Entangled with technology: Engagement with Facebook among the young old
First Monday

Entangled with technology: Engagement with Facebook among the young old by Nancy A. Van House



Abstract
This article frames the concepts of use and non-use in terms of Ingold’s understanding of life as on-going movement along multiple lines, or meshwork, and tangles of relationships to people, places, and things. In addition, I draw on practice theory and the turn to ontology, which argues that any one technology is enacted as multiple technologies via different practices. Based on a study of engagement with Facebook among the young old (age 60 to 70), I argue that use and non-use can be understood in terms of the different versions of a technology enacted or envisioned. A person’s engagement with a technology is a knot in the tangle of lines that are the trajectories of technologies and of people’s lives.

Contents

Introduction
Older adult HCI
What if they just aren’t interested?
This research
Performance, practices, and versions
Wayfaring, lines, and meshwork
The present study
Starting out on Facebook (or not)
What they did on Facebook
Who they connected with
Judicious use of time
Lightweight contact
Privacy
Not impression formation
Discussion
Conclusions

 


 

Introduction

Do we care whether or not people use technologies? If so, why? And how can we understand use and non-use, when the latter is, by definition, non-existent? In this paper, I frame the issue of use and non-use in terms of Ingold’s (Ingold, 2011; 2007) phenomenological anthropology of lines, “the trails along which life is lived” [1]. I also draw on science and technology studies’ turn to ontology and its discussion of entities as being enacted in multiple versions. I do this through a study of Facebook use among adults roughly 60 to 70, the “young old.”

There are many problems with the concept and terminology of use and non-use. Among them: dichotomizing an activity that is often a continuum; reducing a complex set of activities to a single dimension; valorizing the point of view of the technology rather than people; treating intermittent and transitory activities as durable; and, especially relevant in this paper, treating dynamic phenomena as static.

One goal of research on use and non-use (despite the problems with these terms, I’ll use them for convenience) is to understand how a technology might be made more useful, attractive, or relevant to a target audience. To understand — or at least describe — factors related to use and non-use, human-computer interaction (HCI) research often differentiates people by demographic, cognitive, psychological, and other variables, including sex, age, education, race, economic status (Pew Research Center, 2014a), health (Pew Research Center, 2014b), community type (rural, urban, suburban) (Pew Research Center, 2014a). For studies of social networking service (SNS) use, additional variables have included social satisfaction (Bell, et al., 2013), confidence with technology (Bell, et al., 2013), and frequency of Internet use (Bloch and Bruce, 2011), among others.

Many of these variables are static, or at least persistent, such as race, sex, and educational status (of adults), and the type of community in which a person lives. This implied stability is reinforced by the necessarily cross-sectional rather than longitudinal nature of much of the research.

The choice of explanatory variables is presumably based on hypotheses about their relevance. Apart from the serious problems of defining, demarcating, and measuring these characteristics, we should question these underlying assumptions. For example, why is sex so often included? Is it being used (probably unconsciously) as a proxy for something else, such as circumstances or cultural conditioning? Is age a proxy for something else? Experience, yes — but of what kind? Often the implication is that older adults are less competent with technology (Rogers, et al., 2014) — which is now less and less the case. Furthermore, as (Vines, et al., 2015) demonstrated via discourse analysis of HCI papers, older adults are often treated as an homogenous population with physical, cognitive, and/or performance deficits.

 

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Older adult HCI

Moffatt (2013) described “older adult HCI” as beginning to expand beyond technologies designed to “compensate for age-related losses,” although the projects she described were almost entirely assistive. Much of HCI research still draws on stereotypes, as demonstrated by a discourse analysis by (Vines, et al., 2015). There remains a lack of HCI research and design for people have the experiences, interests, and preferences of older adults apart from age-related disabilities (Vines, et al., 2015).

Interpreting the findings of research in this area is hampered by several factors related to the topic and the participants. First, the age at which people are considered “older” is variable. More problematic is that this research sometimes lumps together people over a wide range of ages. For example, Lindley, et al.’s (2009) participants were aged 55 to 84; younger participants could have been the older participants’ children.

