Social Networking Across Generations and its impact on the NGO Sector’s Work

on June 19, 2009
in Blog

Once again the importance of social networking has been underscored by what’s happening in Iran with its predominately youthful population. In crisis mode, turning to these tools seems far more democratic across generational lines than it does under normal circumstances. I’ve been grappling with this issue as I hear from fellow [middle] aged peers about their personal use of social networking tools. Even technologists of my generation using these Web 2.0 tools often make limited or extremely focused use of them to meet specific objectives. They are typically not using them as a principal means of interacting with their peers in the same way their twenty-something colleagues do.

One can make the argument that individual generations are defined by their emerging technologies — the ones that separate them from their fuddy-duddy parents. However, while Web 2.0 may define the millennial generation, different generations inevitably use the same tools differently based on formative experiences with technologies of their own generation.

The millennial generation has defined its social interactions around interactive Web 2.0 technologies like Twitter and Facebook – and they also accomplish specific objectives with these tools like electing progressive leaders of the free world and contesting elections in repressive regimes. By contrast, my generation, who currently occupy strategic management positions in many nonprofits and philanthropies, were raised on broadcast technologies like MTV that informed our socialization. We read newspapers and watched content on at pre-existing times on TV, (not 24/7 on mobile devices). We were amazed at how transformative e-mail was and it remains our core technology. Privacy seems a useful if not quaint notion to this generation as long it doesn’t interfere with their online social interactions. By contrast, my generation winces in horror at sharing personal information online. Do one billion Internet users and potential employers really need to see images of us being stupid at a Christmas party, we ask?

So it’s not surprising that my generation often perceives the utility, but not the necessity of incorporating these Web 2.0 tools as indispensable components of our core social interactions. Why should we? We actually grew up without them and by some miracle maintained close ties with friends and family – all without a single tweet!

Personally I “tweet”, but not because I want anyone knowing what I am doing 24/7 (god forbid). Nor do I want to know the whereabouts of a few hundred of my closest friends. I tweet a message a day on news topics of relevance to strengthen my ability to present complex arguments or concepts in 140 characters or less – to really interact electronically I use e-mail and occasionally instant messaging. Sometimes I even use a phone — with real wires attached.

What does this say about older technologists and nonprofit managers, new technologies, and the future of their successful deployment in foundations and non-profits? We’re all cognizant of the mad dash to apply these tools to every form of philanthropic and nonprofit endeavor. To stay pertinent, CNN has become a continuous advertisement and guilt trip for the use of social networking tools, (their unspoken motto: “We tweet therefore we are… relevant”). In the process they have unfortunately conflated staying perpetually informed and socially networked as one in the same concept. If you are not following this or that anchor on Twitter, you must be a flawed or damaged human being. Most “older folks” over thirty-five or forty, have real issues with this. I readily acknowledge some in the over thirty-five crowd completely hip to social networking who live and die by this or that tool. For the rest, I say “Relax, you’re not completely out of it, you’re not flawed in some way and most importantly, you’re not alone. You are simply part of a different generation…. Accept it.”

With acceptance comes healing… While you may not use the technology the same way, or appreciate why sending virtual seeds and cookies through Facebook is at all relevant to your existence; it is still incumbent on you to appreciate how these tools are used effectively. Listen to those young whippersnappers and then apply your wisdom of experience to adapt it to the strategies and objectives of your organization. Defer to younger colleagues with really interesting and intuitive suggestions for applying social networking in ways you would never even consider… You don’t have all the answers because you didn’t grow up with these tools. Don’t be intimidated by someone half your age who knows better about using and applying these tools to their generation than you do. If you learned a second language in your 40’s and came across a twenty-something that speaking same far more fluently and without accent, would you be surprised? Same difference. You don’t have to use or understand the tools in the same way as younger colleagues. You do have to be open to their adoption and new ways of operating with them, utilizing the talent and experience of those younger colleagues.

