Tuesday, September 18, 2007

New Social Sites Cater to People of a Certain Age

New Social Sites Cater to People of a Certain Age

Published: September 12, 2007

SAN FRANCISCO, Sept. 11 — Older people are sticky.

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Illustration by The New York Times

Darcy Padilla for The New York Times

Robin Wolaner, who founded Parenting magazine in 1987, has started a Web site for older people.

That is the latest view from Silicon Valley. Technology investors and entrepreneurs, long obsessed with connecting to teenagers and 20-somethings, are starting a host of new social networking sites aimed at baby boomers and graying computer users.

The sites have names like Eons, Rezoom, Multiply, Maya's Mom, Boomj, and Boomertown. They look like Facebook — with wrinkles.

And they are seeking to capitalize on what investors say may be a profitable characteristic of older Internet users: they are less likely than youngsters to flit from one trendy site to the next.

"Teens are tire kickers — they hang around, cost you money and then leave," said Paul Kedrosky, a venture capitalist and author of the blog "Infectious Greed." Where Friendster was once the hot spot, Facebook and MySpace now draw the crowds of young people online.

"The older demographic has a bunch of interesting characteristics," Mr. Kedrosky added, "not the least of which is that they hang around."

This prospective and relative stickiness is helping drive a wave of new investment into boomer and older-oriented social networking sites that offer like-minded (and like-aged) individuals discussion and dating forums, photo-sharing, news and commentary, and chatter about diet, fitness and health care.

Last week, VantagePoint Ventures, an early investor in MySpace, announced that it had led a $16.5 million round of financing for Multiply, a social networking site aimed at people who are settled.

In August, Shasta Ventures led a $4.8 million financing round for TeeBeeDee, a site coming out of its test stage this month. The name is short for "To Be Determined" (as in: just because you're not trolling for a mate on MySpace doesn't mean your life is over.)

Also in August, Johnson & Johnson spent $10 million to $20 million to acquire Maya's Mom, a social networking site for parents, according to a person briefed on the deal. The site has been in existence about a year.

Social networking has so far focused mainly on businesspeople and young people because they are tech-savvy and are treasured by Madison Avenue.

But there are 78 million boomers — roughly three times the number of teenagers — and most of them are Internet users who learned computer skills in the workplace. Indeed, the number of Internet users who are older than 55 is roughly the same as those who are aged 18 to 34, according to Nielsen/NetRatings, a market research firm.

TeeBeeDee's founder is Robin Wolaner, who in 1987 created Parenting magazine. That year, at least seven magazines focused on being a parent were started, and Ms. Wolaner said she was seeing the same sudden recognition of a need for Internet publishers to respond to the demands of older Americans.

She came up with the idea for the site, she said, "when I was sitting around with friends and we said, 'We're not going to hang out at the AARP site. What is there for us?' " (Plus, she said, she wanted to find a community where she could discuss her interest in getting an eye lift).

"There's a recognition that this generation now uses the Internet just like younger people," she said. "The one thing this generation hasn't done yet is network online."

The question is whether they'll want to network in large enough numbers to justify the tens of millions of dollars going into the space. Indeed, the interest from entrepreneurs and venture capitalists has led to a mini-boom in sites that cater to baby boomers, creating what they say is both critical mass and a likely falling out.

Some of the older users of the sites say the experience feels more comfortable to them than when they tried MySpace, Facebook or Friendster.

"I've discussed my divorce, my medical issues, and when do I dare go dating again," said Martha Starks, 52, a retired optician in Tucson, who spends an hour or two each evening on a site called Eons. "I sure wouldn't discuss that stuff with a 20-year-old."

She says she talks about lighter things, too, like movies and music, with an audience that gets what she is saying.

"They don't even know who Aretha is — she's the queen of soul!" she said.

Meg Dunn, 38, who is raising three children in Fort Collins, Colo., said she had tried MySpace and Facebook but had found that the short attention span of users didn't suit her either. She now uses Multiply, where she shares family photos with her relatives, and gets into discussions on substantive topics, like health issues and illnesses affecting elderly people.

"I feel like I'm putting down roots, building relationships," she said. "My feeling on MySpace is that people give you a poke, and then they're gone and you never see them again."

Rodrigo González Fernández
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