OPINION23 January 2018

The ageless world of social media

Leisure & Arts Opinion Trends UK

Technology is bridging the age gap, with social media offering everyone the freedom to create their own identities outside of preconceived stereotypes about age, writes Matilda Andersson.

Tablet social media age stereotypes_crop

Social media is often described as the new park bench: a space for teenagers to hang out with each other. Gen Zs are increasingly reliant on developing and maintaining social bonds online, but it’s far from true that only young people are addicted to social media. Older generations are not only getting on board with social platforms, but are now embracing the technology in every aspect of their lives. In fact, social media is bridging all age groups – and ultimately contributing to a culture of agelessness.

‘Agelessness’ isn’t necessarily a new concept. For the last decade we’ve been observing that as we live and work longer, attitudes to age and ageing are changing. Not only are people working beyond retirement, major milestones like getting married, having kids, buying a house or owning a car are happening much later. Age will never disappear (sigh), but our interests, goals and characters are blurring, and what defines us at a certain age is becoming less and less relevant.

Social media is playing a huge role in this culture of agelessness. Here are three of the biggest contributing factors:

1. Bringing families closer together – mums on Facebook

Even if it once felt uneasy to share your timeline with aunts and uncles, or the friends of your parents, the cross-generational space that it’s created has increasingly brought varying ages together. The more time spent with people of different ages helps break down the cultural codes that once defined specific age brackets. WhatsApp has also done its bit to make family bonding easier. As the social media research project Why We Post suggests, families tend to see Facebook as part of the public arena, and so smaller and more private groups have become a useful place to discuss family politics, issues and ‘real’ family life.

2. Uniting people around shared passions – knitting for everybody

Curation platforms like Instagram and Pinterest enable people with particular passions to unite irrespective of age. Whether someone is into portrait photography, beer making or stamp collecting, social media becomes a level playing-field when it comes to age. Furthermore, cross-generational influences can be actively sought out within the curation process; following older and younger users or influencers can help develop new tastes, discover new trends and inspire new ways of interacting with existing passions.

3. Influencers reach a broad spectrum of audiences – icons for all ages

An influencer’s field of impact isn’t limited to their own age bracket, either. At 63, Lyn Slater, a social work professor in the US, is making waves in the fashion blogging world. After being spotted and photographed at New York Fashion Week, she found herself an ‘accidental icon’. Coining the phrase as the title of her blog, she posts about intellectual fashion, city living and the urban aesthetic. Interestingly, her largest following is aged 25–35.

Taking all this into account, most brands are still not successfully operating in an age agnostic way. In order to target consumers and navigate the new agelessness landscape, both cultural and behavioral research needs to be put into dialogue to satisfy new post-demographic research needs.  

In my talk at the MRS Social Media Summit on 8 February, I will suggest that social media has the power to give everyone the freedom to create their own identities and escape constraints of ‘age appropriate’ behaviour for both younger and older people. Our shared identity formation online plays a huge part in why and how social expectations of age are dissolving and, therefore, how brands learn about, talk to and stay relevant to people. Brands need to pay attention as, similar to gender and race, stereotyping people based on their age is getting old.

Matilda Andersson is head of insight and innovation at Crowd DNA.