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Thursday, October 1, 2009

Too Old to Change?

I am a product of the Baby Boom -- a member of the generation born in the euphoric decades immediately after World War II. I take pride in my generational badge. We are acknowledged as the generation of change -- not just technological change, but massive, scaleable social change that has impacted race, war and peace, politics, philosophy, education, investment, art, music, fashion, transportation and so many other aspects of our nation's collective DNA. However, I now wonder if our last great social contribution to the world may have been the democratization of information via personal computing and the Internet. Not a bad track record, but having brought that double-edged sword to global prominence and daily addiction, we now seem to be sitting on our hands ready to enjoy the fruits of our past labors but hesitant to embrace what might be the greatest social change agent in the history of man taking place right before our eyes. Rather than jumping in and mixing up, we are starting to sound like our parents did when they heard our music and intuitively understood that crossing the gap from what Frank Sinatra sang about to what Neil Young rebelled against was probably a bridge that was culturally too far to cross.

I'm speaking of social media. Daily, I encounter conversations with affluent, avidly online Boomers astute in technology who rail dismissively against social media. Their description of the value of Twitter, Facebook and other means of enabling global conversation is a consistent scornful drumbeat that often sounds like my parents did when I tried to let my hair grow long. Now, I'll be the first to admit that I'd rather be forced to listen to the Carpenters Greatest Hits than read minute-by-minute reports from someone at a conference -- regardless of the subject matter. But to view social media in that narrow window of understanding is akin to interpreting the Internet as only a vehicle for pornography. And yet, that seems to be how my "demographic" looks at it. A recent study by Burst Media found that only 8 percent of Baby Boomers feel social networks are focused on them. Put another way, 92% of the most affluent demographic -- one that makes up more than 25 percent of all U.S. online traffic -- feels disconnected from social media. This includes people who engage in social networking. The chart below shows the key findings of the Burst Media study.

Source: Burst Media

One of the questions this raises is whether we, as a generation, have become disconnected, irrelevant or just curmudgeonly. Clearly something is missing. Either the network providers don't value the generation enough to figure out how to appeal to them (which I consider unlikely given that most social media is based around highly customizable platforms) or the generation doesn't value social media. More likely, we simply don't understand how to engage. As one boomer explained to me, "it feels like jumping on a moving train and it just isn't important enough to me." Thus, a generation known for progressive change has become too tired or too comfortable to participate in a disruptive technology that has played a major role in electing a President, stimulated massive protests to combat tyranny in Iran and serves as a tool to continue building awareness of key ideas and issues around an ever shrinking globe. Boomers can not be disenfranchised from this phenomenon. We need to stop thinking Bee Gees and start thinking John Lennon again.

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