old man young child

Social Media: age vs experience, does it really matter?

There is a great debate that takes place among those who work online and its premise is that the younger you are, the better you ‘get’ social media. I’d like to consider and challenge some of the basic assumptions that this attitude creates.

On the 20th July 2012 a young student called Catherine Sloane published a blog post entitled ‘Why Every Social Media Manager Should be Under 25’. The post achieved notoriety among many different demographics and across a variety of sectors.

I really don’t feel a need to link to it as it was designed to be great clickbait, that is its sole purpose was to get people linking and sharing a piece of content in a viral nature, with the result that the website hosting it gets a better result on the search engines. What is perhaps more interesting is that searching for that specific title doesn’t bring up the article itself, but rather a whole host of articles about it.

In the article, she suggested that anyone over that age doesn’t understand enough about the world of social media because they haven’t grown up with it, and therefore by the time they hit 30 they are over the hill and should forget it.

I’d like to consider her post for a moment because there are some key elements that I’d like everyone to think about before I deconstruct its assumptions.

The post received

  • it was tweeted out 240 times,
  • it got 2,400 Facebook ‘likes’
  • it received 24 Google +1’s
  • and it was shared through other social media accounts 113 times.

In terms of the metrics that are often used to judge how successful a piece of social media is, it could be termed ‘good’. However, that means we are forgetting some key elements.

The vast majority of the comments were negative; they tended to dismiss what Catherine had said as the ‘arrogance of youth’. Almost all of those who commented from her own age group felt that she had done them a huge disservice. In many cases, the Facebook ‘likes’, Twitter ‘tweets’ and other shares were anything but positive and many were used as an illustration of ‘how not to do it’!

But she did do one thing right; she got the attention she wanted and the underlying aim of all social media activity is always to get attention. The reason for this is because it cuts to the heart of what being human is all about, we each need to be validated by others and we count the act of receiving attention (whether it’s positive or negative) as validation.

The advantage of youth is that they adapt to change easily, that as soon as something new comes along they are in there trying it out and testing it, pushing the boundaries to see what does and doesn’t break. In many ways they could be considered early adopters.

However, this has an underlying assumption that something actually has changed and my observation of the world, particularly that online, is that nothing really changes; that we are still using the same skills we had in the Stone Age, all we are doing is adapting them to fit the current circumstances.

So what does the world of social media really look like and where did it all start?

I’d like to consider is that the act of getting involved in social media, whether you are young or older, requires us to have two particular skills. These skills are not based in the online world, they are based in the real world and we all learn them to one degree or another as we work our way through life.

Those core skills are discernment and communication.

In other words, just because you can do something doesn’t necessarily mean you should and not all attention is ‘good’ attention. Knowing what works, in what context and what the future ramifications of an action taken might be, should be what underlies everything everyone does online.

Discernment is the understanding that what you say can be taken out of context, that the pictures you share will hang around and that you can’t be real friends with 600 people, and that others do not necessarily have your best interests at heart but are gaming the systems, trying to gather as much attention for themselves.

What Catherine conveniently forgot in her post was that the world typically has more older people in its population than younger; for instance in the UK in 2012 only 31% of the population are under 25. She also managed to ignore the metrics on the use of the key social networks themselves.

In fact:

  • The average age of a LinkedIn user is 44.
  • The average age of someone on Facebook is 40.5
  • The average age of someone on Twitter is 37.5.

On almost all social networks, the fastest rising age groups are those in their 40’s – 60’s.

What we might ignore is that these metrics will change significantly as those in the younger age brackets age themselves and become part of the older generation.

She also overlooked the fact that online communication and networking has been around since the early days of the Internet and that today’s social networks are just over-engineered forums in many cases. I’ve grown up with the web, in particular, using it from the early days and I was in Catherine’s position, being 23 when I first started online. Had she considered these aspects in her article, it might have been a great article, but she didn’t.

The key to using all social media effectively is not the age or necessarily the experience but it is the universal ability to communicate correctly and in the right context, whether that is with the ubiquitous status update you will find on almost all networking sites or a longer length blog post, video or image. However, for that communication to have validity and gain that all-important attention it must be something worth saying, that other people, outside your normal social circle, will want to engage with.

For a business, this is a skill that has been prevalent since we first constructed commerce as a way of trading goods. The need to differentiate our goods and services from those of other people and businesses is paramount. In essence, we need to be able to tell the right person, what they need to hear at the right time so they can take the action we want them to take.

