal level, Fuller now has about 40 Facebook friends, she said, though her foray into social media hasn’t all been fun.
Recently, she said, she’s having trouble logging into her account. It’s something she’d liked resolved, she adds, so she can go back to seeing updates from her daughter, a former officer in the U.S. Army, and photos of her granddaughter, a child who’s “cute as a button.”
Both “90 Minutes to Getting Started in Twitter” and “90 Minutes to Getting Started in Facebook” will be offered again during the 2012 winter semester, on March 23. Another continuing education course for seniors, “Blogging 101” will be offered March 16.
Fuller said she would be interested in taking the class again, to have someone hold her hand through the process of fully setting up her account.
“I don’t know a lot about computers, and there’s a lot I still don’t know,” she said. “Usually everything moves too fast for me, and I get discouraged. I just need someone to sit beside me, say ‘This is what this is. This is what this means.’ ”
Clack said it was understandable for “older generations, boomers in particular,” to be intimidated not just by social media, but even by computers in general. It’s a psychological thing more than anything else, he said, and it can be overcome.
“(Facebook) can seem, when you start out, like a big, dark forest,” he said. “But there’s main paths through the forest, ones that are easy to follow. ... One reason Facebook is so popular is because it’s been made very easy to use. It’s intuitive.”
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