June 17th, 2007

How Age Matters In Media, Web Services, And Social Networking


Fred Wilson has been bravely attempting to discuss whether age is a determining factor for successful entrepreneurship — and has been taking it on the chin as a result. As I told Fred in an email, I don’t think he’s come across as being argumentative or dogmatic on the issue at all, it’s just that’s it’s a third rail of entrepreneurship. In the land of equal opportunity, everyone wants to think that they have an equal shot.

Here’s how I responded to Fred’s final post on the issue, where he attempted to pull his hand from the rail:

The reality is that age is a double-edged sword. Younger people don’t carry the baggage that often hinders innovation, but they also don’t have the experience that can prevent naive mistakes (like not seeing your dialog box options through other people’s eyes).

Saying that age is a determining factor in entrepreneurial success is like saying that tireless devotion to your idea and attention to detail are determining factors — there are many factors that are important, but strengths in some can make up for deficits in others.

What’s more important than age is probably the ability to constantly challenge your own assumptions and to see your product/service through the eyes of all of the customers you want to serve.

Perhaps it’s a bit like fiction writing — a great writer can see the world through different characters eyes and is not limited by their own identity.

I do think Fred is raising a very imporant question (and shouldn’t be mauled for asking), but perhaps he doesn’t have quite the right angle. I followed up with this by email:

Perhaps a better angle is that age matters — A LOT — in the use of media and web services. The most successful entrepreneurs will be those who can understand those differences and and tailor their products accordingly — Mark Zuckerberg has been brilliant at serving his peers, and that has been more than enough success, but it’s not clear yet that he understands as well his parent’s generation. Each entrepreneur has an advantage understanding their own age group — the successful ones will be those whose perspective transcends their own experience — that’s what I would focus on as an investor.

That, I think, is the real issue — age only matters for creators of media and web services in so much that age matters so much among users — there’s a generation gap like never before.

In my post about how Facebook still feels tailored to people under 22, Neil Cauldwell, who is in the 20-something age group, responded:

Facebook really is worth all the attention it now has, but it’s the early twenty-somethings that currently reap all the benefits from the service.

I could use Facebook all day without becoming bored. It enables me to communicate more easily with my friends, so much so that I honestly couldn’t imagine a social life without Facebook now. If you want to experience this, you have to build up a network of people that you’d communicate with regularly in the offline world even if Facebook wasn’t there. Otherwise you won’t use Facebook enough to realise how it makes your life easier to manage, i.e. birthdays, events, keeping in touch etc.

You said you prefer to use blogs to keep in touch with friends – but would you use a blog post/comment to ask someone if they were still interested in going for a drink later on that day? That’s how I use Facebook.

I can understand Neil’s perspective as a user, but as a web service provider, suggesting that a huge potential user base simply “doesn’t get it” is not a great way to grow your user base. Facebook is trying to be a one-size-fits-all platform with its core, proprietary functionality (Facebook Platform notwithstanding) — and one size just doesn’t fit all.

It’s not that old generations can’t change their habits — they all picked up web browsing and email when those proved to be killer apps — it’s tempting to aim for creating a killer app that will make everyone change, but that happens oh so rarely. Better to try to look across the often age-driven diversity of online behaviors and create applications that serve people the way they already behave online.

Comments (11 Responses so far)

  1. + Discussion: Insider Chatter, Publishing 2.0, michael parekh on IT and Howard Lindzon

  2. The Age Question (final post) The Age Question (continued) ???via techmeme?? Deep Jive Interests, Scobleizer, Insider Chatter, larry borsato, Sadagopan’s weblog …, michael parekh on IT, Publishing 2.0 and Howard Lindzon Quote from A VC blog Who is developing this “clearer idea”? Who is developing the set of “design patterns”? It’s the younger generation. And its important to understand why. It is incredibly hard to think of new paradigms when

  3. I would partly agree with the ‘one size does not fit all’ theory propounded here. Both my parents are in the 60 plus category and while one has adopted email communication as a primary means of staying in touch, the other is too proud to admit that he’s completely unambiguosly ‘technologically incapacitated’. As a matter of fact, there’s a significant chunk of people out there who’re technologically challenged and bewildered by the avalanche of technical ‘updates’ they’re required to go thorugh on a day to day basis. When it comes to media and web services, the most successful ventures are the ones that make life simpler, regardless of age, sex or location. I say ‘regardless’, but the paradox is that it is also significantly dependant on these factors. I’m based out of India and a classic case in point is the localization of the Yahoo or Google sites for Indian visitors . The bottomline is that cultural sensitivities and preferences continue to determine the success of any venture. Any business needs to cater to the cultural building blocks of a nation at a subconscious level. That’s what entreprenuers need to prioritize and the rest, coupled with some innovative applications and technology, will all fall into place.

  4. >>” would you use a blog post/comment to ask someone if they were still interested in going for a drink later on that day? That’s how I use Facebook.”

    I wouldn’t use mine or anyone else’s site to invite someone out for a drink. That’s private and personal business, not something for the public arena.

