I learned basic data analysis techniques by studying the relationship between demographics and political opinion poll responses. As an undergraduate in a graduate Political Science course at Ohio State University I used 80 column punch cards (send me an email if you don't know what that means) to instruct an IBM mainframe computer to crosstabulate age, sex, income, and race data with voting behavior and political opinions.
Now you can do the same stuff online with little more than an Internet connection and a browser.
What hasn't changed is that different social groups sometimes do tend to think and behave differently.
A recent crop of demographics-related blog posts concerning the interaction between technology usage and demographics should therefore come as no surprise. Here's a sample:
- Washington Post's In Teens' Web World, MySpace Is So Last Year
- Guy Kawasaki's Is Advertising Dead?
- Ben Martin' E-mail is for old people redux
- Nate Anderson's Teens: Email is for Old People
- Debra Schiff's Is There a Generation Gap in Collaboration?
- Stephanie Berger's ASU Web Devil - On the Cover: Generation M
- Mike's Podcasting? That's for Old Folks
- Mike Connery's Who's really on social networks?
- Robyn Tippins' Tweens Are Social Creatures and MySpace Killed the TV Star
- ComScore's More than Half of MySpace Visitors are Now Age 35 or Older, as the Site’s Demographic Composition Continues to Shift
- Craig Cox' Kids Reveal the Future of the Internet
- Emily Turrettini's Wired-weary youth seek face time
- Elsua's Is There a Generation Gap in Collaboration? - Can Social Software Fix It? Should It?
While the observations made in the above articles may come as no surprise, it is interesting to note that there was a time in the U.S. when a single national telephone company existed, many cities had both morning and afternoon newspapers, there were three television networks, and radio stations in different cities actually sounded different even though they were playing the same music.
I do prefer the diversity of media we have today. Elsua (the last listed link above) is concerned about intergenerational communication barriers. He proposes social networking and mentoring to help transfer knowledge from older workers to younger workers. (This is a topic that I have also blogged about.)
I think that social networking approaches are relevant to overcoming not only younger-older divisions but any division among different communities or interest groups. Here is the comment I left on Elsua's blog post:
As a parent of a daughter (still in college) and a son (recently graduated and hired by a large international company) I am following the current crop of "generation gap" postings around the blogosphere with great interest, including recent reports based on the Pew study of the preference for IM over email by young folks.
The situation is more complex than some commentators about a "generation gap" seem to suggest. Yes, young people may be relying on MySpace for communicating with their friends while leaving their college email addresses untouched. Yes, young people entering the work force are relying solely on cellphones and are not getting landlines put into their apartments.
But I see a couple of things happening that suggest the dangers of oversimplification.
Young people, when they emerge from the cocoon of college, find that they are now members of an increasing number of groups or communities -- friends dispersed around the world, the old folks back home who still rely heavily on email, new friends, and now, employers and all the relationships that brings. Young people find that they can't necessarily communicate with their new boss via their MySpace account and instead adopt their new employer's IM or email standards. (A young person adopting his his or her new company's IM system may find, for example, that what was acceptable as an IM profile or avatar while in high school or college is no longer acceptable in the real world of business.)
Maybe all this shows is that different groups (sometimes called "communities," a term that I resist given the ephemeral nature of many online relationships) communicate differently. They adjust communication channels and behaviors to the task at hand, just as they answer the phone differently when receiving a call from a friend ("Wassup?) or from a parent ("Yes, Father?")
Maybe the real question should be whether these "gaps" really cause real problems. In many situations they won't. We all know that "birds of a feather flock together;" trying to prevent groups from self organizing and adopting cohesive communication media, language, and practices may be futile. Also, crassly adopting the communication practices of one group to sell products, as WalMart found recently, may fail miserably based on a clear perception of insincerity by the target group.
On the other hand, I can envision situations where communication preference gaps might actually cause problems. One situation is in an emergency response situation. We've seen the difficulties in the U.S. caused by different emergency response groups using different radio frequencies. Any hopes of relying on web based or social networking based media to communicate during an emergency will also need to deal with incompatibilities and gaps.
In the meantime, I'll be happy to use instant messaging to communicate with my kids and a landline phone to communicate with my mother in law!