The Silver Surfer is a somewhat unlikely Marvel comic book hero who looks like he's been fashioned out of mercury and goes about the business of saving the world on a gravity-defying surfboard. It's quite fitting that his name should have been appropriated by the new-media fraternity to describe another unlikely hero, the 50-plus internet user.
Bucking the stereotype that technophobia is rampant among the veteran classes, this intriguing, complex group accounts for around a fifth of total internet users in the UK. That's some 1,989,792 people (according to figures supplied by the market research company NetValue). And what's more, their numbers are growing.
Even more significant is the sheer amount of time silver surfers spend online. They indulge in a far higher number of sessions per month than any other age group (26.5 as against the average of 20.6) and, once again, this figure appears to be on the up-and-up. If you segment the group further, you'll discover that users aged 65 and over have increased their internet use by a staggering 53 per cent since January. Favoured silver surfer websites include StreetsOnline, the online shopping portal, Egg online banking, Nationwide financial services and travel-related sites such as lastminute.com and thetrainline.com.
'Silver surfers represent a large and growing segment of internet users,' Alki Manias, the vice-president of NetValue, says. 'Many of them have significant savings and they are clearly not afraid of using their credit cards online.
They have life experience, have sat back and watched what's going on and said to themselves: 'I want a piece of that.' The type of sites they visit and their confidence online mean they represent a prime opportunity for marketers.'
Neil Jenner, the executive director of Senior- agency, the London arm of an international network that specifically targets the 50-plus age group, agrees: 'Once they've overcome the initial psychological barrier, they quickly become addicted to the internet. Many of the 65-plus age group are no longer involved in the nuclear family and suffer from loneliness and lack of contact. The internet gives them a new lease of life - not only can they keep in touch with their families by e-mail, they can do more complex things such as play chess with their grandchildren in New Zealand.'
Demographically, Jenner explains, this group is going to become increasingly important. They already account for 80 per cent of the wealth of the nation and 60 per cent of its savings. Yet advertisers persist in their obsession with targeting youth. 'It will become very important to refine the way we talk to them,'Jenner says. 'In 30 to 40 years' time, every second person will be over 50.'
Those people turning 50 are a particularly interesting bunch - the so-called post-war baby boomers. Having just missed out on National Service, they grew up in an era of flower power, social experimentation and sexual permissiveness. They are generally liberal, free-spirited and open-minded.
If you need further convincing, consider these four role models: Dennis Hopper, Germaine Greer, Anita Roddick, Keith Richards. Not exactly conformist, are they? So it's not really surprising that silver surfers have taken so readily to the notion of democratic information-sharing on the internet.
'This generation tends to adopt technology slightly later,' Richard Dickety, a senior research executive at the market research company RDSi, says.
'Many have started to come online recently and are just becoming comfortable with it. They are perhaps less likely to embrace it as part of a lifestyle than younger users.'
RDSi recently completed a study into the consumption habits of older people (whom they defined as 45-plus) called 'Silver Service'. From this, Dickety has gleaned various impressions of their internet habits. He believes they use the medium primarily for convenience, but also as a means of making savings. They are initially cautious about online shopping and tend to start small with books or CD purchases, graduating to flights and hotels as they acquire more confidence. This tallies with NetValue's figures, which show that silver surfers are relatively happy about security issues. 'Of course, there is concern about submitting credit card details,' Dickety says. 'But they're getting over it just like everyone else.'
Manias concurs: 'They might dip their toes into the water with a few books from Amazon, then, when they are happy that they aren't being ripped off and the service is good, they might try booking travel - lastminute.com, expedia.com and thetrainline.com were among the most popular sites in this age group.'
For Martin Hayward, the director of consumer consultancy at the Henley Centre, the phenomenon of the silver surfer is eminently logical. 'If you take a step back and look at the mail-order market, no-one is even remotely surprised to see mums and dads or older people taking advantage of it. Online shopping operates on essentially the same principle, it's just a question of moving from one channel to another.'
Technology may be perceived as cold and dehumanising, but for the 50-plus age group, the internet has proved both liberating and comforting.
Far-flung families now have the opportunity to enjoy cheap and almost instant communication.
Many silver surfers have their PCs bought and installed for them by their children - after that, they make them very much their own.
MY NEW-MEDIA LIFE: STEFAN SZEZELKUN, 52
I live in Kennington in South London and I am undertaking a PhD in experimental film-making at the Royal College of Art called 'Exploding Cinema'.
I started using the internet about a year ago.
At first, I used it at college purely for research, but then I got interested and started to go to a local internet cafe as well. I remember on one occasion we were asked to research what was going on in a particular area of (film-making) teaching - I logged on to the web and found out in about half an hour. I was impressed; that really opened my eyes to how useful it could be. Eventually, I bought a modem for home and changed my access from BT to Telnet, which gives you free access in the evenings and at weekends (us impoverished students have to think about these things).
I use e-mail a lot. It's really become a major part of my communication.
I probably get half the amount of post through the letterbox that I used to - apart from credit card applications, of course. I reckon I spend about half an hour to three-quarters of an hour a day e-mailing people - friends, work, everything. It's a great way of letting people know about events such as film screenings. It's quick and cheap compared with using stamps and the post. You probably keep in contact with more people than you otherwise would because of e-mail, but the only slight down-side is that the quality of interaction goes down. It's less tactile and human than a letter or a postcard.
At first, I used to do a lot of surfing just to see what was out there. Now I tend only to surf for particular things.
I recently used Loot to find a gift for my son, and I keep up with developments in digital film equipment.
MOST POPULAR SITES WITH THE OVER-55s
Rank Title Average
1 AOL PROPRIETARY 238.0
2 LINEONE.NET 37.9
3 LYCOS.COM 25.5
4 AMAZON.CO.UK 14.7
5 MSN.CO.UK 14.2
6 EXCITE.CO.UK 13.9
7= FREESERVE.COM 12.6
7= MSN.COM 12.6
9 YAHOO.COM 10.8
10 BBC.CO.UK 9.5
Source: MMXI, May 2000.