The story is as old as the Web: A social network born among twenty-something college kids and young wired professionals sprouts up, apparently out of nowhere, and grows into a cultural phenomenon. Eventually, it reaches critical mass and explodes, its mushroom cloud drawing the attention of millions of Baby Boomers, leading to a huge influx of new users, which in turn triggers complaints from the youngsters who started it all. The invasion of the Boomers spurs some members of younger generations to flee the carnage (and the fallout) in search of fresher territory.
We've seen this scenario play out on MySpace and Facebook, and now it is starting to happen on Twitter. When the Baby Boomers--traditionally defined as anyone born in the United States between 1946 and 1964--arrive, they tend to do so en masse. And when they set up camp, they invariably change the dynamic of the social network itself. Whether due to their distinctive social habits or the sheer vastness of their demographic, a mass migration of 50-and-over folk brings in its train everything from increased political activity to a proliferation of spam.
That Boomers dramatically alter the social networks they adopt should come as no surprise, according to Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Internet & American Life Project, a think tank that studies Americans' online habits. "Boomers are the mainstream of the country now," says Rainie. "When you attract a mainstream audience, you're going to attract a lot more commercial interests. Boomers validate that this is a big market, and that this is a place where commercial interests can make money."
End of Innocence
The twin processes of mainstreaming and commercialization mark an end of innocence on a social network, as younger users lose what was once their private playground or--even worse--have to share it with their parents.
"Younger folks don't want their parents there," Rainie says. "But does that mean they'll all flock to different places?"
Not yet, according to data collected by Rainie and his colleagues at the Pew Research Center. Though a few early adopters may jump ship as a social network that was once on the electronic frontier gets swallowed up by digital suburbs, most stick around--at least until a major new network arrives to supplant the old one, as Facebook has done with MySpace.
Still, there's no shortage of anecdotal evidence that sharing the online world can be a source of intergenerational strife. Take Will Smith (no, not the actor), for example. When this 33-year-old tech professional received a Facebook friend request from his father in March, he was floored. Not because he didn't want to connect with his dad, but because doing so on the same network that he shared with so many peers and colleagues raised a host of complex concerns.
"My father, who I dearly love, has a tendency to forward e-mails that are off pretty off-color," says Smith. "It's probably nothing that would get me fired, but stuff that could earn me a trip to HR, if I ever opened them [at work]. My concern was that he would post that type of message on my Wall or in another public venue on Facebook without realizing it was a public venue. Since everyone from my immediate supervisor to the president of my company is in my friend list, there's potential for bad things to happen. I don't think anything actually would, but there was strong potential for embarrassment."
To reduce the likelihood of a career-damaging dust-up, Smith sent his dad an e-mail in which he laid out what he considered reasonable limits for their online father-son bonding. Off-limits: "Politics, sex, jokes, things you find funny but offend me, comments about family members, any combination of the aforementioned items, and pretty much every e-mail you've ever sent me."
Ultimately, Smith's worst-case scenario never came to pass and--perhaps because that e-mail--his father never logged back into Facebook. But according to data from the Pew Internet & American Life Project, people of the same age as Smith's father are logging onto Facebook in droves, and Baby Boomers are now the fastest growing population on the social network.
(Note: The Pew Project has a quiz that attempts to define What Kind of Tech User Are You?)