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Web 2.0 for an Older Population: Exploring the Limits

The personal computer is, in many ways, a rather inaptly named device. From the earliest days computers have been about sociality and community. The staples of everyday computer use email and the Internet are intimately social. As the Internet evolves, its uses become ever more implicated in relationships between people.

Indeed, one of the most widely used pieces of web jargon at present, Web 2.0, refers to designing the Web for, and developing with, intensively social uses in mind. As Danah Boyd, a Fellow at Harvard Law School’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society puts it, the term Web 2.0 expresses a shift to the Web as “an information ecology…organized around friends.” In recent years, socially oriented websites have become hot properties, attracting both significant user communities and venture capital. Facebook, MySpace, and many others have become must-see destinations on the information superhighway.

For many younger users, these sites define what an internet experience is all about. At the same time, the populations of the developed world have begun to experience the rapid aging of their populations. National governments and care systems have become aware that health and other challenges are associated with this aging trend. In 2003, 10 percent of the world population was over age 60. By 2050 that will be 21 percent-nearly two billion people.

homepage of a website
Figure 1. Main page of the Eons website showing available activities.

Technology is capable of playing a role in rising to the challenges that such demographic change will bring. This may be in the form of telehealth devices or other tools for enabling independent living. Yet this older population is diverse in nature. Some analysts regard the older population as more diverse than any other population in terms of lifestyle, attitudes, and outlooks. The differences between a 60 and 90 year old are enormous, and we cannot expect this group to have a shared sense of technology literacy or confidence. However, the way we talk about, and sometimes design for, older populations suggest that the younger-old and the older-old are one homogonous group.

In response to this aging trend, social networking or social media sites for older users are becoming a recognizable subset of the overall social web genre. However, these sites tend to cater to the younger-old-boomers in their 50s and 60s. But in many countries, the older-old-those 80-plus years of age-is the segment growing most rapidly. It is this population group, unlike the more youthful boomers, that is unlikely to have used computers during their working life. Yet it is at this point in life-as bereavement and life-course events start to shrink one’s social networks, and social isolation, loneliness, and depression become real concerns, that the possibilities of social networking sites and social media might start to have some relevance as a means of maintaining networks of friends, family, care providers, and others providing support, as well as channels, for sharing interests and concerns.

In short, can an online world increasingly focused on supporting rich social experience provide realistic avenues for dealing with some of the threats and opportunities that an aging world presents? How can social networking tools be used to support successful aging? How can we use Web 2.0 to support the sort of experiences that older people want to have online and offline?

A recent article in the New York Times titled “New Social Sites Cater to People of a Certain Age” (2007) made it clear that social media sites aimed at older populations are a discernible trend. Eons, Boomertown, Multiply, and Boomj are a few sites that aim to profit from the fact that, as the author put it, “older people are sticky.” By offering tools for sharing media such as photos, making and maintaining friendships, and finding information relevant to their place in the life-course, these sites hope to help older people.

Precise figures on the actual use of these sites is not easy to come by, but Facebook’s advertising rate data reveal just how few people 65 years or older in the U.S. and major European countries actually use the site.

table of facebook users
Figure 2. Number of Facebook Users age 65 and over by country.

Friend or Foe

Of course, Facebook is not a site that is specifically designed for, or targeted at, older users. There are specific sites aiming at those groups. But all such social media sites share are some basic features: Friends, Networks, Contact Lists, Feeds, Profiles, Privacy Setting; newcomers to the world of Web 2.0 will be faced, soon enough, with terminology of this type. Whereas the words are probably familiar, the actions and interactions they invite might not be. For example the idea of “Friend” should be obvious enough, but used in the context of social media it can refer to people you have never met but that are in your network (another term in need of decoding), a person to whom you can send certain types of content and interact with in certain ways that are not available to people who are not Friends. And a Friend will be someone who likely has access to your Profile in a way that someone who isn’t a Friend will not.

The apparent simplicity of these terms, taken for granted by long term users of social media platforms, obscures the potential for these terms to confuse and alienate. Building blocks of Web 2.0 can become stumbling blocks. In making assumptions about the media and technological literacy and life worlds of older population’s Web 2.0 platforms, we risk diminishing their accessibility. Indeed, the view of accessibility we should be using is one that includes not just usability, but also the way that the concepts these apparently simple terms like “Friend” denote resonate with the lives of older users.

Conceptual understanding should precede functional benefits. If the former do not exist, then the latter will be unlikely to materialize. Something that is confusing to the user is unlikely to become of value to them.

If Boyd is right to attest that the web has become “an information ecology-organized around friends,” then it should be little surprise that many Web 2.0 platforms focus around Friends or Contact Lists. To a large degree the initial stages of interacting with such a platform involves populating these lists with members of one’s social network. Friends either have to be invited onto the system, or found within it-for example with the use of a “Friend Finder” tool. While this is now a common activity for the Web 2.0 generation, it is less certain that it is either a straightforward or meaningful activity for those with more limited prior technical exposure, and possibly diminishing social networks.

