Aunts on Facebook: The New Core Users of the Social Web

Some of my favorite Facebook users are my aunts on my dad’s side. In the last two years, since they joined the site, I’ve gotten a window into their lives that I never had having grown up on the West Coast, far away from the family core. I’ve learned about what movies they’re seeing, their politics and religious celebrations, their weather, their pride in their kids (and my cousins), and the casual games they play. And without fail, they comment on each other’s posts.

While sometimes status updates and comments provide a window into the day-to-day, other times they showcase amazing communication that I might otherwise never see, such as memories of a loved relative on the anniversary of her death. I feel privileged to observe and sometimes participate in these conversations, and thankful that social web services have helped expose them to me.

On that note, Forrester Research analyst Josh Bernoff noted today that the firm had recently observed a “new behavior” in its two and a half years of tracking and classifying social technology usage, and made a new category to describe such users: “conversationalists.” Bernoff defines conversationalists as “people who update their social network status to converse” on at least a weekly basis. According to Forrester surveys, the category is 56 percent female, more so than any other group, with 70 percent aged 30 and older. All of which fits quite nicely with my anecdotal evidence.

At 33 percent of online consumers, conversationalists are a larger group than Forrester’s “creators” (now 24 percent of that population), but much smaller than “spectators” (now 70 percent). See the full chart below; it allows for people to be part of more than one category. The conversationalist kind of activity happens prototypically on Twitter, notes Bernoff, but actually more commonly on Facebook, since that site is so much larger.

Back in 2006, the VC Brad Feld and our former columnist Robert Young were part of a blogosphere discussion about the “80-19-1 Rule” and “the Fat Belly.” The idea was that between core elite contributors (thought to be a very small sliver — perhaps 1 percent — of a user-generated site like Digg’s content) and the mass of casual spectators (say, 80 percent, in line with the Pareto principle), there’s a middle ground of important engaged contributors.

It seems to me that these theories are coming to life. Social services are now figuring out how to facilitate open participation by a group that produces content for each other. These updates and conversations reach a wider group than they might have in the past, but still quite a small audience for the web. And sometimes that’s a beautiful thing.