Another problem is that the usual approach of reviewing related literature and building on previous research does not well accommodate the dynamicism of technology use, practices, SNSs, and aging. Today’s 60-something adults are a different cohort from the 60-somethings studied even a few years ago, limiting the usefulness of earlier research. Their experience with technology in general and SNSs in particular are likely different from their predecessors’. For example, Moffatt (2013) and Norval, et al. (2014) cited Lehtinen, et al.’s (2009) observation that SNSs “do not seem to fit the everyday communication of older adults well.” Lehtinen, et al.’s 2009 paper was necessarily based on research done in 2008 or even earlier. Coleman, et al. (2010) argued that older adults were more accepting of technologies similar to those they already knew, such as television remote controls, so they suggested that “the less new technology ‘looks’ like a computer, and more like an artifact that already plays a role in the older adult’s lives, the more likely it is to be accepted and potentially used by older adults.” Gibson, et al. (2010) concluded that “Older adults tend to see the Internet as a tool to achieve functional goals such as bill payment, and are ambivalent over its usefulness to them as an information channel for social interaction.”

Research on social media, especially Facebook, is an industry all on its own, little of which is concerned with older adults. HCI research on older adults and SNSs has addressed attitudes of older adults toward communication in general, as a basis for design recommendations (Lindley, et al., 2009); how older adults use the Internet (Bloch and Bruce, 2011; Hope, et al., 2014; Pew Research Center, 2014a); and, attitudes toward SNSs among users and non-users (Coleman, et al., 2010; Gibson, et al., 2010; Hope, et al., 2014; Muñoz, et al., 2013; Prieto and Leahy, 2012). Research has looked at differences in older adults’ engagement with SNSs on such measures as loneliness, social satisfaction, and confidence with technology (Bell, et al., 2013) as well as, of course, age.

 

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What if they just aren’t interested?

On approach to understanding non-use is to ask participants. However, identifying, locating, and gaining the participation of non-users for empirical research is difficult, conceptually and logistically. When people are asked directly why they don’t use a technology, the answer is often that they are simply not interested (Coleman, et al., 2010; Lampe, et al., 2013). Lampe, et al. note that lack of interest may be “a cover for more complex concerns about use” [2]. Some of the comments quoted by Lampe, et al. reflect not indifference but hostility: “They failed to ‘see any value in sharing the minutiae of my daily life with a bunch of strangers and seeing their asinine comments or whether they “like” my statements’ and did not want to ‘display [their] personal lives for everyone to see’” [3].

Moffatt (2013) begins a review of research on older adults and HCI with the question: “What if older adults just aren’t interested in computers?” It is generally true that older adults’ use of information and communication technologies (ICTs) is lower than that of the adult population at large (Pew Research Center, 2014a). Researchers on the use of social networking sites (SNSs) by older adults have concluded that many are simply not interested (Gibson, et al., 2010; Lehtinen, et al., 2009). Many studies have reported that older participants didn’t use or understand SNSs (Bloch and Bruce, 2011; Gibson, et al., 2010; Hope, et al., 2014; Lehtinen, et al., 2009; Lindley, et al., 2009; Muñoz, et al., 2013; Norval, et al., 2014; Prieto and Leahy, 2012). Moffatt suggested that, for some older adults, “social networking sites like Facebook might be appealing but nevertheless difficult to learn or use” [4]. (Virtually all of the SNS research has addressed Facebook or Facebook-like applications.)

Yet in September, 2014, 56 percent of US adults 65 and older who were online used Facebook, up from 45 percent in 2013 (Pew Research Center, 2015). This was 31 percent of everyone, Internet users and non-users, 65 and over. Clearly, many older adults are finding social media useful.

Why should we care whether older adults use SNSs? One reason is that it may be beneficial for users. My participants who were most engaged with Facebook often tried to recruit their peers. They were enthusiastic about Facebook’s benefits, especially but not exclusively for older adults who had geographically extended friendship and family networks, and/or were socially or physically isolated. They generally thought that their peers were rejecting Facebook based on erroneous understandings of what it was and how it would fit into their lives.

Second, society may benefit from older adults’ engagement with social media. A society from which some people are under-represented in the public sphere is missing their contributions (Bloch and Bruce, 2011). As public discourse moves increasingly online, it’s important to have all segments of the population online. And with families more geographically dispersed, cross-generational relationships and learning are facilitated by the Internet, including SNSs.

