Everything New Is Old
"Congratulations! Your parents just joined Facebook. Your life is officially over." Such is the greeting visitors receive upon entering the blog "Oh Crap. My Parents Joined Facebook," which - as the name implies - chronicles the well-intentioned but oft-hilarious wall posts, quiz results, group memberships and status updates of an older generation of social network converts. Sample wall post: "OMG ... are u really going to be 20 tomorrow?! How is that possible? I must have had u when I was 12? ha ha lol ... Just humor me ..."
Such a post simply wouldn't have been possible just four years ago - unless, of course, mom was enrolled in a university or college with a valid email address. In 2005, Facebook dipped its toe in new waters, allowing high school students and, later, those who worked for select companies like Microsoft to create profiles. And one year later, Facebook no longer required a collegiate affiliation at all, and anyone older than 13 wielding an email address (read: everyone) could zombie bite to his or her heart's content.
"Parents join Facebook to keep up
with the trends," Jeanne Leitenberg, My Parents Joined Facebook cofounder, recently told laist. "I believe it comes more from the 'my kid is my friend' mentality rather than a way to keep tabs on
their children. These are parents trying to be 'the cool parents.'" Though it's not on par with crashing the hot tub party and passing the dutch, the age shift fundamentally changed how Facebook is
used and perceived.
No longer are social nets the domain of the pbr-swilling youth and that socially awkward clerk at the Apple store - your Facebook feed now tells you that Norma's joined a Weight Watchers group and posted some pics of the grandkids.
According to iStrategy Labs, Facebook's seen its 35-54 demo membership blow up by 276.4 percent between June 2008 and January 2009. The 55-and over contingent grew 194.3 percent in the same amount of time. In comparison, that ever-so-sought 18-24 group bounced just 20.6 percent. The total number of Facebook users aged 35-plus in October 2007 totaled just fewer than 845,000, while as of this past January, their combined might totals just less than 8 million - 18.9 percent of the total Facebook pie.
Their might extends beyond Facebook, too. More than 60 percent of Baby Boomers consume socially created content, according to a recent Forrester report. Though they might not create content as willingly as your average 22 year old - the report notes they aren't as likely to start a blog or upload a video to YouTube - this group of 43-63-year-olds instead wields more disposable income and constitutes a bigger generational segment. So pay attention, because they have no problem consuming social content. In Forrester's survey, 62 percent of Boomers aged 53-63 and 66.7 percent of Boomers aged 43-52 said they could be found "reading blogs, listening to podcasts, watching user-generated videos, reading forums, or reading consumer ratings."
"Boomers are not particularly cutting-edge - they just catch up later," confirms J. Walker Smith, president of Yankelovich MONITOR and coauthor of Generation Ageless, a book chronicling how Boomers live today. Smith compares the surge of Boomers logging on to social networks to when Internet access gained steam in households in the late '90s. As then, with AOL, the user-friendliness of today's social networks is key. "It's all about easy of access. Boomers weren't doing lots of complicated things online but being engaged and keeping in touch."
Smith says social networks particularly appeal to nostalgia-loving Boomers because they allow them to connect with friends of the past. Doing anything more than basic networking with old high school buddies, however, might be pushing it for your average Boomer, who Smith says gravitate to "things that require a very small modicum of tech savvy." Photo and video uploads, for example, may be a bit more daunting than an easy interactive quiz application.
Facebook and MySpace aside, who better to cater to these emerging social network addicts than AARP? The nonprofit advocate for the 50-and-over contingent revamped and relaunched its Web site - including an online community boasting 400,000 registered users - last spring. Community membership is free to anyone (even if you're not a half-century old, for you granny-grabbers), and members can create personalized profiles with the ability to post photos, video and blogs. And according to Elly Spinweber, AARP's senior manager of media relations, older community members are getting their bearings just fine. "More than ever, our users are becoming more comfortable talking to each other, creating blogs and commenting on articles." Spinweber says.
AARP's community, a sort of Facebook-message board hybrid, has differentiated itself from the bigger social networks, Spinweber says, by encouraging its users to create and interact in groups (2,000 and counting). Spinweber singles out two groups as being the most popular right now - unsurprisingly, their content is of particular importance to an older audience. In "The Singles Perspective," users who have become single again can connect with each other, talk about their experiences and meet new people, while "Create the Good" gives users ideas for volunteering in their communities, whether they have five minutes or five hours to spare.
Group action aside, anyone with a grandparent knows they sure as hell don't hesitate to tell you what they think. In fact, in 2008 Forrester found that just over a third of Boomers aged 53-63 will react to social content. Last year, financial services giant Charles Schwab polled 4,000 individuals to gauge how different generations approach retirement. At its microsite called "Rethinking Retirement," Charles Schwab invited users to "tell us what you think" by completing a 12-part survey that would allow them to compare their answers to those already polled.
By way of the survey, a forward-to-a friend application, social tagging and widgets, the company ensured social interaction. "We focused on delivering helpful guidance with our interactive content ... in ways that address visitor concerns and in ways Boomers are currently receptive to interacting with content," says Matt Hurwitz, Charles Schwab's director of public relations. He says the company aimed to strike a respectful tone with the site - especially when engaging this audience in a conversation about retirement and their hard-earned cash.
So while life may indeed seem to be over for those whose moms have just joined Facebook, it's only just begun for mom herself. With all this networking going on, isn't it just a matter of time until Boomers jump aboard the Twitter train (which has only just hit the mainstream itself)? "I think there's an open question of whether Boomers will become engaged with Twitter," Smith says. "They haven't engaged with blogging. It might [take off], but there's reason to think it won't."
Just remember - they're the complete opposite of early adopters. "Boomers complain about the size of the keys on a Blackberry or iPhone," Smith says. "That's what old people talk about."