Last Sunday, I found myself in an airport reading the comic strips from a morning paper, which is something I haven't done in a long time. With a few exceptions, the comics section is often the most conservative part of any newspaper and the last place where societal changes are reflected. Indeed, many of the jokes in comics such as “Marmaduke,” “Family Circus,” and “Dennis the Menace” feel like they haven’t changed since the 1950s, and in the case of the rerun Classic Peanuts strips, they haven’t. (One can’t help but notice the lack of ethnic diversity in the Sunday funnies as well.) But something was different in the paper I read last Sunday. A number of the comic strips dealt with technology, from the point of view of those who are supposedly being left behind. Of the half dozen strips mentioning cell phones, the Internet, or a social networking site, they all relied on the common trope that these technologies are overly complicated, packed with needless features, and too hard to learn. Here are a few from Dennis the Menace, Blondie, and Zits.
So I mention this in a HASTAC forum to wonder primarily why this theme is so prevalent in comic strips now. Is this part of a struggling industry speaking back to the medium that is destroying it? Is this reflecting an actual feeling held by a certain demographic? I’m suspicious of the assumption that the only individuals who understand social media technologies are under 30. A colleague in my department is writing her dissertation on digital literacies and aging and is following a number of “Elder Blogs” written by senior citizens dealing with their changing identities and their changing bodies as they age. Her discussions of various online communities populated by seniors tell me that these Internet users are not a rarity.
I do believe that there is a generation gap when it comes to social media technologies, but not because those in the older generation don’t use them. My experience more closely reflects this Pickles comic from this past summer. I overheard an 80 year-old woman telling her friend last week that she joined Facebook to keep up with her grandkids. My own mother finally created an account last week, as her frustration that most family members’ new photos are shared exclusively on Facebook finally got the better of her. My cousin wrote the following on his mother's wall last week, "Fine, Mom, you win. I'll be your friend."
The main motivation of these new users, as this CNN story suggests, is to keep in touch with family. (The story also reported that Facebook saw a 550% increase in female users 55 and older over the past six months.) But there is tension created when parents and grandparents enter a space that young adults consider their own. Given the ways that Facebook and other social media flatten one's audience, there are inevitably awkward moments, hence the popularity of the blog Oh Crap, My Parents Joined Facebook and advice in the press like this New York Times article. The trope of the parent who doesn’t understand online etiquette is almost as prevalent as the aging Luddite pictured in the comic strips I mentioned. Yet parents are also faced with the realization that their children know more about their own social lives than they might like. Perhaps this is what these comic strips were trying to get at. It's awkward for everyone.