The Coveted Emailing Septuagenarian Demographic


My father (widely known as “Pop”) is an all-around great guy.  He is also 73 years old.  Computers are not something that he is all that comfortable with.  Even so, he understands the relationship between quality and pleasure of use, even in realms that are somewhat outside of his ken.  Last year, he purchased a brand-new, 15-inch macbook pro, which he enjoys quite a bit.  He uses it to check his email, play a bit of online chess, and do a bit of light web browsing.  It is easily the most overpowered machine for its primary user purpose that I am aware of.  But so what.  He loves it, and he will be able to use it for ten years.  Plus, as the major trouble-shooter on hand, having him on such a platform makes my life a bit easier.

For as long as he has been a regular emailer, pop has used AOL as his email client.  In point of fact, he was paying AOL for services until somewhere around 2005.  This is the kind of computer user that pop is.  With the new machine, I have tried to get him to switch over to Gmail, thinking that it would clearly be a better option for him.  Silly me.  

Yesterday, I received an automated email from him, explaining that he was moving back to AOL.  This email was the output of some sort of migration wizard or other that he had found to move him back to AOL from Gmail.  I quickly sent him a note saying that I thought that was a bad idea (I termed it a “backslide”).  He sent this in response (he has agreed to my posting this email on the site:

Give me credit…i tried it for a month ( at your suggestion) and don’t like it. It effects my sense of writing and communicating with people. Also it’s messy and confusing. Just give me “Old Mail” instead of showing all the mail. I either had to delete mail or live with seeing it. New mail does not get mixed in with old mail on AOL. And what’s with starred mail….important mail …all mail….etc. And the space for writing a reply hardly encourages a long response…Boooooo.  Simple and clean and clear is better.

The “Booooo” is a rejoinder from one I sent in the original note.  I have read this reply several times, and I have arrived at the following conclusions:

  1. Pop is the type of computer user who references the computing experience to real-world equivalent processes and tools that he is familiar with.  His conception of email is conflated with his collection of physical mail.  To him, a small reply space is encouraging him to keep his messages short, since there is such little space for them.  To me, the notion that the reply space in an email is functionally infinite is so second-nature that I don’t even think about it.  I don’t even look at the space I have to write in on a screen, since that space extends for as much or as little as I need it to.  I would wager that if we compared the longest email that I have ever composed on gmail to the longest email that Pop has ever composed in AOL, mine would be several hundred words longer.  Even the fact that he felt it was necessary to send out a notification email that he had moved to another email address shows that his conception of how email works, and what you can do with it is significantly behind the curve as relates to what the tools actually are and what they actually do.
  2. Pop is the type of computer user who has no desire to change his usage patterns for a new tool that he is using.  His comments seem to indicate that he was just leaving email in the inbox after checking it.  Perhaps AOL automatically archives old mail by default.  I don’t know enough about the interface to know if this is what he is referring to.  What I do know is that this is the sort of attitude that keeps me firmly in charge of tech support for his computing.  Not a complaint, but an observation.  It is the sort of thing that would drive me crazy if I had to work with him in a digital space on something for work.  It is the sort of attitude that I lecture teachers on working to overcome if they are bringing it in to their practice as relates to technology.
  3. Pop has a different aesthetic sense from me, at least where web design is concerned.  Actually, I don’t think it’s just me.  I would suggest that you could show hundreds of people the standard Gmail interface compared to the standard AOL email interface, and ask them which one is better, more cleanly designed, and Gmail would win handily.  Interestingly, the open nature of the Gmail interface, which is centered around querying an archive to retrieve emails related to specific people, subjects, etc. (and as such makes it the clear favorite for me when navigating an archive of 30K emails that I have accrued since switching to Gmail in 2006), is a problem for my father, who equates it to being “messy” and “confusing”.  On some level, he wants the program to restrict his options. Such a lack of control over my own writing would drive me crazy.
  4. Gmail is not for people like pop.  All of the things that I think make Gmail clearly superior for email over something like AOL (email filtering, tagging systems, sifting the wheat from the chaff) for me are things that contribute to confusion and clutter for him.  There are too many options available, which is a problem for him.  For me, there are always options I would still like to have. 

I sincerely hope that none of this reads like it is a complaint about my dad, or how he uses technology.  I would suggest that he is at the forefront of folks his age in terms of computing accumen.  All I’m suggesting is that his choice to move away from Gmail and his reasons for doing so elucidate certain major differences in how he thinks about and relates to computers, and how I do the same.  Furthermore, I would suggest that these differences are so fundamental that they indicate that no amount of increased time with computers or “training” for him will ever really move the cognitive needle from a technology perspective.  There is a lesson for me in these conclusions.  Often, when dealing with less technologically apt folks, I think that more training will get their concepts a bit closer to my own.  Pop’s relationship to email suggests that may well not be the case in many circumstances.  Certainly, training will increase aptitude, but no matter what he does, my father is still going to think of email as an electronic letter-writing system.  It’s a lesson I’ll keep in mind for this week’s Superintendent Conference Day, where I am co-running two workshops for TA’s on “basic macbook operations”.

Or maybe he just needs to read more Oatmeal.

The Gray Area