With over 200 million users worldwide, including 45 million in the U.S., Facebook was bound to reach grandma. While college-age users post shots of their margarita-soaked spring breaks, they find their images also tagged in perhaps even more embarrassing photos: those ugly decades-old grade school pics posted by their proud moms.
According to statistics from Marketing Charts, between September 2008 and February 2009, the number of American female Facebook users over 55 grew by 175 percent, making it the fastest-growing demographic on the site. The number of men over 55 also multiplied dramatically, up by nearly 138 percent, but women, says the report, outnumber men by nearly two-to-one. Moreover, women outnumber men on Facebook across all age groups, accounting for more than half of users (56 percent) in the U.S.
How did this happen?
“On the pragmatic side, when Facebook first launched it was only available to college and high school students so naturally the initial demographic was young,” explains Steve Glauberman, founder and CEO of Enlighten (at http://www.enlighten.com), which specializes in developing online experiences through advertising, Web design, and social communities.
“When Facebook opened up their platform to the general public, the parents of college-age kids, who are Boomers, were well aware of the platform since their kids were using and talking about it,” he says. “Additionally, Boomers are at a point in their lives where their focus is beginning to shift from pure career and goal growth to more reflections on their lives and reconnecting with friends on a more regular basis is appealing.”
Parents also started using it to stay in touch with their children, who may be out of state for school or have moved away, adds TX-based author and radio host Melody Brooke, MA, LPC, LMFT.
“Facebook started out as a place to connect with our kids while they were away at school, they would upload photos and leave quick notes as to what they were up to,” Brooke explains.
“Originally we didn’t feel it appropriate, we didn’t want to intrude into their social world, but then we were invited as a place to stay connected as their lives got busier,” she adds. “Then we discovered we could connect with family and friends in a way that is not intrusive as well. They tell us what is going on with them and we respond when and if we are able.”
Naturally, grandparents soon followed. “When adults have children and move to other regions of the country, grandparents often experience separation anxiety from their extended offspring,” Lisa Stewart, of NC-based design and marketing agency ECStewart Designs, Inc http://www.ecstewart.com/
“Currently, Facebook helps to alleviate the anxiety by providing a safe environment for families to conduct conversations in a multitude of ways, including video,” she adds.
The emotional connections are especially meaningful at this life stage, Stewart notes. “I believe this tool of communication provides a positive influence within the lives of the Boomers, alleviating the stress of loneliness that often accompanies age and distance.”
Facebook’s charm also lies in its design, social media consultant Stephen Hultquist, notes. He is a principal with Infinite Summit. “It’s clean, easy-to-navigate interface, plus the focus on photos and blogs seems to have attracted those who are relatively new to the Internet and/or are less familiar with technology and websites,” Hultquist explains. “And, as a social network, like tends to attract like. I think early on, those Baby Boomers joined to keep track of their kids, given the more restrictive friendship linking of Facebook in comparison to MySpace, so those moms began using it to connect with their friends, too.”
Baby Boomers and Gender Differences
With technology generally considered a male-dominated arena, why is the site more popular among females, especially older ones?
“Our experience has indicated that women—regardless of generation—gravitate towards social, bonding-oriented experiences at a higher rate than men,” says John Runberg, director of digital strategy for VA-based brand communications firm BCF, which specializes in marketing products and experiences to Baby Boomers.
The high number of men who have joined is unexpected, he notes. “We have been somewhat surprised at how many Boomer men have adopted Facebook,” he explains. “Typically, our reviews of Facebook show that Boomer men are posting but at a lower frequency.”
With as many men who have joined, why do women still outnumber them? “Boomer women are more active in several online activities when compared to men so part of the popularity of women on Facebook is a direct result of that. Additionally, I believe that Boomer women are more interested in connecting with others online, especially when it comes to friends of their children,” Glauberman says.
“Many moms started using it as a way to keep track of their kids, then found the tools—chat, status, email—were convenient to communicate with their friends,” Hultquist says.
Again, the way Facebook is designed is especially appealing to women. “It is very aesthetic, allowing for photos and other means of expression that are more attractive to women than men in general,” he adds.
Social media expert Diane K. Danielson (www.DianeDanielson.com), founder of the first social network for businesswomen (www.DowntownWomensClub.com) says that men and women simply use the Internet in different ways. “While men use the Internet to research or play games, women will often email and use other tools to deepen connections with others and to communicate,” she explains. “Facebook is a social utility tool which fosters and caters much more to the way women operate. It’s communicating with friends and family—the latter may be a big driver here, keeping up with kids, parents. It’s also forming groups around topics of interest.”