 

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This research

Given the difficulty of doing research on non-users, I argue that it can be useful to study people along the continuum of use, especially at the low end. With Facebook, each instance of use — each time someone views Facebook, posts something, or comments on someone else’s post — is a decision. Someone who makes such decisions repeatedly is what we call a user. When does infrequent use become called non-use?

Users were once non-users. It can be useful to understand what set of conditions and experiences convinced people to try Facebook, and then to continue to engage with it. We have to ask what they are envisioning when they choose to use or not use Facebook: not just its technical implementation, but the features they might find valuable. How do they use Facebook? What is Facebook to them? I argue that it can be useful to query people who engage with Facebook, to varying degrees, to understand non-use as well as use: their understandings and practices, their specific constructions for their own lives of the malleable technology that is Facebook.

 

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Performance, practices, and versions

To understand Facebook use among older adults, I turn to practice theory as described by Reckwitz (2002), Schatzki (2001), and Shove, et al. (2007, 2012) and the “’turn” to ontology in science and technology studies (STS) (Law and Lien, 2013; Mol, 2013, 2002; Woolgar and Lezaun, 2013). (This use of the term “ontology” is only distantly related via philosophy to its uses in relation to information systems (e.g., Schneider, et al., 2012)).

Following Reckwitz, we can define practice as “a routinized type of behaviour which consists of several elements, interconnected to one other: forms of bodily activities, forms of mental activities, ‘things’ and their use, a background knowledge in the form of understanding, know-how, states of emotion and motivational knowledge” [5].

Practices are shared — they are learned by and from people. They are situated, temporally, geographically, and within practice communities. They are largely implicit, learned through seeing and doing. Practices have to be visible to be reproduced and changed.

Practices exist and are reproduced in the doing. Therefore they require participants. One way that practices change is with the recruitment of new participants: participants change and are changed by practices (Shove, et al., 2012). Any individual participates in multiple, diverse social practices; therefore “the individual is the unique crossing point of practices, of bodily-mental routines” [6].

Building on the idea of practices and their relationships to objects and technologies, the “ontological turn” in STS (Law and Lien, 2013; Mol, 2013, 2002; Woolgar and Lezaun, 2013) contends that objects are not stable, finished “entities waiting out there to be represented” [7] or interpreted, but produced or (the preferred term) enacted in practice. Any technological entity is multiple, that is, enacted as different technologies under different circumstances, practices, and social and material relations.

STS is concerned with what is enacted, and how. Annemarie Mol recommends that we ask, of any object, and not just technologies: “Which one of its various versions is enacted at any specific site or in any particular situation?” [8]; and “is this practice good for the subjects (human or otherwise) involved in it?” [9].

Facebook, then, is a dynamic, multiple technology, not only because its design and implementation are continually changing — though they are — but also because it is enacted differently in different practices. Any one person may interact with multiple versions of Facebook in that they may participate in multiple, diverse social practices with which Facebook is associated.

 

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Wayfaring, lines, and meshwork

Phenomenological anthropologist Tim Ingold (2007) emphasizes the dynamicism of human life: “Anthropology ... is the study of human becomings, as they unfold within the weave of the world” [10]. Wayfaring and lines are central to Ingold’s thinking: “My contention is that wayfaring is the fundamental mode by which living beings inhabit the earth. Every such being has, accordingly, to be imagined as the line of its own movement or — more radically — as a bundle of lines” [11]. “Every being is instantiated in the world as a path of movement along a way of life” [12]. In Ingold’s terms, non-humans, including objects, are, like humans, bundles of lines.

Ingold calls this a meshwork. The metaphor of network, he says, emphasizes the nodes and implies that they can be distinguished from their connections. “Organisms and persons ... are not so much nodes in a network as knots in a tissue of knots, whose constituent strands, as they become tied up with other knots, comprise the meshwork” [13]. He argues that we should “imagine life itself ... as a manifold woven from the countless threads spun by beings of all sorts, both human and non-human, as they find their way through the tangle of relationships in which they are enmeshed” [14].

