News By Phone Call: A Boomer’s Further Adventures in Social Media

Sunday night my husband and I had knocked off for the evening at 8 p.m. to watch a rerun of episode of “The Borgias” that we had missed last week on Showtime. At 9 p.m. we took a break to get ready for bed. At 10 p.m. we sat down for this week’s episode of sex and violence. (“The Borgias” has great production values, but it’s really bad television.) At 10:30 the phone rang. I looked at the caller ID, saw it was my son, and was actually a little annoyed. It was kind of late, and we were watching sex and violence: Jeremy Irons plays the part of the Borgia Pope and continually hits the sack with beautiful young women, that is, when one of the other characters isn’t stabbing or poisoning some villain or poor innocent or hitting the sack with someone else.

“Osama Bin Laden is dead,” my son said.

It took moments for this to register.

“The president is speaking soon,” he added.

(I admit that I was so stunned that I made the Obama/Osama slip of the tongue, much to my family’s amusement.)

So now we had to switch to CNN. When it because clear the President wasn’t speaking for a while yet, we turned back to Showtime and watched a bit more sex and violence.

A phone call. Here I am Ms. Social Media of the Baby Boomer set, and my source for this huge story is not Twitter, FB or even all the news sites I keep up on my browser or feeding into my RSS. Pretty old school, I’d say.

“There will be people going to Ground Zero and Times Square, probably Rockefeller Center, too,” I told my husband.

“Why?” he asked. I mean, seriously, it was kind of too late at night to get dressed and go outside, even to share such a meaningful moment.

This morning when I got to my desk, where, by the way, I had left my iPhone overnight (another handy social media device), I looked through nearly 1000 tweets and figured out that if I had been watching my Twitter feed, I would probably have known by about 9:30 p.m. Many of the reporters and news agencies I follow on Twitter (meaning I get to see what they are tweeting) were already saying that Obama was giving a speech. The speculation ran the gamut from the capture of Qadaffi to the death of Joe Biden. But the general consensus was that the USA had taken out its most wanted mass murderer.

Did I mind that this historic event had slipped past me when I disconnected from the interwebs? Not really. But then again, I almost got out of bed to tweet something on the order of, “Why have we thought OBL was hiding in a cave?” Indeed, that did become my FB status at one point Monday. (A smart ass friend from college suggested that maybe it had something to do with Plato’s metaphor.)

As for not being part of a celebrating crowd of fellow Americans—even before Obama’s speech I pointed out to my husband how young the people gathering outside the White House seemed to be. Monday morning, through Twitter and FB, I found out that many Gen Yers I know who live in and around D. C. were there. In the video clips taken at Times Square I saw faces of kids’ friends and friends’ kids. Not my friends, though. It was 11:30 p.m.  I suspect that like me they were about to go to sleep. Rob Lowe was probably the oldest person in the crowd.

Pundits have suggested that, ironically, Bin Laden’s lack of tech presence may have led to his discovery. It was his couriers who were tracked, and his compound had no Internet or telephone. A CNN article from September 20, 2001 notes that Bin Laden had already dropped off the technology map and was not using satellite phones in an effort to stay off the radar (literally). (See http://bit.ly/kB2e7R, “Bin Laden Exploits Technology to Suit His Needs”) There are going to be a lot of questions needing answers that we may never get: how could a mansion in an area outside an important city in Pakistan, a suburb that’s home to the military college and many retired Pakistani army people, one that didn’t even sport a TV antenna let alone satellite dish, go unnoticed? These days, it’s lack of technology that stands out.

News sources tell us that Sunday night, “Twitter exploded.” (For typical hyperbole, see the Huffington Post “Osama Bin Laden’s Death Leaked Via Twitter,” http://huff.to/ixDfyk.) Egypt and Tunisia had their “Twitter Revolutions.” Now we have had our Twitter . . . our Twitter . . . ? Yes, my Twitter feed had gone nuts, my Facebook page was afire. Me, I was in my nightgown, waiting for our President to speak. And then I went to bed.

Look for me on Twitter: @wordwhacker. Or find me on FB. Linda Bernstein. I have a “profile” and a “page.” You can like the page.

Which brings me to: I have such a clever “handle” for someone who has made her living as a writer and editor. But @wordwhacker doesn’t really fit into my Baby Boomer branding. Should I change it? To something like @GenB2? Let me know in your comments.

Social Media, Here We Come, or A Baby Boomer’s First Ten Days on Twitter

I can’t claim I was dragged kicking and screaming into this Twitter thing. I paid tuition for Sree Sreenivasan’s Social Media course at the Columbia Journalism School . I took the subway uptown. I sat down in a class. Actually, first I had a meeting re reunion business at Barnard and then dashed across Broadway at 116th Street, raced down the steps toward the Columbia library (noting that the lawn is draped in white—seeding?), and hung a sharp right into the Journalism building, where I had not been since . . . . since a long time ago.

My high regard for Sree Sreenivasan dates back to my years (again a long time ago) at Sesame Street Parents when he wrote some family tech columns for the magazine. This was before he had a family, but he certainly had tech. It was also before Twitter, before Facebook, before broadband, and though I’ve always had this techie rep (I like to fiddle with things, a trait I inherited from my father, who was a chemist and educator, and also a licensed plumber and electrician), I didn’t know much about the Internet back then. Still, I was easily identified the geek who would edit the tech column.

