By Marco R. della Cava, USA TODAY
Kirk from Los Angeles would appear to be just another typical MySpace denizen. His page reveals that he’s a Sagittarius, loves movies and wants to meet Angelina Jolie. Get in line, kid.
Or maybe not.
“I suppose I could just call her dad (actor Jon Voight) and set that up,” says Kirk Douglas, who faithfully updates his page once a week. “As long as my wife says it’s OK.”
At 92, the screen icon is at the older end of the growing phenomenon that is social networking. But his decision to share pointed opinions and Brangelina-inspired desires with virtual strangers is echoed by the millions of Boomer-on-up Americans that have taken a teen staple and made it yet another weapon in their always-on communications arsenal.
Whether it’s congressmen Twittering during presidential speeches, parents connecting with high school flames on Facebook or empty-nesters planning group outings on grown-up sites such as Eons.com, Baby Boomers are speeding up the Web’s ongoing metamorphosis from limitless void to global watering hole.
Social networking is fast becoming a staple for a growing number of adults as Web use surges. One-third of adult Internet users have a profile on a social networking site, up from 8% in 2005, according to the Pew Internet & American Life Project. And though adults share some teen habits
— checking in with friends, planning get-togethers — they differ from the younger set in their desire to use the medium to meet new friends from across the country.
Their reasons for connecting with others online vary, but the passion for it is unwavering.
For Douglas, social networking affords him a literal voice — a stroke in 1996 left him with halting speech — as well as “instantaneous contact with people of all ages and opinions, which keeps me young.”
Retired software consultant Reed Nash, 52, of Lunenburg, Mass., says sharing his passion for NASCAR and barbecue with fellow devotees has “made me a lot of great new friends I otherwise wouldn’t have.”
Kathy Carr, 45, a family counselor from Park City, Utah, used to get her social fix while traveling for work. She has turned to social networking “to find other women who are raising teens, enjoying good careers and have something to say.”
Facebook, that social networking giant with 175 million users worldwide, was famously conceived for kids by a kid, Harvard undergrad student Mark Zuckerberg, now 24. But what Boomers like, they devour.
“The last six months have been a turning point in terms of people going from not seeing a reason for social networking to fully embracing it,” says Lance Ulanoff, editor of PCMag.com. “The reason is simple: We’re able to get more real-time information about people we know and love. Social interaction as we know it is changing on the fly.”
And — OMG! — it’s not just shifting for the acronym-speak set.
Networking by the numbers
Currently, 16.5 million adults ages 55 and older engage in social networking, according to Internet monitoring site comScore. Facebook is seeing the most growth among users age 30 and older.
MySpace, with 130 million users, is enjoying a surge among the 55-plus set, who total 6.9 million users and spend an average 204 minutes a month on the site. And in just one year since AARP.org unveiled its social networking platform, about 350,000 users have created 1,700 groups celebrating everything from gardening to social activism.
“Our members comfortably exist in both the real and virtual worlds,” says Nataki Clarke, director of online marketing at AARP. “Social networking may have started out as a way to check on kids and grandkids, but it’s now really all about your individual connections with peers.”
The desire to get in touch with like-minded souls is fueling the growth of sites such as Eons.com and TBD.com (as in, the rest of your life is still “to be determined”), which attract those who don’t want to be “friended” by someone whose idea of a good conversation means a tweeted 140 characters or less.
“The Facebooks of the world are about all about ‘me’ — my page, my profile, my wall. We’re about ‘we,’ about getting together in groups around mutual passions,” says Jeff Taylor, founder of Eons, which has 800,000 users who bond over topics such as genealogy, elder care and technology.
One hallmark of sites such as Eons is their mission to lure new friends who share your interests, a direct contrast with a site such as Facebook, where you attract largely those you knew or know.
“My teenage daughter is online all the time,” Taylor says. “But when I asked her about wanting to meet new friends, she said, ‘Dad, that’s disgusting.’ There’s the big difference.”
Boomers, by contrast, often embrace the notion of making new friends online, says Robin Wolaner, CEO of TBD.com, whose 120,000-user membership has been growing by 20% a month.
“By the time you’re 50, you tend to know everyone you’re going to know. So if you’re going online, why not meet new people as opposed to the same people you already know?” she says. “We’re finding that these bad economic times are particularly good for social networking.
“Boomers are really affected by what’s going on, and they like not to be alone with their thoughts.”