Ingold is considered a major anthropologist of place. Places are not where we live but where we pass through and where lines cross: “Places, then, are like knots, and the threads from which they are tied are lines of wayfaring ... Places, in short, are delineated by movement, not by the outer limits to movement” [15]. Similarly with people: Ingold argues that “What modern thought has done to place — fixing it in space and temporality — it has also done to people, wrapping their lives into temporal moments” [16]. “What if we were to think of persons not as individuals whose identity is fixed in advance of their life in the world, but as loci of ongoing activity without beginning or end? Every place in such a world would come into being as a particular enfoldment of the lives of persons, a perpetual current of comings and goings in which their life activity consists” [17].

Ingold’s ideas are beginning to gain traction in HCI (Feinberg, et al., 2014; O’Hara, et al., 2014; Pink, 2011a, 2011b; Pink and Hjorth, 2012; Pink, et al., 2013). Ingold does not, to my knowledge, relate this notion of place to the virtual world, but others have (O’Hara, et al., 2014; Pink, 2011a).

In this paper I argue that the different ways that people engage with Facebook, the multiple practices associated with it, enact different versions of it. I propose that it is useful to consider moments of use, of engagement, as knots where the lines of the wayfaring of people, practices, and Facebook intersect. I content that Ingold’s understanding of living as wayfaring and life as a meshwork brings a dynamic perspective to the tangle of activities that we call use. People’s moment-to-moment decisions about engagement with an activity, practice, technology, and the like need to be understood as the entanglement of their movement along multiple lines of living. When we group people by demographic categories, we are emphasizing similarities in their trajectories and the tangles where they meet and cross the lines of, in this case, Facebook; and in the practices by which they engage with the world.

 

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The present study

Frustrated with the limited and even patronizing descriptions of older adults’ relationships to technology and social media in the HCI literature (Vines, et al., 2015), and the mismatch with my own experience and that of my peers (at this writing, I am 65), I undertook a study of older adults who engage with Facebook. I conducted formal interviews with a snowball sample of 11 people age 60 to 70 in a variety of locations in the U.S. Interviews were conducted via phone or in person. It happened that all but one of those who agreed to be interviewed and were reachable were women. Eight were retired.

They all agreed to be Facebook “friends” with me so that I could look at their Facebook posts and friends lists. Two interviews were conducted face-to-face. We scrolled through participants’ Facebook pages and friends lists while I asked about what they read on Facebook, their own posts, who their Facebook friends were, and what their friends posted.

I also conducted a focus group with five women age 60 to 70 who were not Facebook users. Finally I engaged in informal conversations with many, many more who use Facebook — ranging from rarely to frequently — as well as who did not use it at all [18].

Yet one more example of the difficulty of defining and identifying “users”: I heard reports of what one participant called “closet Facebookers” — husbands and other men (all those I heard about were men) who would not join Facebook — would even be embarrassed for people to know they were “on” Facebook — but read their wives’ Facebook newsfeeds.

I don’t contend that this group is in any way representative. One of the bugaboos of qualitative research in HCI is that researchers often treat very small groups as somehow representative samples, which they cannot possibly be. My purpose here is to describe some of the reasons given for engagement with Facebook and ways in which people used Facebook, and therefore the “versions” of Facebook they used. I also discuss how those relate to stage of life, and to Ingold’s ideas of wayfaring and meshwork.

Participants knew that I was investigating older adults’ use of Facebook. The ways in which they described using Facebook as deeply entangled with their life experiences and stages of life were too robust to have been simply shaped by my questions. One followed up on our interview via e-mail: “Again, thank you for contacting me. Your project sounds interesting to me because so often we senior citizens just becomes shadows in life.”

 

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Starting out on Facebook (or not)

Decisions around Facebook are tied first of all to decisions about information and computer technologies (ICTs) generally. Participants varied in their experience and perceived expertise with ICTs. All were confident they could learn any technology they chose, but wouldn’t bother unless they expected it to be worthwhile.

Most intriguing were the people who, after a career of using computers, didn’t want to spend much time online now. One participant said her sister had worked with computers her entire career and now refused to have one in her home. Another woman who in last 10 years or more had worked almost entirely remotely said: “I don’t like spending a whole lot of time on the computer. I spent so many years being on 10 to 12 hours a day that I would much rather get my information any other way.” It will be interesting to see if they are the point people in a trend of technology refusers due to over-use.