Ironically, nonprofit’s are in a far better position than philanthropies. For once the rapid turnover and often younger staff who populate them come to the job with social networking in their DNA. Philanthropic turnover is far lower and decision-makers are often 2-3 generations removed from the latest technologies. It is incumbent on these decision makers to listen to younger tech-savvy staff and nonprofits they fund for guidance. The relationship is symbiotic; nonprofits need philanthropic support for these initiatives. Philanthropies with questions that lack in-house expertise can turn to a variety of excellent third party non-profit technology support providers including,, to name a few.

Finally, to my aging peers, take heart… Those twenty-somethings will be forty and fifty-somethings soon enough and they will deal with the same issues of a newer generation’s technologies. I’m hoping to retire before tech-implants become the rage…

Jonathan Peizer is the Principal of Internaut Consulting supporting foundations, nonprofits, governments and socially responsible private sector initiatives. He is the former CIO/CTO and Director of the Open Society Institute’s Global Internet Program.

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A Baby Boomer’s Ever So Slightly Cynical Take on Social Networking Tools

on June 3, 2008
in Blog

I grew up with technology…. Well, sort of.

When I was in grade school the Texas instruments calculator was introduced. I played the video game pong in high school, and by the time I got to college I had an Atari 800 computer and was playing Pac Man. In those years, they were moving from punch cards to monitors on the college computer, and I got a summer job working on a state of the art IBM mini-computer, the latest rage. When I graduated university in the early 80’s they had managed to shrink computers yet farther from full sized refrigerators to those little port-a-fridges. That afforded me the opportunity to work on a groundbreaking “manual-process-to-PC“conversion project at the financial institution I was employed at using a state-of-the-art Apple III. I think I was one of four people that actually ever worked on this evolutionarily dead-end machine seemingly introduced as an afterthought as Apple was transitioning to the MAC. By the mid-80’s I had forgone weight training because lugging around my twenty pound “light” laptop made it unnecessary. And yes we had cell phones too, the problem was they were just as heavy as those laptops and airlines had weight limits after all… By the late 80’s I was working with networked PC’s and e-mail and by early 1995 my organization had its first fully blown web site. The point is I have worked with technology throughout my life and embraced it. What has surprised me as I get older and a totally new generation enters the workforce is the extent to which the current web 2.0/collaboration technology mirrors the characteristics of the generation it serves… and not my own.

I’d always thought technology to be a rather utilitarian and unbiased animal for those of us willing to embrace new gadgets and applications as they came along. My epiphany has been that rather than being the generic digital “hammer and screwdriver” I’d always imagined it to be, new technology adapts to the generation it serves. On the other hand older generations must adapt to the technology serving the new generations need’s. I’ve also learned you have to be a certain age to appreciate this truth.

My dirty little secret is that as a self -defined lifelong technologist, comfortable with testing the newest thing — I find myself either less interested in some of the new technologies. I also use them quite differently than younger colleagues because of the characteristics of my generation that are different from theirs. I imagine I am not the only one in my age group with a general comfort with technology who feels this way – I think most of us stay in the closet about it because it’s not cool to be less than euphoric about the latest Web 2.0/3.0 trend .

As a not-yet-so-ossified Don Quixote tilting at my PC let me out myself. I was alive during the Kennedy assassination — the first one, although admittedly less conscious of my surroundings than I was my rattle. That makes me a late baby-boomer; Not quite ready for the old age home — or even old enough yet to paraphrase Bill Clinton’s line on his 50th birthday about seeing more yesterdays than he would tomorrows. This makes the fact that I am seeing this difference in generational use of technology in my early middle age all the more amazing and disconcerting to me.

