Older and online: Networking sites keep boomers socially active
Baby boomers using social networking Web sites are not as uncommon as you might think.
At its heart, social networking is a phenomenon gripping younger people. Only 10 percent of online adults 55 to 64 have an online profile vs. 57 percent of people 25 to 34, according to a 2009 study by the Pew Internet and American Life Project.
But seniors refuse to be left out. Women 55 and older are the fastest growing demographic on Facebook in the past three months, InsideFacebook reported in February.
“The perception is that Americans over 50 only dabble on the Internet, but we are finding that they are increasingly spending time online becoming involved in robust Internet activities, such as online communities,” said Jeffrey I. Cole, director of the Center for the Digital Future at the University of Southern California Annenberg School for Communication. “In specific areas, there is often little difference in use of online technology between older users and some of the youngest users.”
Creating your own Facebook page may seem complicated at first, and that’s why many boomers dip their toes into the Internet pool by starting out as “spectators,” said Jeremiah K. Owyang, a researcher with Forrester Research.
“Baby boomers aren’t technology Luddites. More than 60 percent of them consume socially created content. You’ll find them leaving their opinions on Web sites and joining social networks,” Owyang said.
On the flip side, most boomers are not as willing to create blogs, video or audio. Rather, they enjoy reacting to content as online critics or by joining existing online communities, he said.
“Interestingly, seniors use social networking sites for the same reasons most people use social networking sites — to stay in touch with people. They find old friends and classmates whom they haven't talked to for 40 years and reconnect to share old memories and to find out what has happened in each other’s lives. The benefit is staying in touch on an ongoing basis with many people, without having to spend a lot of time and effort to do so,” said Charlene Li, founder of Altimeter Group, an online strategy consulting firm.
Photo sharing is another benefit of social networking, said Julie Jones, president of SeniorsGuideToDating.com.
“I think the instant photo sharing along with a quick line or two of news has been what has spurred boomers to embrace the technology,” Jones said.
Judy Miltner, director of marketing for Wyndemere Senior Living Campus in Wheaton, Ill., said social networking is an up-and-coming sensation with seniors who use their computers “to make plans, stay in touch and make new friends.”
Wyndemere resident and admitted “communications addict” Dorothy “Dottie” Kinzie graduated from instant messaging to her own Facebook page at the beginning of 2009 -- and she loves it.
“Seniors do it for the same reasons younger people do: to keep in touch with friends, to catch up with what people are doing and as an easy way to let other people know what you’re up to,” Kinzie said. “It’s a valuable tool.”
The AARP, which runs its own social networking site with more than 1,700 groups within the online community, agrees.
“It’s a way of connecting with a community,” said Nataki Clarke, director of online marketing with AARP. “It’s a benefit because people can meet up and talk about whatever they’re going through, whether that’s a single’s perspective later in life, life after loss or health-care issues.”
What are the most popular sites for boomers? It’s hard to pin down such as wide population, Li said.
“They are using sites like Facebook and MySpace, but they are also using boomer-specific sites like eons.com, boomj.com, boomertowne.com, tbd.com and the aarp.org social network. Another popular site is classmates.com.”
The number of users will only increase, Owlang’s research shows. Boomers are the U.S.’s largest generational segment with a whopping 100 million consumers. Combined with an above-average disposable income and retirement funds, they are an attractive community for online marketers.
- Women 55 and older are the fastest growing demographic group on Facebook in the past three months, according to an Inside Facebook report in February 2009.
- Women older than 55 have tripled on Facebook since September 2008 to more than 717,000, nearly double the number of men in the same age group, according to an Inside Facebook report in February 2009.
- Just 7 out of 100 senior citizens age 65 and older have an online profile on a social networking site, according to a Pew Internet and American Life Project’s December 2008 survey.
- Ten percent of online adults ages 55 to 64 have a profile on a social networking site; 19 percent of adults 45 to 54 have a profile, according to a Pew Internet and American Life Project’s December 2008 survey.
- Nine in 10, or 89 percent, of adults use social networks primarily to connect with friends; 57 percent use social networks to make plans, according to a Pew Internet and American Life Project’s December 2008 survey.
- Fifty-eight percent of AARP members 50 and older log in to their online community daily or several times a day, compared to 47 percent of members younger than 20, according to an AARP/Center for the Digital Future 2008 study.
- Thirty-six percent of AARP members 50 and older said their social activism has increased since they began participating in online communities for social causes, compared to 29 percent of members under 20, according to an AARP/Center for the Digital Future 2008 study.
