Professor of Information Systems         College of Business Administration         University of Missouri - St. Louis
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You Are Never Too Old to Surf!
A Book in Progress

Check out my "Surfing the Internet" Blog!


This book is intended for parents, grandparents and great-grandparents who want to use the wide range of tools that are available today on the Internet, from simply surfing the web to buying online, using email, blogs and even social networking sites. Some of these people believe they cannot use the Internet, or do not understand why they would want to use certain tools, and so they never try. Others may actually try to use tools on the Internet but do not use them fully or wisely. Still others try to use tools on the Internet and get frustrated. This last group may stop using the tools. Or, more likely, they may try to get their children or grandchildren to help them, suffer through their child’s exasperation during an explanation, and still never become adept at using the tools. The goal of this book is to provide a resource that will help people to use the Internet fully and safely.

Often these parents, grandparents and great-grandparents cannot really fathom the Internet because it is “too magical.” They cannot see how the Internet works, they do not understand the “language” and they cannot figure out how it is similar to anything they know. They may not ever use the Internet for that reason. Or they may use the web a little, or they may use email, but they don’t feel confident in their use. Unlike younger folks, these people were raised when computers were big, scary things that were housed in special buildings with special conditions and used only by trained professionals. They find the computers intimidating. This book is written to demystify the Internet for those people, and for those who try to explain the Internet to their parents, grandparents and great-grandparents.

My Motivation

I am a professor of information systems, who has been programming and using computers for forty years. My initial use of email was on BITNet (a predecessor to the Internet) in the 1980s. My first attempts to put information on the Internet was with Gopher, the predecessor to the World Wide Web (now known simply as the Web). I chaired my university’s committee to create our first web presence and have been active in developing and using the web to share information since then (see My first purchase online was in 1997, and I have used Facebook since 2005. Said differently, I have been using and teaching the tools since they were invented, and so I have not only a great deal of experience to share, about the Internet, why one would use the Internet, what tools provide what kinds of services, and how to use it safely. Furthermore, since I conduct research on how people use technology, I have unique insights about helping people make easier and better use of the Internet.

Furthermore, I feel a need to share that information with people who do not want to make the investment in school and research that I did, so they can take advantage of today’s technologies. There is a lot of misunderstanding among people about what to do, how to do it and what is safe. My goal is to help them use the tools better without the pain generally associated with the task. I want to distill the 40 years of experience I have down to what they need to know, without the techno-babble, but with an emphasis on the important issues.

For example, when Internet shopping just began to be popular, my mother, who was in her 80s at the time, called me and said “I think I should come down there and see what this Internet thing is.” I replied, “Mother, they have the Internet in Chicago too.” She insisted that “no, I don’t think so, I think I need to come to St. Louis to see it.” My mother, who was never afraid to take things apart and make them work better couldn’t fathom the Internet because she couldn’t “see” it. She knew I used it a lot, but she didn’t know what it was. What I learned quickly was that I could only explain this fascinating new tool by relating it back to things she had experienced and did understand. After all, an ISP was essentially a telephone exchange, and a URL was used the same as a street address. She could relate to the need for locks on her doors and windows, and that could be used to explain the various kinds of computer security needed for safe use of the Internet. A blog is nothing more than a diary where those reading it actually admit it and leave comments. In other words, I could explain this “Internet thing” as long as I related it back to the things she knew and understood in the physical world.

My second story is set in a swimming pool. I had a bad knee for years and needed to exercise in a pool to avoid further injury, so I joined a water aerobic class. Most such classes, I have learned, are populated by women over 65, so I was always the “kid” in the class. I did not talk much about my background because people tend to be put off both by professors and “computer people.” But, it did slowly leak out that I was both. Thereafter people began to ask me questions about their computers. It is challenging, to say the least, to answer questions about computers when you are in a pool, there is no computer around, and your listeners do not really have much background from which to explain their problems. From this I learned to ask questions and explain fairly complicated problems and options in the simplest way I could. Here too I relied upon the tool of referring back to the physical world to explain how the electronics work.

The book uses the approach that I used with my mother and with the ladies in the pool. It is technically correct and complete, but is without the use of the normal jargon in the explanation. I have tried, instead to make the book “chatty” in an effort to engage the reader and keep his/her attention long enough to convey the concept. Further, I have tried to explain all aspects of the computer using physical analogies and practical solutions. The result is, I believe, an interesting, easy to read book that explains internet activities, what kinds of activities they might want to consider, and a “how to” manual to make it happen.

