Has social networking exploded among seniors? What should you think when you read that 43% of the 65+ (n= 356) are using social networking sites? So let’s get real -- that likely means Facebook, even though Pew wanted to throw in Twitter (and also LinkedIn and Google+). Today, 5% of the 65+ use Twitter and there's always a marketer who thinks one of the other new pet rock tools would be a good way to reach boomers. But as of 2012, few seniors were using Pinterest, Tumblr, or Instagram. So do you get excited and want to start marketing your senior products through Facebook ads? Stay calm -- we don't even know what 'using' means. Wolfram Alpha recently published a study – summarized in this article – about Facebook usage – 1 million Facebook users have opted in to let them look at this anonymous but interesting data set. While admittedly, this is a fraction of the Facebook population, one of their conclusions was: "Stacked against the U.S. Census, the age distribution on Facebook is extremely skewed toward younger people." Duh, no kidding. Good thing, too -- lurking on Facebook may not be so good for our mental health -- although some recommend it as a way for older adults to reduce loneliness.
Neither Pew nor Wolfram Alpha tells us quite enough. Pew breaks down its results separately into income and education, but the numbers are too small to map well with age. For example, there is no way to know (as I suspect is the case) whether social networking seniors are college-educated and have more than $75K of income, live in cities, are married and whether they have grandchildren -- which I bet is a prime motivator for signing on. And in the Wolfram Alpha study of Facebook use, Stephen Wolfram notes that the median number of friends on Facebook is 342, that the number of friends peaks in the teenage years, and drops off over time; that widows tend to report themselves on Facebook as married; and on average, people with more 'friends' tend to have friends with more friends, but their friends have fewer friends than themselves. That has some subliminal implications, but let's not go there.
Forgetting who those Facebook friends are -- that is a social problem. Do Facebook users remember who is in their network when they post? I doubt it. Some post pictures and comments as though they are speaking to a small circle of their closest friends and relatives – birthday pics, child with new puppy or kitten, dog with cone on head after vet visit, photo of group in a restaurant, picture of just-cooked food, etc. But in reality, they are posting to that median number of 342, hundreds of Facebook friends who may have been acquired along a long timeline that they no longer remember. In fact, a recent study noted that posting Facebook photos can have the unintended effect of negatively impacting real-life relationships with the people who are not in that innermost circle. "People, other than very close friends and relatives, don’t seem to relate well to those who constantly share photos of themselves." And sharing photos within brand campaigns is risky: "Researchers suggest that big brand advertising campaigns, which encourage people to post photographs of themselves with the product on Facebook, risk damaging the actual relationships between product fans."
Social networking does not equal social contact. For those promoting Facebook to non-users, consider caution -- its own user base does not necessarily consider it trustworthy. The introduction to Facebook should be assessed as to whether it provides a bridge that is just right or one that goes too far and and is far too wide. (Consider also whether Facebook will fizzle out.) In the world of smart phone picture snapping and sharing albums of travel photos, these tools create the illusion of an actual threaded connection. Over time, however, our connections overload us. We will dream about yet-to-be-invented Facebook features that enable us to selectively hide noise that can no longer be tolerated. Maybe we will be able to use this new level of selectivity one day – please hide ballpark pictures, photos of food, cute kid sayings and dog photo updates -- but please show us anything with pictures of mountains, beaches and waves. We will be able to tune the settings over time, never having to tell the 'friends' themselves, not having to un-friend them, because who knows when we may be so bored that we just have to check in to see if the dog survived.