Social Nets for Older Users


From the NYT article on Obama's online campaign: "Now Mr. Hughes and other campaign aides are applying the same social networking tools to try to win the general election. This time, however, they must reach beyond their base of young, Internet-savvy supporters."

The adoption of social networks by people older than recent college grads is important to businesses as well, for internal use and external marketing. Generational preferences in technology can be a big issue, too.

So how hard is it for old dogs to learn social net tricks? My answer, based on personal experience: not very. The enabling factor of the 2.0 trend is ease of use. The key to getting older people on social nets is giving them a reason to try, and reasons to come back.

Popular wisdom holds that a lot of older people started using email to correspond with their kids and grandkids. The killer apps for web surfing included financial sites and porn. So what will it take to get Gen Xers, Baby Boomers, and their parents on social nets?

One answer goes back to the email example: people want to keep up with their kids, or at least understand their online haunts. Another answer is task-driven use -- stuff that's required for a job, including work as a campaign volunteer. Demo it and they will come.

For general users, the motivations include convenience and the network effect. I use Facebook as an address book and contact manager -- people change their emails and move from jobs and homes, but their Facebook info stays the same -- and sometimes for presence awareness, too. I ignore the games and personal expressions, but I'd use them if I had a reason.

The network effect means that more of my friends will get on Facebook as more of my friends get on Facebook. Most of the my wave of FB "friends" are contacts from the journalism, tech, and blogging worlds. A lot of them are in their 40s and 50s, or older.

My social friends tend to be middle-aged people outside of my professional life, and they are only now signing up on social nets in appreciable numbers. But as word of mouth tells them that their cohort is on the network, and it's not just for their kids, more and more will join. Facebook's alumni pages for colleges and high schools, with year-by-year membership rolls, make it easy to find and reconnect with old friends.

Here's an example of a social net for older folks that didn't work. Beyond the problems described in the article, my guess is that people don't like to be segregated by age -- and of course, they can always choose their friends on Facebook or other networks as they choose.

I wouldn't be surprised if my 74-year-old mom ended up using Facebook. Of course, she's a little ahead of the game. But I won't be surprised if your mom does it, too.