Cyberspace is the information center and social playground of the relatively young, like middle-aged folks and especially the ever booming numbers of youngsters who are growing up with the word "internet" as commonplace in their thoughts as "TV" and "library".... Not exactly. Seniors are exploring cyberspace also, setting up their own territories and groups, such as Third Age, Senior.com, Senior Search, and the AOL Senior chat rooms. Unique among these online worlds is The Geezer Brigade (www.thegeezerbrigade.com) - a group that relishes the philosophy of being feisty codgers and codgerettes, as well as any and all humor that allows them to defy, embrace, and transcend the experience of being old. They are an excellent example of how the internet offers the opportunity for individuals with special interests, issues, or backgrounds to come together in a virtual group. In the "real" world, such groups may have been impossible to create due to geographical distance or simply the inability of the people to find each other.
People Make a Group:
The Founders, Leaders, and Membership
A first step in understanding any group - online or otherwise - is knowing something about its members, its leaders, and especially the founders whose vision shaped the group's initial spirit and
direction. The Geezer Brigade (TGB) was created and continues to be run by The Geezer-in-Chief John Kernell, 65, of South Carolina (initially, he told me NORTH Carolina, but later jokingly corrected himself and chalked up his absented-minded error as "a senior moment"). Retired in 1991 from his position as vice president for an international PR firm, Kernell did anything but "retire" from an energetic lifestyle. He moved to Mexico, finished a novel, became fluent in Spanish, formally studied piano at a music conservatory, played piano in a good restaurant, designed an alternative therapy program to overcome his health problems, took his son to Europe on stock market profits, and eventually moved to Charleston for the weather and cultural opportunities. He also a has degree in English, Speech and Drama from Cornell and received an MA in counseling psychology when he was 44. It was during his drive to Charleston that he came up with the idea for a seniors club called The Geezer Brigade. At first he wasn't sure how he was going to make it work, but when he fired up his PowerMac and connected to AOL, a pop-up ad announced "Put your business on the Internet." And so he did. "I always knew I would some day seek to empower other Seniors while in retirement. Empowerment through humor is one way.... My forebears were Irish vaudeville comedians." As its founding member, he brought to TGB the energetic, adventurous, and broad-minded attitude that is so evident in his life.
How does the background,
personality, and vision
of the founders shape
the initial spirit and
direction of the group?
TGB itself consists of approximately 160 members from all over North America, equally split between men and women. The average age for men is 73 and for women,70. The entry level age is 55, with the oldest man at 96 and the oldest woman, 88. Most members are retired mid-level, white collar workers, with a college degree but no advanced education. "But the group is very
heterogeneous," Kernell explained, "LOTS of exceptions. Ex-Army. Language teacher. Dentists. Doctors." No doubt, the adventurous, open-minded philosophy of TGB draws such a diverse collection of people together, and that diversity in turns reinforces the philosophy.
What is the composition
of the group membership?
How does it influence the
dynamics of the group?
Leadership and motivation for promoting the group tend to emerge from the membership when people feel a common bond, when there is group spirit. While members of TGB enjoyed the humorous e-mail publications distributed daily, it was the Saturday chat program that enabled them to "meet," to get to know each other and connect as a group. As a result, Kernell noted, it became the breeding ground for leaders over the years. One person appointed himself as Membership Chairman and devised a poster campaign for promoting TGB among senior centers. Others helped developed a member's photo montage web site and a chain-letter e-mail to be used as a type of bulletin board that circulates among the membership.
Who are the leaders
in the group and how
do they shape its evolution?
Expanding the membership and seeking out new pathways for participants to interact with each other tend to be two common initiatives during the early stages of a group's development. This is true for all groups, but especially so in cyberspace. Because the internet itself is a multifaceted communication medium, groups that form there have at their disposal a variety of techniques for communicating with each other and spreading the word about the group. Leaders early in the group's development often tackle these communication challenges.
How Does This Work?
