TAO/Handbook/Older Adults and Online Communities
Older Adults and Online Communities: Motives, Incentives, and Barriers
Target groups of this handbook chapters are
Intermediaries: Persons operating online communities and wishing to attract a greater number of persons aged 60-75 years.
Teachers: Persons wishing to point out how online communities can become more attractive to persons aged 60-75 years.
Older Adults: Older adults wanting to learn about the potential benefits of online communities.
The aims of this chapter are
- To identify the dominant obstacles for persons aged 60 to 75 years in using online communities.
- To infer how online communities could become more attractive to potential users of that age group.
- To describe solutions for promoting older persons’ use of online communities.
A model of action: attracting and retaining (senior) members of online communities: In order to turn potential users of online communities into active ones, it is necessary to take action on three levels. Firstly, users have to be attracted and activated by attractive content and clearly framed and communicated benefits. Secondly, they have to be guided through the process of registration and familiarization with the online community. (User-centered design is an approved process for reaching these aims.) Thirdly, new members have to be rewarded swiftly for their first contributions and efforts in the community. A good moderation of the online community is needed in order to deal swiftly with conflicts or rough discussions that might intimidate beginning users.
Success through collaboration of different stakeholders Making use of online communities for social integration requires efforts from many different actors. Community operators face the challenge of developing an attractive platform by investing in high quality content for the target group, by providing a proven-to-be user-friendly application and by building trust through adequate, well-tailored communication. Current community members, offline organizations, businesses from the private sector and the media will be in charge of creating a supportive framework for the development of online communities and their contributions to social integration.
Quality guidelines needed It is essential that quality guidelines for effective online communities are set, legal protection of privacy is ensured and that quality improvement in services offered by non-commercial and commercial stakeholders is promoted. This can be achieved through establishing and promoting a database of user-friendly communities and by initiating regular checkups and incentives (e.g. awards) for existing online communities.
Where is the knowledge about this topic derived from?
Knowledge about the topic was gathered by conducting a qualitative empirical study. The study was carried out with 18 internet literate persons aged 60 to 75 years from the German speaking part of Switzerland. The sample included 6 active users (3 f, 3 m) of online communities, 6 persons (4 f, 2 m) expressing an interest in joining an online community (intenders) and 6 persons (3 f, 3 m) not showing an active interest in online communities (hesitators). A group of 6 skeptics (refusers; 1 f, 5 m) were interviewed by phone. Means for age were 64.5 (SD=3.8) for active users, 65.7 (SD=2.2) for hesitators, 70.0 (SD=5.1) for intenders and 65.0 (SD=2.1) for refusers. The participants were diverse with regard to place of residence (German-speaking Switzerland only) and concerning professional and educational background. Since the sample consisted of “younger” seniors, access to the internet was not an issue. Two participants each worked with either seniorweb.ch, facebook.com or de.wikipedia.org. Active users were treated to one usability test session while intenders and hesitators went through two usability test sessions. Each test session included a series of tasks (scenarios) and was preceded and followed by a semi-standardized interview. A semi-standardized telephone interview conducted four weeks after the second test session marked the end of the study.
Usability problems are abundant: The tested online communities all had considerable usability problems leading to unsatisfactory user experiences. Usability issues included unattractive content, lengthy and complex registration processes, insufficient overview of the whole website and the specific community features as well as difficulties contributing to and thus becoming involved with the online community. At the root of these usability problems is a lack of user guidance and fundamental explanations.
Active users have found their niche: Users of online communities have found a particular niche, i.e. the participation in the online community fulfills a particular need or desire, corresponds with important beliefs or values and is accordingly perceived as beneficial. Active users entered online communities either by introduction through close family members, by “ideological affiliation”, i.e. contributing their knowledge to a cause in accordance with their values or beliefs, or in order to be informed about social real-life activities with people sharing their interests. All of them derived a personal benefit from using a certain online community. They were either very motivated to overcome any hurdles in joining the respective communities and/or were supported by family members in doing so.
Link to everyday life decisive for further community usage: In spite of the mentioned difficulties, 5 out of 12 community beginners (3 intenders and 2 hesitators) decided to keep on using the tested online communities after the study had ended. They had managed early on to establish a link between their everyday lives and the respective communities and were able to focus on a limited number of tasks within the community offers. Others did not find content that made them want to return or held perceived risks, such as possible loss of control or privacy and security breaches, accountable for not continuing to use online communities. A lack of reciprocity as well as a general dissatisfaction with the contacts established in the online community were also among the reasons for discontinuing usage.
User profiles: Age not the decisive factor: Users of online communities are not a homogeneous group. Motivations, interests and hobbies as well as real-life social network activities differ as strongly between persons aged 60 to 75 as they do between members of younger generations. Only a small number of participants appreciated a community focus on older age groups. Many perceived risks were similar to those mentioned by younger user groups and discussed by ICT professionals. Thus, online communities do not simply appeal to one particular type of senior user. Rather, online communities are a means to an end and its users benefit from specific domains.
Opportunities for social integration through online communities: Persons having a hard time making social contacts in the "real world" may also find it more difficult to participate in an online community than persons who are socially well integrated. Nevertheless, online communities can contribute to social integration by helping to organize and structure everyday life and by assisting to maintain social integration after retirement. Online communities can also motivate to engage in certain (offline) activities and connect people with similar interests. In addition, successful participation in an online community can strengthen one’s self-efficacy and self-esteem.