A Welcome Voice of Inexperience

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By Frank Ahrens
Sunday, August 13, 2006

My late mother first logged on to the Web in 1999, when her office in West Virginia got Internet access. She was 76. She didn't blog, she didn't shop online, she didn't download music. She learned how to use the Web because it let her do something she wanted to do: read articles that her son wrote in The Washington Post. Months later, when she was given a work e-mail account, she took to it instantly because it gave her another way to stay in touch with her son.

Companies can crank out wondrous gadgets, software and technology that are eye-poppingly cool but fall flat in the market because no one is demanding them. People learn to use technology when it helps them do a thing they want to do, not for the sake of the gadget. Windows found that out with its Smart Display Web-enabled video tablet, which it launched in 2003 to the sound of crickets chirping.

As with my mom, age does not seem an entry-barrier to technology when one has a need and finds a tool to fulfill it.

Witness "Peter," the latest YouTube star.

On Aug. 5, Peter -- a Brit whose user name is geriatric1927, a reference to the year of his birth -- posted his first YouTube video, a 2-minute 7-second introduction humbly called "first try."

The video starts with some text: "geriatric gripes and grumbles." There's a blues intro that's too loud. Peter turns it down and addresses a Web camera, sitting in front of patterned wallpaper and personal photographs, including that of a motorcycle.

"I got addicted to YouTube," he says. "It's a fascinating place to go to see all the wonderful videos that you young people have produced. So I thought I would have a go at doing one myself. But, as you can see if this ever does get uploaded to YouTube, I need a lot of help."

What Peter is getting so far is a lot of viewers. The first of five videos posted on his YouTube page -- http://www.youtube.com/profile?user=geriatric1927 -- so far has been viewed more than 154,000 times. He has signed up more than 4,200 subscribers, putting him at the top of the most-subscribed list of the past week.

And he's getting favorable, even respectful, comments.

"Sir, your videos are without a doubt some of the best I've seen on YouTube," writes one commenter. "And you have a certain presence that draws people to listen (and hopefully learn). I look forward to learning more about your life and history, and listening to more gripes!"

Several commenters say Peter reminds them of their own grandfathers. Others say he's an inspiration to older people who are trying to learn computer skills. Everyone, it seems, is amazed simply by his presence on the site, which is dominated by the teens-to-twenties set. "Good to find a father figure on here!" writes another commenter. Another said he thought that, at 49, Peter was one of YouTube's elder statesmen.

One jerk wrote, "You are too old to be on here." He was summarily flamed by subsequent posters. It's nice to see the market react with appropriate rebuke.

On his profile, Peter says he loves blues music, has had a lifelong affair with motorcycles and is a widower living alone in the country in the middle of England. It's impossible to read that and not have your heart break a little.

But Peter is not a wallower. In his videos, he says he uses MSN Messenger, Skype and now YouTube to make friends from all over the world. He makes the videos with Windows Movie Maker, "and I don't really know how to use that properly." He promises higher production values in coming videos.

He tosses in witty little asides. In one expostulation about what Peter considers an ill use of police manpower, he quipped that they should not take "time out from harassing us motorists."

Peter is less grouchy than billed. Mostly, he seems happy to have discovered a new toy and a new way to connect with people.

One of the joys of the videos is getting to know Peter better. In one, he includes a photograph of himself as a young man astride a motorcycle. "Did I ever look like this?" reads the text. I want to know about his late wife, how they met, if they ever had kids. If not, why not? If so, where are they? The answers may be sad, but they will be compelling. His videos have a sense of urgency to them -- natural, at 78, for a mind as agile and acquisitive as his, aware of its own coming demise and eager to squeeze in as much living as possible.

I e-mailed Peter some questions but didn't hear back by press time. I really wasn't surprised. In one video, he said he awoke one morning to 4,000 messages from his new YouTube friends.


© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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