The change in online activity has presented a role reversal, notes Brooke. “Our husbands get frustrated with our ‘addiction’ to the thing,” she says. “It’s so funny, too, because he used to be the one stuck on the computer all the time!”
Personal networking is the key area where women have an online edge. “When it comes to business networking, women have lagged behind men. In this economy, because many women don’t have the fallback of an established business network, they’re turning to tools like Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn to expand their networks,” Danielson adds. “Facebook is much more appealing to women as it focuses on sharing personal items with friends. LinkedIn seems more male-dominated.”
Savvy businesswomen use both methods to gain personal and professional benefits. Mother and business owner Sue Sattler is president of the WI-based workforce management firmTalent Network Group (www.talentnetworkgroup.com) uses a variety of ways to connect with loved ones and promote her business.
“I use Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, and I blog. LinkedIn has been the greatest tool for me on a professional level and Facebook I have kept more on a personal basis,” Sattler says. “Facebook has been a wonderful way to stay close to relatives that I normally wouldn’t see but once a year. We share photos and happenings. It can be very entertaining; a couple of my cousins are absolutely hilarious and they post almost daily, and I enjoy keeping tabs on their Facebook because it can be so entertaining.”
“I have utilized technology and social networks to market my business, to search for job candidates, and for employment references,” she adds. “Many employers are now using Facebook, LinkedIn, [and other sites] in their reference checking process; this has killed the chances of a hire for some. People need to be very careful as to what they are portraying to the world on these social networks.”
The social advantages of Facebook can be reaped in a variety of ways. Satisfied users name keeping up with family as top priority, but finding old friends is another favorite benefit. “Facebook and other online tools assist Boomers to easily search for their classmates,” Stewart says . Personally, my mother in-law has successfully found most of her classmates online and has resumed their conversation from 30 years ago.”
“The ability to reconnect with old friends and acquaintances is a big draw for Boomers. They are interested to see how their lives compared to their contemporaries. They also get to feel a part of a growing phenomenon and to feel current and relevant. Of course, the basic inherent benefits of Facebook to all users are there for them as well,” Glauberman adds.
Any expected backlash now that the social networking site is so popular? Younger cohorts may resent having their territory encroached upon, say some experts. “We can expect that Gen Yers and their younger brothers and sisters will head elsewhere now that the adults have taken over the playground,” Danielson contends. “This does worry me because they will likely migrate to a social network that is ‘avatar-based’ and lends itself to anonymity. That’s a scary proposition.”
The older crowd may have eliminated the cool factor, says another. “If a social networking community begins to be known for catering to an ‘older crowd’ the younger Gen X and Y users start to think of these networks as stale. Twitter today, gone tomorrow,” says Audrey Seiberling, marketing manager for PlasticSurgery.com and BeautyChatBlog.com.
Of course, there are always the few who resist change altogether. “There are always people who distain new things. I know how long it took me to get a cell phone, and I still don’t use it very much,” career coach Joan Schramm (www.achieve-momentum.com) says. “People grump about FB being faceless and sterile and killing ‘real’ relationships, but the same types of things were said about electricity, cars, telephones, radio, and TV. We’re all still here and still connecting in even more ways.”
The young have nothing to fear; soon there will be something else for them to claim as their own, until the older cohorts discover and adopt it as well.
“There will always be something newer, faster, easier for the crowd to move on to and when it does, I think it leaves the older crowd feeling a little more behind and a little less in touch with the popular majority. When we give up on our capability to be a part of large society, we give up on our efforts to stay in touch with the world,” Seiberling says.
“Younger people, who previously saw Facebook and other social media platforms as their own private place, are in some cases moving away from Facebook in an attempt to stay away from those who are older,” Runberg says. “Some Boomers who do not ‘get’ Facebook appear to react forcefully against it—asking ‘Why would anyone want to share that much about themselves?’ and ‘Who in their right mind would care?’ We see this sometimes with clients who are in this generation as well as their customers.”
The future will present a change in which generational cohorts socialize online, and at which sites. “We expect Boomers to continue to adopt Facebook—and other social media networks, but to a lesser extent—while at the same time the percentage of Millennials will continue to, slowly, erode,” he notes.
“We are gregarious and social—no matter what the age,” Runberg maintains. “New technologies give Boomers relevant and satisfying ways to stay in touch, and to now stay in touch with those that they would otherwise have lost contact with.”
“They are looking to the platform that gives them the ability to stay in touch with the largest group of friends possible, and to do so without branding themselves as older,” he concludes. “We find this last point especially relevant, and we see it again and again in our conversations with Boomers. They don’t want to be seen as old, nor different. They often want to be seen as special, but not old.”