An online group may use a variety of strategies to encourage communication among its members and thereby establish group cohesion, the most basic methods being web sites, e-mail lists, private e-mail, newsgroups, chat, telephone contacts, hardcopy communications, and in-person meetings. Each method has its pros and cons. Combining different strategies tends to synergistically cancel out the limitations while maximizing the strength of the group. Most online organizations develop in the direction of expanding their interactions into new domains. Over the course of its early history, TGB demonstrated this broadening of communication channels, becoming more interactive each step along the way. The internet as a information and social medium tends to become more and more thoroughly integrated into the fabric of the group. At the same time, the group extends it reaches into the hardcopy and in-person realms.
How does the communication infrastructure
influence the dynamics
of the group?
Web Site- TGB's web site serves a variety of functions. It provides information and announcements about the group. It recruits and registers new members. Kernell also uses it to gather resources for TGB, as evident in the online humor competitions in which visitors to the site were encouraged to send in jokes and stories (often material they found on the internet).
Daily E-mails - As Kernell gathered more humorous material from his members as well as from his own internet searches, it occurred to him that he could bundle the material together, edit it, and send it out daily as a membership feature. Thus, "From The Geezer Brigade's Humor HQ: The Best of the Best for 12/31/98" (etc.) was born. Sent to members every morning, it generated tremendous membership response as well as many humorous return e-mails from which Kernell borrowed material (giving credit to the creators). The daily e-mail publications and the members' e-mail responses created a positive feedback loop.
Membership Roster: - In her list of principles for establishing a successful online community, Amy Jo Kim (www.naima.com) mentions the importance of creating member profiles that evolve over time. Early on, TGB introduced a confidential membership roster, with voluntary profiles, that
is updated and circulated monthly. About half the members have contributed short profiles. The roster allows members to quickly make new friends in other parts of North America with similar interests, and it also implicitly announces the expanding membership - and hence the success - of the group. Making the roster confidential also instills a feeling of status and belonging among those who receive it. Kernell noted that "when a popular member, whose humor has been featured in both the daily e-mails and the printed newsletter, went in for cancer treatment, his online friends rallied around in ways that moved him greatly each time he read their e-mails of support." Private e-mail among members is an extremely important, complex, yet often hidden, infrastructure that allows more intimate bonding between people. Usually (but not always), it increases the cohesion of the whole group.
Integration with Hardcopy - The internet is a powerful communication tool, but so are hardcopy publications. Integrating the two is a synergistically powerful combination that helps overcome the disadvantages of either approach. Online resources can be extended into print, and print resources can be incorporated online. TGB circulates a monthly printed newsletter, The Brigadier. Kernell also bundled up some of the material from one of the monthly humor contests and sent it to Dear Abby, where it was published with the comment "In case you're wondering what Seniors are doing with their time these days..." It was seen by 20,000,000 people, Kernell noted, "and gave us a legitimacy and exposure we would have never been able to achieve otherwise." After the Dear Abby article appeared, Kernell queried the membership and asked them whom they might invite to be their first Comedian in Residence. The votes for Phyllis Diller led the pack, with Rodney Dangerfield in second place. Using the internet, Kernell tracked down her agent and pitched the idea. Delighted with TGB, Diller agreed to have the group use material from her book "The Joys of Aging...and How to Avoid Them" in their newsletter. Later Kernell came across a cartoon by Peter Mueller depicting a combative Senior with a punk hairdo, a pierced nose and grunge clothing, saying to a startled "straight" young onlooker, "What are you looking at?" For Kernell, it perfectly expressed The Geezer Creed. After tracking down Mueller via the internet, he arranged a deal to reuse some of Mueller's published cartoons in the newsletter.
Membership Feedback - No organization can thrive without feedback from its members. Denying people the opportunity to contribute ideas and opinions leads to a top-down or outright monarchical style of running the group. It also shuts down the opportunity for new and creative ideas. Kernell did a postage pre-paid mail-back satisfaction survey in June of 1998, that was enclosed with the monthly printed newsletter. A majority of the membership responded favorably.
