Third Age Online: Joining up the Generations

“Anyone who stops learning is old, whether at 20 or 80,” said car marker Henry Ford, who championed innovation till the age of 83. “Anyone who keeps learning stays young. The greatest thing in life is to keep your mind young.”

This is one of the goals of Third Age Online (TAO), a UNU-MERIT project which aims to keep the elderly active by engaging them online. Here “elderly” refers to anyone over the age of 50, and in some cases even over 100.

One key to building the TAO community, which already has 300,000+ members, is to help seniors help each other online, starting with practical issues like health, welfare and charity work. Another goal is to narrow the gap between generations and therefore ease social integration.

For now TAO focuses on three European countries – Germany, The Netherlands and Switzerland – but it is designed to be transferable and provide a model for older generations around the world. In time this would include emerging economies, where rates of literacy and internet penetration are rising to workable levels.

Above all the project aims to make itself and its services visible and useful for the elderly, who may not fully grasp the interactive nature of the modern web and who typically need more accessibility options, from bigger fonts to crystal clear interfaces .

In this case awareness depends not only on the functionality of the TAO websites but also a clear understanding of what members can do and how they can benefit – hence the focus on charity, community and a growing network of mutual support.

In terms of building communities the experience of one partner stands out. Wikimedia has a great reputation for engaging people of all ages around the world in online collaborative endeavours. Its most famous product, Wikipedia, has become THE online reference tool and the most successful crowdsourcing project of all time, attracting some 350 million unique visitors per month.

Together with project partners like SeniorWeb, as well as Dutch and German universities, TAO is boiling down its combined knowledge into a handbook. A draft version is available below and more updates will be posted in the coming weeks, so watch this space.

Ultimately TAO is building the most user-friendly, accessible and engaging platforms: everything from the most logical user interfaces to surveys, workshops and photo competitions. This means giving the elderly a stake in the project and building a community with their active participation. It means adopting a positive rather than a patronizing approach and accepting that even the slickest of wizz-kids can learn from their older counterparts.

The project runs for three years from October 2010 to September 2013, and has around 3 million euros in funding. Around a half of that is drawn from the European Ambient Assisted Living (AAL) Joint Programme. The project is run from UNU-MERIT by Ruediger Glott and Stijn Bannier, who appears in the audio interview below. Click play to listen in or read on for more details from project coordinator Stijn Bannier.

Who attends TAO workshops?
: The project workshops aim to attract senior organizations, online communities, and of course the combination of online senior communities. This currently involves online senior communities (SeniorWeb Switzerland and the Netherlands) and Wikimedia’s (Switzerland and Germany), which organize their own workshops on how to actively engage seniors online. For example I will be attending a workshop given by SeniorWeb.NL on social networks (Facebook, Hyves, Twitter, Schoolbank, etc.), where I’ll observe how senior teachers are trained and how teachers then train SeniorWeb members.

– What are the specific needs of seniors? What are the challenges?
Bannier: A study of early users over 60 years old found they are often frustrated by the usability of online communities, i.e. layout, accessibility, and related barriers. These barriers tend to create negative emotions in early users which are then attributed to the online community as a whole. So efforts to motivate older people to join have to address existing counterarguments and stereotypes. Most helpful are positive role models who share the same  values, beliefs, interests, age, and level of education with potential new community members. People they can relate to. This approach requires a detailed definition of the target group so that persuasive messages can be tailored accordingly. Simple exposure to an online community is not sufficient for motivation and integration. We need to carefully match personal interests and desires with the online community.

– What do you mean by a “model for older generations around the world”?
SB: ‘Example’ might be a better word. Since the three involved countries are ahead in the area of digital inclusion, innovation and the developing online senior communities, the project partners can offer best practices for other countries, where on the one hand digital inclusion is still an issue and on the other hand aging is not yet an issue.

– Can you give an outline of the handbook?
Bannier: It will be a handbook for online-communities and operators of community platforms, containing effective strategies for improved inclusion of older persons in online communities (with a focus on older persons’ motivation and inclusion). You can follow the online creation of the handbook (and a first draft outline) here.

– Are you making use of data collection studies for accessibility, usability labs, or persona defining?
Bannier: Regarding accessibility and usability, Subproject 2 (software development) of the project is looking into a number of potentially useful aspects.

– How is TAO different from other initiatives like UrbAct or GetYourFolksonline?
Bannier: Where the latter two initiatives aim at getting seniors online, our project aims at engaging them online. TAO focuses on developing and rolling out measures to promote older persons’ participation in online communities. Thus, activating, engaging and mobilizing online seniors to make the most of Web 2.0 and all the possibilities of user-generated content, interaction and participation.