    If I want to say something to another person, I don’t need to publish it on the web. Likewise, anything I publish on the web is unlikely to be personalized to that degree.

    I’m very aware of the audience I’m writing for, and to, choose the delivery vehicle accordingly.

  5. I think its a “what you use” thing…we want to communicate, us net-dinosaurs knew how to navigate an eGroup, an alt.net – and email, of course. Today its Facebook that one uses as a cool tool.

    So…we’ve been trying out facebook (and myspace before it, blogs, and and chat groups before them…) and guess what – they all do roughly the same stuff, with different plusses and minuses.

    It’s not that we don’t “get” facebook – its more that its yet another way of doing the same thing, and once you’ve seen one….well, the next one along is no longer a paradigm shift, its just another tool

  6. BillG

    If I ask post a ‘wall message’ on a friend’s Facebook profile, all the friends that exist in both our Facebook networks can also see this and, therefore, join in with the communication.

    Rather than emailing, txting, phoning around one person at a time, I can make a wall post or a group invite, and everyone knows what they need to know in a single, and incredibly efficient, process.

    Communicating on Facebook is wildly different to posting on blogs and ‘publishing to the web’. Facebook offers all the privacy functions you could ever wish for, so I have no qualms with telling someone something through Facebook. If I must send a message to just one person I’ll send them a direct message through the Inbox. That way, it’s kept out of the Facebook social graph, but still in my preferred place for communication.

  7. I don’t think that those of us in the older generation (I’m 30) don’t “get” Facebook, it’s just that we don’t need Facebook. I’m married with a child and my life is pretty well proscribed. My friends are available via Cel phone or email, and there aren’t so many of them that I need or want to be using Facebook. When I was in college, or even for the few years after college when I was very socially active, it would have been great. But now, it really isn’t all that useful for me beyond the novelty.

  8. billg, Facebook has an amazing privacy policy and a strong track record for keeping user data private.

    “The audience you’re writing for” is your network and no one else, unless you specify otherwise.

    You can target your message in ways most other forms of communication only aspire to target.

    Ted, I think it will be interesting to see how those of us stay in touch on facebook long after college.

    I stay in touch with many old friends solely through facebook and IM, without these things I wouldn’t continue the relationship.

    It’s also brought me back to friends I hadn’t seen in years since high school.

    And my friends are still available via cell phone and email when they’re on facebook, but now I don’t have to think about which device they’re closer to, since most of my friends have Facebook set to notify their phones and email if they’re not on the Facebook site at the time.

    All this said, Facebook is really only for people who are willing to use Facebook.

    It’s like Twitter in that it’s a completely unecessary way to communicate, yet some people find interesting uses for it.

    As for this whole Fred Wilson thing: It’s stupidity all around.

    There’s no magic age line between innovating and not innovating and you’re a moron if you believe it.

    This whole stupid meme makes me want to shut off my RSS reader for good and just talk to my friends on Facebook.

  9. Regarding ageism: I recommend Tolstoy’s bicycle which is a fascinating compendium of people’s acheivements ordered by the age of the person when they acheived them. From Shirley Temple to old-age record holders. The title comes from the fact that Tolstoy rode a bicycle for the first time when he was 67.

  10. I second Ted’s experience with Facebook. I’m married with two kids and the site doesn’t feel very relevant to my life.

    Also, even the groups application, which could be really interesting to older people, are hard to navigate.

    It’s also a mystery as to why it would not be obvious to offer the site in the language of the target country. A Facebook developer was actually debating in one group discussion whether it was worth it to offer the site in Hebrew to attract more Israeli visitors. Why is this even a question?

  11. I’ve been a facebook user from the start (as in, Day 1, quite literally) and believe that the utility of the site has evolved dramatically since its inception. Up until last fall when Facebook introduced various features like newsfeed (which allows you to see the recent activity of your “friends”) and Posted Items (which allows you to share and broadcast interesting content to your social network), the site was essentially a tool for procrastination. Browse other people’s profiles, write on each other’s walls, look at pictures, see who else likes your favorite movies. Similar to most other social networking spaces, facebook gave you a page where you could create a very simple digital identity and browse around those of your friends.

    However, Facebook is evolving into something much more powerful. Content is quickly being aggregated on the site by its users, and this content combined with a social network provides a dynamic social recommendation engine that is far more relevant and meaningful than anything else. I am 10 times more likely to check out the news stories and videos that my friends are paying attention to than anythine else — if they have posted an article or shared a video on Facebook, I know that it has gotten their stamp of approval for one reason or another, and, therefore, I am much more likely to direct my attention there, too.

    Facebook is revolutionary because it is enabling applications to build on top of live, dynamic, robust social networks. Everything increases in value exponentially if I can automatically, effortlessly see how it interfaces with what my friends and peers are doing, reading, consuming, and directing their attention towards.

    That said, I think it only reaches its full potential for those whose real-life social networks actually exist on Facebook. If all of your friends are on the site and actively use it as a way to communicate, express themselves, and share what they’re interested in, then it is extremely useful as a social filter for “what I should be paying attention to.” If you don’t have any friends, then this value is lost.

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