The Market

So, now you ask, “is there a market”? A quick check of 2010 census indicates that slightly more than 40 million people are age 65 or older, and about 28 million are 70 or older. Of the 28 million 70 or older about 16 million are women, who have a decreased likelihood of having been exposed to the Internet in a work environment. In addition, there is the baby boomer generation who may have used computers some for work, but may not fully appreciate the opportunities for growth, or for problems. These folks are retired (or about to retire), have grandchildren and are developing other interests. They are using the Internet (some with great trepidation) more every day. Yes, there is a market for such a book.

There are a number of books available today that either address “senior computing” or the Internet, or both. I would put them in three categories:
1. The book that tries to do everything
   • Many of the books in this category try to provide suggestions for seniors for everything from how to purchase a computer to how to surf and use email. There is either too much information in the book so it is overwhelming, or there is insufficient detail to help the user.
   • My book is different because I look at limited activities – how to use the Internet. In this way, I can produce a shorter, tighter, less intimidating book that is still helpful.
   • Examples:
     • It’s Never Too Late to Love a Computer by Abby Stokes (New York: Workman Publishing). This particular book is easy to read and interesting but, like the other books in this category, there is just too much information in the book to provide sufficient explanation.
     • Computing for Seniors QuickSteps, Marty Matthews, Carole Matthews, Gary David Bouton, Bobbi Sandberg McGraw-Hill Osborne Media). This book starts with how to use a mouse and a dialog box. Although it is focused on the senior user, that is achieved primarily by using applications that would be of interest to the senior, and photos of seniors. My book, by contrast, changes how you talk about the tools to be more responsive to the learning needs of seniors.

2. The general introduction
   • These are great books, but frequently include so much that they can be intimidating to new users. Further, since they do not focus on the baby-boom and beyond generations, they don’t teach by physical analogy and they don’t link the items to everyday needs.
   • Examples:
     • The Internet for Dummies by John Levine, Margaret Levine Young and Carol Baroudi (New York: Wiley). This is, like most Dummies books, filled with useful information. But, even the authors acknowledge, it is more of a reference book than a getting started book.
     • Using the Internet Safely for Seniors for Dummies, Nancy Muir and Linda Kriddle (New York: Wiley). This too is filled with valuable information, but it instructs what to do and not do rather than helping the user understand why the instructions exist. It helps the reader deal with what is there now, but not to be prepared for the future.

3. The scattergun approach
   • These are books that simply try to define concepts, not engage the reader. They generally are not very deep in content or instructive, and provide a superficial coverage of the topic.
   • Example: The Senior’s Guide to Easy Computing, by Rebecca Sharp Colmer (Chelsea, MI: Eklektika Press). This book has many definitions, but does not provide instruction to the user.

4. A focused style
   • These are books with a similar style to mine in that it covers just the internet and it is aimed at the same market.
   • Example: Facebook and Twitter For Seniors For Dummies by Marsha Collier. This book looks only at two of the tools and does not provide an overview of the whole internet to help readers understand how these tools fit in.

I believe the book will appeal to the “senior” market, especially women. As a woman, I think that I provide a natural link to that market. Throughout my career, women have come to me to ask questions, get advice, take classes and engage for consulting because they felt it was easier to ask questions of a woman. I expect the same will be true with this book. In addition, this same demographic expressed strong opinions about not being willing to read a book for “dummies” or “idiots” as with some of the common series titles.

Manuscript Details

The project was initially started a few years ago. As an academic, I foolishly believed that I could send my prospectus and sample chapters to editors and they would consider the merits of the book. I was disappointed with rejections and non-responses. Worse yet, the country was entering a horrible financial market, and most editors believed it was the wrong time to take on a new project. So, I put the project on a shelf for a while and worked on other projects.

Having pursued this previously, I have a completed draft – this is not what people in computing call vaporware. Since it is a few years old, I will need to update the screens captured and some of the text (although much of it will be fine as is). The major change will be a need to write a chapter on social networking sites (which was covered briefly). I have given several seminars to “older adults” on social networking sites recently, and so I have an outline of material available, and need to follow that to create the chapter.

Most of the chapters have already been reviewed by my small panel of advisors, including:
• two women over the age of 70 who do not use the computer at this time
• three men over the age of 55 (one over the age of 70) who have some understanding of the internet and how it is used
• two women over the age of 50 who have some understanding of the internet and how it is used
• one man under the age of 50 with some understanding of the internet and how it is used who has worked much with his parents in using the internet. I have already responded to their concerns and suggestions.

In other words, I believe I can deliver the project quickly if we can find a publisher who is interested.

