The Changing Face of Social Media - June 2011

Jimmy Magahern | Jun 9, 2011, 2:32 p.m.

— Janet Bruning laughs when asked if she’s a newbie to online social networks.http://lovinlifeafter50.www.clients.ellingtoncms.com/admin/news/dateline/add/


Jo Ann LaRussa, a 74-year-old Casa Grande resident who still works in real estate, posts occasionally on Facebook but feels social media can sometimes be too time consuming.

“Oh, I’ve been into computers since there were personal computers,” says Bruning, 69, a retired accountant. “I had a Commodore 64, and I learned to program on that. As soon as there was email, I had email. I was using Multiplan and WordStar, back in the DOS days.”

Call her an O.G. — Original Geek. Bruning finds it funny that seniors are almost always portrayed in the media as technologically inept Luddites, unable to find Facebook on the Internet because they don’t know whether to type one word or two. Given that many of Bruning’s generation were actually the first adopters of the PC and the Internet — not to mention color TV and cordless phones — it shouldn’t be surprising that at least some of them have maintained their passion for techy innovations.

“People my age are always saying, ‘My grandkids got me into computers.’ But with me, I’m the one that got my kids on the computers!”

Bruning’s latest passion? Just like her children’s and her grandchildren’s, it’s social networks. And she’s not alone in her age group. According to comScore, a global Internet marketing research company, those over 55 now represent the fastest-growing segment of visitors to popular social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter. A 2010 report by the Pew Research Center found the use of social media among people over 50 nearly doubled from that of the previous year.

Nevertheless, as comfortably as some of these old-school computer users have moved into social media, navigating what is still a predominantly youth-dominated scene can at times feel like riding a crowded bus in a rowdy college town. Profanities abound in YouTube comments and Twitter feeds, and scam artists targeting neophyte users have made some social networks genuinely unwelcoming places for seniors.

Bruning says she feels those unfriendly vibes even in some of the games hosted on social network sites, which have become her favorite online activity.

“Mafia Wars can get really nasty, I hear,” she says, admitting that so far she’s avoided playing the popular multiplayer game, which is hosted on Facebook, Yahoo and MySpace. Even Farmville, Facebook’s most popular Zynga game, gets a little too competitive for her taste. “I just don’t want to play some games because of the atmosphere,” she says.

As it happens, Internet companies have been listening to “silver surfers” like Bruning, and a few social networking sites targeted especially to those over 50 have emerged to capture the growing demographic, by offering chat and gaming features similar to Facebook’s and Pogo’s but without all the aggressive and impolite language.

One such place is Winster, a 5-year-old social networking site founded by husband and wife team Jerry and Michelle Kaplan that’s been averaging about 2 million unique visitors a month, drawing primarily older women.

“I had just had a baby, and I was up playing double solitaire on this social networking site, where you have two decks of cards and you play against others,” says Michelle Kaplan, who, in a bright red hat, also doubles as helpful navigator “Winnie Winster” on the site. “And I was remarking to my husband that people were so mean on this site. They were always swearing at you, and they would stop playing with you if you didn’t play the right card. It was a very hostile environment. And my husband said, ‘That’s because you’re playing on a gaming site designed for men.’ So we designed something more for women that was more cooperative and collaborative.”

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