Facebook or Just Face-Look? Are People 55 And Older Really Using Social Networking Websites?

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Facebook is estimated to have 70.2 million unique visitors per month in the United States according to comScore.  Social networking is booming, everyone is friending, following, tweeting, tagging, and grandma and grandpa are getting involved too.  Wait a minute, did I just say grandma and grandpa?  That’s what some recent Facebook research has shown.  It seems the fastest growing demographic on the social networking giant is women 55 and older.  That segment grew by 175% in February 2009, while men 55 and older grew by 137%.

I was definitely excited to see the data.  I’m a big believer in social networking and love to see people in that age group join a site like Facebook.  That said, reality set in a few days later.  I ended up speaking with someone 66 years old who needed my assistance with their email account.  Like many of you reading this post, I usually end up being the point person for technology-related questions for friends and family.  I had an interesting few minutes on a phone call with her.  Here’s a quick transcript:

Her: I can’t seem to find some emails I’ve written.
Me: Did you check your sent items?
Her: I’m in my email already. Where are my sent items?                             
Me: It’s the folder labeled “Sent Items" in Microsoft Outlook.
Her: I don’t think I’m using Outlook…
Me: What are you using to check your email?
Her: The e with a circle around it (AKA: Internet Explorer)
Me: OK, so it’s web-based mail.
Her: No, it’s on my computer.
Me: Yes, but you are accessing your email on the web.  I can help you.  What’s your email address so I can send you some instructions?
Her: I’m not sure, hold on.
Me: Jumping off roof now. 🙂

That conversation reminded me that not everyone is as tech savvy as the readers of Search Engine Journal.  We come with computer chips built into our brains.  Our kids instinctively know how to text and have built in wi-fi.  But, we also grew up using computers on a regular basis.  People that are 55 and older didn’t…  We were typically the ones introducing computers and explaining how to use them. Needless to say, there’s a big difference between the various age groups and how they utilize new technology.

My 3 Degrees of 55 and Older

After the phone call, I started thinking about people 55 and older and the data I saw about Facebook.  I’ll be honest, I started having doubts that many people 55 and older are jamming on Facebook, tagging photos, using apps, providing status updates, and grabbing their vanity URL’s.  So, why was I skeptical?  My parents are in that age group, and all of their friends.  My in-laws are in that age group, and all of their friends.  In addition, all of my friends’ parents are in that age group, so on and so forth.  So, I like to think I have a pretty good feel for that demographic, based on interactions I’ve had with them over the past few years. 

They Are Signing Up, But Not Coming Back…

The initial data I read showed that people 55 and older was a fast growing segment for Facebook (with women over 55 being the fastest growing).  But, recent data revealed that although they were signing up, they were not returning to Facebook.  Unfortunately, that did make a lot of sense to me.  I can only imagine someone 65 years old hearing about Facebook from their children or grandchildren, signing up, and looking at their blank profile thinking, “What the heck is this??”   


Getting My Own Data

Although reading all of this data about people 55 and older was great, it wasn’t sufficient for me.  I wanted to know more. So I decided to collect some of my own data!  I reached out to my network of friends and family with a quick Facebook questionnaire.  I came up with five simple questions to try and understand how people 55 and older were using Facebook.  I sent an email to my network and waited patiently for the data to come in.  It didn’t take long to start receiving responses.  Some of the emails cracked me up, others surprised me, and most reinforced what I thought.  Here are the five questions I sent out:

1. Are you currently on Facebook?
2. If yes, what do you use it for?
3. How often do you visit Facebook per day, week, and month?
4. Do you enjoy Facebook? Why or why not?
5. Do you plan to join other social networks like Facebook in the near future (over the next 6 months to year?)

I ended up receiving 57 responses from people 55 and older.

A quick disclaimer before I reveal the data.  This is obviously not a scientific study, nor was it meant to be.  I just wanted to receive feedback from a trusted group of people that were 55 and older to see if and how they use Facebook.  Let’s see what they had to say.

