Social Networks: Time to Rethink?

More and more often we turn on our television sets, we watch the news, and we hear about about social networking websites. This fact can give us the perception of how much life is moving onto the Internet. This is true especially for a portion of the population though, perhaps the one that needs it the least: youth. Instead, the segment that is most isolated, most lonely, most forgotten, the elderly, are more left out than ever.

Just like with anything else, people like variety. This concept applies to social networks as much as it does to automobiles or t-shirts. Facebook, MySpace, and Badoo are different materializations of the human need to interact, while the world pushes us towards a life spent in a cubicle, exasperating one’s productivity. These environments are densely populated by virtual representations of one’s self, ideally projecting our likes, dislikes and deepest thoughts into a world of bits and bytes.

This view of such social(itazion) services can be perceived more directly if we shift from the static, 2-dimensional environments represented by websites, to the world of 3-dimensional multi-user virtual environments. Second Life, perhaps the most prominent example of 3D virtual existence, explores uncharted waters. This system does it not only by adding a third axis to an Internet user’s experience, but also projecting her or him into a world that is dynamic, letting avatars (virtual representations of a users) interact with objects and other avatars in the immediate surroundings. The ability to interact with others breaks the ideal and innate static barrier set by web browsers, freeing one’s mind and abilities.

Social networks are the object of many studies. Ranging from the observations of psychologists and sociologists to the hard statistics determined by the analysis of on-line social links, many different observers analyze what is happening. We can see an alarming trend: children and teen-agers are becoming more and more addicted to these networks. And it is not good for them. While children and teenagers should be interacting directly, playing football or talking to each other face to face after school, they prefer to lock themselves into a room with a computer and use technology as primary interface to the world.

Perhaps there is a higher need for social networks for the elderly than for children because of the lack of mobility and the need for socialization. When searching on-line for social networks for the elderly we can find Enurgi. The most obvious observation is that this website “creates a network” between the elderly and caregivers, not quite the socialization that is available for younger audiences. We can find social networks for the young, through MySpace and Facebook, we can identify social networks for working adults, through LinkedIn, but we are still missing a relevant example of social networking for the elderly. Of course, platforms such as Facebook are not forbidden to older users, but perhaps the technological gap that exists between any two generations is sensible enough to keep this resource away from them. Perhaps social networks for the elderly will have to take a new form, different from MySpace or any messaging program. It is a fact though that the average age of the population is shifting upwards, but the need for socialization does not change.

In a world where on-line social networks abridge distances that can be quantified only in thousands of kilometers, not all layers of society are included. The market has shifted the attention to the most prolific audience, the younger one, forgetting the one that perhaps needs it most. One day, as the more technologically savvy users of today’s social networks will grow in age, they will shift the focus of this need and will become the pioneers that will build networks for the elderly. But, until then, such need will be neglected.

                                                                              Giovanni Vincenti

Corriere della Sera
Daily Mail
International Network for Social Network Analysis
“Social Network and the Elderly: Conceptual and Clinical Issues, and a Family Consultation,” by C. Sluzki
“Vizster: Visualizing Online Social Networks,” by J. Heer and D. Boyd

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