Almost everyone credited the description of Facebook in ways they found attractive by peers, friends, or family with getting them to try Facebook by describing benefits that participants would find attractive. While their prior understanding of Facebook had come mostly from the media or public discourse, it was descriptions of Facebook as enacted by people like themselves, a version that they themselves might find useful, that they found persuasive.

Before they tried Facebook, their understanding of it was similar to the refusers I talked to or heard about. Many people were not just indifferent to Facebook but actively hostile to it. None of the members of the focus group had even looked at Facebook, but all were vehemently negative. It was a waste of time; its users were self-involved; postings were narcissistic. Notably, they saw it as being for younger people. A woman who became an enthusiastic user described her reaction when she first logged on: “I think this is for young people and I think I will get off.”

They saw Facebook as monolithic, not malleable or customizable. None asked themselves whether their own friends would post the kind of content to which they objected. They were unaware of Facebook as a platform for, for example, organizations that they followed in other ways. (One user who followed political and environmental organizations and animal rescue groups via e-mail saw no reason to use Facebook instead.)

In short, they were making decisions based on the public discourse about Facebook and reports in the mass media. What changed these views among people those who became engaged with Facebook was, first, reports from people they knew, people like themselves, about the ways in which they found Facebook useful; and then, once they tried it, their own experiences.

 

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What they did on Facebook

My small sample echoed Pew’s (2014a) findings that tablets were more popular than smartphones, but they accessed Facebook only on computers. In contrast, 38 percent of Facebook’s monthly users access it only via mobile devices (Ha, 2015); many more use mobile devices in combination with others.

Participants varied in how often they looked at Facebook, from once every few weeks to multiple times a day. With a few exceptions, even those who logged on frequently posted erratically and rarely. People commented much more than they posted, and re-posted more than they wrote. One woman viewed Facebook regularly but only showed up when someone tagged her in a photo, usually a travel photo.

Photos — of friends, family, and the children of friends, and of friends’ travels — were overwhelmingly the most popular content, although few of these people posted photos themselves.

When they did write, most were careful to post “neutral” content: “Jolly little things about myself that I wouldn’t mind people reading.” For anything more personal, they would use e-mail or phone.

Two used Facebook as a kind of billboard. One woman averaged seven posts a day over a period of a couple of years. She never wrote anything personal. Her posts were mostly links to articles in the mainstream press about politics and the economy. She was a liberal in a politically conservative extended family living in a conservative state. She said that these repostings were her way of announcing her opinions so as to discourage neighbors and family from assuming that she shared their conservatism. Another woman posted about once a week, reposting content about a limited number of political issues about which she felt strongly, primarily items that urged action, such as signing a petition.

 

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Who they connected with

The meshwork of people’s lives includes intersecting and tangled lines of relationships, present and past. Relationship volume tends to be U-shaped over the course of a lifetime (Phillipson, 1997). The young old — the people addressed in this study — tend to have larger social networks than in mid-life when they were busy with jobs and child-raising.

While family relationships are important, diverse networks are highly beneficial (Adams, 1993; Fiori, et al., 2006; Phillipson, 1997). Family relationships are often seen as obligatory, whereas friends are freely chosen. Peers are often better for emotional support, having had similar life experiences, including retirement and bereavement. Several respondents said that, thanks to Facebook, their world is more expansive: “I have a wider world than I’ve ever had before.”

For all of my participants, Facebook was overwhelmingly a place for connecting with family and friends, almost entirely people with whom they had prior off-line connections. Few used it for information, or to follow organizations, media, or people they didn’t know. They liked Facebook for easy and unobtrusive connection with people across time zones and living situations.

My respondents were particular about whom they accepted as Facebook friends. They averaged 98 friends, ranging from 47 to 180. Some expressed suspicion of people who had hundreds of friends, saying that no one could keep up with that many friends. One person said that she rejected most friend requests, especially after she accepted one from a nephew who posted “weird stuff.”

Many used Facebook as an additional channel of communication with family members with whom they had frequent interaction. Two women said that they talked with their adult daughters on the phone every day, but still learned new things from their daughters’ Facebook pages. Another said that Facebook was good for her and her daughter because their relationship was otherwise so intense. “I like having this more lighthearted, lightweight level to our relationship — there are things that you can learn about each other. It’s more like the day-to-day interaction that can seem superficial but can also build intimacy in a way as well.”

