May 20, 2009, 3:14 PM — 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?)
Share and Share Alike?
To get a more personal take on the way family politics play out on Facebook, I called up a Baby Boomer I know pretty well: my Aunt Linda. She is on my Facebook friend list, as are her three children, aged 20, 23, and 25. In contrast to the Smiths, for whom an online connection proved troubling, my aunt came to Facebook in the first place because her college-age daughter invited her. For Aunt Linda, it's mainly a fun way to keep up with her kids while they're away from home.
"I try not to meddle," she says. "I typically go on there, look at their latest pictures, and log off."
But like many of her generation, Linda is deeply concerned about the amount of personal information that her kids--particularly her 20-year-old daughter, who is still in school--share online.
"It really worries me. Not just possibility of stalkers, but also because of the way it represents her online. I know that [her older brother] had employers checking out his MySpace page when he was interviewing for jobs right out of school."
Pew's Rainie confirms that my aunt's concerns are hardly unusual for a member of her generation. "Older Americans are worried about the way younger users behave--how much they disclose, how they present themselves. They wonder, 'Aren't they concerned about the future?' They're aware that [kids] are creating a permanent record on the Internet."
It's the Smith family dynamic in reverse: The voice of age and experience seeks to caution the young against potentially harmful exuberance in the online world.
In addition to basic differences in attitude that seem to arise with differences in age, each generation tends to use social technologies in different ways. To get a broader sense of these differences, I asked 1200 of my closest friends on Facebook and Twitter what they thought of the online generation gap. Surprisingly, the answers I got--from people as young as 19 and as old as 60+--were fairly consistent.
The gap is most evident in the way people use the networks, not in who they connect with. The networks of nearly everyone who responded to my questions span multiple generations of users. But the observations my correspondents made about the kinds of posts that other participants submit were telling.
One representative response came from a Twitter user who had this to say: "Gen Dvide=Usage Dvide <25 Tend 2 use 4 form of "stalking" celebrities & peers >25 tend 2 use 4 customized networking/info/culture/research"
Translation: It's all in how they use it. Common gripes about the inanity of Twitter updates--stereotypically oversharing every moment of daily life from breakfast to dinner, including all rest stops--may be largely due to the tendency of twenty-somethings to broadcast their personal lives in their status updates. (The Twitter criticisms are rebuttable, of course.) Nearly every respondent acknowledged that members of Generation Y--often defined as those born in the 1980s and 1990s--seem bent on publicizing every detail of their daily life over the Internet.
By contrast, members of Generation X--tagged as those born between 1964 and 1984, who now make up much of the mainstream workforce--tend to post more information about their professional lives, conferences they're attending, and projects they're working on. To some older observers, it looks like self-absorbed bragging, though many thirty-somethings claim to have reaped career-boosting benefits from this type of crowdsourcing. (There is much argument over when the different generations start and stop: Sometimes the Cultural Generation definition is more important than the actual birth year.)
Toward the upper end of the age spectrum, Baby Boomers tend to use social networks for connecting with old friends, sharing political news, discussing religion, and exploring hobbies. Due to the rocky economy, they're fast getting used to networking for jobs via the Internet, as well.
A Facebook contact wrote: "All the 20-somethings I know have hundreds of friends; it seems like they connect with everyone they've ever met. I think 40-somethings like me are more selective--I don't accept requests from people I don't know, and tend to think of Facebook more in terms of networking and connecting with old friends."
Though the cross-chatter between members of the various age groups can get a little noisy, none of the people I talked to saw it as a bad thing. Instead, most seemed glad for the diversity of their friend lists.
Another Twitter denizen had this perspective: "There is a divide. As services become more organized, they attract older users. Once it becomes more organized, the kids leave."
Rainie agrees. "There's probably some generational divide," he says. "Because people hang out with their friends, there's bound to be some clustering." But he sees no evidence of a serious online generation gap and admits that his own friends list spans multiple generations.
In the future, Rainie envisions a day when social networks will more closely reflect the way real-world social networks function, allowing users to discriminate better between close ties and loose ties. When that happens, much of the cross-chatter may be lost. But when that happens, we may also lose a great opportunity to share ideas across the generations.
Robert Strohmeyer, a card-carrying Gen X-er, also is a senior editor at PC World. He keeps his Facebook profile private, but tweets openly as rstrohmeyer. For PC World's foray into fantasy Facebook profiles, read "Facebook Pages We'd Like to See."