It turns out that if one self-identifies with Al Franken’s “Me” generation — the one that didn’t trust anyone over 30, questioned everything, was far more privacy conscious than collaborative and more likely to define ourselves by the hierarchy we belonged to and what we did in it than what we liked to do as people – Well, then I am afraid, like me, you are far more likely to have difficulty embracing technology tools defined by a generation that loves to collaborate, dislikes hierarchical entities of any sort and seemingly is so trusting of others that it is willing to abandon any semblance of privacy for the benefit of bearing all online to friends, perfect strangers, potential employers, web-surfing maniacs, etc…

As one of the many failed presidents of my generation once said, “Let me make this perfectly clear”: I am not dissing the technology. It’s extremely useful to the generation it was defined for as well as for my own. The difference is we older technology users have a harder time adapting it to meet our needs because of the way we were nurtured. We tend to be far more utilitarian about deploying it to fill a niche need than we are integrating it as part of our lives like some sort of borg extension of our collaborative abilities.

Twitter: For those of us who grew up on the doctrine of “plausible deniability” the coolness of Twitter escapes me. Why would I abandon all pretense of privacy to let everyone know where I was for 24/7 excepting the occasional potty break escapes me, (fortunately at least there are now drugs that both ensure regularity and these few moments of privacy). Twitter innocently asks the question “What are you doing?” My instinctive answer is somewhere between “None of your business and who wants to know?” In my defense, its reciprocal – I also don’t want to know what everyone I know is doing either. Now it’s true you can filter twitter – but that creates the same problem that ATT encountered when it introduced the failed video phone in the early 60’s. It turns out that if you turn off you are being impolite, or worse, all too mysterious. “Why can’t he be twittered? Not burying bodies in the Jersey Marshes again is he? What a nut, no really, what a nut! And he knows my every move.”

When is twitter useful to my generation? As a targeted tracker for targeted people when logistically staying in touch for particular situations is an imperative. So help me though, nobody I know is ever going to know when I am visiting the mall….

MySpace: Even the name is antithetical to how my generation operates. The last thing I would think of doing is putting MY space on public exhibit.

Blogging: At last they’ve married the intimacy and inanity of keeping a personal diary with the complete lack of privacy that being online affords. I have tried blogging numerous times and have never kept up with it consistently. While not often accused of humility I am equally as incapable of the narcissistic intensity required to share my stream of consciousness on an ongoing basis with anyone that will listen. Perhaps if I were boarded up for multiple years in an attic hiding from Nazis I could manage the strength of character to do it, but that’s about what it would take. On the plus side I see the benefit of the millions of dollars saved in Ritalin, and psychiatrist fees that venting online affords some. Prospective employers are also afforded the option of avoiding significant mental health insurance costs and hiring mistakes costs by screening out the next Charles Manson in their midst – although in MySpace’s defense, its richness of features is far better at holistically defining a well-rounded sociopath.

When is blogging useful to my generation? For occasional short posts about targeted issues and entities we want connected associated to know about –and- when collecting ones thoughts to craft a longer more thoughtful article that actually follows some rules of grammar and spelling is not an option… I will however keep what I thought, about what she though, about what he thought to myself…

RSS Feeds: Just when I thought spam mail did not distract enough of my attention comes RSS feeds. They allow me to dump even more information I will never possibly get to into my mailer or separate reader . And now I have the ability through and other similar vehicles to share the information I am not getting to with others – so they too can add to their distractions and feel guilty about the various biased viewpoints spilling into their feeder that they possibly don’t have the time to review either. RSS feeds taught me to understand the power of nurture and how we are taught to behave. I grew up on newspapers, so when they went digital it was somehow comforting to visit the New York Times, BBC and CNN sites and view their formats rather than simply sucking them dry through an RSS feed and dumping all that information into a nameless, generic reader as the new generation of Millennials is far more apt to do.

When is RSS useful to my generation? Seriously, it can be very useful if you cherry pick what you really want to follow and avoid the rest, rather than assuming, like the CIA, that if you simply collect everything that you are actually applying the appropriate thinking and analytics to actually make use of the information!

Jonathan Peizer is the Principal of Internaut Consulting supporting foundations, nonprofits, governments and socially responsible private sector initiatives. He is the former CIO/CTO and Director of the Open Society Institute’s Global Internet Program.

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