Facebook enabled new connections with family members with whom they would not otherwise have on-going contact. For example, one woman described herself as the only liberal in a conservative family. She was happy to discover via Facebook an ally, in her nephew’s wife on the other side of the country who shared her political views. The rest of the family was surprised that when the two finally met face-to-face they acted like close friends.

One person reported having been found via Facebook by relatives in Europe whom she had never met. The two branches of the family became acquainted via Facebook, and eventually exchanged visits. She exclaimed about how much they had in common and how they enjoyed one another: “There’s something magic in being blood relatives.”

Some connected frequently on Facebook with nearby friends, staying in touch between meetings or phone calls. Some used Facebook to stay up on local politics.

Most reported that a major benefit of Facebook was connecting with distant others. As people move through their lives, their lines of travel may intersect with others for a while and then diverge. People who have lived as long as these respondents often have friends, acquaintances, and current and former co-workers and neighbors widely distributed geographically. Several were particularly interested in friends from a special time in their lives, with whom they shared a special bond. No one named college. One named people from high school, who best understood where and how she grew up and how that had influenced her. Another said people with whom she raised her children: “The people who were in our church and in our neighborhood, going through our child-raising fears, those are the people that really kind of know the core us ... we know we can talk about things ... There’s just trust there ... People who were going through the same thing at the same time. There’s a bond there.”

Facebook was especially valued for cross-generational relationships. The family members and friends who were on Facebook tended to be younger; and Facebook was seen as a useful way to connect with younger people. Many enjoyed seeing photos and updates about the children of friends. For example, a woman who had been a liaison with international high school exchange students many years ago first joined Facebook specifically so that these people could now find her online. Relationships were generally asymmetrical, with respondents having more interest in and feeling more responsibility for these relationships. For example, one participant cultivated a relationship with a grandson by using Facebook to learn his grandson’s favorite musicians. The grandfather would listen to the music and they would discuss it.

Retired participants now had more time and appreciation for people. While they were happy to be away from unwanted demands, some missed contact with people in the workplace. One woman had been a teacher, with daily contact with a large number of people. She said that Facebook “has been great, I’m not cut off, I still have a world out there, but I don’t have to go to work, to have the tension involved with working. I can be very relaxed and still enjoy people, on my own terms.”

A teacher, not yet retired, described her days during the academic year as full of people. When she came home, she didn’t want to interact with anyone, not even on Facebook. During the summers, however, she did use Facebook. She had the energy and interest for social interaction that she didn’t have during other times of year.

Unlike younger users, professional contacts were largely missing from these people’s friends lists. One exception was self-employed teaching writing, and used Facebook as part of her business. One participant had worked for an organization that relied heavily on social media for connections among its employees and clients, but she resisted its insistence that she use Facebook for this.

An important finding both for this research and the interviewees was how Facebook distinguished between “top stories” and “most recent stories” in newsfeeds. In the face-to-face interviews, as we scrolled through their friends lists, people would point out friends who never posted. However, when we clicked on those people, posts appeared. At the time of these interviews, Facebook offered the option of seeing “top stories” versus “most recent stories” in newsfeeds. Not only was the default “top stories,” but, when a user switched to “most recent stories,” Facebook would quickly reset to the default. When I pointed this out, participants were deeply annoyed — even angry — that Facebook was not what they believed it to be. They had believed it to be an unfiltered feed of postings from their friends. They were angry that it arrogated to itself decisions about what they should see.

 

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Judicious use of time

A recurring theme in these interviews was older people’s acute awareness of the shortness of the time left to them, and their fierce protection of their time and energy. They felt no need to be on top of new developments. They were suspicious of the time and effort needed to adjust to new technologies. Furthermore, they had seen many cycles in which the latest great thing was soon replaced by another. They were wary of being early adopters of something that might be transitory.

Respondents valued Facebook as an efficient, “effortless” way to keep in touch with people. Overall, respondents strongly preferred asynchronous communication, including e-mail and Facebook. They said that telephone calls were interruptions. Facebook was even better than e-mail, which implied an obligation to respond. These respondents used a variety of communication media tailored to the occasion and interlocutor, and found Facebook a useful complement.