- Eighteen percent of users 50 and older said they go online daily or several times a day to play games, compared to 22 percent of users younger than 50, according to an AARP/Center for the Digital Future 2008 study.
- Two-thirds of younger boomers and 62 percent of older boomers consume social media, including reading blogs, listening to podcasts, watching user-generated videos, reading forums, or reading customer ratings. This behavior is up from 2007, when 46 percent of younger boomers and 39 percent of older boomers were spectators, according to a January 2009 Forrester Research study.
About the sites
Facebook is a free-access social networking Web site that people use to stay in touch, share information and reconnect with people.
After an initial sign-up, users create profiles including photos and personal interests. They are then able to exchange private and public messages and join groups of friends on different networks organized by city, workplace, school and region.
The site’s features include the Wall, a space on the profile page that allows friends to post messages for the user to see; Pokes, which allow users to send a virtual “poke” to one another; and Status, which allows users to inform others of their whereabouts and actions.
Facebook was founded in February 2004 by Harvard University sophomore Mark Zuckerberg, who expanded an online university community. Facebook is a privately held company and is headquartered in Palo Alto, Calif.
MySpace is a free online community that people use to stay in touch with friends and family, share information and meet new friends.
After an initial sign-up, users create an in-depth profile about personal interests that includes photos. The site integrates the profile with blogs, instant messaging, e-mail, music streaming, music videos, photo galleries, classified listings, events groups and other communities and forums.
Most people use MySpace for fun, to keep in touch with friends and family, browse musician profiles and explore areas dedicated to TV shows or movies. For artists and others who maintain a public image, MySpace is an important connection to fans.
Launched in 2003, MySpace is a unit of Fox Interactive Media Inc. and was founded by Chris DeWolfe and Tom Anderson, who mimicked the popular features of a previous social networking Web site, Friendster.
LinkedIn is a professional networking site that people use to find, be introduced to and collaborate with other professionals.
A brief sign-up process allows users to create a profile that summarizes professional expertise and accomplishments. Then users can connect to others by inviting business contacts to join LinkedIn and contact them. Your network consists of your Connections, your Connections’ Connections and the people they know.
LinkedIn allows a person to find jobs and business opportunities. Employers can list jobs and search for potential candidates. Job seekers can review the profiles of hiring managers and discover which of their existing contacts can introduce them. LinkedIn Answers allows users to ask questions for the community to answer. Users can join business-related groups.
LinkedIn was founded in 2002 by Reid Hoffman and launched the next year.
Twitter is a real-time short messaging service that works over multiple networks and devices including TwitterMobile and Facebook.
It is a social networking, instant messaging and micro-blogging service that allows users to send and read other users’ updates (known as tweets), which are text-based posts of up to 140 characters. Simply put, Twitter allows people to be able to know what friends are doing in real time. It’s a great place for keeping people informed on what you are up to without the need to spend too much time crafting a blog.
After an initial sign-up, updates are played on a user’s profile page and delivered to others who have signed up to receive them.
Twitter launched in August 2006 by Jack Dorsey as a research and development project of his work with Obvious, a creative environment in San Francisco.
The future of social networking
The technology frontier is constantly surging forward with new ideas and better applications. To stay relevant, social networking sites will need to evolve to meet the needs and demands of users.
Privacy concerns are a critical matter of interest to many users who are wary of putting up personal information for the world to see.
With more than 175 million users, Facebook takes these privacy concerns seriously, said Malorie Lucich, Facebook spokesperson.
“Robust privacy settings make it easy to control who sees what content on your profile, so that colleagues at work see one version, and family members see another,” Lucich said.
On the technology forefront, the future of social networking sites is going mobile, said Michael Arrington, co-editor of TechCrunch.com.
“A few years from now we’ll use our mobile devices to help us remember details of people we know, but not well. It will help us meet new people for dating, business and friendship,” Arrington said.
While it hasn’t hit the U.S. yet, mobile social networking is “making much faster headway in other countries, especially Japan,” said Charlene Li, founder of Altimeter Group, an online strategy consulting firm.
These “ubiquitous” social networks would use GPS or triangulation technology to create a social network that “is everywhere we want them to be,” Li said.
For instance, when you walk into a business meeting, the network would allow users to see the resume, photo and LinkedIn profiles of other people in the room. The technology would work the same way with Facebook or MySpace profiles at a party or a bar.
Currently, Loopt provides a cell phone-based GPS sharing system that allows users to visualize one another using their cell phones and also share personal information. In late 2008, Loopt debuted an iPhone application called Loopt Mix.