Yet another missive about age neutral social networking

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by: Dick Stroud

Thanks to Brian Scholz for highlighting an item, posted to his blog thesavvyboomer, that is dedicated to the space where Boomers meet all things Internet and consumer electronics.

Brian like me is amazed at the explosion of social networking web sites targeted at Boomers/50-plus. This is part of what he had to say.

Eons is apparently getting 1 mil clicks a month now and the 2008 candidates are staking out their territories there. But here's my question. Do we (boomers/seniors) really need or more importantly, want our own social networking website(s)?
Why can't we just carve out our own space on a site like Facebook and take advantage of all the development and investment that FB and many of their 3rd party add-on companies have undertaken?

I want access to the energy and innovation that is so vital to Facebook. I don't care if it comes from a 20-something or a 60-something.

I'm not saying that there aren't several niches that shouldn't be addressed separately in our demographic. Dating sites, health care, investing and travel are some that come to mind immediately. To my mind, even though we are a huge demographic on the internet, why are new companies trying to re-invent an already huge wheel? Have they looked at the depth and breadth of Facebook? It's huge.

I kept nodding in agreement as I read his blog.

I am in the process of writing a detailed analysis of the age neutral characteristics of social networking. I will save you reading the few thousand words of analysis and go straight to the “bottom line” conclusions.

The process of social networking is here to stay – it has been around for ages, but since it has been given a name and subsumed by Web 2.0 it has taken on the same totem symbol of sexy youth-centric technology that texting once held for mobile comms.

The MySpaces and Facebooks are rapidly changing to become multi-age, multi-interest and multi-everything, as they absorb content and stuff to enrich their usefulness. Maybe they should study the fable of Goggle and Yahoo – one retained absolute focus on its core activity and extended its offering in parallel – the other was the granddaddy of mashups and was something to everybody and nothing much to anybody.

Depending on their lifestyle characteristics, Boomers/50-plus might want to use the generic social networking features of FaceBook (as suggested by Brian). Others will be attracted to an oldie version of FaceBook. We will come back to this option at the end.

For the great majority of the 50-plus they will use social networking functionality and be oblivious to the fact. Unlike the current crop of generic social networking sites its real volume adoption will result from it being part of an interest/industry/company/activity Web site. Sit and think about it a second. Do you think any significant Web literate company in retail, travel, healthcare, and consumer electronics is not planning how they will use social networking to increase eye-fall and the networking effect of their Web presence? If they are not they should be. Please note – I would be delighted to accept a big fat consultancy assignment to tell them how to do so!

It might be a idealistic nonsense but there is a lot of thinking and going into ways of knocking down the “walled garden” of the generic social networking sites and enabling individuals to mashup their own social networking from multiple sources. Have a look at the recent announcement from Plaxo. Nirvana it might be but just imagine a totally open source social networking standard?

Let’s come back and talk about the host of oldie social networking sites that are opening up. Eons showed that it is possible to produce a decent social networking site that is not a simplistic aged version of FaceBook. So how many more eons will see succeed? I guess it all depends what you mean by the word ‘succeed’. The fundamental issue with networking sites is that they only work when you have enough rich content, provided by the site or its users, to keep people using the site. That is a great deal harder to do than it sounds. To make matters worse, you only get a short window of time to make it work. If you go to a site and it is barren of content then it will take one hell of a lot of persuasion to make you do it again.

I doubt if there will be more than one or two generic sites that achieve any true business level of success per country. There might be another 2-3 that can rub along as a small business in the hope of being purchased for their user base. Probably another 2-3 run as a cottage industry.

Just as I finished writing this blog posting another article hit my desk about this subject. TeeBeeDee (“founded to provide a voice for the wisdom of our crowd – those of us who have learned from our life experiences and want to keep on growing at midlife”) has announced its first institutional round of funding ($4.8 million from Shasta Ventures and Monitor Ventures).

This brings me to my final point. You don’t have to make any money from these sites, but for a short space of time, it will be enough to demonstrate that you might. This is where Web 2.0 has a lot in common with Web 1.0. A lot of people are still in the thrall of big numbers (76 million Baby Boomers and all of that) and see a huge business bonanza if this affluent cohort can be captured (milked). Think of it as betting. Very long odds, potentially big return, but in venture capital terms a small punt.

That’s my take on the situation. What do you think?

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