Last Thursday I had the pleasure of being the speaker for the “Third Thursday Series” at Kendal, a local community for seniors. The topic was social networking; the coordinator for the speaker series alerted me that the average age of the participants would be about 82, the program would start promptly at 7:15pm, 75-100 people would attend, and I needed to finish by 8:15pm because that was when the duplicate bridge group met.
Armed with that information, I puzzled mightily over how to explain social networking to my parents’ generation. My dad recently asked me if it was true that I “just played with computers all day long and got paid for it;” if he was representative of the thinking of his age group, this would be a lonnnng night.
I anticipated that the octogenarians would come to this talk not because they needed a breather between dinner and bridge, but because they were curious about social networking. I was right. As my host said after the event, if I had started out by asking them “how many of you have been asked by a grandchild to join Facebook and that concerns you?”… 80% of the attendees would have raised their hands. Immediately sensing confusion, pushback, and worry, I decided that we needed to start with some basics.
Enter the yarn.
I thought it might be helpful to have the participants actually see what a network looks like, and what it looks like to be connected with other people who hold common interests. Armed with three large, colorful skeins of yarn, I asked people to think of personal interests that they are not sure they share with others. The group came up with three topics: how the military is (mis)spending money, birdwatching, and peace. Each topic was assigned a color, and the idea was to pass the skein..toss it…walk it…whatever to someone else in the room who shared this interest.
Thanks to the participants’ energy and my two helpers, soon almost everyone was entangled in a strand of yarn or two, and as a result, connected from all the way in the front to the back of the room, and on the sides … all because of a common interest. Some people were totally entangled in three different colors of yarn. Some people were decidedly staying out of the network and wanted to watch. The people who were a part of the networks got a good giggle both out of the intersections that were created, and our attempts to untangle everyone at the end.
Which looks an awful lot like…
From there we talked about 4 different types of social networking: lifestreams (sharing information about your life), photosharing, crowdsourcing of information, and video sharing. Specifically, we talked about Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, Yelp, del.icio.us, and YouTube. With each tool, we talked about what a network looked like (surprise! it looked like a tangled web of yarn!) and also what benefits or drawbacks being a part of that network might offer.
Facebook seemed to be the tool that caused them the greatest amount of concern. And why not? A least once a month on our local news there is a story about a predator using social networking to stalk their prey, or sharing some information inappropriately, or personal information being stolen via the internet. Many were convinced that Facebook was an all-around unsafe environment, that scary people lurked here, and that information was passed around without consent.
What was interesting was many people in the audience did not realize that all of these tools have privacy settings. And that once you set them, your information was protected to the best of your ability. (well, okay, as protected as anything can be on the internet these days)
And then it struck me. Many of the members of the audience were not worried for themselves as much as they were afraid for their grandchildren and children who they knew used tools like Facebook. They wondered if their grandchildren were safe. Many wondered what they might see (and in fact did not want to see) if they accepted offers to join in. Some wondered if it was even appropriate for them to be using social networking tools at all.
One person pondered…but do we have to use a computer to be connected with people with whom we have common interests? And doesn’t all of this connection stuff just cheapen the whole experience altogether?
Enter the virtual choir.
Thanks to Twitter, I learned about the work of the master choral conductor Eric Whitacre and his virtual choir project. This project was the perfect example to share with my audience in order to show how technology could unite people spread all around the world and how connected individuals could create something greater, more extraordinary, and more profound when unified around a common interest, purpose or idea.
In the end, the evening was a success. The attendees had fun, saw some new cool things, and understood that sometimes strangers meeting strangers via technology could result in positive things. But the best news yet? I have been invited back. Not to give another talk…but to help those who want to figure out their privacy settings on Facebook, and so they can connect, be safe, and teach their family members how to do the same.
Apropos of this blog post: Thank you Andrew Dalton at SFist for finding this youtube clip of “Grandmas discovering PhotoBooth on a Mac” It’s charming….and I love the giggling.