Forget the breakfast nook—the new family hangout is online. As more baby boomers and older Americans sign up for social networking sites, they're connecting with their kids and other family members to start conversations, share photos, and coordinate schedules.
But many are finding big social networks such as Facebook and MySpace (NWS) crowded and unwieldy, better designed for groups of casual friends than tightly knit clans. The desire for more family-friendly environs has led to a passel of Web sites with names like Cozi, Glubble, and Geni. The most popular, a Facebook add-on application called We're Related, claims 50 million users.
"Families are increasingly figuring out how to replicate the ways they communicate offline" on the Internet, says Mary Madden, senior research specialist at the Pew Internet & American Life Project. "Sometimes that means seeking out separate applications that offer customized tools."
As these startups get families hooked on features such as scrapbooks, family calendars, and shopping lists, they stand to lure visitors and ad dollars from the general-purpose social networks. Facebook user Matt Simmons, who lives in San Francisco, has already decided to separate his family life from Facebook. Since January, he's been using a site called ThisMoment to post pictures of his wife and daughters that only certain people, like his parents, can see. Simmons says on Facebook he contends with requests to interact with casual acquaintances. On ThisMoment, "the main people I'm interacting with are family," he says.
Profit Possibilities Other startups are trying to create family circles outside Facebook as well. Provo (Utah)-based FamilyLink.com, which makes We're Related, attracts Facebook users who want to interact with family members and create family trees. Chief Executive Paul B. Allen (not the Microsoft (MSFT) co-founder) says the company is turning a profit, and advertising revenues grew 400% last year.
The Web company plans to launch a new site this year, FamilyLink.com, where family members can meet regardless of whether they're on Facebook, according to Allen. "There are personal reasons why someone would just want to join a family-oriented network," he says, pointing out that the older generations of social networkers tend to focus on family matters and are less interested in the activities of their friends than younger users seem to be.
Allen's also betting that making scrapbooks and slide shows will keep users on his upcoming site for longer than they would tend to use an add-on application for Facebook. FamilyLink will "be a much more isolated experience, so we think it will be better for advertisers," he says.
Not surprisingly, Facebook is vying for a seat at the virtual dining room table. In March the company launched features that let members link to the profile pages of immediate family members and create private family groups. Facebook has also changed its privacy controls so users can send updates just to family members. The site encourages members to "use friend lists and privacy settings to afford the various people in their life different viewing privileges," says company spokeswoman Malorie Lucich.
Facebook's would-be competitors say they offer something more intimate, though. Robbie Cape, who founded family networking site Cozi three years ago, says his company has interviewed thousands of Facebook-using moms and found that more than 90% of them didn't want to share photos of their children on the site. "Facebook is a public paradigm in their minds," he says.
Making Use of Ads Cozi claims about 1.6 million users, each of whom is connected to an average of four or five family members on the site. The site features two popular applications: a shared family calendar and family shopping list. The company recently introduced advertising that lets users drag and drop items like Unilever's (UN) Degree deodorant and Dove soap from ads on the site into shopping lists. Cozi has raised more than $15 million in funding from publisher Gannett (GCI) and several venture capital investors.
Not every family networking startup is trying to supplant Facebook. Others say it's wiser to complement the site, which has more than 250 million members. "Facebook is going to kind of eat the family social networking space," says David Sacks, founder and CEO of Geni, a site where families can converse, construct family trees, and share photos and birthday reminders. Geni lets its members broadcast their activities to their general list of Facebook friends using the larger site's Facebook Connect software.
Many Facebook users, including some of its oldest, find their family communications benefit from the network's reach. Betty Orleman, an 81-year-old grandmother in Pipersville, Pa., says she started using Facebook this year because nearly everyone in her family is already on it. When she writes a message on the site, "it goes to everybody in the family," she says. It's a level of immediacy that smaller networks will be hard-pressed to match.