Real Time Chat - A later addition to TGB was a weekly Saturday chat meeting, moderating by Kernell. The one hour meetings are scheduled as opportunities to discuss a topic-for-the-week, but often the gathering simply becomes a time to hang out together. The meeting is private - and password protected - which eliminates the annoyance of unpleasant intruders and programmed commercial advertisements that tend to plague the senior chat rooms of large online networks, like AOL. Real time ("synchronous") encounters online create a different atmosphere than e-mail lists and newsgroups. The sense of "presence" of others is more palpable, and it's a sign of commitment for people to be online at the same location at the same time. Making the meeting a private, closed-group session can enhance the identity and boundary of the group. If an online group succeeds in maintaining ongoing chat sessions, it's both a sign of group cohesion as well as a force that perpetuates group cohesion. Introducing chat was a significant developmental step for TGB. It provided the first opportunity for the members to meet together as a group. Kernell noted that people have come to feel close and personally vulnerable to other members whom they have yet to meet in-person.
Chain E-mail - As of the writing of this article, TGB did not include an e-mail list (listserv), which can be a valuable format for online group interaction. However, Kernell did mention plans for "the world's first Rotating Bulletin Board" - an e-mail chain letter with members' opinions on set topics added each time the e-mail is forwarded. A unique combination of e-mail and newsgroup formats, the Rotating Bulletin Board concept did pose some problems: In what order should it pass through the membership? What if someone in the chain failed to pass the message along? Kernell hoped that asking people to sign up for Bulletin Board might increase the sense of responsibility for keeping the chain messages going. The enthusiasm many members showed for the idea revealed their desire for collaborative group activity.
In-Person Gatherings - Online groups can be fascinating and valuable, but they are not a substitute for in-person encounters. When people develop meaningful relationships in cyberspace, they inevitably want and need to meet in-person. It helps to seal the relationship and make it seem more "real." In-person meetings can in turn solidify the relationship. Similar to online chat - but packing an even more powerful punch - in-person group meetings both indicates group cohesion and commitment as well as fortifies group cohesion and commitment. "Because we are bound together by humor and our Seniority," Kernell noted, "when I hosted a lunch for 13 local members here in Charleston, I was struck by how quickly and how satisfyingly we connected, establishing within a hour or so an easy camaraderie based on our online experience of the online organization we all belonged to." The people who regularly attend in-person (and online) meetings tend to become the influential, stable core of the group.
What We Believe
How does the
shape the group
and address the
needs of its members?
The communication infrastructure provides the vehicle for the group's existence, but it's the group's ideology that gives it a unique identity and purpose. To understand this dimension of TGB, I started off my e-mail interview with Kernell by asking a question that required him to type very little, but hopefully think a lot. "If you could only pick THREE WORDS to capture what the Geezer Brigade is all about, what would those three words be?" Later that day, his response came back:
The membership satisfaction survey revealed that the humor was far and away the number one appeal of TGB. It is the kind of wry, self-deprecating humor that Phyllis Diller expresses about her age. The daily e-mail, for example, may be peppered with one-liners like "Some minds are like concrete: thoroughly mixed up and permanently set" or "It's frustrating when you know all the answers, but nobody bothers to ask you the questions any more." At the same time, the humor is filled with feistiness and spunk. It demonstrates the adventuresome, curious, and self-aware attitude of TGB. Kernell said:
I believe that humor is empowering to Seniors. It is also salutary. If you
go watch Patch Adams, the new Robin Williams movie, the whole premise of the movie is that humor is a powerful tool in the hands of a physician....
I think because TGB is run by a 65-year-old semi-retired geezer that the humor
we share in the daily e-mails, monthly newsletter, and weekly chats has a
special feel to it that is more readily understood and appreciated by other
Seniors, almost as if we were an ethnic minority that shared a special
language or dialect. We APPRECIATE each other in special ways that are not so present in very heterogeneous online groups.
