Blog Post

Aging, Technology, and the Funnies

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.  



I like the irony of a century-plus old format, the comic strip, passing judgment on new media.  One thing I’d be curious about is how much the 55+ generation is using social networking, etc.  Are they just logging on every month or so are are they approaching Generation-Y levels of use?  



Newspaper comic strips are a pretty bleak landscape in general.  I think it's certainly possible to read the strips as "part of a struggling industry speaking back to the medium that is destroying it," but at the same time I think it's symptomatic of the long running creative bankruptcy of the funny pages.   

A comic strip historian friend of mine once posited that the problem with the funny pages, (and editorial cartoons) is that most editors shy away from printing anything that might elderly people who write letters of complaint to the editor.  (I wonder if that has shifted to being e-mails of complaint.) It doesn't help that the space accorded strips has shrunk away from legibility, and the preponderance of "legacy" strips like Blondie or Dennis the Menace that have been preventing new artists, ideas, and aesthetics from revitalizing the print culture of the comic strip long before newspapers started closing down and trying to figure out online subscription ideas. 

It's sad that even the critiques of technology in these strips largely fail at making some sort of coherent statement or even being mildly funny. The last panel of the Blondie strip only sort of functions tangentially as a punch line.  

Also, mcverderame, I'm not sure what's ironic about old media commenting on the new. In fact you can trace animosity towards technology back to the early days of newspaper strips, with Winsor McCay's Dreams of the Rarebit Fiend depicting people having nightmares about being run over by automobiles or attacked by anthropomorphic steam engine trains. But then that was actually interesting critique married to radical formal experimentation. The strips in print now fall back on the stock "old people don't like new things" stereotype in vague and muddled ways to stretch torturously for bad puns.