In the example that I shared about Catherine, she took some action and she got some results but were they the long term results she might have wanted. That blog post will follow her around, like a ship’s anchor, holding her back and possibly preventing her from getting the positions she wants as she herself ages. The social networks change; when Catherine is 30 there will be a different set again with a younger generation growing up using them, when she is 40 the same thing will have happened. However, what remains constant is that this is all just a mechanism for communication and we can learn that skill at any age.

This article was the basis of a lecture I presented today to the Centre of Excellence for Industrial Liaison at Budmouth College.

Leave a Reply


  1. Well, I’m 63, started my own blog last May, joined Twitter in Aug, published my first ebook in same month. Infuriates me to high heaven and back when we older people are dismissed as unable to grasp ‘social media’. I am part of a big group of over 60’s who actively and professionally use social media. Do Not Generalise – person who wrote original article you quoted from. Or we’ll be round with our zimmer frames to sort you out.

  2. Some really good points there Jamie and I suspect that much of what you have suggested is probably correct, as Destiny says perhaps there just isn’t the need ‘yet’ amogst many in your generation.

  3. Perhaps it’s a case of what goes around comes around Destiny! For instance we are at that stage where building a business or profile is really important and for many younger than us, they just aren’t there yet perhaps. 🙂

  4. Hi Linda, well I wrote quite a long comment yesterday in a coffee shop, but lost it when I went to post as the WiFi went down (I lost the post, not my temper lol). Tried again from my mobile this morning and that wouldn’t let me log in to my WP account. Hmmm… so now I’m wondering if maybe I’m getting too old for this malarkey 😉 Mind you, experience tells me that the main thing that singles out successful people from everyone else is… persistence!

  5. Enjoyed the post Linda and completely agree with you. It’s funny, my three grown sons are pretty much over existing social media, as are many of their friends, and prefer to connect the old fashioned way. They are, respectively, 23, 23, and 21. On the other hand, almost everyone I know over forty is very engaged with it, or is learning it now. The reason? It’s viability as a marketing tool. Sure, we meet some wonderful people who ultimately become friends, but that is not our goal. Thanks for posting this.

  6. Steve, I agree with you but I would dare suggest at the moment the battle is being lost to superior practitomers of the online SEO dark arts. Open access is only to be welcomed, but more gets lost in the deluge that ensues.

  7. If I may just interject the young curmudgeon’s view…?!

    I am 24 and I am terrible with social media. I see Twitter as an online continuation of the schoolyard popularity contest, Facebook as a tool for keeping in touch with old friends, MySpace as somewhere for fledgling bands and over-emotional art students, and LinkedIn as a way to blag professional competence in the case of a potential employer’s pre-interview background check. Of that, only Facebook is really useful in that it does the same job that an address book used to do ten or twenty years ago, but with more ease. To me, the rest seems like vanity in different guises.

    A lot friends my age agree to an extent, unless they are involved professionally in advertising, publicity, marketing etc., in which case it takes on an almost God-like significance. But that tends to be because of their boss’ instructions.

    In my opinion, the bottom line is that it’s not age, but necessity that drives competence in social media. If I may go further(!), I’d say that it is more likely to be the next generation up from mine who are now driving the social media revolution, because they have the professional experience to use it to its full potential.

  8. @Marc. I think the term ‘merely’ may be reducing the value of these networks rather too much. Whenever a new way, of doing the same old thing, comes along it’s easy to assume that because it is advertised as being for a certain group or to perform a certain function that this is its limit. All of these social networks allow the artists, writers and comedians to continue to do what they have always done and in fact allow that to be acccessible to a much wider audience; opening up opportunities for more and more people to appreciate their talents and maybe even change a few long held views in the process.
    By not engaging we are in danger of handing the great power of social media those who, as you say, want to restrict its use to inane ‘content’. For this reason, if no other, I think those who care most about the quality of the communication have a duty to be central in maintaining the diverse outpouring of talent the world over.

  9. That is very true Marc and it is sad in many ways that so much has been reduced to the term ‘content’ when it is indeed fabulous writing or images or other media. Perhaps we need to take time to appreciate what is really great, instead of quickly moving on to the next item.

  10. That’s a great example of how perception works isn’t Caroline, your assumption is that it will take you time to get to grips with something when, if you strip it back to basics, we know that it’s just about applying the skills that you already have. It’s as if the technology itself seems to get in the way.

  11. if I may just interject the old curmudgeon’s view…? I’m profoundly uninterested in these platforms and what they can do and what the next one will be able to do, but I use some of them because one has to. I don’t own a smart phone, nor do I possess a single app. But I get by in this digital world! And I do acknowledge the speed and reach of interconnectivity it’s opened up.

