Netting Friends Online

Like millions of teenagers around the world, Sue Bloom spends several hours socializing online every day. She posts pictures, meets new friends, updates her blog and runs a popular online photography group with almost 500 members. The only thing is, Bloom isn't a teenager or a twentysomething college student--she's a 58-year-old art historian. And the brand-new site where she hangs out, Eons.com, is for baby boomers (and older) only: you have to be at least 50 to join. "Social-networking sites are wonderful for people of my generation," says Bloom, who lives in Maryland. "We've always been really social, and they're all about developing a community."

Forget teen haunt Xanga and college-student staple Facebook. Online social networking isn't just for youngsters anymore. Of course, only 1 million of the more than 215 million social networkers regularly active today are older than 50. But by the end of the year that number could explode to 20 million, says a new study from global analysts Deloitte, due out later this month. Silver surfers could prove to be an even more coveted online group than their teenage predecessors. "They're the future of social networking," says Paul Lee, director of technology research at Deloitte.

The rise of boomer networkers has something to do with the teenage market's reaching saturation. In Ireland, for instance, 90 percent of teenagers already actively use Bebo; in the United States, it's hard to find a college student without a MySpace page. To expand, networking sites are being forced to shift their focus to older users. "Future growth has to come from older people," says Bebo founder Michael Birch. "There's no choice."

Online networking took off as a phenomenon three years ago with the launch of Web 2.0 software like asynchronous JavaScript and XML, which make online design relatively easy to do. Although MySpace was founded only in 2003, News Corp. recently shelled out $580 million for the company, and Google paid $1.65 billion for YouTube, the immensely popular video-sharing site. Neither firm, however, has posted a profit, and it's not clear they will. Social networking's traditional bread-and-butter users, Gen-Yers, grew up on free music from Napster and are loath to pay for anything they get on the Web. Advertisers have been reluctant to have their brands displayed on unmonitored sites, which are often rife with unsavory postings. And although teens may have lots of time, they lack cash.

Baby boomers, on the other hand, have both time and money. They're also more refined and restrained in the messages they post, which appeals to advertisers. Jeff Taylor, the entrepreneur who made millions off popular job-search site Monster.com, which he founded back in 1993, seems to have another hit on his hands with Eons, the social-networking site for the 50-plus crowd only. Eons hit the Net in late July, backed by $10 million in venture capital, and now boasts more than 100,000 members and has welcomed almost a million unique visitors. In only a few months it's signed on numerous advertisers, including Hyatt Hotels, Verizon Wireless, Liberty Mutual and Fidelity. Beyond that, Deloitte's new study on the rise of older social networkers predicts that baby boomers, unlike those of the MySpace generation, will be willing to pay subscription fees for sites that offer the tech support, services and privacy they desire.

The trend is happening from Tallinn to Tokyo. German media group Bertelsmann is in the early stages of transforming its popular in-person Direct Group book, music and film clubs, which have 35 million members, into an online-networking scene for a mature audience. "People said that there was no way this age group would meet up online," says Eons founder Taylor, "but they're ripping it! This is a generation that wants to keep having fun."

As new niche sites pop up, the world's most popular existing social sites are expanding their nets to catch the burgeoning 50-plus market. MySpace, the world's leading networking site with a whopping 125 million registered members, is welcoming more and more boomers every day. Six million people over the age of 55 now visit MySpace every month--up from 1.5 million a year ago, according to a new study from global digital analysts comScore. Japan's most popular social-networking site, mixi, which has almost 7 million users, said last month that it was reinforcing its effort to expand its target age beyond 35, including baby boomers. Bebo, the most popular social-networking site in Britain, Ireland and New Zealand, with 29 million users, is watching the average age of its users climb every month, pulled up by an ever-increasing number of 50-pluses. "Everyone wants a community, regardless of their age," says Deloitte researcher Lee.

And that's just what they're getting online. Eons, for example, has formed clubs around the interests of an older crowd. Among the most popular are Bookaholics, an online book club which is just starting its second book review now, and Becoming a Spiritual Adult, which encourages members to discuss moral and ethical values. Of course, these more mature sites don't just replace skateboarding groups with knitting circles. They also provide forums for people to discuss issues--such as menopause and sexual dysfunction--that might turn off a younger crowd. And the old folks apparently still like to flirt--some of the most popular groups are Sexy Over 50, Hot Tub and Singles Over 60.

What created this perfect networking storm for baby boomers? For one thing, the oldest boomers--who just hit 60 last year--are retiring. That means they have time to spend on networking sites that are wholly reliant on user-created content. Unlike their parents, baby boomers aren't looking for a quiet retirement. They want to stay active, social and connected during a retirement in which they're likely to live to more than 80. In the modern world, that means online as much as in person. (In the United States alone, there are 44 million people over the age of 50 online.) Finally, the technology to create and personalize networking Web pages is getting easier to use with every software release. Many sites even make it simple for nearsighted seniors to increase screen font size.

In some important ways, however, boomers are exactly like the teenagers and young adults who launched the online social-networking phenomenon. As graduation-commencement keynote speakers stereotypically say to their young audiences: "The world is your oyster." But with boomers having so many healthy years to look forward to on retirement, it's just as much theirs. (Only with the added benefit of not needing to settle down into a job eventually.) "The way we view retirement is experiencing a revolution as we speak," says Eons founder Taylor. And revolutions--from rock and roll to LSD--are something that baby boomers have always endorsed.

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