The Geezer philosophy of continuing to be feisty and adventurous perfectly suits the group for using the internet as a vehicle for meeting, since the internet is the "new frontier." There is a pioneering spirit among TGB. Rather than forging streams and crossing mountains, TGB people are buying modems and setting out into cyberspace. Although there are other online groups for seniors, Kernell sees the TGB as different, unique. He finds the other groups to be rather bland, predictable, and tending to follow the "make nice" and "go along to get along" philosophy. TGB has a more pugnacious mission, as evident in the term "Brigade":
I think we ARE a minority among Seniors and a good and useful one. There
is a tendency to "go along" as we age, both at work and at home. Some people
end up as "Seniors" having somehow lost entirely their capacity for
genuineness, having compromised away their connection to their "real selves"
in an effort to be accepted. They have fixed themselves to gain approval
and, in the process, LOST their Selves. Their humor is predictable, strained
and not terribly funny. Their laughter is automatic and is hard for Geezers
to be around. We are not Seniors, Golden Agers, Third Agers, etc. We are GEEZERS. This implies feistiness, spunk, a sparkle in the eyes, aliveness, even eccentricity. We make trouble, in a good way, by refusing to be categorized, pigeonholed or predictable. We're still struggling to grow and find ourselves. Our motto is "Do not go gentle into that good night!" Obviously, I'm communicating a very clear 'us' and 'them' situation, perhaps because I'm so terrified of becoming like how I perceive them to be.
A group's ideology has a therapeutic impact on its members (Suler, 1964). Simply having a belief system creates structure and meaning to overcome the anxiety associated uncertainty. A philosophy of self-expression and altruism reinforces identity and self-esteem. Most importantly, the particular, unique aspects of a given group's ideology point to needs within the members that are being addressed by that ideology. For TGB, the feisty, pugnacious Geezer philosophy serves as a kind of cognitive antidote that counteracts the social, psychological, and emotional problems associated with age and the inevitability of death.
Recognition and Belonging
A fascinating, powerful outcome of the internet is the opportunity it offers for anyone with a computer and modem to have a voice, to be recognized. Anyone can publish a web page that says anything you want it to say. Anyone can express their opinion in a public arena without your "real world" status or appearance being a significant factor in whether people listen. This kind of recognition is part of the appeal of TGB. Geezers have their say. They are recognized as Geezers, as unique people ("I'm over 55! I'm 96!"). On a much more basic level, they are recognized as people. Kernell noted how a very effective advertisement in the 1930s was a small national magazine ad in the 30s that said: "$1.00: Get Mail." Lonely older folks who wanted something in their mailboxes every day sent in their dollar - a lot of money in those days - and the entrepreneur who thought up the ad put their names on the mailing lists of commercial enterprises and those making free offers. The daily e-mails of TGB address a similar need, except the mail is personalized to the psychological and emotional mindset of the members, and it integrates feedback from the members. The daily e-mails also use a "blind carbon" so each recipient sees only his/her own address as the destination. Kernell anticipates what the recipients might think, "This e-mail is specifically addressed to me! I am still important enough to get mail every day." Kernell puts his effort into making the e-mails as funny, offbeat and senior-friendly as possible. "A number of members said how much they appreciated being able to get up, go to their computer and get a laugh to start the day."
Above and beyond simply being recognized, TGB gives its members the opportunity to be involved, to BELONG. This is valuable to retired seniors whose work and social circles may have become narrowed - and especially valuable to "Geezers" who, in their in-person life, may have difficulty finding like-minded Geezers. "I like the total concept of old codgers such as myself having a cyber club by which we can share and exchange," one member stated in the satisfaction survey. "FRIENDS," said another, "are without doubt the most interesting and important result of my Brigade membership, both sexes, altho' at my age: especially women friends." Thanks to the internet, the circle of friends are available 24 hours a day, and keeps expanding in interesting and challenging ways. Some benefit from that feeling of recognition and belonging even though they are not online. One semi-retired comic in the midwest delights in seeing his original humor published in The Brigadier.
