Grandma Just Added You! Boomers Invade Social Media…

Posted by Michael Pinto on Jan 29, 2009 in Tech |

Absolutely Fabulous! Boomers to invade social media...

If you’re a geek and you’re reading this, to you social media is old news — which is why it’s now mainstream (and about to get worse). But first a history lesson: The real story behind the sucess of MySpace and Facebook is that they were sites NOT aimed at geeks — unlike so many Web 1.0 hubs the real appeal of this first generation of these Web 2.0 sites is that they allowed a younger demographic to organize their real world activities. As an example MySpace empowered Gen Y to see their favorite band or to meet their classmates before moving into the form on Facebook. Yet there was still a generational barrier in place that has only slowly been crumbling lead by elder techies and creatives.

From my own point of view as a techie Gen Xer I only first started to take these tools much more seriously myself back during the election in 2004 — during this time if you were a Howard Dean or Wes Clark supporter sites like Meetup.com and Yahoo! Groups were the most important tools to reaching non-techies in a hurry. During the election in 2008 a generation couldn’t imagine a political campaign without these hubs and every major candidate sported buttons on their website that linked to where people were already gathering (everywhere from Flickr to Twitter) instead of reinventing the wheel. Another sign of this turning point was that every major candidte had an official presence on Digg — which is nothing short of amazing when you think about the fact that the site started life in 2005 as a “Slashdot killer” which morned the day it added more mainstream catagories like “Comics and Animation”.

Yet at heart Facebook is still a college site, but this is going to be the year that it graduates. A recent study from iStrategyLabs showed that there’s been a 276% growth on Facebook with 35 to 54 year old users. At this current rate Facebook will cease to be a youth site very shortly and the key factor that’s going to make that happen is the recession. The bleak job market is going to make Facebook grow up quickly — and you’re going to see less zombie attacks and more resumes from your old friends.

The change of Facebook’s demographics is happening on a number of levels: First the initial set of Facebook users is now graduating from college into the real world. This set of users needs their core network to open doors — and part of that network will be the parents of their friends, who themselves will also be on Facebook doing job hunting. And this is where grandma and grandpa comes in too: Sadly with the implosion of the stock market many baby boomers are going to put off retirement for now.

Two hippies at the Woodstock Festival, Aug. 1969 photographed by Derek Redmond and Paul Campbell

So with this in mind my prediction is that the non-tech side of the Woodstock generation will be the next fastest growing demographic on Facebook (somewhat historicaly ironic as they’re the original youth generation). And helping them get on board won’t be their children, but their grandkids — and so on the other end of the spectrum you’ll start to see many more tweens sneaking into what was a college night club.

Quantum Link for the C64 in the mid-80s

As a social media user since the old BBS era of the 80s I think there are four core strengths that will drive Facebook to own the market. First Facebook forces users to use their real names over a handle — this makes your online identity match who you are in the real world. The next building block is your educational affiliation which becomes a social glue that can hold people together for a lifetime (just go to any college reunion to see the proof). Adding to that like AOL back in the day Facebook recreates the web — that normally would be a downside, but having an email account that harder to spam is the upside of this walled garden. Lastly the hidden power of this service for advertisers is that unlike the more ananomous web, Facebook knows much more about you. So as an advertising platform it will give a much more precise reach to a target audience than keyword searches.

It’s for these reasons that I feel that Facebook is going to be the next Google in the next phase of internet growth which will be turned upside down by the economy. The other factor driving this won’t only be demographics and audience, but interface as well. My bet is that Facebook is smart they’ll adopt a dynamic non-web interface to enhance their application like feeling. I’m not sure how they’ll do this — they may goes the iTunes or Adobe Air route and have a desktop app that talks to the web, or since they do have a serious investment from Micrososft I could see them using a Silverlight interface via the web. I can also see them start to add grown up applications on their site — in fact it was Mark Canter who once observed that the real revolution on Facebook would be if you could have something like Microsoft Word as an application rather than sending a zombie to attack your friends.

Screen shot from AOL 1.0

Now I realize that I’m painting a rather Facebookcentric universe, and you can’t be a great superpower unless there are other superpowers. And this is always the way it’s been with tech history going back to the ancient times when companies like DEC would go after monoplies like Big Blue (i.e. IBM). There are other players lined up, some are new like Twitter and some are old school like Google — and by the way this may e the first point in tech history that we can start to now think of Google as being the owner of the last wave. So at this very moment as the old economic order starts to give way we’re seeing the birth of the next phase of the internet where web 2.0 is the prevous phase and now mainstream thanks to grandma.

My special thanks to Roy Scribner who gave me the inspiration for this essay — Roy is a bit of a leader of the idea of geeks stepping away from their computers as he has a very well done camping blog worth checking out. The Mark Canter observation comes from an episode of the podcast of the GillmorGang (so thank you Steve Gillmor — you’re my favorite tech curmudgeon). And the Woodstock photo is from Derek Redmond and Paul Campbell.

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