The Olds Are
Fully Online Now

By James Novick-Smith
Illustration by Anthony Ikediuba

It’s no secret that the internet favors the young. It’s hard to keep up with the breakneck speed at which it circulates information, let alone comprehend its technical intricacies. But for most young people, it’s difficult to imagine how we functioned without it. While Millennials (and to a greater extent, Gen Z) are digital natives and their parents learned to adopt this new tech as the working world has gone digital over the past 30+ years, retirees and golden agers have been left, almost literally, virtually behind.

Under normal circumstances, the world wide web is our selective extension of our physical selves. Many of us share only the most refined versions of ourselves across social media, stream only the content that interests us, and buy goods from our favorite e-tailers. The marginal utility the internet provides is undeniable, but even still, that did not entirely make it a required resource for everyday living.

Or, at least, that was the case until recently.

As COVID-19 continues its rampage, bringing the world to its knees and half of its population into lockdown, every single one of us are becoming increasingly reliant on the internet. In March, while more than 26 million Americans filed for unemployment and U.S. retail dipped 9%—the biggest drop on record—usage of streaming sites, video conferencing software, and video games surged to new heights. During this time of Quarantine, we are forced to rely on the internet to earn a living, to communicate with others, and, in many ways, to entertain ourselves and let others know we’re still here. This, it turns out, is a welcomed change in behavior for the digital natives who were already spending countless hours a day staring into a black mirror. For dues-paying members of the AARP, however, the learning curve is markedly steeper, but many are nevertheless using this opportunity to finally “log on.”

The elderly feed off of face-to-face contact and personal interactions, but Quarantine has temporarily put a stop to that. Most nursing homes have banned visitors and meeting for coffee or a walk in the park is either not an option or just isn’t the same any longer with our facemask mandates. Moreover, given they are the population most at-risk for contracting coronavirus, people are going out of their way to avoid the elderly for their own safety. Long-dismissed for their ignorance of technology and disdain for popular culture, the Greatest Generation and Boomers now have no choice but to go online if they want to interact with others.

Internet users are, by and large, not known for their compassion, as the “Ok, Boomer” meme made abundantly clear; it being the choice insult for many younger internet users some three months ago (literal lifetimes in internet time). Still, these are different times and markedly different circumstances which is why there has generally been an outpouring of support and cordiality as more and more of the olds log on in earnest. While much of the popular internet has historically been age-gated, either de facto (ex: Snapchat) or de jure (ex: Facebook), the coronavirus has thrown most virtual rules out the window.

Quarantined grandparents are learning TikTok dances with their grandchildren; Zoom is facilitating virtual family reunions across generations that likely never would’ve occurred otherwise; and, above it all, Boomers are finally getting to go viral on terms usually dictated by other generations or platforms. Notably, 64-year-old D-list television actor Leslie Jordan has been one of the bright spots of Quarantine, earning newfound acclaim thanks to his viral dispatches from home, asking viewers in his patented southern drawl, “Well, shiiiiiit, how’re y’all doin?” While it took several years for Facebook to be overrun by parents and grandparents, we’re seeing an influx of older Americans join newer social media platforms faster and with greater frequency to stay connected with the rest of the country.

Naturally, though, there are some who haven’t been able to keep up with this steep learning curve, and unfortunately, their technological illiteracy is magnified now that we are almost exclusively communicating virtually. Face-to-face interactions were taken for granted, seeminlgy always a possibility, and for those who have yet to make it a priority to learn how to effectively use computers, other digital devices, and the software within them, the price is online ridicule.

Future Hall of Famer Steph Curry has been struggling to learn how to type, much to the bemusement of his wife. Before Teddy Riley and singer/songwriter Kenny “Babyface” Edmonds broke the internet, Riley was immortalized for his technical difficulties on Instagram Live in front of 400,000+ amused fans. Even the president was caught cursing on a hot mic during his very first coronavirus address, unaware he was live. While it’s true that luddites are a dying breed almost by definition, this very well could be their last stand.

Quarantine is (supposedly) temporary, but it remains to be seen whether this newly evolved poly-generational symbiotic virtual ecosystem is built to last. Once we’re allowed to go back outside, will we still receive memes from grandma? There’s no doubt the frequency of video conferencing will go down, but will we replace them with physical interactions? Much has been written about the widespread loneliness that has plagued the elderly in America; will coronavirus finally spur us to actively combat their plight, or will it fade to the backs of our minds once live sports returns and society is back to “normal”?

Quarantine is (supposedly) temporary, but it remains to be seen whether this newly evolved poly-generational symbiotic virtual ecosystem is built to last. Once we’re allowed to go back outside, will we still receive memes from grandma?

Though we’ll never revert back to a pre-coronavirus world, that isn’t necessarily a bad thing; for example, it appears that the elderly have, by and large, crossed the virtual Rubicon. With ample time to decipher the technological logistics that have historically given them fits, they’ve unlocked the myriad capabilities the internet provides. Now that the cat’s out of the bag, so to speak, will they ever log off? Has coronavirus spelled the final demise of printed news now that everyone’s getting very into podcasts? Will cable TV, already on its last legs, make it to the other side of the impending recession given their aged viewer base is defecting to streaming services with increasing frequency?

The internet is an addiction, yet older generations rejected it for years. Now that they’ve had a real taste, will they ever log off? Or will we be learning about the hottest TikTok dance from our grandparents by Mother’s Day?

Ultimately, humans feed off of interpersonal connection, and I for one, hope virtual communication will never trump face-to-face contact with others. The coronavirus pandemic has exposed the weaknesses in both our infrastructure—technological and otherwise—and the capabilities of some who use it. Society’s newly increased dependence on the internet for services and communication could spell trouble in the future should these issues not be fixed.

Truly, it’s not even that pessimistic to countenance that this won’t be the last crisis of this scale that we’ll see. Of course, it’s important to put this all into perspective—in the middle of this global crisis, addressing the changing demographics of internet users is far from our top priority. Once we defeat COVID-19, though, I look forward to sharing more wonders of the internet with older adults; it’s my view that once you open the Pandora’s Box that is being online you can’t ever close it back up again. Now that being extremely online is trending toward age agnosticism, internet culture may never be the same again.︎