Some psychological research has been critical of the internet. The findings suggest that online relationships draw people away from or thwart the development of in-person relationships - resulting in an "addiction" to the easy, superficial relationships of cyberspace, increased loneliness, and depression. I asked Kernell if this might be an issue for the people of TGB. Might they be especially vulnerable to this problem given the fact that they are seniors? Or might just the opposite be true? Kernell did admit that intimacy is at times a bit too easy, that it requires less effort that in-person intimacy. The friendships sometimes feel great but don't genuinely run deep. But he also added this:
For younger people, making new friends in the real world is relatively easy,
depending on one's capacity. A big pool of possibilities... For older people, I don't think it's quite so easy. Maybe we SHOULD try harder, but we don't. We miss the people our age we used to know and we aren't particularly interested in getting to know younger people in any more than a casual, superficial way. Their issues don't seem to be our issues. And they seem to pretty ageist in their attitudes. So, we are ALREADY a bit lonely and depressed. Instead of becoming more so, online relationships with peers seem delightful and as easy to establish as those available to young people in the real world. The Internet is a RESOURCE.
Where We've Been, Where We're Going
All groups - online and in-person - will pass through various stages in the course of their history. According to some theories, those stages are predictable: (1) "norming" (the group establishes goals and basic rules for behaving), (2) "conforming" (harmony and affection, an emphasis on similarities, members try hard to get along and avoid conflict); (3) "storming" (conflicts arise over differences of opinion and leadership struggles); and, (4) "performing" (the group accepts diversity of opinion, learns how to deal with conflict, and becomes flexible in achieving its goals). As a fairly young group, developmentally speaking, TGB probably falls somewhere between the first and second stages. For a group that values feistiness and devalues the "go along to get along" philosophy, it will be interesting to see how it maneuvers the conforming versus storming stages. Some people, who have observed these kinds of patterns in the history of online groups, believe early stages marked by advertising and recruiting eventually lead to either a stagnant atmosphere where newcomers are rejected, or a mature group in which diversity is embraced.
stages does the group
In my e-mail interview with Kernell, it became clear that milestones in the history of TGB also involved the expansion of group interactivity. In the earliest stage, TGB mostly involved the distribution of the daily e-mails and the monthly newsletter. These publications were the anchor that united all members and encouraged one-on-one encounters among them. Then, the introduction of the Saturday chat program marked a qualitative change towards members interacting with members as a group. Kernell's plans for the future involve building on this interactivity - in part by boosting membership (the recruiting stage), expanding the chat program, and launching the Rotating Bulletin Board. Creating an e-mail list (listserv) would be another powerful alternative for enhancing group interactions, cohesion, and identity. Compared to in-person groups, online groups may be unique in how the extent and formats for group interactivity serve as developmental benchmarks.
The developmental progress of an online group may be measured by how well it addresses the criteria for creating a successful online community - especially Amy Jo Kim's (www.naima.com) nine basic principles. TGB clearly has addressed 1,3 , and 6, and has begun to tackle 2,4, 7, and 9.
1. Define the purpose of the community
2. Create distinct gathering places
3. Create member profiles that evolve over time
4. Promote effective leadership
5. Define a clear-yet-flexible code of conduct
6. Organize and promote cyclic events
7. Provide a range of roles that couple power with responsibility
8. Facilitate member-created subgroups
9. Integrate the online environment with the "real" world
Some Methodological Footnotes
In this article I've focused mostly on studying the various features of the online group itself. Also important are the METHODS used to carry out that study. Here, with TGB, I've relied mostly on my interview with John Kernell, comparing the results with what I've discovered in my other work online, particularly my ongoing study of Palace. Other options include in-depth interviews with group members (e.g., my article on the Palace wizards) and quantitative surveys of members, including those that may have been carried out by the group itself, as in TGB's satisfaction survey. Field observations also are very valuable - especially my favorite variation of field research, "participant-observation." You join the group, and as a member, try to juggle an objective analysis of the group with the evaluation of your own subjective reactions..... In the case of TGB, I'll have to wait awhile in order to employ this tactic. :-)
Look at the group with a variety of research methods.
See also in The Psychology of Cyberspace:
Unique groups in cyberspace
Therapy and support groups in cyberspace
Social psychology of online groups and communities
Developmental stages of mailing lists
Making virtual communities work
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See also in hardcopy (available upon request)
Suler, J.R. (1984). The role of ideology in self-help groups. Social Policy, 14, 29-36.