Di Shaw, PhD candidate in Anthropology, Adelaide, Australia
The key purpose of my research was to understand how using the Internet mediates the social lives of older Australians. My research ethnographically explored the experiences of older Australians on an international social networking site (SNS) designed for people over the age of 40. My project embraced both online and offline components of my participants social practices. The offline component of the research was critical in understanding how socially connecting online interacts with the everyday social lives of older people.I spent 14 months online participating with, and observing, the online community. At the time of the research (2010), there were approximately 12,000 members primarily from Western countries such as Australia, America, Canada and the UK. Participants ranged in age between 60 and 85 years, although age ranges for the broader community were 50-90 years of age. It took a full 6 months to develop enough trust to explore the social lives of these technologically savvy social networking seniors!
Key themes that have emerged from my research include the following:
- Online presence and friendship formingOnline presence is based on both online and offline events and utilises the personal values of the participants for the purposes of friendship forming. My participants tell me that being online and socially interacting with their online friends is as real to them as sitting in the same room with a friend. I will be analysing the key ways that older people make their presence felt and argue that online relationships carry the same weight for my participants as offline ones.
- The emergence of self and the rebirth of communicationAs we age, our thinking process slows down. My participants, especially those who are significantly older - the 80 plus year olds - tell me that being online allows them to socially interact with others "at their own pace". I argue that being online and socially interacting with others, frees the internalised embodied self - the "grey matter" - of the constraints of an aged and crumbling external shell, essentially allowing the re-birth of communication.
- Social inclusionMy research shows that being online adds quality to the social lives of my participants. My research provides anthropological insight into the experiences that older people have online, which they attribute to friendship forming, social support, as well as feelings of social inclusion, and the ways in which being online contributes positively to their everyday lives.