This book will have nine chapters, and will cover approximately 200 pages:
Chapter 1: What is the Internet
Chapter 2: The World Wide Web
Chapter 3: The Mechanics of Browsing
Chapter 4: Navigating Special Types of Sites
Chapter 5: e-Mail
Chapter 6: Blogs
Chapter 7: Social Networking Sites
Chapter 8: Internet Tools – Instant Messaging, Video Conferencing and RSS
Chapter 9: Security

The book takes a function approach to discussing the Internet. Chapter 1 just provides a basis for understanding the Internet. Chapters 2-4 discuss the World Wide Web. Chapter 2 provides an introduction and overview and Chapter 3 provides guidelines on how to browse and find the sites they need and want. Chapter 4 introduces some specific functionality: how to purchase, charitable click-through sites, companion sites (itunes), auction sites, and community sites. Each section describes the unique characteristics of the site and helps the reader understand how it works and why. Chapter 5 provides the parallel (to chapters 2-4) explanations for email. At this time, I expect all the content will work well in one chapter, but it may be expanded over two chapters. Chapter 6 introduces blogging, the kinds of blogs that are available to read, why one would want to create a blog and how businesses use them to learn about product availability. Chapter 7 will be a new chapter covering social networking sites, such as Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter. Chapter 8 introduces “newer” web technologies that the reader may need, such as instant messaging, chat and RSS. Finally Chapter 9 addresses all those nasty security issues that are critical to safe surfing and Internet use (but that are frequently ignored by users). This includes updating browsers, operating systems and patches. Further, it reinforces the save internet messages that are scattered throughout the other chapters.

So, why is this book really worth reading? My goal is not to give these users a cookbook that outlines the steps to achieving a particular outcome. Instead, I want to help the user understand the tools and the reasons they might want to use them. Rather than showing the user how to use Facebook, for example, I want to help them understand why they might want to use Facebook, what options exist, and what risks are associated with various kinds of usage. In other words, I want the reader of my book to become an educated consumer of the technology. To achieve this, I want them to read the book, not just look at the examples. I have tried to make my prose easy and friendly, using humor whenever possible. I have used real examples from people I know. For example, I tracked the questions, the problems and the issues and used them -- as well as reflections from the children, who normally fix their parents' computer problems -- from “the ladies in the pool” described earlier. As I wrote the individual chapters, I shared them with these older, less computer oriented individuals to ensure that I was answering the right questions with the right tone. Although I have received suggestions from the readers, their overall opinion has been quite positive. I even have a panel of “over 55s” whom I consulted about each topic that I included in the book, to ensure that the topics and examples are relevant.

I have also avoided jargon. Too often computer authors define jargon (either a word or phrase), and then they use it. If the reader is not comfortable with the definition (or using the jargon at all), then he or she is not comfortable with the explanation. Instead, I avoid jargon in my explanations, and keep them as straightforward as possible. In addition, it makes the prose read more like a dictionary and hampers understanding. I build in explanations, and the physical analogies described earlier to avoid use of jargon.

I have also avoided the “cutesy” approach to writing. There are styles associated with some of these books that involve including pretend users and quotes and sometimes cartoon characters. The potential readers I interviewed were not positive about cute gimmicks.

However, the book is not just the philosophy of the internet. There are step-by-step examples of how to complete tasks. I have used screen captures liberally in addition to words to make that understanding easier.

Finally, and probably most important, I intend to supplement the book with an active website. As an example, you can consider the website for my academic book, I use this website to provide up-to-date examples and ideas on the topics covered. For this book, I would expect the primary part of the website to be a blog that addresses changes in the technologies and questions that have arisen. It would also highlight new interesting sites, tools or news pertaining to the topics in the book. This is an easy way to keep the reader engaged and up to date.

The Author

I am an “over 55" baby boomer with over 40 years using and programming computers. I have been a professor of Information Systems for 32 years, having completed my graduate work in systems engineering at Northwestern University. I have published many academic papers and two books (John Wiley publisher) that are summarized on the enclosed curriculum vita. In addition, I have created much content that was not formally published, but rather exists in self-published books or on the Internet.

Much of my research over the years has focused on an area which is now known as Business Intelligence. In particular, I have conducted research on information needs of those making tough, unstructured decisions. This main focus has taken me several directions, but has always had core of needing to understand what people really know, and how best to relay that to them. My teaching primarily involves the area of business intelligence as well as of systems analysis. The second is relevant to understanding my book because its purpose is to teach information systems students how to interact with business users to understand the real needs for information systems. In other words, I teach the “geeks” how to avoid preconceived notions about needs and jargon to help relate better to the clients they are serving. I believe that is a skill that has served me well in this book.


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