Publication Date: January 2012
Ask anyone who has ever attempted to learn about computers and the Internet later in life, or anyone who has tried to teach their grandparents about email — the whole endeavor can quickly devolve into an epic struggle against the machine itself. Seniors navigating the strange new world of social media and mobile devices have to contend with new gizmos, ever-changing memes and shifting notions of privacy.
Fortunately, Abby Stokes is an expert in this department. Her new book, “Is This Thing On?,” and her social media classes for seniors at the New York Public Library are just what you need to get yourself — or your grandma — tweeting and photo sharing like it’s your/their job.
MetroFocus interviewed Stokes to find out what seniors want to know about computers and what they need to learn.
Q: What’s the demand like for social media education for seniors?
A: It’s in huge demand. When I give my talks, all of the Q & A is about Facebook and Twitter. The words “social networking” are usually a turnoff for seniors because the word “networking” itself sounds like you have an agenda. So I explain that it’s really socializing. I refer to Facebook as the green beans of the Internet because it’s like trying to get a kid to eat green beans.
Q: What kinds of things do seniors want to know and how do you teach it?
A: I think the first thing they want to learn about is the issue of privacy. They’re very concerned that everything about them is going to be exposed. But just because other people overexpose themselves on Facebook doesn’t mean you have to. I tell them if you’re not willing to tape that photo on the outside of your refrigerator, then don’t put it on Facebook.
I think they conceptually don’t understand why anyone would want to put all this information out there. Our grandparents were very private about things. They wouldn’t tell anyone if someone in the family who wasn’t married had a baby, and that’s changed over time. So we talk about why social media is beneficial and how they don’t need to use it the way people under the age of 40 use it. I refer to people under the age of 40 as “Internet natives” and people over the age of 40 as “Internet immigrants.”
Q: How did you get into this field?
A: I was teaching my mother. I learned how to use a computer 17 years ago, and my mom was interested in learning. When she got on the computer and realized she could find answers there, it was like a fish to water. So I just started teaching people and then I wrote a book on it. I’ve never had any formal computer training. I moved to New York as an actress.
Whats made me stick with it is seeing the change from fear to excitement. For the most part, my students are email users and a lot of them want to use digital photography. It’s not for their friends, except for on Facebook. They send attachments to family, but with Facebook they’re able to brag about the grandchildren. They can show everyone on Facebook instead of talking about it in the morning over coffee at McDonald’s. Once they see that, they really like it.
Q: How do your classes work?
A: I teach one-on-one classes and also do spoken presentations at 30 New York Public Library sites. I’ll speak at an elementary level for new computer users, or I’ll do presentations specifically about Facebook, Twitter and social networking. I’ve been doing those a fair amount lately. Last year I probably did at least two a month.
Q: Are your classes all done at the library?
A: I used to teach at NYU and Cooper Union. Then I started speaking at senior centers and eventually hooked into the New York Public Library system. I also did a special series specifically for seniors. Seniors are scared, so the library is trying make it as friendly as possible for them. My next class for seniors is at the Chappaqua Public Library on Jan. 27 at 2 p.m.
MetroFocus Multimedia Editor John Farley conducted this interview, which has been edited and condensed.