So much so that some social networkers feel compelled to take their new friendships offline. A group of Eons.com friends recently went on a cruise to Alaska together, and around 50 TBD.com acquaintances are meeting in Kansas City later this month to share thoughts on spirituality.
Some Internet experts are particularly convinced that the future of social networking lies less in the realm of vacuous instant updates to friends (“I’m drinking a latte right now while online at an ATM”) and more in the arena of like-minded groups gathering virtually to enjoy and comment on a specific event.
“I call these ‘velvet-rope social networks,’ people who are connected in a context that matters to them all, like watching the Oscars together online,” says Chris Brogan, president of Boston-based New Marketing Labs, which advises large corporations on how to market using social networking. “It’s going back to the idea of hitting the bar or pub to talk about something, a gathering place to share group moments. In a world where few people live close to family or old friends, the Internet can bridge that gap.”
Such gatherings could have implications that ripple through society, affecting everything from TV viewing habits to the way companies peddle products.
The old model “of an Ed McMahon-type guy pitching you something is long dead, because today people won’t listen to TV ads, but they will listen to each other on these sites,” says Barton Goldenberg, president of Bethesda, Md.-based ISM, a social media consultancy. “It’s all being reversed now. Ads won’t drive brand loyalty, people will. These sites are where Boomers share their opinions, and those in the corporate world are starting to realize that.”
Time magazine tech columnist Josh Quittner says social networking is destined to mushroom with the inevitable advent of more sophisticated smart phones, which will allow sites such as Facebook, MySpace and Eons to be always on and mobile. “The great thing about social networking is it allowed you to take control of your identity online, so now you are who you say you are,” says Quittner, 50.
But for all its potential power, social networking remains in its awkward infancy, offering up equal parts excitement (hearing from that grade school sweetheart) and weirdness (what to do when your boss friends you?).
Quittner concedes he runs hot and cold on the notion of living a life exposed to the digital masses. “Visiting some friends’ pages you often see things that are shocking. I guess it’s like a tattoo: a good idea at the time.”
For some users, it’s the “social” part that’s at issue. Dee Dee Taft, 41, who runs Spin Communications in Mill Valley, Calif., joined Facebook a few years back at the encouragement of younger members of her firm. “When I started, it was exciting, but then I was getting friended by
people I met once and people that I had purely business relationships with, and it made me wonder, ‘What’s the definition of a friend?’ ”
On the upside, she has reconnected with a few long-lost friends. The down side? Having CEO clients friending some of her twentysomething staffers, and getting messages from family members that hundreds of her Facebook friends can read.
“It’s almost voyeuristic. Everyone can see you and you can see them,” she says. “Sometimes, I feel like yelling, ‘Just pick up the phone and call me!’ ”
But for the Rev. Rosa Lee Harden of San Francisco’s Holy Innocents’ Episcopal Church, such liabilities are worth the benefits of opening your life up to others online. Harden often Twitters to get ideas for a sermon and says her Facebook page has at times provoked “startlingly honest conversations” that might never happen face to face.
Recently, Roman Catholic bishops in Italy asked their flock to give up e-mail and other tech habits for Lent. For Harden, that whole notion is like trying to stop a rocket that has already launched.
“I want to connect with the people I work with and love,” she says. “If social networking makes it easier, or more likely, then I’ll take it any day.”
BEHAVE LIKE AN ADULT ON SOCIAL NETWORKS
New to social networking and over the age of 40? Time magazine tech columnist Josh Quittner, a Boomer who can Twitter and friend with the best of them, offers his advice:
It’s not Las Vegas: “Think twice before uploading that amusing photo of you wearing boxer shorts on your head,” says Quittner. “What happens on Facebook does not stay on Facebook.”
Don’t share the love: “When Vampire Poke Stick or another such wacky application asks you to invite all your friends, ignore it,” he says. “Frankly, you’re the only one who thinks that app is funny. Your friends are sick of getting spammed with stuff like this.”
Resist the spotlight: “Every now and then, maybe once in 14 months, it’s OK to start a group celebrating your first book of poetry or the opening of your photo exhibit,” he says. “But it’s better to have someone else do it for you, and best if you don’t do it at all.”
The world is reading: “Remember that when you post a comment on someone’s page, everyone can see it,” he says. “You might think this is obvious. The fellow who posted a love couplet to ‘my steamy escargot’ did not.”
Get real: “They’re not really your friends.”