When Colleen McKenna Slavin's teenagers told her she was a "Facebook loser" because she only had seven Facebook friends, she sat down at her computer and got to work. Twenty-four hours later, the 48-year-old mother of three from Timonium had 70 Facebook friends.
"I have connected with high school friends from Buffalo, colleagues from 20 years ago, nieces and nephews. It's amazing," says Slavin.
Like many parents of teens, Slavin first joined Facebook as a way of monitoring her children's online activities. Once she saw her daughter's page—it just had a few recent photos and birthday wishes from friends—she decided there was nothing to fear, and then went about learning to use it for her own purposes. Recently, Slavin, a long-time book group member, began posting a link to her book club list on her Facebook page.
"I get so many comments about the books," she says. "Facebook has created a whole new dialogue between people."
Sloane Brown, 55, society columnist for The Sun and owner of Sloane Brown Design, was also reluctant to sign on. "I'd always thought Facebook was for kids," she says. "I had heard negative things about it, like everyone posts pictures of themselves drunk. So, at first I ignored all my [invitations to join]. Finally, I was getting so many, that I decided to say yes."
Once she joined Facebook, Brown was surprised to find so many of her friends and colleagues on the site. Brown likes the fact that Facebook allows her to get information about her jewelry design business to a lot of people instantly. Of course, she uses it for personal stuff, too. She was thrilled recently when Facebook connected her with a few close friends from junior high school and her long-lost best friend from her years working in television during the early '80s.
Statistics show that Brown and Slavin are not alone. InsideFacebook.com, an independent blog that tracks Facebook use for application developers and marketers, found that, as of February 2009, Facebook use had grown most rapidly in the United States among men and women over 45. The fastest growing group of users? Women over 55.
"Older people want to stay connected just like the younger ones," says Tiffany Lundquist, spokesperson for AARP (American Association of Retired Persons) of Maryland. Recently, when AARP offered to educate seniors about energy efficiency, thousands of people responded through AARP's online community and on its Facebook page.
"Baby boomers and older adults are seeking engagement, social activity, and are interested in making a difference in their world," Lundquist says.
For Leslie Abell, 48, of Mt. Washington, Facebook is "all about high school." A D.C. native who married a lifelong Baltimorean and has lived in Baltimore for 14 years, Abell sometimes feels like a bit of an outsider.
"Everyone here has known one another all their lives, they reminisce, take out their yearbooks, bump into each other all over town," she says. "Even though Washington is only an hour away, I never run into anyone from high school. Now, I feel reconnected to my old friends, and I have found them to be nicer, smarter, and more charming than I remembered them. I didn't realize I missed them so much until I started talking to them on Facebook."
Since she began using Facebook in October 2008, Abell has already attended two "Facebook reunions," and another one is in the planning stages. An interior designer—Abell runs L.A. Designs, LLC—she works out of her home office. In between working on floor plans, invoicing clients, and doing her design work, Abell checks her Facebook page throughout the day.
"I used to talk with my best friend from high school twice a year—on our birthdays," she says. "Now, I talk to her three times a day on Facebook!"
For all her enthusiasm, Abell admits that her experiences have not been all positive.
"Before I started using Facebook, I had only fond memories of my high school days—I had blocked out all of the high school drama and misery," she chuckles.
One day, while perusing a friend's Facebook page, she noticed a photo with a familiar face. "My first reaction was, 'Oh, I remember that girl,'" recalls Abell. "Then it all came back to me. The photo was of a girl who punched me because I was planning to attend the homecoming dance with a boy she had dated the year before. I felt so angry—just like it had happened yesterday."
But even that story has a happy ending. A few weeks later, she noticed that her former nemesis had a new status update that read: "I wish I was the person I am today 30 years ago."
Abell really appreciated the sentiment. She contacted her old rival on Facebook, and the two have since made amends—33 years later.
Facebook has also brought up strong emotions—and held some unexpected and wonderful surprises—for Mindy Mintz Mordecai, 50, of Pikesville. Mordecai, a correspondent for Maryland Public Television and founder of Dance for the Cure, a nonprofit to raise funds and awareness about esophageal cancer, has used the site to connect with important people from her past at a particularly difficult time of her life.
"One day, I received a friend request from someone called Carol Watson," recalls Mordecai. "Turned out she was an old friend from grade school. I wrote back to her, and told her about my husband Monte's recent death from esophageal cancer. As we caught up, I learned that she had begun a business making lampwork beads."
Mordecai shared her frustration with Watson at not being able to find beads with periwinkle cancer ribbons for Dance for the Cure. (Mordecai's daughters, Mara and Maya, were making bracelets for the event.)
"A few weeks later, I received a package containing beautiful, handmade beads with the periwinkle blue awareness ribbons and another box she said was for me," says Mordecai. "It contained an intricate bracelet with 60 different handmade sterling silver charms and beads. I feel like she's given me a hug when I wear it, and I've really needed those hugs lately. It's odd to me that something so real and meaningful came through something so ephemeral."
While women are the biggest users of Facebook, many men are jumping in, too. Jay Laskin, 67, and Lester Cohen, 73, both use Facebook to keep up with their family members. Cohen, whose son's family moved to Thailand several years ago, finds it a great way to stay in daily contact with them.
Laskin is excited about the potential of online communication tools. "I just returned from a trip overseas," he says, "and I used my iPod Touch and Facebook to keep in contact while I was away."
Laskin also enjoys posting pictures and instant-messaging on Facebook. Despite his appreciation for new technology, Laskin says he doesn't understand why so many people have to announce their every move on Facebook. "A lot of people use it as reality TV. They need to get a life," he says.
But Evelyn Heneson, age 80, feels that Facebook has only enhanced her life. This great-grandmother, a dual resident of Pikesville and Florida, says her children and grandchildren call her a "hip bubbe" because she is so technologically savvy. Heneson likes Facebook just as much as her 50ish children do.
"My daughter 'friended' me," she says. "I was amazed to find so much information about people."
Heneson notes that Facebook is a great way to catch up on family news. "One of my nephew's wives had recently had a baby, and he hadn't had a chance to call me. I found out about it on Facebook!" she reports.
Heneson also enjoys seeing pictures of her grandchildren and great-grandchildren and even found a distant relative on Facebook. She says she has 30 friends so far. Her only regret? Heneson wishes that more of her friends and contemporaries would try Facebook. "None of my friends will join and I wish they would," she says. "I'm the youngest of my bunch, and only one other than my husband who uses a computer. I enjoy Facebook. It keeps me in touch."
Lois Schuster, a 72-year-old Pikesville psychologist, is also puzzled by the resistance of many of her friends to try Facebook. "They say they're too busy," she says. In addition to networking with friends and family members, Schuster enjoys the word games she plays on Facebook. She is careful, however, not to be intrusive when it comes to her children and grandchildren. "I let them initiate the friendships," she says.