Lots of No’s, But There is Hope

As I started receiving responses, I saw a quick trend.  NO.  That’s the overwhelming response I received to question one (Are you currently on Facebook?)  It ends up that 80% of the respondents were not on Facebook.  When someone did choose to elaborate, I received some funny responses.  For example, I found out about one man who isn’t on Facebook and also refuses to upgrade to broadband.  I think the exact quote was, “Dial-up is fast enough!”  I laughed out loud and couldn’t help but think that his response was something right out of an episode of Seinfeld. 🙂  Another comment that cracked me up was, “I think I was there once.”  Wow, Facebook made such a big impression on her that she didn’t even know if she was on the site!  Although I was hoping to see more people from this group on Facebook, I had a feeling this would be the case.  Then I opened a few emails that gave me hope… 

Wait, Facebook Can Be Helpful!

Sprinkled in with the no’s were some great responses supporting Facebook.  These enthusiastic responses made me think there is hope.  The first one that struck me was from a friend’s mother-in-law.  Her enthusiasm about Facebook jumped off the page. Literally, if she could friend me, tag my photo, challenge me to a trivia game, and become a fan of my Facebook page, I think she would.   She explained how much she loves Facebook, how she keeps up with her children and grandchildren, and loves seeing everyone’s status updates, photos, video, etc.  She logs in a few times per day.  Yes, she was the exception, but she got it (big time).

After reading her story, I received a few more no’s and then another great response came in.  This time from a friend’s father, who logs in a few times per week to see what his kids are doing, he searches for people he went to college with, connected with some of them online and offline, etc.  It was another great example of someone using Facebook in smart ways.  He seemed to really like it. 

Then there were a couple of responses from people that were on the fence, not knowing whether Facebook was really for them.  There were several people who log in just a few times per month, explained that they don’t have time and don’t really know how to use Facebook.  Personally, I think that’s a big problem for Facebook, Twitter and other social networking websites (at least for this age group). I don’t know if there’s anything more frustrating for people than signing up for something you don’t understand.  And if you don’t know much about Facebook, you might end up just staring at a blank page wondering what the big deal is.

A Typical Bell Curve

I’m sure many of you have visualized this already, but my data ended up creating a typical bell curve, with a majority of the people not on Facebook, some loving it, and some on the fence.

No More Social Networks, One Is Enough…

My fifth question was, “Do you plan on joining more social networks over the next 6 months to a year?”  Almost all of the respondents that are currently members on Facebook said they probably won’t be joining other social networking websites.  To be honest, I’m not exactly sure they could name another one.  So, if Facebook can get more people 55 and older to join and actually use the website, they can probably retain those members. Better training and education would be a smart move for Facebook.  Heck, send out a team of people to 55 and older communities across the country.

A Note About When 40 Year Olds Become 55 and Older

One point I kept hearing from friends was that although their parents weren’t on Facebook, their aunts and uncles were (and their aunts and uncles are currently in their 40’s.)  So, many of them will already be members on Facebook when they become the 55 and older demographic (that’s if Facebook is around in 5-10 years).  As fast as things are moving, chances are Facebook will be something completely different by then.  Twitter might be linked to a chip in our brains, and BisKotti, the social network built on interactive TV, will take over our lives.  Never heard of BisKotti?  That’s because I just made it up, but it very well could be the next big thing. 🙂  {BTW, don’t even think about it, I just registered the domain name!}

My Final Thoughts About People Currently 55 and Older and Social Networks

Although I wish the numbers were better, I think 80% will never adopt social networking.  I think 15% will be interested, but run into barriers and be confused with the best way to use social networking sites like Facebook.  Then I think 5% will truly get it and benefit from its power.  They will connect with friends, use it help organize events, keep up with their children and grandchildren, and yes, probably grab their vanity URL’s while they’re at it.  There’s no doubt there will be some great stories from the 5%, but it unfortunately won’t make up for the 95% that never come back. 

That’s my take.  What’s yours?

Glenn Gabe is an online marketing strategist and focuses heavily on SEO, SEM, Social Media Marketing, Viral Marketing and Web Analytics. You can read more of Glenn’s posts on his blog, The Internet Marketing Driver and you can follow him on Twitter to keep up with his latest projects, news, and updates.

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  • Jim Hughes

    Interesting article, even the “un-scientific” data parts. I’m in that demographic, but am admittedly an early adopter and not in the mainstream. I use Facebook extensively, Twitter, and blog. My wife is also a heavy Facebook user. It’s been interesting to watch the numbers of our contemporaries who have shown up on Facebook over the last year. While many are active, many are not. My observations suggest two things are going on: 1) how tech savvy a person is from their work life, and 2) how extroverted and connected a person is in other parts of their life.

