Eons: 'MySpace' for the boomer set

Seniors are logging on to Eons.com and discovering the world of online networking.

The online posts appear earnest, but not plaintive.

Ladybird calls herself a "transplanted New York State grandma" living in Michigan who hopes to trade e-mail with some new local friends. JoeMarty – who has never been in a chat room or posted a message online – wants to know if "anyone out there" is into bikes – the kind with pedals, he notes, not internal-combustion engines.

Like some 300,000 others in recent weeks, they have logged on to a new website, Eons.com. The site is banking on a digital awakening among recreation-minded boomers and matures, a growing and increasingly active demographic – online and everywhere else.

"Our goal is to be the center of gravity on the Web for adults 50-plus," says Linda Natansohn, senior vice president for strategic development at the firm, a Charlestown, Mass., offshoot of job-board giant Monster.com.

This is not your grandchild's Internet. Social-networking websites from MySpace to Facebook to Friendster have long been the virtual neighborhoods of choice for – primarily – Gen Y youths and young adults.

Burrowed into these web-based warrens, registered users can trade text, images, and audio – in total anonymity or with starkly candid, photo-accompanied attribution.

Today, such sites are exploding – and the demographics of their user bases have broadened. Executives increasingly use sites such as LinkedIn.com to conduct "back door" checks on references. Wal-Mart runs a site for teens called the Hub.

Social-networking sites in the form of interactive games exist for children as young as 8. (See http://weblogs.csmonitor.com/weekend_zone/ for related story.)

But it remains unclear whether an older crowd will comfortably ease into communal clusters. So far, websites aimed at the senior set – AARP.org, thirdage.com – have tended to be more informational than interactive. A recent study by Jupiter Research found older users to be the group least interested in online social networking, says Corina Matiesanu, a senior analyst there.

Still, Ms. Matiesanu says, 20 percent of nearly 900 respondents ages 55 and older were open to the function. And Jupiter estimates that 62.4 million over-50 adults will be online by 2010.

They just might seek one another out. "The fastest growing group for Internet dating is older people," Gloria Steinem told The New York Times earlier this month.

Social-networking sites frequently form organically around interests – stick-shift cars, for example – without regard for networkers' ages. But mixed-topic sites could succeed just by mining broad veins of generational interests.

"There's a strong bias that we have toward interacting with people who are demographically and physically similar to ourselves," says David Krackhardt, a professor of organizational behavior at Carnegie Mellon's Heinz School and a leading expert on social networks.

Age, he says, "is one of the strongest, most persistent predictors of how networks form."

Others submit that in an online environment packed with distractions, it might not be enough.

"Is being over 50 years old a strong enough affinity? I'm not so sure," says Howard Rheingold, a writer and well-regarded expert on the social implications of communications technology.

"There are plenty of boomers in communities that discuss health or investments – two concerns of aging onliners that come immediately to mind – but I really wonder what the founders of Eons.com plan to do to achieve a critical mass of participants," he writes in an e-mail.

Eons counters that its 2 million page views to date represent the pull of a cyberspace location at which meeting up electronically is almost incidental – though more than 800 affinity groups, with interests that include gardening, digital photography, and antiquing, have already been formed.

Sue Bloom, a published digital photographer and parent of two adult daughters, was contacted by Eons this summer to run the site's photography group – already the largest, with more than 200 members after about 50 days – and write a blog about the topic.

Chair of the art and art history department at McDaniel College in Westminster, Md., she knew how to use the Internet but was unfamiliar with the world of blogs and online networking.

But she took to it, she says, and finds that older adults do, too. "I think some of [my students] would be surprised to know that their grandparents are networking," says Professor Bloom.

"This [senior] generation is really active and alert and engaged, and going full throttle with a sense of purpose," Bloom adds. "What do they want to do? What kinds of things do they want to learn yet? Where are the places they want to travel?"

Her biggest challenge, she says: writing for a member audience that includes professionals as well as amateurs with point-and-shoot cameras. Some interact, others just harvest information.

Eons will pursue growth by taking a role far beyond that of basic sites built around communities of interest – a site for owners of recreational vehicles, for example, that might include a message board. The firm, Natansohn says, has set out to be a master aggregator of senior-specific tools and services.

Recommendations aren't necessarily driven strictly by merit. Five partner corporations – including Hyatt, Liberty Mutual, and Verizon – back Eons and serve as information providers. This is clearly disclosed on the site.

"You either accept the terms or you don't," says Natansohn. "We like to think of it as adding value." (More ads are likely to appear soon. Generation-targeted sites represent a shimmering lure for advertisers.)

Many of the site's features, Natansohn says, were generated in-house and with no intent other than to enrich.

Click on a goal – "travel to Italy," for example, or "lose weight" – and Eons tells you how many others share that goal and how many of them live near you, before offering direction. A popular "life-expectancy calculator" follows up with tips on healthier living.

And a feature called cRANKy is "the first age-relevant search engine," says Natansohn. When its research showed that senior users were frustrated by enormous, largely irrelevant yields found by major engines, Eons built in a vetting process that pulls down top sites based in part on its own editors' reviews and previous users' ratings.

"The more people use it," says Natansohn, "the more you see this 50-plus voice coming through."

The site also includes a "learn the lingo" section. "When you hear kids talking about MySpace," reads an explainer on the site, "do you think they're referring to their bedrooms?" A glossary of youth terms defines such kid-culture icons as SpongeBob and Disney's Kim Possible.

After that it's back to business: talking NASCAR, sure, but also taking on household clutter, coping with estate taxes, and overcoming stereotypes in the job hunt.

"[Eons] is purpose-driven, versus a lot of the younger sites," says Natansohn. "It's a good place to hang out, but at Eons we've got lots of important things we want people to come and do."

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