The Great Generational Tech Divide

April 13, 2018 Ophelie Zalcmanis-Lai

You may or may not have heard, but Mark Zuckerberg, founder and CEO of social media giant Facebook spent over 10 hours testifying before both the US senate and congress on Monday and Tuesday of this week.

Both days were a little cringey (read: a lot).

In fact, The Daily podcast from The New York Times had a very apt summation of events:

While many, many of the questions that were asked were very valid as it pertained to the Cambridge Analytica data scandal, there were also several questions asked that made millennials everywhere raise an eyebrow:

1. Why can’t negative comments be removed in 24 hours?

(Because there are literally billions of users.)

2. Who’s your number 1 competitor?

(That’s not a black and white question. Could be Apple, could be Google, could be Amazon.)

3. What is Face Smash and is it still running?

(Uhhhh that was a prank website created by Zuckerberg in college…)

4. Does Facebook use audio data from mobile devices to get personal information about users?

(This would be a conspiracy theory.)

These are only four of an ungodly amount of questions asked (if you’d like to go through all of them, the Washington Post has the transcripts for both senate and the house Committee), but there’s a common theme here.

Historically speaking the tech divide referred to the gap between those who could afford and those who could not afford to be connected to the internet.

Now, that has evolved to include a generational gap in how tech is both used and understood. Or in other words, tech literacy.

The reason that the hearings felt like 5-hour-long tech support calls is because they essentially were.

Four minutes was quite tight to answer most of the questions. How Facebook works, what happened with Cambridge Analytica and what should be done going forward is a very. Complex. Issue.

And that’s putting it lightly.

Much of the words exchanged on record were not just asking about how Zuckerberg and the Facebook team dealt with the data scandal, but simply how the platform even works.   

For a couple reasons, it actually wasn’t surprising.

Plain and simple, different generations use social media and technology differently. While smartphone adoption by seniors aged 65+ in the US has nearly quadrupled in the last five years, still one-third of them never use the internet and 49% say they don’t have broadband services at home.

In comparison, Marketing Profs shared an infographic that illustrated how different generations use social media including how millennials spend 8 hours a day online alone.

Before you throw up a red card on account of some perceived ageism, the truth is that Baby Boomers didn’t grow up with Internet like Millennials and Gen Z’s did. Coupled with the speed at which technology advances everyday now, it’s nearly impossible to get the same kind of native immersion.

Younger generations really only have updates to deal with. However, older generations have to both try to learn, adopt and then get a grasp of the updates.

Consequently, there are generational differences in how people behave and how people view certain behaviours or forms of communicating with one another. For example, on the whole, older adults are generally skeptical of the use of internet access and don’t always feel that they’re missing out on things.

Whereas younger generations are much more different, often feeling the need to be connected at all times and feel that the technology use comes very easily to them. They’d rather send a text or Slack message instead of an email, and would definitely email rather than call.

Don’t even ask about a handwritten note.

Getting back to how this all ties into Facebook…

The hearings displayed a big gap in the US government’s tech literacy and in order to produce meaningful regulation (or whatever solution is the best for the outcome of this data issue with Facebook), it needs to do some homework.

The US government (and the FTC for that matter) are going to struggle with implementing regulation if they don’t do some more research on what Facebook is and how it works.

Awareness and understanding are two different things. The government is certainly aware of what went down with Cambridge Analytica, but it may not understand fully how it happened.

So, it’s time to get down to research.

In the meantime, it’s equally important to realize that Facebook is certainly not the only platform that has your data. You should check what Google knows about you.

This isn’t to shift blame, but to remember that this is really how all major platforms work in this age of internet.

All said, Facebook now has the opportunity to be a leader in the industry by redoing how data and privacy policies are usually laid out. Oversimplification is dangerous, but clarification can certainly be achieved.   

Oh and lastly, let us be frank: audiences aren’t lemmings. They can think and act for themselves. In fact, they must. Users are the ones who consent to connecting apps and scrolling right through to the “agree” button.

Yes, they need the context to make more informed decisions. But if they get that, and still don’t read through the details, then that’s their decision.  

We can’t slow down the evolution of technology, but then what can the leaders then do to make sure that populaces and audiences are made aware of everything they need to be aware of? And then how can those same people be encouraged to listen actively?

These are the questions we need to ask and find answers to.

The complexity, scrutiny of and depth of this issue with Facebook goes above and beyond the platform. It applies to many other platforms in the same arena too. Could this be a new age of social media platforms and how they handle data? Possibly.

For now, it requires everyone to get their facts in order.

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