…or, Baby Boomers And The Delicate Art of Screen-To-Screen Contact

There sat I, in the hospital outpatient surgery waiting room, waiting. A muted TV playing a cartoon was mounted to one wall. Against the opposite wall 2 desktop PCs were idly screen-saving away, also waiting.

After a while two chatty voices broke the sterile silence. Into view strode the owners of those voices: A man and woman, each in their late 50’s or early 60’s. They crossed the room plotting to buy tickets to see REO Speedwagon (yes, really), making a beeline for the two computers.

Without skipping a syllable they bypassed the computers, sat, and each produced a smartphone. Within minutes a message notification “plang!” rang out from the woman’s phone, while the man excitedly pointed to his screen and mentions a friend’s recent Facebook update. Relentlessly they yammered on about each other’s Facebook friends, volleying their phones to show pictures or read postings, cross-engaging in the mobile online world the way only teenagers do.

Only teenagers? Really?

Before Social Media there was Gossip. After Social Media there will still be Gossip.

The massive impact of social media and interactivity on the commercial world has been largely – if not entirely – driven by the fact that social media has become a quotidian requirement for a demographic-busting range of end users. As noted in a particularly excellent recent blog post* by Tom Johansmeyer on SocialTimes.com, most social media companies started as an idea without a business plan, in effect putting their destinies in the hands of their users. It has been regular people pushing these social media apps to do more of what regular people want. It turns out that what regular people want – ranging from all manner of Facebook-posted vacation, wedding and baby pictures to following Charlie Sheen’s latest floundering – can be simply categorized as “gossip.”

Gossip in many forms has thrilled, delighted and informed regular folks for literally thousands of years (yes, really). Exchanges between people about people, no matter how they are positioned, intended or conveyed, can be broadly defined as gossip. Fact-checking is unnecessary, speed is prized, and visual evidence cherished. Not all gossip is news, and not all news gossip, but there is enough shared genetic foundation between gossip and news to make their sibling-level proximity undeniable.

Furthermore, it’s clear from even a casual look that none of today’s leading social media applications are conceptually groundbreaking. Facebook, FourSquare, Twitter, Posterous, Digg, and most of the rest are clever digital synthetics of analog pastimes. Phone calls, letters, personal journals, collecting restaurant matchbooks, quilting, scrapbooking, using a Rolodex or Franklin planner, even playing golf were the ways we all used to record our thoughts, mark our travels, organize our contacts, express our creativity and stay connected with friends and family. What makes the members of social media application A-list popular is precisely that they cleverly and skillfully adapt a familiar activity or process for consumption on a digital device.

Thus, it’s probably not the concept of social media that people have had to learn to embrace. What regular folks have actually accepted into their lives is the technology of gossip. People have adapted not to delivering juicy confessions or heart-wrenching personal dramas, but rather to doing all this in near real-time, complete with pictures and location indicators accurate to within 300 meters. Baby pictures are run-of-the-mill having been with us for as long as photography itself. Hospital-fresh smartphone stills and mini-videos that are barely older than the bundle of joy in question are solid gold by comparison. Showing off a matchbook from a hot new restaurant says something; letting everyone know you’re at that restaurant at that very moment compounds the cache. Thus, while we’re all impressed with the adoption rates of Baby Boomers to the online world, Facebook (for instance) needn’t pat itself too much on the back: What Baby Boomers have adopted is not really a new online activity, but rather a new technology – mobile computing – that makes their age-old gossip all the more thrilling.

The Exceptional Becomes The Expectation

As form factors evolve and the amount of data they are able to convey expands, so will the nature of gossip. If folks can get the goods sooner, they’ll accept the limitation of 140-character-long messages for their communications. People will buy cases to allow them to take iPhone pictures when scuba diving so they can post the images to Facebook almost immediately upon surfacing. Indeed the clandestine, unframed shots of anti-government riots in the Middle East signals the acceptance of degraded video quality by broadcasters for the sake of immediacy. This is not a technological leap that broadcasters are championing, it’s a return to the concept of “home-movie quality” being  sufficient in the right context.

The press and pundits will continue to ponder the pioneering Gen-Y’s and Millennials. Marketers will marvel at how Baby Boomers – in spite of their advanced years – are struggling to not be left behind in the Internet self-expression movement even as these post WWII babies approach becoming Seniors. Formerly one-dimensional concepts will continue to metamorphose into multi-faceted memes – like Friend, Like, Share, Check In, Link, Tweet, Buzz, Tag and others – that make marketers salivate. Amidst all this please spare a thought for the following: What we as peers, associates, acquaintances, and confidantes talk about ultimately changes only very little. What does evolve not just perceptibly but dramatically is the underlying technology that turbocharges these same conversations with meta data and media, all of which can be easily carried in anyone’s pocket, and accessed almost anytime, and almost anywhere.

As my waiting room neighbors dug deeply into the last 45 minutes of each other’s online lives, practically tripping over each other to show and tell, a final delicious irony dawned upon me: It has been said for far longer than there has been the Internet that “a picture is worth a thousand words” but social media has demonstrated that, regardless of the technology, the picture and the very lengthy thread that results are nevertheless almost always inseparable.

* –  Do check out the entire article, it is truly insightful: http://cultex.us/e4Q6mz