The Year 2011

Not the most imaginative title in journalistic history, but who can argue with BBC News Magazine‘s headline of 19 December 2011:

‘2011: The year when a lot happened’

The Year 2011 was the year of the Arab Spring and the European Winter. A year marked by protest, revolution, and conflict; a year that saw the toppling of dictators – from Ben Ali to Mubarak to Ghadaffi. And the toppling, ideologically, of big banking and the idea that unfettered and global finance can only be a good thing (at least in some quarters…).

If any single moment can be identified when the Arab Spring started it has to be when the young man Mohamed Bouazizi set himself alight. His death on 4 January 2011 sparked within two weeks a ‘Jasmine’ Revolution that overthrew Tunisian despot Ben Ali.

Quick on its heels followed similar protests – driven by passionate young men and women utilizing in an unprecedented manner the technology of the social media – in Egypt, Libya, Syria and Oman, and more recently in Russia.

The Year 2011 will also be remembered as the European Winter – perhaps the European and US winters – a year wherein growing unemployment, troubling government debts and fiscal austerity measures and heralded (exaggerated) announcements of the imminent collapse of the Euro; A year wherein rightwing parties moved into the political ascendency amidst greater intolerance and xenophobia – even in traditionally more liberal and tolerant societies. As in Arab countries, protests led by predominantly youthful men and women took place across Europe as well as in the US – including a walk-out by the University of Harvard’s economics 10 class.

Yes, 2011 was a year when a lot happened. Many have asked whether it will be in retrospect as a historically decisive year as was for instance 1989, when the Berlin Wall fell. Will the Arab Spring, like the protests in the former DDR and Soviet Union that ended the Cold War eventually contribute towards global socio-political stability?

As I write this on Sunday 22January 2012 I cannot but think that comparison with an earlier ‘historical’ year may perhaps be more apt – and more ominous: The Year 1905.  Sunday 22 January 1905 was a Black Sunday. On that day the Imperial Guard in Tsarist Russia opened fire on peaceful protesters in St. Petersburg. It was to be a fateful day, one that eventually sealed the fate of the Tsar and the Russian ruling class as it paved the way to the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the establishment of the Soviet Union.

Amongst those who were amongst the protesters in 1917 were the 11 year old Dimitry Shostakovich, who was witness to the brutal hacking to death of an unknown young man, who was accused of having stolen, out of hunger, an apple. Like the Arab Spring in the year 2011, the Russian Revolution of 1905/1917 was kindled in the poverty, desperation and  the blood of the youth.

The eventual Russian Revolution of 1917 was with the benefit of hindsight one of the most significant events shaping the rest of the 20th century. It led to the rise and fall of the Soviet Union, the Cold War, the  nuclear arms race, proliferation of nuclear weapons (see Pakistan and Iran), and the conflict in Afghanistan (of which the consequences are still shaping geo-political affairs).

How different would the developing world have been if these countries had gained their independence in a world where there was no Cold War? In many of these countries communism and the backing of the Soviet Union contributed to  large scale predation of human and natural resources – often accompanied by ‘leaders for life’ through the cult of the ‘big personality’ – as exemplified by Stalin. The latter cult of the personality became almost de rigueur in many poor countries, and continues to this day in ‘strongmen’ such as Al-Assad, Mugabe, Museveni, Castro, Chavez, Obiang and others.

So how will we judge the Year 2011 in a century’s time?  Will the protests ignited by the Arab Spring and European Winter eventually lead to a more equal and prosperous global society, the type of society that many expected to follow in 1989 but did not happen? Or will it in unimaginable ways lead to even more terrible horrors than we witnessed in the 20th century?

Humans have throughout history far underestimated the sweeping power of demography. And what we are witnessing now is nothing but momentous demographic changes in the form of a growing, and largely youthful and much more mobile and connected world population. Many of whom are unemployed and marginalized.

What is different this time around – compared to 1905 – is the availability of vastly superior technologies than before; technologies that have already left their mark on the planet’s climate; technologies than can cause incredible destruction and enable new forms of slavery and control. As Luc Soete stressed in his 2011 Tans Lecture not all innovation is successful or socially desirable.

For some historians The Year 1905 was actually an annus mirabilis. This is because on 27 September 1905 Albert Einstein published one of the most significant single scientific articles ever – an article in the journal Annalen der Physik (under the title “Does the Inertia of a Body Depend Upon Its Energy Content?”).  The article laid the foundations of the theory of relativity which led to quantum mechanics. It facilitated some of the most powerful technologies humans have ever encountered – from lasers, CDs to nuclear power.

It is interesting and ironic then that on 22 September 2011 scientists reported that they had recorded sub-atomic particles travelling faster than the speed of light. If confirmed, this would be overthrowing, in a year when a lot of overthrowing happened, an important cornerstone of modern science. And perhaps open a Pandora’s Box of unimaginable future technologies. The demography-technology cycle continues.

Wim Naudé, Professorial Fellow, UNU-Maastricht