Notes from our travels across a mysterious world.

Too old?

For some reason, the question of age and web innovation has popped up again. It can be summed up like this: Are people over the age of 30 likely to create anything really new or special on the Web?

(Disclosure for the rest of this entry: I’m 36.)

For Clay Shirky, age means you simply have too much experience to deal with a new world as effectively. The most successful innovators will be the young ones who take the new things for granted.

While I have enjoyed quite a few of Shirky’s writings, this article suffers from a bit of shabbiness in a quest to make as plain a point as possible. For instance, in describing Tivo as a disruptive technology developed by people who don’t really think about the difference between the VCR and the PC, it might have helped if he had checked out the actual ages of the company founders. (Hint: Not in their 20s.) I also found this section interesting:

I’m old enough to know a lot of things, just from life experience. I know that music comes from stores. I know that you have to try on pants before you buy them. I know that newspapers are where you get your political news and how you look for a job. I know that if you want to have a conversation with someone, you call them on the phone. I know that the library is the most important building on a college campus. I know that if you need to take a trip, you visit a travel agent.

Hmmm. I’m also old enough to know a lot of things. Let’s see about these things:

  • I know that music from stores was always overpriced. Now iTunes is cheaper and more convenient.
  • I know that I hated trying on pants before I bought them. If you know your pants size, you usually don’t have to.
  • I know that newspapers are still a good way to get political news, because the Web has a heck of a lot of partisan noise. Unfortunately, newspapers have been involved in a long project to dumb down to their readers’ level for years, so they’re getting less useful.
  • I know I’ve almost never gotten a job from the newspaper, even before the Web. Online has more listings, and contacts provide the jobs you’re likely to get.
  • I know I’ve always hated phones, so if I want to have a conversation with someone I think long and hard about whether I can get by with asynchronous modes of communication, like email or snailmail. Otherwise, face-to-face is a good option, or IM, if they want to put up with my typing.
  • I know the administrative building is the most important public building on campus, because that’s where you go when they screw up your records. The library is close behind, along with anywhere you can get food. But, the most important building? Wherever you sleep at night.
  • I know…wait, he went to travel agents? I did that once in my life. I didn’t like it. Too many layers of middlemen. There used to be this thing called the phone book where you could call airlines and hotels. That worked pretty well. Now I can do it all online without talking to anyone.

How old is Clay Shirky, anyway? I would have thought he would know that learning and unlearning things starts pretty early on. Helps with toilet training.

Actually, this particular kerfuffle seems to have started with an entry by Fred Wilson that offended Dave Winer, and therefore spread across the Internets. I can see where he’s coming from. Younger folks did grow up with the Internet, and therefore might be more open to possibilities. However, there is a difference between innovator and user. Mark Zuckerberg — and friends — developed Facebook because they wanted something for the campus community. Hundreds of thousands of Facebook users the same age use it because it’s cool, and go no farther than that. Am I supposed to pay more attention to the experience of Zuckerberg, or those hundreds of thousands of users, when making generalizations about age?

Speaking of Mark Zuckerberg, here are some excerpts from a speech he made this year:

I want to stress the importance of being young and technical…Young people are just smarter…Why are most chess masters under 30? I don’t know…Young people just have simpler lives. We may not own a car. We may not have family…I only own a mattress…Simplicity in life allows you to focus on what’s important.

Wow, that was a good laugh. πŸ™‚ “Hey, Mark, can you get your mattress out of my living room?”

Aside from the chess masters comment — aren’t a lot of those guys older than 30 — I suspect what Zuckerberg is missing is that the obsessiveness needed to work on a project to the exclusion of the rest of life isn’t just the province of the young. However, the young can still get away with it. It’s not just about simpler lives, although that plays a role. It’s about no one thinking it’s strange that younger folks only have that life. The older folks who have the same life…well, good luck getting hired at a lot of companies and not getting shunted off to the server room like Quasimodo to the bell tower. Doesn’t look like you can count on a job at Facebook either. 😐

(Of course, Facebook is a pretty specific story. To start a great college networking site at one college, it helps to be there.)

Anyway, I have a pretty good idea why I’m unlikely to come up with any great new innovations on the Web. It’s been the same reason since I was 22. I’m not all that ambitious, and not particularly obsessive in any useful fashion. Note I didn’t bother to find Clay Shirky’s age earlier in this entry. In other words, I’m a user. Nothing really wrong with that; the innovators need us to make or hemorrhage money, depending on the business plan. However, it does mean I’m not starting anything like Facebook anytime soon. Well, that, and the fact I only like Facebook just a little better than MySpace. Oh well, they’re both better than Geocities. Any of you other oldsters remember that one? πŸ˜‰

1 Comment

  1. Chris Knight

    Some of the most amazing work I’ve seen on YouTube has been from people over the age of 40. And sometimes quite much more mature than that (“geriatric1927” anyone?).

    The first commercial from my school board campaign was shown at Pixelodeon last weekend at the American Film Institute. I didn’t go but from what I’ve heard, a LOT of the videos shown were from the 30 and up crowd.

    I think that there is something about the “younger” people in that they do take the technology for granted and thus are likely to feel more comfortable around it. But there is also the matter of education and experience that comes with years, and with that comes the tendency to have greater CREATIVITY in engaging that technology. As such, I don’t believe that a filmmaker these days has really “hit his prime” until he’s about the age of 40 or so. There’s no reason why that can’t be said of anyone else, either.

    Why is age such a big deal anyway? So long as we have breath in our lungs, anything is possible, no matter how far along the road of life we are. Every one of us should be respected for having that potential.

    The alternative is a future not too far removed from that depicted in “Logan’s Run” πŸ™

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