Two decades after its inception, the digital world is starting to look (and act) its age
Author Boyd Farrow Illustration Daniel Fishel
Apparently, those of us still writing “LOL” are so old-fashioned we may as well pepper our messages with “gadzooks.” At least, this seems to be the conclusion of a study from earlier this year that examined how users laugh online. According to the study, 51.4 percent of Facebookers use “haha” (or a variation of it) to convey mirth, while LOLers make up a paltry 1.9 percent.
The idea that this abbreviation is edging toward extinction seems strange, and a little sad, but there’s something else going on here. Fact is, there’s something conventional about the acronymic representation of amusement—something dadlike. Which is fitting, seeing as the person doing the laughing is probably somebody’s dad.
Two decades after it hit the mainstream, the Internet has become a very different place. Where once the very idea of, say, an AOL chat room would have had parents saying, “A hoozamawotzit?” today you can hardly click a link without encountering somebody who’s a bingo game away from joining the AARP.
The reason for this is simple: All of those people exploring the foothills of Netscape in the early days have now reached middle age. What this has led to, almost unnoticed, is vast swaths of the Internet taking on a decidedly cardigan-and-slippers feel—a shift that, according to Boston-based media critic Dan Kennedy, should not come as a surprise. “The Internet can only reflect the demographics,” he says. “As virtually everyone is now online, it reflects a society that is aging.”
The graying of the Internet is most vividly apparent on Facebook. According to the Pew Research Center, 79 percent of Internet-using Americans between the ages of 30 and 49 frequent the social networking site, which started 12 years ago as a way for college kids to socialize; 48 percent of online Americans 65 and over are friending and liking. So not only do teenagers need to block their parents, they now have to shoo away Gramps, too.
Meanwhile, all that viral content gushing out of Facebook’s newsfeed underscores just how much mainstream Internet culture is being dominated by people who, having shared their own news, seem compelled to share everyone else’s. Click farms such as ViralNova.com (“She Knew Her Pup Stole Something From the Kitchen, But She Wasn’t Expecting THIS”) rack up tens of millions of hits a month by engaging 50-year-olds.
When these so-called Silver Surfers aren’t sharing cat videos or debating the relative merits of the Messerschmitt 109 and the Supermarine Spitfire, they’re making eyes at each other on sites like Match.com. Another Pew report found that online dating is on the rise among mature users, with 8 percent in the 45–54 age range doing it, compared to 10 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds.
While shifting demographics are playing a part in transforming the Internet, so is the response of online entrepreneurs. In 2013, British digital agency veteran Martin Lock started SilverSurfers.com in an attempt to take advantage of the new online consumer population. The site, which is set to launch Stateside next year and features a mix of daily stories, forums and partner offers, is a long way from the large-font, vaguely condescending pages we used to associate with the middle-aged. The reason for this is simple: It was founded not by a 23-year-old with an ironic beard but by someone from the age group it targets.
“Our generation shaped the Internet, and most major players, like Bill Gates, are now approaching 60,” says Lock, 57. “We wear jeans, listen to rock music, have active lives. And we are web-savvy.”
This is also the starting point for MyGrove, a new app that focuses on real-world activities for “active adults.” Created by Michael Gold, a Brooklyn-based veteran of the online gaming sector, the app has the kind of slick, clean interface that has become de rigueur in recent years. The big difference between this app and youth-oriented ones like ArtSpotter is that, instead of inviting users to attend flash-mob performances and pop-up galleries, MyGrove suggests visits to quilting clubs and pottery classes.
“This is one group that has been overlooked and underserved in the digital media landscape,” Gold says of his user base, which is composed mainly of retirees. “We want to build a number of different channels and real-world activities based around members’ interests. We want to be Vice for oldsters rather than hipsters.”
Freelance writer Boyd Farrow remembers when he had to call women on the phone to ask them out.