  • Brent Hieggelke

    We just launched a vacation rental and trading app inside Facebook (http://apps.facebook.com/secondporch/). When people move beyond the initial infatuation stage of ‘how cool it is to reconnect’, they need to get value out of logging in, to decide to return. We think sourcing trusted vacation homes from your digital social graph has big value. This is especially true when you can trade them for your home and travel for next to free, which is important to people with lots of time and fixed budgets. The key point you made was the 50-plus crowd 5-10 years from now. I believe FB has a shot at becoming a digital utility and that like email and texting could be a major part of our online errand running, and that sourcing things through trusted contacts becomes inherent.
    Brent Hieggelke, President

  • Glenn Gabe

    Thanks @Jim. I agree with you. If someone 55 and older is using web applications at work, then they might be more comfortable using something like Facebook, Twitter, etc.

    And your second point is a great one. It depends on how open and trusting someone is. You can definitely see that with younger age groups on Facebook (to say the least). That too can be a big problem for people 55 and older (other than just overcoming the technical hurdles).

  • Glenn Gabe

    @Brent, I agree with you that people will need something of value in order to log back into FB (or other social networking sites). That’s especially true as the web changes and morphs into something else. That’s why I referenced bisKotti above. 🙂 I’ll check out your app.

  • Bob

    I am a 56 year old male and have 3 twitter accounts annd 2 facebook accounts. I use them every day including business.
    I have built a number of web sites as a hobby and I am not in the IT field. However, I have had a computer on my desk since graduating college in 1975 at every job. Obviously computers on the 1970’s were not like today’s computers but they were a primary function of business in many industries.
    So, many of us over 55 have grown up with computers and many different computer languages.

  • Glenn Gabe

    Thanks for your comment @Bob. I think it’s great you are using Twitter, Facebook, and that you have used computers for years, but I think it’s safe to say that you’re not the norm. 🙂 As a whole, I still think most people 55 and older aren’t as tech savvy as you are. I wish they were, but unfortunately, I don’t think that’s the case.

    I received some great responses to my survey (as listed above) and I hope to hear more stories like that in the future. I guess time will tell.

  • Katie Wilson

    So, if you’re over 65…….?

  • Adrian in Phoenix

    I’m also 55 and I use social-networking sites, including FaceBook, Twitter, LinkedIn, & Plaxo. I use Twitter & FaceBook multiple times daily and check the others occasionally.

    I admit I’m out of the norm for my age group, but there are more of us than you may imagine. After-all, we’re the generation that adopted computing to the point that many business simply don’t exist if their power or communications fails.

    I’ve been programming since 1970, and I’ve owned personal computers since 1980.

    Thre will always be generational differences – I don’t have the bandwidth my son demonstrates when he’s working a school project: IMing in 4 or 5 windows, texting on his phone while googling his part of a report on the PC with the TV on behind him, checking v-mail every few minutes, and posting his work to MySpace where the other kids can examine it and contribute their part of the project. He and his peers multiplex like crazy, are interrupt driven by their team, but manage to ignore outside distractions long enough to get the work submitted in time. They’re each learning leadership & teamwork while applying PC skills. Their generation is going to drive their managers crazy (“why are you always texting & IMing?”), but they’re going to accomplish great things when they set their minds to something.

  • jeff

    I’m 47 have been in IT since 1983, was using the Internet when it was still ARPAnet. I don’t use Twitter, and I don’t use Facebook. Twitter is banal and not worth the time nor effort. Facebook is a privacy nightmare. You have to create an account filled with personal information to look at the site. That is all I need to know that I don’t want it.

    I keep in touch with my friends and family via occasional emails and the phone. Likewise, I only carry a cell phone that was supplied by work for work. I also block all ads and have the browser prompt me for storing cookies.

    In a nutshell, I value my privacy. Unfortunately, it seems that most younger people don’t. By the way, my 23 year old son doesn’t use either service, and neither does my wife. It’s not because of me, they just don’t see the need as well.

    Just wanted to give you an opposing viewpoint from a non-luddite.

  • The Barking Unicorn

    A much better Facebook demographics survey is at http://is.gd/1jwIL

    But thanks for reminding me to delete my Facebook and MySpace accounts. Nothing interesting on either in months.

