elderly man on the phone

I’m sharing this post not to malign or criticize an elderly person’s computer literacy skills, but rather to recount a rather strange phone conversation which took place today and attempt a reconstruction of how this interstate telephonic discussion came to pass. In one sense, it is inspiring to learn someone 80 years old is working on webpages and is proactive enough to call me long distance to find the long-lost HTML editing software he used to use and love. It is surprising to discover after reconstructing this incident, however, that my mystery caller’s “mistake” today may have been choosing to use the default Microsoft/Windows search engine “Bing” instead of the much more effective and popular search engine, Google. Here’s my story.

I received a bizarre phone call this afternoon from a gentleman identifying himself as an 80 year old living in New York. He politely asked if I could help him find a website where he could download AOL Press? He said he was “an original AOL user” and AOL Press had been the simplest webpage editing program he’d ever used.

I think I can credit this unexpected phone call primarily to the fact I still have webpages online referencing that old HTML editing program AOL Press, and have my phone number listed on my public contact page. In a world of global search, there’s no telling what connections your own “digital footprint” might produce!

After listening to my caller’s request, I checked my “Webpage Creation Tools” page dating back to 1997, where I remembered I’d included a link to AOL Press, and sure enough… the link was broken. Without Googling for AOL Press (since I assumed the caller had already done that) I recommended he either try the free programs KompoZer or SeaMonkey‘s Composer, which is descended from the original Netscape Composer. Both are Mozilla-powered projects, cross-platform, and entirely free. The caller asked if he could give me his email address so I could let him know if I found a download site for AOL Press, and as an alternative I gave him my blog address. He thanked me for my help, and hung up.

This evening, in Googling for AOL Press to write this post, I noticed the correct download link for the program I used on my sites five years ago has changed in one small but significant (in this case) way: The “www” has been removed from the link. Remove the “www,” the link works, keep it, an error page results. Many websites “work” with or without a “www” in front of the domain name, but not in this case. Bizarre.

It is also strange that a simple keyword Google search for “AOL press” yields over 97 million hits, and this website I’m referencing from The Madison Metropolitan School District is the top hit. Apparently my 80 year old caller today had not tried Google to find his answer. If he wasn’t using Google, what WAS he using? A search engine like Bing?! Since Microsoft is making Bing the default search engine on its Windows7 installations (and I assume Vista, WinXP and other Windows variants as well now) it’s highly likely my caller today WAS using Bing.

aol press - Bing

It is remarkable to note the search results for the “aol press” simple keyword search (without quotation marks) on Bing does NOT yield a download link on the first page of hits, but my website tutorial (last updated in 2003) for AOL Press is the fifth hit of 151 million. I’m betting my caller today had fallen victim to the perception that because he was using a default Microsoft-provided search query on Bing, his first page of search results were THE definitive results. Here is a bumper sticker suggestion for you: “SEARCH ENGINE SKILLS– They are not just needed by 14 year olds.” Our senior citizens need them, and so do our classroom teachers. My caller today could have saved us both some time if he’d just used Google.

aol press - Google Search

This strange phone call today is rivaled only by a call I received several months ago in the middle of the day from a woman living in the Middle East, asking for technical assistance in getting Skype to work on her computer and her Skype bill straightened out. She was an elderly expatriate living in Abu Dhabi, I think. I have no idea how she got my name and phone number as a “call for Skype technical support” person.

At moments like these (which are thankfully rare) I wonder if I shouldn’t setup my own “premium-rate telephone number?!” Then, at least, it would be profitable to take calls like these. I aspire to be friendly and helpful, but there have to be limits to the technical support we can each reasonably be expected to provide to others. More practically, I certainly could add Google Adsense advertisements to these old pages which apparently are still getting some traffic. The problem with that idea, however, goes back to a fundamental problem with “web 1.0” sites created with tools like AOL Press and Netscape Composer: Pages must be edited individually for updates. Since I don’t have a great deal of free time, these days I’ll put off a large scale Google Adsense update of my old “Tools for the TEKS” website pages and other pages on my wtvi.com domain.

Skype calling support for Middle Eastern expatriates from the US, and now AOL Press download help to senior citizens in New York. What is next? Maybe someone in Siberia will call me for help using Filemaker Pro 5.5 and Lasso?! (Let’s hope not!)

For the record, I DID update my old links to AOL Press, here and here. I’m doubtful that will help my 80 year old caller from New York, but perhaps he’ll read this post. If he is a Bing user, imagine how much more productive he could be if he’d just start using Google as his primary search engine instead?!

I think this incident is instructive because it also shows how as humans, we tend to “default” back to the communications modalities with which we are most familiar and comfortable. I’d probably never think of calling someone on the phone who has authored a post or webpage on a topic I’m interested in… I’d leave them a comment or MAYBE send them an email, but almost certainly NOT give them a phone call. For my caller today, however, a phone call seemed like the most logical step to take to get his answer. He was stuck, so he reverted to a very comfortable communications option: the phone.

Hopefully he’ll either read this post, revisit the webpage where I updated the link to AOL Press, or start using Google for his online searches. In any event, I wish him the best of luck editing webpages with AOL Press or any other tool. When I’m 80, I hope I’m still working with hypertexts as well. 🙂

H/T to the Flickr group, “Granddaddies, Grandfathers, Poppas, etc.” where I found the lead CC image for this post. 🙂

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