But I am that much older now, and I worry about whether being part of Generation B-Squared means that I should throw my hands up in the air over social media and disappear from the blogosphere. Will I get it? I mean in social media terms. Many techies (information providers?) adamantly argue that people are now getting their news through social media, and it’s great because your news is tailored through your social network filters to your interests. (See, in particular, “How News Consumption is Shifting to the Personalized Social News Stream” on Mashable: http://on.mash.to/g1zmKZ.) Frankly, I find this a little horrifying. Sure, journalists I’m following on Twitter post links to news media articles. But how much weight I give the information in these links depends on the source of the information—and the reputation of the journalist. Yes to The New York Times, Slate, The Guardian, NPR, PSBNewshour. No to @Marcisgod, whom I would trust to direct me to a pair of blue suede Tods, if I so desired, but who I’m not sure knows that there was a recent earthquake and tsunami in Japan. I’m going to bump up against the NYT’s paywall (except my husband has his “education subscription”) because I probably read 20 online articles a day. True, I used the word “online” in the previous sentence, but I fear I’m too old fashioned. I’m a baby boomer. The oldest in my demographic cohort are turning 65 this year. (The youngest don’t even have wrinkles. We’re a large group, and all that will be in my book.)

Then again, I took to Facebook like a—oh, throw in any cliché there, and it’s true. I pay more attention to FB than my Gen Y kids. With their 1000 or so friends—everyone with whom they went to elementary, middle school, high school, college, worked, or got drunk in a bar—they have already outgrown it, sort of. I, on the other hand, really use it. Socially. (And not for self-branding, as Sree advocates.) I know or have at least met all of my friends (except for Cindy Stivers, who seemed to have appeared on my friend list one day). Aside from face-to-face time with friends, most of my communication has become electronic. My friend Maki lives three buildings down from mine. I could probably go up to my roof and jump into her backyard, a place I love to sit and schmooze and drink wine. Telephone communication is now limited to, “You home? I’m passing your door.” But there’s lots of FB back and forth.

FB is amazing in a lot of ways. A significant book person I know posted a picture of a door with a patch of gold leaf applied. “There must be a story in this,” he commented. And then his writer friends started posting three- or four-line stories. Some were really good.

Of course there are the pictures. I get to see my great-nieces and nephew. My best friend’s great-niece. My daughter’s dog. My friend’s kitchen renovation. Another friend’s new iPhone app. I post shots of what I see during my runs in the park. I also documented recent renovations at the country house. I get to be a wiseguy. My friends get to be wiseasses. We’re all wiseacres.

This is possible because my FB is shut pretty tight. All my settings are for friends only. I do not show up in a Google search. I also have no qualms about un-friending people who get sucked into the FB spam-scans. Over the past couple of weeks I have unfriended about 40 people who still are wondering what some woman found in her Happy Meal or think that if they open up their address books, they’ll get a free iPad, or one that costs $14.99 at any rate. I’ll be happy to be their FB friends again—in fact I look forward to it. But first I have to know that they’re not so gullible. (I sent email messages to people I unfriended explaining my actions.)

All of this indicates that so far this baby boomer finds Facebook much more comfortable than Twitter. On Facebook you can see someone’s profile. It’s a much more hamische (“homey” in Yiddish) place as far as I can tell.

Still, I’ve been using Twitter for only 10 days. I have tweeted only 49 times. Yesterday I read that Judy Woodruff tweeted only three times in 2009, so I guess I’m on the right track at least.

I’m also trying to follow Sree’s suggestions for what makes a good tweet: is it helpful, useful, relevant, timely, actionable, and so forth. So far I’m being mostly me. Someone I’m “following” asked, “How influential are you on twitter?” Look, I’m not even influential in my own kitchen. So much for that.

But I’m keeping it up because: Power to the Baby Boomers! Right on! We are the largest demographic and even though I know many people my age who have trouble with email and no interest, they say, in Facebook, can you imagine the influence about 72 million Baby Boomers would wield if we took all the social media invented by Gen Y (mostly) and made it our own? That’s my intention. Social Media, I’m going to own you.

Sree says one should always sign off with her twitter handle: I’m @wordwhacker. Sree is @Sree (of course) and if you’re interested in social media at all, I suggest you follow his SreeTips page on FB. It’s also a great place if you know young people (your kids, their friends) looking for journalism or social media jobs.

Finally, @Sree, Sesame Street Parents never paid you for one of your columns. I called you a lot, left sweet messages, cajoling messages. I think this was before email. (Notice how quickly I’ve adapted to the new AP Style Sheet and removed the hyphen! I am so, so adaptable despite needing a colorist to maintain my real-looking blondish frizzy curls.) Too bad, @Sree; the magazine died a decade ago—but the money may have covered one or two orthodontist bills for your adorable twins.

So, as you comment, think about what you believe might be the obstacles slipping between Generation B-Squared and new media. I’d love to know you thoughts, reactions, bright ideas. They’ll all go in my book. Promise.

Linda (@wordwhacker)