Are you a social networking mutant?

If you're between the ages of 20 and 60, chances are you're a hybrid human, when it comes to social networking

Have you ever tried to get an older person to use Facebook?

We bought my grandmother an iPad for her 98th birthday last week. Tellingly, she was able to use it very quickly and easily. She immediately started reading and sending e-mails, and playing some of the games we installed. She loves the iPad. Facebook? Not so much.

The Facebook account we set up for her was actively ignored. She hates Facebook. How can that be? Facebook is easy enough to use, and the payoff is enormous -- keeping in touch with her extensive network of family and friends.

I've noticed the same phenomenon with my dad. He's out of the loop with family news. When he asks me what's going on with the family, I have to practically copy and paste from Facebook. It's all there. Why won't he just look? My dad can do all kinds of things that seem impossible to me. He can rebuild a car engine. He can build an entire house singlehandedly. But he can't use Facebook.

My wife has a friend in her 80s. She's super smart and in many ways lives like a young person. She uses e-mail and has no trouble with other facets of modern life. But Facebook? She won't do it. My wife and I gently urged her to get into Facebook and trotted out all the benefits. She could see photos and get the news on her grandchildren, and generally stay in better touch with loved ones. Finally, she came out with it: "I understand that's it's great, but I just can't and won't do Facebook."

Here's the interesting bit. Some older people respond to Facebook in exactly the same way that younger people respond to not using Facebook.

Plunk a high school student in a classroom with no phones, no electronics and no interaction, and tell them to simply pay attention to the teacher talking. Like older people on Facebook, they squirm, feel disoriented and can't focus.

What's going on here? What is it about Facebook that makes it such an effective generational marker?

It's all about brain wiring

Have you ever seen the Four Eyes Illusion? It's a picture of a young woman digitally altered with an extra pair of eyes and an extra mouth. The image is shockingly uncomfortable to look at. The picture makes some people dizzy, or even nauseated. Why is that?

The reason is that our brains are hardwired to recognize the human face. Once we burn into our brains that faces have two eyes and one mouth, we cannot accept one with four eyes and two mouths. We hate looking at it. We feel anxious. It challenges the foundations of our mental firmware.

And that's what's happening with Facebook. Many people over 60 established very early on a clear understanding about communication: There are two kinds. The first is one-to-one and private. Letters, phone calls, telegrams. The second is one-to-many and public. TV, radio. A person with this hardwiring has no trouble with e-mail, which is understood to be an electronic version of the postal system. They also have no problem with YouTube, which is viewed as an Internet version of TV, more or less.

When some older people try to mentally grasp Facebook, it's like looking at the Four Eyes Illusion. It's neither one-to-one nor one-to-many. Facebook communication is any-to-any. Any number of people (individuals or groups) are communicating to any number of other people. And is it public or private? Who is seeing this? So other people see what I see, but also they don't? Facebook's fundamental structure is incompatible with mental hardwiring about communications media.

Not using Facebook is similarly disorienting to teens, and always will be -- even when they get old. People younger than 20 were born more recently than 1990. That means one of the first objects they recognized as toddlers was the personal computer. By the time they were old enough to talk to grandma on the telephone, they did so with a cell phone. By the age of 12, they started begging their parents for a cell phone capable of Internet connectivity and texting ("Everybody else has one!! Pleeeeease!). They had already been using AIM on their PCs for years.

Kids under 20 have been hardwired with a new understanding about communication. It's pervasive, mobile and any-to-any. Is it public? Private? Whatever. There's so much of it that nobody cares. I just want to talk to my friends any time I want.

People older than 60 tend to be Real World People. They're comfortable with technology as long as it correlates with objects in the real world. They use e-mail to say, "call me." If you send them an electronic photo, they want to print it out. Experiences are validated only by being there in person. "Social" means face-to-face.

People under 20 are Virtual World People. They're comfortable with the real world as long as it's augmented by digital technology. They use the phone to say, "text me." If you give them a paper photo they like, they ask for the digital version. Experiences are validated only by sharing electronically. "Social" means online.

What does that say about you and me?

People between the ages of 20 and 60 are unique in human history. Like something out of the movie "Splice," we are hybrid, mutant creatures. We have the mental wiring of both Real World and Virtual World Peoples.

We're a transitional "generation," and the only ones in human history generally capable of fully enjoying Facebook and also functioning without Facebook.

The reason is that we had time to adjust. When we were young children, there was no cell phone usage, social networking, chatting, massively multi-player online games or texting in our environment. We were taken step-by-step through the development of pervasive technology, one product or service at a time. Our first cell phone barely did anything. When we were introduced to instant messaging and texting, it was socially optional. Communication in our lifetimes evolved gradually from analog to digital to what we now call social, meaning communication enhanced by software that facilitates human connection.

In fact, we are and will be the only "generation" in human history with the luxury of being slowly and gradually introduced to computer-enhanced living.

With great wiring comes great responsibility

Because we're a transitional people, we need to have a clear understanding about what's going on.

First, grandma's Facebook aversion isn't senility. If she doesn't like Facebook, she probably never will. Facebook is incompatible software for her mental hardware.

More importantly, we're all going to have to deal with young people as they enter the workforce.

Their obsession with constant communication and comfort level with informal relationships isn't the result of stupidity, laziness or lack of character. It's brain wiring.

I'm going to say this as plainly as I can: Young people will use Facebook at work. Period.

Telling someone right out of college that they can't use Facebook at work is like your boss telling you that you can't talk to coworkers. Imagine sitting right next to a friend and colleague, but company rules say you can never talk to them. There's no technical reason why you can't talk. It's just that the company doesn't want you to.

You and I would never work at such a place. And today's young people will never accept company rules that prevent constant social networking. They believe that the only reason such rules are in place is that the people who made those rules entered the workforce before Facebook existed. And they're exactly right.

Coping with young people at work will be a great challenge to the rest of us. We need to resist the temptation to assume they're idiot slackers, and instead understand that they're actually on to something. For example, social networking-influenced business communication is in reality vastly superior to the old-and-busted memos, e-mails and meetings model.

Forcing young people to see the world our way is a losing proposition. They cannot and will not ever understand the mental wiring of people who once thought Atari games -- or even Pong -- were like something out of science fiction.

But we can see things their way. And we should. Starting with Facebook at work. Just let it happen.

Mike Elgan writes about technology and global tech culture. Contact Mike at [email protected], follow him on Twitter or his blog, The Raw Feed.

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Mike Elgan

Mike Elgan

Computerworld (US)
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