The Archive

Boston Globe Provides Inside Look at SilverStringers

...Cyber Links Columnist finds "vibrant on-line newspaper".   

By Patti Hartigan, Boston Globe staff

Reprinted with permission of the Boston Globe


MELROSE - Bill Jodrey is a quiet sort, exceedingly humble and polite, and unless he's prodded and cajoled, he won't tell you about the summer he left home and went out to ride the rails, sleeping standing up in ice cars and looking hungrily for work. Natalie Thomson, on the other- hand, is a gregarious soul who will tell you outright that she went to work after World War II - "not to fulfill myself, but for money" to feed and clothe her kids.

These are some of the stories told in this modest meeting room at the Milano Senior Center. Russ Priestley shyly explains that he once flew fighter planes; he still misses the thrill of navigation. As for Don Norris, he allows that he once raced motorcycles, wrote about them, too.

Together, the eight people gathered here have 587 years of life experience; their median age is 73.4. Along with their longevity, these garne seniors also have three computers, one scanner, and a digital camera, and several times a week they put those years and that high-tech equipment to work, publishing a vibrant on-line newspaper. They call themselves the Silver Stringers, and their Web site (silverstringer.media.mit.edu) is not just quaint living history, it's a celebration of life itself.

"I retired involuntarily after I fell down and broke my leg," explains Virginia Hanley, 71, a self-described "gypsy" who once worked at the US Embassy in Bonn. "You get in a rut. I was sitting around reading romance novels and mystery stories, and this project really did wake me up.

This project was launched a few years ago by the News in the Future program at the MIT Media Lab; MIT provided the software and the technical know-how, but the Stringers did the rest. The MIT folks would like to see the project emulated in communities all over the world, and the Melrose group is its role model. "MIT can't get rid of us now," says Norris, with a wily grin. "They can't afford to let us go."

We're not talking about gee-whiz technology here. The site is just plain photos and text: no plug-ins, no sound effects, no streaming video. But it is the technology at its best, bringing together both real and virtual communities. Most of the 30 or so volunteers didn't know one another before they joined the Stringers, and they've received e-mail from readers in Ireland, Russia, and Mozambique. The site generates about 450 hits a day, not bad, given all the competition on the Web.

Closer to home, it brings the volunteers together a few times a week to debate and dissect their product. When should they publish the full text of Jodrey's "Tales of the Open Road," which chronicles the summer of 1932 when Jodrey, now 85, quit high school to travel as a hobo? How should they archive their special sections on the Great Depression and World War II? Who's going to cover local news? ("Does that mean we have to go out to the nightclubs?" asks Hanley, who finds the idea hilarious. "No more going to bed at 9:30.")

While the endeavor is strictly amateur, the meetings are as irreverent and as salty anything out of "Front Page."

"It's completely changed people's lives,"says Walter Bender, director of MIT's News In The Future. "The technology isn't the important thing is that they sit around every week and argue with each other".

Argue they do. Bob Ross, self-appointed editor of the biography section, is vexed because some people haven't gotten their copy in yet. "I sent out e-mails. in ALL CAPITAL LETTERS, saying get your damn bios in,'" he says, pointing a finger at one errant scribe. Ross, whose Southern drawl bespeaks his Georgia roots, is the unofficial comedian and curmudgeon of the group. He'll be happy to add a visitor to his e-mail joke list, providing she isn't offended by off-color gags. "Look, I'm' 75 years old, and I just bought my fifth computer," he says. "We have grand ideas for this project. We are dreaming. And it's so much fun."

It's also vital. Older citizens have been using the Web since its inception; the American Association of Retired People Web site records 500,000 individual user sessions a month. But the Silver Stringers project is more than just a "See Grandma e-mail" or "See Grandpa check the weather" story. It's about connection

"I never meant to be a reporter," Hanley says, "but you know what? Now I. wish I could live another 30 years."

* * *


At a recent meeting, the Silver Stringers engaged in a heated debate about how to word their on-line holiday greeting. Thomson was adamant that they not leave anyone out and advocated a secular message, something like "Happy Winter."


12/25/98
Copyright, Boston Globe, 1998


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