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 Npower.org, Techsoup.org, Aspirationtech.org 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.