How to rename Silver Surfers? Just ask them.

My friends at Digital Unite organise Silver Surfers Day each year, with participation by hundreds of local centres introducing thousands of older people to computers and the online world.
They could do with a better name, and a blog post on “What do you call a person over 50 on a computer?” is producing lively discussion … including for reasons I don’t understand “Purple Surfers”. Maybe Deep Purple nostalgia.
The same question reposted by me on Twitter produced the splendidly nuanced repost from Steve Bridger “What do you call someone over 50 who uses the telephone? Answer: normal” …. demonstrating how a smart tweeter can condense several paragraphs into a couple of dozen characters with maybe more effect.
I interpret Steve’s tweet to mean that these days use of new techology is becoming widespread among all age groups, and it is a bit ageist to label the over 50s as somehow out of it, in need of special attention – whatever.
I certainly found some pretty capably older users of social technology when I helped Digital Unite video blog their Silver Surfer Awards Day last year.
However, if you read the blog discussion, you’ll find the issues are a bit more complicated. Digital Unite managing director Emma Solomon rattled of a comment that she really doesn’t want to be patronising:

Personally, I am also trying to digitally unite people of all ages, which is why dropping any hint of age and coming through on the side of service, support, freindliness and authenticity (by which I mean, this IS what we do and what we are committed to doing).

But I am also personally very committed to giving older people digital access and voices, same as everyone else has in 2009. I want someone to be doing that for me when I’m 88, because I think I will still want to be part of whatever the now is.

I think that the web can do amazing things to reduce loneliness, connect us all better, get things done, support each other, get politicised in a world that goodness knows needs us to be more than couch potatoes. Part of digital literacy I think is about reinvigoration – we’ve collectively stopped believing we have the capacity to make things better of change them, and that’s terrible.

I think the other thing that changes the whole matter entirely is the changing nature of the technology we are using. I mean blogging, look what that’s done to web use and web users – it’s making interactions much more dispersed, it’s good at chain reactions, and the best place for DU in that would be to have its name on the inside of pipes/ fibres/ threads that interconnect and support this – like ‘digital unite inside’ – that we try and ‘own’ less and facilitate more.

We all have some similar and some different communication needs and interests during our lives … so it’s fair enough to provide particularly products, services and support for young people, older people. Behind the original question is the issue of where Digital Unite, and other organisations originally set up to address the digital divide, now position themselves.

Perhaps the really interesting question is: what particular benefits may social technologies offer older people, and how can we help them realise those benefits. (Repeat for any age, circumstance etc).

My suggestion in a comment on the blog:

Why not ask everyone else?
Make the question a sponsored competition on (the last so-named) silver surfers day, ask people for ideas, then vote online. Invite pictures and videos illustrating the ideas.
Demonstrate crowd-sourcing, online collaboration, get loads of publicity …
Very Clay Shirky

The link is a reference to an excellent interview by Amy Sample Ward in which she asks Clay about the role of nonprofits at a time when people can make their own connections, and share their own ideas. Clay talks about their convening role, and Amy comments:

So, perhaps the changing role of nonprofit organizations in the online space is not one of playing catch-up to the early adopters and hyper-connected individuals, nor is it one of “friending” big names or
joining every platform; but is one of strategically convening supporters to create dynamic connections across the community.

… and so if you want to know what to call your members, users, customers, just ask them.
The Digital Unite blog post is a great start – why not go the whole way and ask those who come to Silver Surfers Day 2009 on May 15 what they would like it to be called next year – and why? I’m sure the answers will be diverse, the conversations perhaps passionate, the illustrations creative, the connections made considerable. How better to demonstrate how computers can help us be sociable. We used to say other answers on a postcard … now there are rather more options.


  • February 8, 2009 - 1:10 pm | Permalink

    Thanks David for all this.

    It is so interesting and so important and so excellent it can, as you and Amy point out, be pushed sideways and outwards for discussion.

    To be honest, back in October when we first started talking about making these discussions and decisions public, I was slightly terrified – the notion of ‘being a company/ business/ organisation’ is that you are in charge, leading, have a plan. Isn’t it?

    To actually say, OK we have an aspiration, what’s the best plan for getting there – what do you think? is something different.

    And it’s brilliant. And digital media is a brilliant way of making it happen.

    What’ll happen next?! …

  • February 8, 2009 - 3:54 pm | Permalink

    Hi Emma – here’s some further inspiration from last year, when Ruralnet decided to re-invent their business online

  • February 8, 2009 - 8:42 pm | Permalink

    David – this is great! Glad the video could support your discussion as well.

    I completely agree with your suggestion to put the question to the members. Whether it is for the name of the group or if it is a question of which tools to use and platforms to try, I always advise groups to ask their supporters. After all, those the people they want to use the tools, platforms, or identify with the name and most people love being asked for their opinion! 🙂

    Thanks for sharing this conversation – I love the updates about the Silver Surfers work you are doing and this it is a perfect example against the belief that technology is age-specific.


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