I’ve always believed that information technology is bringing us closer to a universally connected world. Dr. Mary Furlong, the founder of SeniorNet, is turning that vision into a commercial reality with her latest project, Third Age Media, and its flagship web site,ThirdAge.com . I recently spoke to Nick Nash, one of our college interns in Somers, New York, about my interest in Mary’s work and Third Age Media.
Here are some excerpts from our conversation:
Q : You’ve often talked about how Mary’s first project, SeniorNet , has made a big impact on the way senior citizens collaborate. How did she get started on her new venture?
A : Just a couple of years ago, Mary got the idea after she saw how tremendously active and interested seniors are in the Internet. She created a business called ThirdAge.com .
Q : How did you find out about Mary’s work?
A : About three years ago, a couple of my staff colleagues went to a TED conference, and heard Mary Furlong give a talk about SeniorNet . They were very impressed by what they heard, and urged me to get to meet Mary. I initially met her through email, and about a year later I met her in person. Since then we’ve become good friends and we’ve met at a number of industry conferences and retreats.
Q : What do you think about ThirdAge.com , and the on-line community it has created?
A : I’m pretty excited about it, personally. For one thing, I’m over 50 myself, so I feel a natural affinity to the group. I really like the flair of Third Age. I don’t think anybody likes to think of themselves as a senior citizen. The web has created three incredible new opportunities for “e-business” – content, commerce, and collaboration. ThirdAge.com is a great way for people to get involved in all three of those dimensions. I’ve registered there myself, and have been personally taking advantage of some of the content. In particular, I love the video Third Age Media produced about Ruth Ann Bortz, especially because of her running interests and her accomplishments – winning the Boston marathon in her age group (the 60s). I’ve run four marathons myself – the Marine Corps Marathon three times and the Philadelphia marathon once. Knowing how challenging my first marathon was at the age of 36, I can really appreciate, and have great respect for someone running the marathon in her 60s. Now that I’m in my 50s, I’m still an active runner, but due to knee surgery, where I had to give up a lot of cartilage, I’ve had to give up running the longer distances – but I’m always hopeful that there will be an artificial knee in the future that will be just as good as the real thing.
Q : How does the Third Age web site tie into your vision of a universally connected world?
A : I think it’s the quintessential example of people using the new medium to communicate and collaborate. One of the things I find very interesting is that the number one reason given by people over 50 for logging onto the Internet is that they’re looking for something new. ThirdAge.com is really providing a way for people to continue to build relationships and expand – and exercise – their mind, and stay young forever.
Q : Third Age Media says it is trying to bring senior citizens together into on-line communities. Are sites like ThirdAge.com really helping senior citizens to form new relationships?
A : Definitely. And the older a person gets, the more meaningful that is. A person who may be in his or her 80s or 90s that may have shared a close interest with a friend for may years, and then loses that friend, is often distraught. And, in the past, they’ve often had no way to replace that common interest. With the Internet, you can’t replace that person, but you can replace the sharing of that interest by discovering someone else who may not be in your local community, but may be thousands of miles away. Through the power of the medium, you can rekindle that sharing. Another thing I think is exciting – as the medium becomes more natural, through the evolution of composite media, including audio and video and VRML – is that it will be possible for seniors to see their grandchildren on-line during the holidays, or any time for that matter.
Q : So the Internet is bringing people together. Could you give an example of how this is happening?
A : Here’s a really dramatic example of this: Recently there was a quadriplegic who began to experience medical difficulty, and there was no one at home to help this person. He was able to put out an SOS. through a chat session over the Internet. A woman 1,100 miles away who knew this person through the Internet, and realized the problem, was able to make a phone call to local emergency people who were dispatched to help him, and quite possibly saved his life.
Q : It looks like the number of senior citizens on the Internet is rising. What are they interested in? Are they on-line consumers? Are they primarily web surfers? Or do they spend most of their time in chat sessions?
A : It’s all of the above. It turns out that right now, 19 percent of people on the Internet are over 50. About half of them have been shopping. And about half of them have been involved in investment activities. I think the key thing here is that as a demographic, people over 50 have time and they have money, and in many cases, they have a desire to form relationships. All three of the dimensions of e-business that we talk about – content, commerce, and collaboration – are very meaningful to this group of people.
Q : Is ThirdAge.com a “U.S.-only” club, or is it reaching out beyond national borders?
A : It’s definitely an international phenomenon. Because of the availability of the Internet being greater in the U.S., it is more U.S.-centric right now, but I expect that to change.
Q : What are some of the big challenges that remain to getting seniors on-line – and how can we address them?
A : I think it’s partly awareness, and of course, this is increasing, through advertising, through other media, and also through “First” and “Second Age” relatives. Another factor is that computers are becoming easier to use, and are increasingly sold bundled with Internet connectivity – you take them out of the box, and in minutes you’re connected. In particular, the Aptiva has made great strides in making this simple.
Q : How has IBM been involved with getting seniors on the net?
A : IBM has had relationships from the beginning with SeniorNet and Third Age , and as a company, we’re very interested in supporting seniors, for a number of reasons. For one thing, IBM – unlike many other companies in information technology – has been around for over 70 years. We have a huge number of retirees. So collaborating with SeniorNet and Third Age has been sort of a natural relationship. In fact, half of the volunteers who helped SeniorNet train seniors to use computers and the Internet have been retired IBMers. Personally, I’ve been very impressed with Mary’s vision and her personal commitment to this set of people. It long preceded any commercial interest and remains very real and personal.
Third Age Media has produced a series of mini-documentary videos about senior citizens rediscovering interests and exploring new careers. These videos have been converted by IBM from a VHS video tape to Bamba and Bamba for Java streaming video files. With the Bamba for Java format, no plugin is required. Just click and enjoy! I often get asked whether the Internet as a new medium will reduce people’s desire to get together in person or whether people will just sit in front of their Internet connection and never go anywhere. Thanks to sites like ThirdAge.com, the web is doing just the opposite. I discussed this issue in Getting Physical a recent Reflections entry.