According to a recent Pew Internet study (2006), approximately 73% of the baby boomers and 46% of all seniors (i.e., above 65 years old) are Internet users. These senior internet users are taking advantage of new communication technologies and engaging in a variety of online activities that go far beyond sending emails to friends and family, checking for weathers or searching medical information. Contrary to the age stereotypes associated with older adults and/or portrayed in the media, many seniors are forming online communities, looking for friendship, companionship and love with other seniors – just like people in any age group do. In addition to examining seniors’ use of new communication technologies to maintain relationships with those with whom they have strong ties (e.g., family and friends), another line of research is to investigate their relationships with weak ties, (e.g., forming online communities), a topic I would like to explore.
Online communities not only expand seniors’ social networks, they also increase seniors’ relational and/or informational social capital. Lin, Hummert and Harwood (2004) analyzed messages seniors posted on the SeniorNet and found that senior Internet users express values, reminiscence the past, and provide emotional support to each other. In other words, they establish online communities with total strangers and from the ground up. Other websites such as Baby Boomer Bistro, Eldr, Secondprime, and Eons were created specifically for seniors addressing their needs and interests. These social networking sites allow seniors to personalize their page with video clips, pictures and avatar, join interest groups, search and invite friends to be part of their networks, or endorse any posting (AKA: “boom” it , a term used in the Eons site). Rather than catching up with the technology, seniors are creating “their own place to hang out.” These social-networking sites are not less sophisticated than any other social-networking sites such as Facebook or MySpace.
The emergence of these social-networking online communities is very intriguing, and should be of interest to media and aging researchers. We can start by asking these questions: What motivates seniors to join these online communities? How do their motives guide their online activities including sharing, commenting, responding, and initiating messages? What social capital comes through their involvement in online communities? Are there meaningful relationships between participating in online communities (frequency, quality) and health-related outcomes (e.g., physical, emotional, and psychological), and what factors moderate these relationships? What identity functions do seniors try to achieve in these online communities?
Even though this is an unexplored territory, there is one thing we can be sure of: Seniors are just as connected as everyone else!