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When 54-year-old Sister Maria Jesus Galan was ousted from her convent in Santo Domingo after 35 years of service, it wasn’t for any grave mortal sin or the renunciation of her orderly vows. In fact, Sister Maria was about as industrious as a nun could be behind the walls of her Dominican abbey. Her apparent misdeed? An over-reliance on social networking, which had made life for fellow Sisters “impossible”.
Like many of the best laid schemes of mice and men (and nuns), this story started with the best of intentions. Some 10 years ago, the Santo Domingo convent had consented to admitting a computer into its sacred halls. Sister Maria seized the opportunities it provided: she digitised the convent’s archives and set up online banking/shopping facilities to lessen the burden of frequent trips into town.
The local government soon recognised her efforts and awarded her a prize for her digital initiatives. This only accelerated Sister Maria’s popularity amongst local Dominicans and, by extension, her growing list of friends on Facebook. By time she was expelled, Sister Maria had nigh on 600 online connections.
While the Dominican diocese refused to comment on the dismissal, Sister Maria’s story quickly resonated across the digital universe with furious support from around the world; thousands of friend requests in just days, and numerous well-wishers for the erstwhile nun.
Maria is now considering her options: London and New York, she says, are the places she’d like to visit most.
In many respects, Maria’s story reads like a much larger and longer historical conversation about modernity and change –- shifting values, changing norms, new perspectives and encounters, all of which can tend to threaten the entrenched centers of social, political and religious authority. Wars, armed and intellectual, have been fought over such debates. But her story is equally about a more senior generation steadily accessing the new flows of knowledge and information streaming across the globe at any given moment.
As online and social media channels continue to transform the way we experience the world, the baby boomers of the 1950s are staking their claim to this technology. According to IStrategyLabs, the enormous upsurge in new Facebook users over age 55 grew by 922% in 2009 – almost three times the increase of the second largest demographic growth group of 33 to 54-year olds.
Mary Madden, a Senior Research Specialist for the Pew Internet fact tank, agrees: “Older users have been especially enthusiastic [recently] about embracing new networking tools,” she says. “Although email continues to be the primary way that older users maintain contact with friends, families and colleagues, many users now rely on social network platforms to help manage their daily communications – sharing links, photos, videos, news and status updates with a growing network of contacts.”
As these “older users” begin participating in the superabundant forms of online interaction, they discover that they, too, can transmit their voices out into the ether: Blogging, vlogging, tweeting, chatting, posting, voting, liking and unliking, friending and unfriending. Many of these neologisms are now included as official entries in the most recent English dictionaries. And crucially, the ostensibly social-only platforms like Twitter, Facebook and Myspace have become enormous contact-points for discussions around global events.
The first place I heard about the recent earthquake in Christchurch, New Zealand, wasn’t from a press agency or a radio announcement, it was via a sympathetic Facebook update (“praying for the victims of the 6.3 magnitude earthquake! that just hit New Zealand”). Youtube offered me user-uploaded videos of the devastation via an amateur cellphone camera. It might not have been professional, but it was current.
For the rest of the day on February 22nd, I had my RSS feeds on 30-minute updates as I followed news of the event. And if 30-minutes was far too long to wait, I had the option of push news notifications that pop up just like a text message. Recognising the supreme advantages of location, many major news conglomerates actually rely on media-conscious consumers to help with ultra-fast news dissemination.
Twitter user @dyedredlaura from Christchurch was amongst the first to tweet through first-hand pictures of the Christchurch earthquake. A reporter from CNN picked up on her tweets and quickly initiated a sharing of information. As the Christchurch CBD recovers, ‘dyedredlaura’ continues to share her updates – “ZOMG there is water coming out of the taps….EXCITING TO THE MAX!!!”.
If the transmission of news has become more democratic, it’s essential that it’s also diversified in the process, and here baby boomers play an important role. Their online presence helps ensure a plurality of perspectives on all kinds of discussions, coming as they do from a generation that has had to adapt so drastically to such a changed world. Muammar al-Gaddafi’s waning hold on Libya is dominating the news right now. To be sure, there’s a bevy of opinion on the matter already. But much of Facebook’s senior sect would have witnessed Gaddafi’s own coup to power some 41 years ago, which admits a potentially unique way of viewing what appears to be his imminent downfall. This is precisely part of what makes social media so exciting: Trangenerational and transcultural participation.
Admittedly, the issue isn’t quite so clear-cut given that online access largely remains a function of personal and financial resources. But the decentralization of the press means that news is everyone’s businesses, and everyone should be involved.
I think back to Sister Maria, typing away behind the otherwise introspective hallways of her Dominican convent. I think of how her words are imbricated not only by her age, but by her position as a woman, a nun, and a Dominican. The online community needs voices like hers as much as it needs those of young, tech-savvy pundits.