Dec. 19, 2006 -- Who are you?
Really, who are you? That's the question on the minds of many Americans after Time magazine's much-ballyhooed announcement that the 2006 Man of the Year was "You": the community of Internet users who set up profiles on MySpace, post videos on YouTube and contribute knowledge to Wikipedia.
But who are these people? Are that many of us, from grandmothers in Topeka to construction workers in Tacoma, really getting online and interacting like this?
In recent months, the hype has been hard to miss: It's not just young adults and tech geeks who are interacting on the Web, but more adults and less tech-savvy Americans going online to feed their social needs and creative instincts.
Certainly, Wikipedia attracts an older audience as it relies on knowledgeable users to expand its encyclopedia. About 57 percent of Wikipedia's audience is aged 35-64 and 23 percent are aged 18-34 (surprisingly, about 16 percent are aged 2-17), according to Nielsen/Net Ratings.
And although the preponderance of soft-porn and music videos on YouTube would make you think it's largely used by frat boys and 20-somethings, just the opposite is the case. About 55 percent of the video-sharing site's audience is aged 35-64 and 25 percent is aged 18-34, according to Nielsen/Net Ratings.
But when it comes to the social networking phenomenon epitomized by MySpace and Friendster, those two premises about its size and range have been challenged, to some degree, by experts who track the social networking phenomenon.
Certainly, social networking behemoth MySpace is a dominant presence on the Web. It's often reported that over 100 million people use the social networking site, which would represent one-third of all Americans.
But how many of us can name a single person they know who has a MySpace page?
It turns out that the actual number of users is much smaller and probably closer to half of that figure. That's because the 100 million number includes inactive accounts, fake accounts and multiple accounts (which might be set up by a single user). About 30 percent of users hadn't logged in since creating their page, according to an informal analysis done by tech Web site forevergeek.com.
"It's true that the number of active users is smaller," said Andrew Lipsman, spokesman for comScore networks, a company which tracks online usage. Lipsman, who admits that he doesn't have a MySpace page, added that "There are plenty of people who visit it and don't actually use it -- but when I'm looking for new content online, I'll be directed to someone's MySpace page."
Although more adults over 25 might be visiting social networking sites or stumbling across them during Internet searches, that demographic spends far less time on the sites than younger users. People under 25 account for 25.6 percent of visitors to such sites, but they account for 40.8 percent of page views (a figure that counts the number of pages visited on a site).
In part due to the influx of fickle users and curious browsers, MySpace -- along with competitors such as Facebook, GeoCities, Classmates.com, Friendster and Linked In -- continue to expand. According to comScore, 104.7 million visitors went to social networking sites in the month of November, representing 60.3 percent of all Internet use.
As for the claim that the social networking phenomenon spans the generation gap, the truth is a little more unclear.
A recent survey showed a shift in the age of visitors to MySpace, with a drop in the number of teen users and a growth in the number of middle-aged adults. The percent of teens aged 12-17 dropped from 24.7 percent of the site's total audience in August 2005 to 11.9 percent in October. And the percent of users aged 35-54 increased 8.2 percent during that same period, accounting for 40.6 percent of unique visitors.
Plenty of observers were skeptical that these numbers represented a new age for social networking sites, especially by the fact that the number of users aged 25-34 dropped while the number of older adults (aged 35-54) increased. "Who are these older people? They're parents who'd like to see what their kids are up to online," said Mikolaj Jan Piskorski, an assistant professor of business administration at Harvard School of Business.
"Does the demographic get older? Yes, but very slowly and largely by segments," said Piskorski, explaining that adults users are more attracted to specific niches in the social networking world. Among these niche sites are Linked In (networking for businesspeople), MommyBuzz, Eons (geared to baby boomers) and aSmallWorld.net (invitation-only site for exclusive audience).
Even on MySpace, the vast majority of adults over 30 seem to be singles looking for romantic partners and entrepreneurs looking for investors. "A few years ago, a lot of single adults would never have dreamed of going online, but now it's almost expected," said Piskorski.
Mychael Miller, a 32-year-old artist from Chicago, joined MySpace more than three years ago and uses it for "fun" and not to network professionally.
"I'd say the longer the site runs the more of an equilibrium it finds," Miller wrote in an e-mail. "Not only through users that age with the site, but I find that more and more 30-somethings are joining the site for dating or using it to connect with people they knew in high school and college, back when the Internet was first making an appearance and there was nothing like this. It's naturally going to skew younger because to most people older than myself, the Internet didn't exist when they were the average age of someone on this site."
And there are many casual MySpace users who set up a profile, but do most of their networking on niche sites. Michael Ellenbogen, a 30-something filmmaker, has a MySpace presence but spends most of his time on aSmallWorld. Since joining about six months ago, he credits the site with introducing him to dozens of useful contacts as he prepares to scout shooting locations in Italy for his movie, "The Castle of Otranto."
"It's like putting together a global community for myself," said Ellenbogen. "We're all in satellite hubs. I've been invited into a couple of other sites like Professional Blackbook and Wiyo, but how many can you use? I might bounce around in them for a while, but not for long. The average amount of time I spend on aSmallWorld is quite ridiculous and I can justify it because every time I'm on there, I accomplish something or make an important contact."
The only drawback? aSmallWorld, of course, might just be getting too big -- and too young. "It's starting to skew very young," said Ellenbogen. "You're at ArtBasel [art fair in Switzerland and Miami] and you're meeting 22-year-olds and you're having a great time and they start asking, 'Oh, can I get into aSmallWorld?'"
And if you do get in and enough people inside the network reject you, the site kicks you back into "The Big World." Sounds just like high school, doesn't it?