 

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Lightweight contact

One of the most striking findings in this research was how highly participants valued Facebook specifically as a platform for lightweight contact. Some researchers (Hope, et al., 2014; Lindley, et al., 2009) have doubted that older adults would use SNSs because they want more thoughtful connections. Lindley, et al. concluded that “even lightweight forms of contact were occasionally seen to offer benefits” [19]. Hope, et al. (2014) recommended that social media for older adults be designed to foster strong tie relationships.

In contrast, among my participants, light contact was overwhelmingly cited as the greatest benefit of Facebook. They liked the window it gave onto friends’ lives without them having to reciprocate, or expend much time or energy. One said: “It’s sort of like being on an acquaintance basis with a whole lot of people.” Several compared Facebook to Christmas cards, but better, because it was more informative, more often.

Postings were overwhelmingly lightweight, too. One described her own postings as “almost like a little mini ad about your life ... that will entertain people, that might be catchy. But also will tell them something about what is the flavor of your life at the moment.” Another said: “I’m not much of a lightweight person so it’s taken some effort to become lightweight in terms of my postings, but it’s something that allows you to stay in touch with a larger number of people. If you’re trying to be too intense or substantial, you’ll just wear yourself out, or I would wear myself out ... if you want something more personal and more intense to share with someone you can do e-mail or you can message them.”

Lightweight contact doesn’t necessarily mean a lightweight relationship. One woman described “peeking in” on her daughter’s life. Above I quoted the woman who valued the lightweight contact via Facebook to leaven her intense relationships with her daughter.

 

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Privacy

As in other studies of older adults (Gibson, et al., 2010; Hope, et al., 2014) (Lehtinen, et al., 2009; Norval, et al., 2014; Prieto and Leahy, 2012), privacy was a recurring concern among users but especially refusers. Some said that they had grown up in an era “when people didn’t share their lives online.” One was even uncomfortable reading others’ posts, using the words “voyeuristic” and “eavesdropping.” That was “not how she was brought up.” Many believed that younger people were less concerned about loss of privacy and naive about its dangers.

They were generally suspicious of Facebook’s privacy management. Everyone, users and non-users, was aware that Facebook periodically changes its privacy policies, which they took as evidence that “they haven’t gotten it right yet.”

Parents and children were concerned about parents invading their children’s privacy (but not vice versa). A few respondents had children living at home — high school students and young adults. One said she knew her son had two Facebook accounts — he interrupted from the other room to say he had three — but she could only see one of them. Another deliberately did not look at the Facebook page of her adult son living at home, to give him privacy. One daughter objected when her friends friended her mother. Another woman reported that she had had to learn Facebook “etiquette” after she posting something a little too private on her daughter’s page. She didn’t realize that the daughter connected with professional as well as personal friends and her postings were carefully curated.

 

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Not impression formation

While much Facebook literature discusses impression formation or self-presentation as major functions of Facebook (e.g., Hope, et al., 2014; Utz, 2010), not so these people. They were generally connecting with people they already knew off-line, and so didn’t expect their Facebook presentation to affect people’s perceptions of them.

Within my group, there were two exceptions. One was the woman who taught writing classes. Another was the liberal living in a conservative state. She posted mostly political content, partly to let her neighbors know that she didn’t share their conservatism.

 

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Discussion

In summary: people in this study were primarily willing to try Facebook when their peers demonstrated a version of it that, in contrast to their prior understandings, benefited people like themselves. A major barrier to exploring Facebook was people’s perceptions of it as designed for and used by younger people in ways that older adults found, not only not useful, but sometimes anathema.

Those who did use it appreciated Facebook’s support of easy, efficient, non-demanding, asynchronous contact with people socially, emotionally, and geographically close and far. The version of Facebook that they valued was consistent with research on the importance for older adults of diverse networks, include peers and long-time friends (Adams, 1993; Fiori, et al., 2006; Phillipson, 1997). These people have had a variety of kinds of relationships with others with whom their lives have intersected. Some paths have diverged, but people still wished to maintain gentle contact, for which Facebook was ideal. Facebook was especially useful for connections with younger people who were more likely to be members.

