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Facing Up to Facebook

The popular social networking site is the new front porch for many older Americans

Summary

  • Older Americans have increased their use of Facebook drastically in the past two years
  • Boomers are more likely to consume content on Facebook than to create content
  • Focusing on the enjoyment aspect of networking rather than privacy fears will keep older Americans savvy on Facebook

 

It is 8 in the morning and Bonni Watson is already at the computer in her suburban Long Island home. This is the first of perhaps dozens of trips she'll make to the screen throughout the day to check on the latest from her 518 Facebook friends.

Bonni describes herself as "the yenta of Forest Hills High School," the Yiddish word for "busybody." But Facebook isn't Bonni's first experience with social networking. She, like millions of other boomers, started on Classmates.com, perhaps the first social networking site that appealed to this generation.

She made the switch for a simple reason: Facebook is free while Classmates charges for premium service, and that chased away many of her friends.

Middle-aged man uses a laptop computer outside  Boomers Face Up to Facebook

— Colin Hawkins

By the Numbers

If boomers were slow to latch on to Facebook, they're catching up now.

Facebook itself does not provide a demographic breakdown, but according to iStrategyLabs, in 2009, Facebook users 55 and older grew by 923 percent, from under a million to almost 10 million. In 2010, the growth was still substantial, almost 59 percent, meaning more than 15 million of us were on the site. That's more than the 13- to 17-year-olds. At the same time, the number of visitors to the Classmates.com site has been declining, according to one study, dropping by 27 percent last year.

According to Cornell University communications professor Jeff Hancock, the two sites perform very different functions. People go to Classmates to connect with long lost friends. And while many boomers may start on Facebook for the same reason, they generally concentrate on current friends and family.

A Different Experience

According to both Hancock and Facebook's Barry Schmitt, who works on consumer outreach, the boomer/seniors experience on Facebook is not the same as it is for Gen X and Gen Y.

Boomers are more likely to be voyeurs instead of participants. They are happy to find out what friends and family are up to, even happier to see pictures and videos of the grandkids. They are less likely to post about themselves, and may be technologically challenged when it comes to posting their own photos or videos.

Even getting them to sign up for Facebook can be challenging. Schmitt says it's not at all unusual for boomers/seniors to get on to Facebook only after their children or grandchildren create a profile for them.

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