By Robert D. Hof Maybe you've gotten one of them in your e-mail in-box lately: an invitation to be a "friend" on the social networking Web site Facebook. And you've wondered: Why would I want to join a bunch of partying college kids? That was what Bill Swartz, a 51-year-old executive recruiter in Phoenix, thought until a few weeks ago, when he dived into Facebook after reading a newspaper column about it. To his surprise, he loves it--especially the updates his contacts post regularly about their everyday activities, even things as mundane as where they're vacationing or what they ate for lunch. For Swartz, that's insight into the personalities of potential clients and headhunting prospects. "My business is personality-matching," he says. "This can really help me find just the right people."
Facebook has a lot of newbies these days, many of whom are in fact oldies. The number of unique Facebook visitors 35 and older more than doubled in June from a year ago, to 11.5 million, according to market researcher comScore Media Metrix. (Anyone going to the Facebook.com site counts as a visitor. But to have a page or have friends, you need to join.) Most newcomers aren't yet doing much real business there, preferring more buttoned-down sites like LinkedIn or e-mail for maintaining professional contacts. But they're intrigued enough with the communications potential of Facebook that they now make up 41% of the site's visitors. That's a boost for privately held Facebook, whose widely presumed multibillion-dollar valuation is based on the potential appeal to advertisers seeking big new audiences online.
As they join Facebook, older users are tiptoeing into a new social landscape. Among the tough questions: How much personal information should I reveal? What does it mean to be a "friend," and how many can I have before I'm overwhelmed with requests and information? And not least, what's a "poke"? (Just what it sounds like: a vaguely suggestive signal that someone wants your attention.) "The lines between what's business and what's personal have blurred," says Facebook co-founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg, 23.
Nonetheless, the new demographic presages a sea change in social networking. Even if younger people don't feel the need to distinguish between personal and professional contacts, anyone over about 30 usually does. Facebook allows people some control over what information they reveal to whom, but it's likely Facebook's new demographic will demand even more ways to differentiate between various levels of "friends." (Level one: ex-dorm buddies, girlfriends. Level two: sales contacts, fantasy-league teammates. Level three: anyone who signs off on your performance review.)
This influx doesn't thrill all the 20-something pioneers, who are starting to feel inhibited by the older folks looking over their shoulders. Some anti-elder groups have emerged on Facebook, many clearly humorous but others with names such as "I hate old people" and "Kill the elderly." Regardless, "old people" are piling in and weaving Facebook into lives already glutted with information and relationships. "I don't want to be left out," says Bernard H. Tenenbaum, 51-year-old managing partner of investment firm China Cat Capital.
They're also finding real utility. They can build social capital with little effort just by noticing that a contact has posted an update about her birthday today and wishing her well. Eric Jackson, CEO of management consultant Jackson Leadership Systems Inc. in Naples, Fla., who's leading shareholder campaigns to shift strategies at Yahoo! Inc. (YHOO)and Motorola Inc. (MOT), says he used Facebook to reach some Yahoo employees he couldn't otherwise find.
Some of those older people, it must be said, are rather less social than they appear. Carl Kasell, the 73-year-old National Public Radio newscaster and judge on the NPR quiz show Wait Wait... Don't Tell Me, has "friended" dozens of people. Or so it seemed. It turns out the show's 23-year-old director, Melody Joy Kramer, actually runs his Facebook page. "Carl only looks at it every Thursday," she says. "He doesn't really use a computer." Fortunately for Facebook, Kasell seems the exception.
Hof is BusinessWeek's Silicon Valley bureau manager