At this stage in their lives, professional connections and impression management were generally not important. What Facebook added to their other media of communication was a non-burdensome, convenient way to post bits about their lives and look into the lives of others.

Not all of their interaction was lightweight; nor were all their relationships with Facebook contacts. But, for most people most of the time, Facebook was for interactions that were not intense.

An overwhelmingly important factor in these people’s choices in technology use in general and Facebook in particular and other activities was time. These healthy older adults were acutely aware that their time was limited: hours in a day, days in their lives, and “good” time — physically and mentally healthy and energetic. They were highly protective of their time. Facebook was well-suited to their insistence on control over their time.

A barrier to use among both users and non-users was their concerns about privacy. Both groups perceived Facebook users in general as over-sharers. Both suspected that Facebook’s privacy controls are unreliable. Users were judicious about what they posted. This was one more reason why their version of Facebook was a place for lightweight, generally cheery, interaction, not revealing or emotionally intense discussions.

 

++++++++++

Conclusions

According to practice theory and ontological analysis, any one technology is multiple, enacted as different technologies with different practices. Users — those engaged with a technology — perform it as something that suits their current situation in their wayfaring. We must consider that non-users are often making choices based on their perceptions of other “versions,” notably those promulgated in the mass media or common discourse. Older adults who use Facebook are often interacting with a version of it subtly or markedly different from its general image.

If, following Ingold, we understand wayfaring as fundamental to how people live, and technologies as meshworks of lines, then engagement with technology is a moment, a tangle, in the movement of people and technologies over time. Facebook is a dynamic meshwork of technologies, practices, policies, understandings, content, and, participants. As social media, Facebook is, in Ingold’s terms, a place, a zone of entanglement, “a particular enfoldment of the lives of persons, a perpetual current of comings and goings in which their life activity consists” [20].

Putting all this together, people’s choices about whether, when, and how to engage with a technology depends on their understandings and experiences of its possible versions, and how each might intersects with their own wayfaring.

Empirical research on use and non-use is often a freeze frame of a dynamic interweaving. But Ingold describes “a world of incessant movement and becoming, one that is never complete but continually under construction, woven from the countless lifelines of its manifold human and non-human constituents as they thread their ways through the tangle of relationships in which they are comprehensively enmeshed ... Persons and things ... are identified not by any fixed, essential attributes ... but by the very pathways (or trajectories, or stories) along which they have previously come and are presently going” [21]. End of article

 

About the author

Nancy Van House is a Professor Emerita in the School of Information, University of California, Berkeley. Her research is concerned with the practices and understandings associated with new technologies, especially visual technologies and social media.
E-mail: vanhouse [at] ischool [dot] berkeley [dot] edu

 

Notes

1. Ingold, 2007, p. 81; emphasis in the original.

2. Lampe, et al., 2013, p. 812.

3. Ibid.

4. Moffatt, 2013, p. 74.

5. Reckwitz, 2002, p. 249.

6. Reckwitz, 2002, p. 256.

7. Mol, 2002, p. 32.

8. Mol, 2002, p. 159.

9. Mol, 2002, p. 165.

10. Ingold, 2011, p. 9. Ingold is articulate and his ideas are complex, so I use quotes extensively to let him speak for himself.

11. Ingold, 2011, pp. 12–13.

12. Ingold, 2011, p. 4.

13. Ingold, 2011, p. 70.

14. Ingold, 2007, p. 3.

15. Ingold, 2011, pp. 148–149.

16. Ingold, 2011, p. 3.

17. Ingold, 2011, p. 168.

18. Almost any time someone age 60 or older asked what I was working on, they were eager to tell me what they thought of Facebook.

19. Lindley, et al., 2009, p. 1,698; emphasis added.

20. Ingold, 2011, p. 168.

21. Ingold, 2011, p. 141.

 

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Editorial history

Received 2 October 2015; accepted 22 October 2015.


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This paper is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

Entangled with technology: Engagement with Facebook among the young old
by Nancy A. Van House.
First Monday, Volume 20, Number 11 - 2 November 2015
http://firstmonday.org/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/6311/5138
doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.5210/fm.v20i11.6311





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