The research Intel’s Digital Health Group has conducted in more than thirty countries suggests that, as an activity without a clearly articulated benefit, friend finding or filling is not likely to make a great deal of sense. One of the benefits of having found and filled friends on Web 2.0 platforms is that “Friends” become special types of social objects (and subjects). Users can perform actions with their friends-invite them to events, send messages and recommendations to them. They might also be able, as they are on Facebook, to narrowcast to friends or even friends of friends, information about themselves, their movements, thoughts, or emotions.

Such “Feeds” offer tools for the ongoing construction of an online identity-through the gradual accumulation of such self-representation networks become visible and online personalities become discernible. For one type of user this sort of “always on,” highly performative form of activity and interactivity has become a norm of online life. I question the extent to which a population new to computing responds to, and interacts in this way. If we are designing technology to support or augment the social experience of older populations we need to focus on a series of alignments. We need to think about the ways in which the concepts and practices our terms suggest might (or might not) match the worlds and practices of the intended users. For example, what is a friend and what do friends do with, or to, each other online. Research in Ireland on older users and their social networks revealed that for many the term network itself had little resonance even outside of conversations about technology; the term community was more meaningful. Imagine how such people would respond to the idea of “Friend Finding” to fill their “Networks.”

text advertisement for BOOMj
Figure 3. BOOMj member start page.

Using User Profiles

Much of the potential of Web 2.0 platform comes from the existence of rich profiles for users. Profiles are the engines of social oriented Web 2.0 platforms. Profiles can be used to tailor the content, service, or “events”  that are pushed to the user. Profiles can be explicit (such as on Facebook) or inferred from our past actions and activities (on sites such as Amazon). Explicit profiles require understanding from the user about how such information might be used and how it might be visible to different types of system users. Can we assume that older users will be comfortable creating and managing an online identity in this way, if they have limited online or PC experience?

One further assumption that lies behind Web 2.0 is the “always on” user who might access the platform from a couple of different devices. There are two aspects of this assumption: one is that “always on” and “always connected” are relevant ways to think about the use of technology by older people. Are these more relevant when thinking about younger users managing online identities. Our research with older populations suggests that often, online tools are seen as exactly that-good ways to augment or enable offline activity, not a substitute for it. The research indicates that socializing and activities offline can be more highly valued than immersive, continuous online experiences; less “Twitter stream” and more conversation over a cup of tea. But technology has a role to play in enabling these social interactions for older people.

Secondly, the broader question of connectivity needs to be examined. In the U.S., 32 percent of adults over 65 years of age use the Internet. Meanwhile, in the UK, 49 percent of people over 65 years old do not have access to an internet-connected PC. Such statistics demonstrate that any assumptions about access to, and use of, the Internet might need to be re-evaluated. Moreover, “narrowband” practices, such as turning off the PC between uses, are likely to mitigate against the sort of always on, highly connected experiences implied by Web 2.0 services.

user profile
Figure 4. BOOMj user profile.

Getting 2.0 Right

If we are to address the challenges and opportunities that a rapidly aging population presents, and to enable the sort of connected, social experiences that younger users of the Web demand, what do we need to differently? If social inclusion, information and service provision and social opportunities for older people are to be enabled through technology, the philosophical and architectural approaches of Web 2.0 will be invaluable. But our research suggests that we need to be cautious about instantiating ideas imbued with Web 2.0 features for this older population.

A first step is to thoroughly research this group of users to ensure that their technological literacy and sense of ability and confidence with technology is understood by designers. It is important that the online and offline practices of older people are addressed so that the technologies we develop strike the right balance between replacing and augmenting offline activity. For example, do we really need older users to dispose or duplicate their pocket calendar or the diary on the refrigerator with an online version built into a Web 2.0 platforms? How will our ideas work if they resist such transposing and duplication?

Secondly, researching the intended user is no substitute for their continued involvement in the design process. Those little additional features that we think make our inventions attractive might easily repel or complicate. What do these additions do to the user experience and how do they impact the cognitive burden of usage. What can we strip out and how can we pare down the features we offer to give the optimal experience? Ultimately, these questions are not best answered by designers and technologists but by older people-the intended users. Too often user research can end just at the time when its impact has the most potential to keep our innovations grounded.

Finally, we need to think of accessibility as a holistic concept, taking into account not just usability, but all aspects of a user’s life. The concepts embedded into our technologies need to resonate with the life worlds of older people. In that context, research and testing needs to be imagined as something that occurs over the longer period of time, naturalistically. It should be more than a short test of feature usability within a lab environment. We need to allow people to grasp concepts and the associated features as they appear on a system. This means allowing longer for people to ingest the platforms-to give people time to take them onboard and ourselves the time to see if they fit with their lives and needs.