Transcript of Mary Furlong Interview

News from around the world ... it's Silicon Valley Radio. Percentagewise, senior citizens is the Internet's fastest-growing group. SeniorNet director Mary Furlong sees her Internet community as a park where people can sit on a porch swing and chat.

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Mary, when did you come up with the idea for SeniorNet?

Mary Furlong:

Well, it was about 13 years ago. I was a young professor at the time, and a colleague came up to me at the time and said, "Would you like to write a book called Computers for Kids Over 60?" And I liked the title, and I was teaching teachers how to use technology at the time. We went to a toy store and bought computers and I made lemonade and cookies, and we went out to senior centers and nursing homes all over the Washington, D.C., area.

What I discovered was that older people had a great deal of talent and experience to bring to the table. And unlike our graduate students, they wanted to take classes two or three times. So it was a combination of understanding this, this powerful resource group, this wonderful creative population of older people.

My mother's from the South, and when we would go back to the South every summer I would see how they treated people, and there was a sense of community that my grandmother had that doesn't really exist today. And I really felt that if I could take the technology and create a sense of community for older people, they could share what they were learning.

So my metaphor was really a park in Virginia, where people sat on their gliders and talked, and the technology at the time, back in 1986, was Delphi.

SVR:How has your vision changed from your initial conception to what it is now, and what do you see for the future?


We're on three networks. We're on America Online, the Microsoft Network, and the Web, and we had to create an infrastructure where older people could go and learn how to use computers, because many people didn't have access. We have 80 centers across the United States and 1 in New Zealand, and we've created public-access places for older people to learn how to send electronic mail and learn how to use the technology.

We've also published things, like our new book, Young at Heart, which is a guide to using computers and communications. So I think we have a lot of resources, and we have 700 volunteer instructors who are helping people learn how to go online. That's where it is today. I think of SeniorNet sometimes as the oldest online community because our members range in age from 55 to 102.

Our community has had some influence. In schools we've had intergenerational projects. With the White House Conference on Aging, we were the official online community to carry that event. We've had seven marriages, I think. That changes daily. And we've got some very robust forums.

In the next two to three years SeniorNet will be very exciting to be around because I see it becoming a global resource. We will be sharing the talents and knowledge of older adults in Europe and Australia and Japan. And we will be having exciting collaborative projects among these populations.

SVR:Is it primarily United States-based at the moment?

Furlong:Yes, although we do have a learning center in New Zealand. But we are going to make a targeted effort to grow SeniorNet globally.

SVR:What are some of your favorite anecdotes that have developed from working with SeniorNet?

Furlong: Online, I guess, I have some favorite people. We have a man who sings every night. His name is Gordon. And he sort of entertains us, and he sings "Shine on Harvest Moon" and somehow makes us feel like he takes a dance around the dance floor. There's also a Newcomer's Club that meets online.

One of my favorite moments was during the Gulf War. I was in a hotel in New York, and I had such a sense of being alone because I was away from my family and the world was at war. I went online and suddenly I found older adults around the country reaching out and touching each other and kind of coming together to say, "We're going to be okay."

There's also a lot of humor and fun. There's romance. There's a wonderful moment I remember when a teenage girl was pregnant and she was finding it very difficult to handle school, and she went into the Intergenerational Forum and she met a SeniorNet member who happened to be a doctor and he sort of helped advise her as she was thinking about the pain of giving up her baby. And I remember she wrote back to him and said, "Would you be the honorary grandfather of my child?" And he said, "You honor me more than you know."

SVR:With this particular demographic group, you must have a wealth of history. Has that been archived at all, the history of your members?

Furlong:Yes, though not as much as I would like. We do have a World War II area online. One of my favorite stories is about how a high school student went online and said, "Do any of you remember World War II?" And, of course, within 24 hours he had 17 different messages saying, "Yes, I was here" and these very articulate descriptions of World War II.

Another girl asked, "Were there any women in World War II?" And we got these incredible stories of the role of women in World War II. But we haven't been able to identify a supporter that's been able to allow us to expand that archive in the depth that I would like.

But, of course, the students that come in to SeniorNet to get their term papers done, they find a wealth of history. And that's kind of fun.

SVR:When I was at the TED Conference, I was surprised to find that the 55 and older age group was, by percentage, the largest-growing audience on the Web. Were you surprised by that? Or did you know that for some time?

Furlong:No, although we have a new research study that's on our Web site and we do look at this market and watch it over time.

In the last seven months I have seen a major difference in the growth of senior computer usage and the growth of online usage. And there's a variety of reasons for that. But what it takes in terms of navigating the Web is time -- and what seniors have is the time, and they also have the education level to explore these new worlds.

The reason young kids can go online so much is because they're around and they can do that. It's hardest for the group that Negroponte calls the "digital homeless," those of us who are working and taking care of children. It's hard to find a lot of time to explore online, but older people do have that time. And they are very interested in managing their money and checking out their stock accounts and sending electronic mail -- and finding new hobbies.