    I turned 55 Nov. 28; I write about tech for my daily breadcrumbs. I also talk to people of all ages. Age doesn’t matter. Some like tech, some don’t.

  • LF

    I’m in my 50s, and use the web, email, mailing lists, and podcasts extensively. I have my own (admittedly simple) website, which I hand-code in HTML. I also code complex database apps in Access and Visual Basic, and routinely write VBA macros for my Office applications when I have a need for them. What I don’t do is blog, Facebook, Twitter, or MySpace. Why? No time or interest, not lack of tech savvy. I’m simply not interested in sharing my day-to-day thoughts, my music playlists, or personal details with the world at large. I can almost see a need for Linked In, but the other sites seem to be just for chit-chat, which doesn’t interest me. I’m one of those mailing-list members who constantaly gripes about off-topic chatter. Is that an age-thing or just an introverted personality?

  • Express

    can’t wait to try some of that BisKotti ….

    thanks for that btw. most new technology companies won’t target older people, and for business purposes, most don’t really have to…

  • Janette

    Thank you for this article.
    This will shed some light on Facebook users for some of my most skeptic clients, whom of which happen to be in this age bracket.
    I do believe that as time goes on more and more people 50+ will adopt more social media practices.
    I remember the time when email scared people away.

  • visitor

    Interesting article…thanks for sharing…for those 55+ leaving comments here…you guys/gals are outliers by definition…’normal’ folks don’t read SEJ 😛

  • Evalyn

    I use Facebook to keep up with photos from family and loved it, But Now I can not login to Facebook. When ever I do it shuts down Windows Internet Exxplorere. Why?

  • Glenn Gabe

    @Adrian, thanks for your comment and for the great example of what your son and his friends are doing. I completely agree, they move at light speed, using new technology like it’s not even new… 🙂 Also glad to hear you are using Facebook and other social networks. I hope more people in your age group do the same!

  • MN

    I’m a female in that demographic and loooooove Facebook. I’ll admit most of my friends on Facebook have been younger than I am until recently — some significantly; however, I noticed people in my demographic started showing up this Spring. It was almost like someone suddenly left the gate open. I’ve now reconnected with people I hadn’t talked to in 25+ years. A lot of them aren’t on it all the time like I am, and very few are into the gaming apps. It’s still interesting to watch them catch up. Glad I’m in the 5%. There are way too many outdated misconceptions about this demographic. Boomers aren’t going to be like any older population in the past. Count on it!

  • Graham

    That is very interesting. I think that one possibility that the elderly are using these social networking sites is because of the coverage in Iran. Facebook and Youtube have become the primary source for footage because the content television can show is somewhat limited. This is the story I read earlier about Social Networking.


  • Margaret

    I’m 64 and I love Facebook. I originally got on because my kids were using it , and have since reconnected with HS, college friends and former co workers. Even some neighbors I see weekly at Church. I enjoy sharing and looking at pictures others share, and catching up on their lives. I don’t use many of the aps. Some carry viruses and I don’t know which ones can be trusted. I also like that it’s free!

  • Susan Fuller

    I am a 58 year old techno-geek. I think your article reflects an age bias all your own (or maybe your generation). The real problem with Facebook for those of us over 55 is that it’s childish. I do recognize it’s marketing significance but all the invites to this and that are just nonsense. Twitter is much more my speed as long as it doesn’t get taken over by internet marketers. Just because I am one doesn’t mean I like a lot of what others do, and for me that’s the wisdom of age.

  • Louis Lyons

    I think it is because of the younger users. What better way to keep up with the kids? I wish my parents would get on board.

  • Peter John Stubbs

    16 March 2010

    Hi Glenn

    Have been a Facebook account holder for a few months ago however to say I do possess a fairly high level of detestation of it despite accessing it daily for a very short period of time.

    Am a very intelligent, wise mature mail of 61 years however do possess a fairly young and modern outlook on life. As far as Facebook is concerned I regard it has being very false/artificial, it breeds insularity, does not promote high quality social interaction/skills/opportunities. Face to face intelligent worldly conversation/discussion is by far much more enjoyable.

    Recently I deleted two or three contacts, the reason being that I was attempting to get some good level of interaction between them and I about various interesting topical/everyday subjects e.g current affairs, music and was getting no reaction/no response, really do feel some people need a kick up the b**t.

    With sincere best wishes.


    Dorset (County)