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Monday, November 5, 2007

News: A journey to the net's silver side

Pensioner using SagaZone, Getty
SagaZone is only accessible by those aged fifty or over

The BBC's technology correspondent, Rory Cellan-Jones, goes undercover to find out what life is like for silver surfers in the newly launched SagaZone.

Is social networking just for the young?

That's a question I asked earlier this year after signing up to Facebook, MySpace and Bebo and struggling to find friends of my own vintage.

The answer was a resounding no - within days of voicing my concerns I had hundreds of new friends and was spending far too much time socialising online.

Now though, Saga, the firm which markets travel and insurance to the over-50s, has decided that there is a gap in the market for older social networkers.

The travel and insurance company believes there is a sizeable audience out there which wants to socialise online but is intimidated by the poking, loud music and startlingly indiscreet pictures which are part and parcel of the likes of Facebook and MySpace.

The theory is they will be more comfortable in somewhere like SagaZone, a site which will refuse you membership if you are under 50.

So I took a journey into the SagaZone to find out whether it really stood a chance of winning an audience. First, a confession. To get access, I was forced to make a slight adjustment to my date of birth to make it appear I was fifty - though not by as much as I would have liked.

Once onboard, and having posted a profile with a fetching picture of an eccentric man with a woolly hat, I set off to explore.

Facebook logo reflected in eye, Getty
Many folk have found places like Facebook and Bebo are not for them
It is a very restrained and low-tech approach to networking. Facebook seemed pretty plain to anyone who had started with the multi-coloured swapshop world of MySpace and Bebo, but SagaZone is like stepping into the library.

No opportunity to post exciting photos or share favourite music or video clips, not even the online scrabble which occupies far too much of my time on Facebook.

It is over at the forums that most of the activity is going on, and here it is pretty lively. Discussions on everything from gardening to relationships, from technology to prostate cancer are attracting plenty of interest.

So I started my own thread, asking why people would choose a network that is defined by age, rather than one anyone can join.

"The people on here are intelligent, well read, and interesting, and they know something about life," said "Jen". "At 65, who could ask for anything more?"

Plenty others had joined other networking sites and found them unsatisfying. "I'm far too fat and hard-up to want to talk fashion or designer labels and what's more, I know what an apostrophe is and WHERE not to put one," wrote "orkneymermaid".

Old folk playing video game, BBC
Video games are not just for the young
One man who'd been persuaded to join Facebook and Bebo by younger family members said "I felt like a nosy perverted eavesdropper¿¿and constantly ducking flying sheep and getting bled by the attacks of vampires gets tedious."

Anyone who has suffered Facebook's more juvenile features will feel sympathy.

Back at my inbox I find several users have contacted me, including two ladies who wish to compliment me on my hat. It's a friendly enough place but I remain to be convinced that it will win a mass audience. It lacks the constant drip-feed of news from your friends that has made Facebook so compelling.

As the social networking industry enjoys explosive growth, with infant businesses suddenly worth 15 billion dollars, all sorts of new services are being launched.

Many, like Saga, are betting that the industry will become more segmented, with different services aimed at different groups, from young mothers, to students, to former soldiers.

But I'm not convinced that I will become a Saga surfer, even when I eventually qualify to become a member.

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