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Technology

Social Networks for the Older Crowd

Social networking isn't just for kids. Online communities catering to baby-boomers are blossoming.

EDITOR'S NOTE: This article was originally published in the January 2009 issue of Kiplinger's Retirement Report. To subscribe, click here.Online social networks aren't just for kids. Just ask Malinda Crispin, 66, an American expatriate living near Tours, France. A year ago, she was scouring the Internet to find information on two different topics: traveling in Thailand and plastic surgery. Crispin stumbled upon some relevant discussion groups, but quickly lost interest in them.

"It was all 25-year-olds chatting about having their buns lifted and things like that," she says, laughing. "I wanted to find out what mature women thought, but I just couldn't find anything."

After more Web sleuthing, Crispin found online communities more to her liking, including TeeBeeDee (www.tbd.com), a site for the 40-and-older crowd. Crispin, a widow, is now a TeeBeeDee regular who participates in nearly 40 discussion groups ranging from Celtic culture to vegetarianism.

When someone makes an interesting or witty comment during a discussion, Crispin will click on the member's profile. She sometimes uses a feature that alerts her by e-mail when the member posts new messages. She may then send a message directly to that member. "This enables me to interact and get to know that person better," she says.

Youth-oriented online social networks such as MySpace and Facebook get most of the media spotlight. But a growing number of social networks aim at a more seasoned demographic, particularly baby-boomers, the oldest of whom are in their early sixties. Besides TeeBeeDee, sites include Boomertown, Boomj, Boomster, Eons and ReZoom.

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An online social network is an Internet site where like-minded individuals chat, blog, offer advice, share experiences, and exchange photos and videos. Some members even meet in person after developing online relationships.

Like Crispin, the users of these Web sites are searching for people who are at the same stage in life. Writers offer tips on staying fit after 50, dealing with ungrateful adult children, dating after divorce, retiring abroad, providing care to frail parents and grieving after the death of a spouse. Membership is free, but you must provide your name and e-mail address, and sometimes more information, to join.

There are more Web users ages 55 and older (38 million) than there are between the ages of 18 and 34 (33 million), according to research firm Nielsen Online. Given those statistics, industry executives say it's no surprise that online communities are springing up to serve an older, yet Web-savvy, crowd. "Many people tried Facebook because their kids are on it, and now they're trying sites that are more suited to them," says Robin Wolaner, chief executive officer and founder of TeeBeeDee. Wolaner launched Parenting magazine two decades ago.

From Romance to Crockpots

Like most boomer-friendly social networks, TeeBeeDee (for "To Be Determined") has a playful, active quality, with discussion groups on topics such as "Rekindling the Romance (And Your Sex Life)," "You Know You're 50 When..." and "Hikers, Cyclists and Kayakers." Discussion categories include marriage, travel, music, movies and politics.

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Boomster.com, which launched in October, has a more professional bent for boomers embarking on a second career. Members write about starting a new business, changing career plans in an economic downturn and career coaching. "If someone wants to write a book, they might be looking for an illustrator," Boomster co-founder Steve Campus says. "They can use our search engine to find an illustrator."

For Eons member Lynda Perdew, 61, social networking is a way to stay in touch with old friends -- and make new ones -- as she and her husband explore the U.S. in an RV.

Perdew has Facebook and MySpace accounts, but prefers Eons because she's communicating with people her own age. She participates in many online forums, including photography and travel, and has met several Eons friends in person. Two even watched her skydive as part of her birthday celebration. "Just this past week we drove to Wisconsin to meet a girl who I've been talking to for over a year," she says.

Like Perdew, the "girl," whose first name is Jo, is a grandmother and retiree. After exchanging online messages, they began talking by phone. "Her hubby owns his own machine shop, and my hubby is a machinist," says Perdew. When they met in person, she says, "Jo was just like she was online, a dear and trusted friend."

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Boomers and seniors should visit several sites before choosing one or two. In addition to the sites listed above, AARP (www.aarp.org/onlinecommunity) has a social network with dozens of chat groups. According to Compete.com, a research firm, Eons had 333,000 visitors in October 2008, while TeeBeeDee had 79,000, and Boomj had 57,000.

Boomj blends member groups with "expert" content. "We've gone out to bloggers and authors who are experts in areas that we believe are important to our demographics," says Wendy Borow Johnson, Boomj's president. Boomj offers articles on fitness, relationships, cooking, music, travel and caregiving. Its online store sells a range of goods, such as espresso makers and self-tanning lotion.

You can find just about any topic at Eons, which was founded by Jeff Taylor, who created the job site Monster.com. Its 3,000 discussion groups and blogs range from cooking, such as "I Am a Crock Pot Junkie," to lifestyle, such as "50+ Singles."

"With the younger sites, you have your friends, your class, and so you haven't expanded your circle much," says Linda Natansohn, senior vice-president. "You've just sort of taken your friendships online. At Eons, people find groups around their passions and interests. They end up making new friends."

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A popular feature is the Longevity Calculator (www.eons.com/calculator), where you enter details about your health and lifestyle habits. The calculator then estimates how long you'll live. "People like it because they're a generation that wants to be proactive about their health," Natansohn says.

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