So it's an incredible confluence of the number of people turning 50 and the number of Web sites going up. You're just going to see more and more of that. What's different now is that Intel and Microsoft are now, even in their advertising, showing older people using technology. It's exciting.

SVR:How has SeniorNet changed the lives of people in this demographic group?

Furlong:Well, I think of Don Young, a member in Atlanta, Georgia, and Pete Petrades, a member in Connecticut. These were two men who were downsized out of their company, at a time when I don't think they were ready to be downsized. Maybe they had a year or two where they wanted to continue working. And yet, through the exigencies of the economy, they left, and their identity was not okay at that point.

When they began to discover new, creative roles and new ways to form a sense of identity in retirement, through part-time employment and through their role in SeniorNet, they felt this sense of empowerment. I think that's been our greatest contribution, that we have shared the idea of SeniorNet with so many people, and that they can become leaders in the SeniorNet community.

SVR:What advice do you have for a senior citizen who's never owned a computer, let alone gone online?

Furlong: Well, that's why we wrote the book Young at Heart. My experience with older people is that as soon as they find out there's a delete button, their life gets a lot easier. So I would advise that older people read a little bit (whether it's Young at Heart or a magazine), explore with some of their friends what's happening, look at a community college as a place to take a class, and not be afraid.

The biggest barrier is, "Should I try this?" But as the woman who is the queen's representative in New Zealand said, "I just turned sixty, I had my ears pierced, and now I'm learning how to use a computer.'

On the other side of the spectrum, we have a member who's a 102. She's in a nursing home in Ohio, and she was taking our computer class there and she said, "Send out for a new hearing aid for me, because I need batteries. I want to make sure I hear what's going on." One of our members, Matt Lane, said in 1986, "Computers may be the real fountain of youth for older adults." I think it's time for them to get their feet wet and step into the pool.

SVR:What lessons have you learned from having set up SeniorNet that you think others should be aware of when setting up community groups like SeniorNet or even setting up Web sites in general?

Furlong:Well, the first thing I would do is start with a vision of the people, not with a vision of the technology. And I would think about, as Stewart Brand says, how the members of that community can become the producers.

Secondly, I would think about what structures you can create, what roles can be designed, and where those members can take leadership roles? We have people who run our Newcomer's Group or our Care Giver's Forum -- with something like that I would think about how that community can have influence outside of itself.

For example, what venues in the media should that community be communicating to? What venues in government? What venues in the business world? And I would wonder what support structures could be put in place so it's a safe community.

And then I would try to find the best designers I could so that navigational strategies are strong; I think you need tenacity to build an online community because it's not easy. And yet, it's one of the most rewarding things you could ever do.

SVR:Are there a couple of elders whom you hold close to heart, who have inspired and helped guide you?

Furlong:Oh yes, absolutely.

SVR:Who would those people be?

Furlong: Well, Lloyd Morisat is president of the Marco Foundation. He's been my mentor for 11 years. He was the cocreator of Sesame Street. He and Joan Coney were able to create a new concept that circled the globe with that show. So my vision for SeniorNet is that it would one day be as successful as Sesame Street was for young children.

Daniel Sakolow, who is chairman of our board, provides a great deal of advice and direction for me. The SeniorNet members are a source of continual inspiration -- whether it's Lulu in New York, who says, "I retired to Senior Net," and she makes a difference every single day -- or Fran Middleton who's been with me since the very first day, who goes to the bashes and who is there. Mabel in Hawaii is terrific.

These are my friends. I love these people. They've touched my life, and they're just kind of all over the country. The spirit is there. And it's not just the older people. It's the other people who believed. The people who said, "Let's bring this to a hospital" or "Let's open up our community college for a SeniorNet learning center."

Or people who are now just saying, "I think this would be good for my mother or grandmother." It's humbling to have an idea that so many people have invested in.

SVR:What's the single most moving experience you've had in setting up SeniorNet?

Furlong: Single most moving experience ... gee, that's a tough question. I don't know if this is the single most important experience, but it's an important one.

Kathleen Farrell is a SeniorNet member in Oregon, and I often don't get house calls in the middle of the night but one of our staff was online, and Kathleen had keeled over on her computer. So I got a midnight call, and the staff person said, "I think something's happened to Kathleen in Oregon" and "What should I do?" And I said, "Well, I think we must send the police."

And so we sent the police to her house and, as Kathleen tells it, these three police cars came up and lights were shining and they knocked on her door and said, "Are you okay?" Apparently there was a storm in Oregon. Of course, we didn't know that, because we were online. We couldn't see the weather.

And the next day I called her. She was fine but the storm had broken her modem. I said, "Are you okay? Are you upset that we sent the police to you?" And she said, "No. It's really important that you cared."

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