    The thing that saddens me is that these technologies merely manage to exacerbate the two trends of celebrity and marketing. It’s becoming increasingly less about the quality of the content, in favour of the freshness of it. Quantity is all. We are all content providers now, when some of us used to be artists, writers and comedians.

  12. I agree with the comments here that it is generally about perception; my reality is dependent on my background and my beliefs. My 13 year old son believes that he is ‘techo savy’ and that I’m a dinosaur, but it is just a matter of time and style. I have so much more ‘stuff’ to let go off than he does, so we have different learning needs when it comes to picking up new technologies. He takes for granted that he will be able to pick something up and use it almost immediately because that has been his experience. I think we need to be talking about different learning strategies to support ‘older’ folks to become comfortable with whatever technology they want to use (want being key). You are a fantastic teacher Linda but I would suggest there aren’t enough of you to go round…yet!

  13. It seems that the weight of opinion is now shifting in that direction Madison – more and more jobs are requesting that the applicants have more significant experience and more employers than ever are tending towards investigating potential recruits online.

  14. Even I was quite surprised by the age differences in that set of stats in the article, my assumption has always been (and perhaps this is the arrogance of my youth for having started so out in this world so young) that is was going to be dominated by a different generation than mine when the actuality isn’t. Perhaps the difference then comes because our generation are that much more dominant in just sheer numbers, therefore it would naturally follow that, whilst there are more using the networks than younger, there will also be more who feel disenfranchised either by skill, awareness or understanding.

  15. There is a huge advantage that the old have over the young in terms of technology–we know that it’s going to change. I grew up using a rotary dial telephone. The first mobile telephone I ever used was the size of a brick, with about the same sound quality. I’ve used dialup services that charged by the hour. I remember usenet, and getting into flame wars on alt.binaries groups.

    Now I can hold in my hand more computing power than existed in the world when I was a teenager. I am used to things changing. I expect them to change. I know that today’s cutting edge is tomorrow’s old news.

    Someone who is 25 now grew up with Twitter and knows it intuitively. So what happens when Twitter gets replaced by the next big thing? Because, trust me, it’s going to happen. Compuserve was the biggest thing in the world when I bought my first computer–where is it now?

    When you’re 25 you think that what you see around you now is eternal. When you’re 50, you know better.

  16. I think also that even if the tech savvy base does tend to be younger, it doesn’t give them the discernment and wisdom you mentioned that are also great assets when it comes to representing a business online. I’d like to see those qualities get more weight than they do currently.

  17. Yes, it is perception. When I look around, my perception is that in a group of 10 real-life peers (by age bracket), I am the only one adapting and learning the social media and new technology. That doesn’t mean none of my peer bracket universally is doing it, but it does affect my perception when it’s what I see in my day to day reality. When I surround myself with a more tech-savvy peer group, the rates are different, but even I’d have to admit, that group would be a younger age base and I’d be the odd man out because of my age. I’d have to search harder to surround myself with my own age group AND tech-savvy. But it is a product of perception based on a surrounding reality. I’d need new surroundings to gain a new perspective. Perhaps mine would change also if I broaden my peer group to my online contacts and virtual friends. What is your perception based on your reality where you live?

  18. it seems to me that the world has adapted a sporting model of contribute or be out, and that embracing change is important. I agree that young people are more able to do so.

    I also think that they are a bit different ( at least in the US ) in that they grew up in the age of everyone gets a trophy and are more interdependent than the previous generation. It remains to be seen if multitasking is a advantage or disadvantage.

    Youthful energy and hope drive change, and then follows wide adaption ( now Iphones are relegated to mostly parents )

    But experience will always have value, as long as it is tempered with technological relevance – for technology is the tool, not the end.

  19. Like you I was on the internet when it was in it’s infancy. I was chatting with people before windows was something we took for granted. Just because I’m older doesn’t mean I’m stupid. I use facebook, twitter, linkedin and several other forums. I’m pretty darn good at it too. I think the young girl’s main goal was to get attention as you said. It was her main goal to go ‘viral’. she accomplished that, but did it show to her advantage? no…….they young still will benefit from growing older.

  20. I think you have a good point there Madison, but isn’t adaptability just a perception we have of ourselves rather than a ‘reality’. The lecture today yielded some really interesting debate between the age groups, who it seemed were more susceptible to perceptions than they had realised 🙂

  21. Great post Linda. I’ve often felt ‘old’ when it comes to the social media thing, but it hasn’t hampered me in the least. I think adaptability is another great asset to have at *any* age, because with all the change in platforms and formats, it’s hard to keep up if you’re not adaptable. I think this is why the younger crowd sometimes think they have the advantage, because they usually are more adaptable than the older users.