TORONTO - Social networking was arguably the most influential technology of 2009 in Canada and around the world, largely because it's not just for teenagers and college kids anymore.

It's become cliche for younger social networking users to cringe and whine as their parents and grandparents join their favourite web community, but older users now represent the fastest growing demographic on sites like Facebook.

A study in August by marketing agency iStrategyLabs suggested the number of new Facebook users aged 55 and older grew by almost 514 per cent in the previous six months, compared to 4.8 per cent growth among 18-to 24-year-olds and 24.2 per cent for those 17 and younger.

Facebook was originally designed as a medium for university and college students to connect with one another but they're increasingly having to share the same virtual space with their elders, who not long ago were seen as clueless technophobes.

"Facebook users now are people who are much older, people who are retirees or who are in their 50s, 60s, and they're starting to use Facebook as a primary means of communication," said Amy Webb, a consultant and chief executive of Webbmedia Group.

She said 2009 can be defined as the year that social networking truly hit mass awareness on a mainstream level, particularly for Twitter, which has been around since 2006 but just became a household name this year.

According to a recent report by Forrester Research, almost 80 per cent of Canadian Internet users use social networking at least once a month, the highest adoption rate of any country the company covers.

Internet measurement company comScore also estimated in a recent study that wired Canadians went on social networking sites an average of 13.6 days a month for a total of about 5.5 hours, which far surpassed global averages.

Social networking is bound to become even more popular in 2010 as more consumers upgrade to smartphones and log on everywhere they go - and on the way there, said Melanie Dempsey, an assistant professor of marketing at Ryerson University's Ted Rogers School of Business Management.

"When I'm walking down the street I'm always trying to look out for people walking into me because they've all got their heads down, texting people," said Dempsey, who co-authored a recent paper on viral marketing which explores online behaviour.

Social networking sites have had a massive impact on the way people use the Internet and they've become the primary mode of messaging for some.

"What I'm really finding with young people is they consider email something that old people do," Dempsey said.

"But everyone is connecting and age is no barrier."

As social networking becomes more and more commonplace, the most-active users, who Dempsey calls e-mavens, are actively trying to stand out in the crowd by crafting their online persona.

"They want to be recognized as an expert ... they are also trying to manage their self-image. E-mavens want to be unique," she said.

But they also want to be recognized as part of a group and social networking can give people a feeling of inclusion.

"We look at the need to belong as a sort of motivator," she said.

The surge in social networking in 2009 - and the public's increasing willingness to divulge personal details online - was somewhat ironic considering how guarded people have traditionally been with their personal information, Webb said.

"I think back to five years ago when most people that I know wouldn't use their credit card online to buy something, because they were worried about identity theft, and now we have millions of people willingly posting photos of their two-year-olds and talking in great detail about their daily lives," she said.

"It's just so amazing how Facebook and other social networks have gained such acceptance that people are willing to do that now. The biggest change in the last year has been an attitudinal change."

One of the biggest new entries into the social networking world in 2009 was Foursquare, which encourages users to post their comings and goings, letting people know exactly where they've been in the real world.

"It's fun, it's exciting but a lot of people lose track of common sense," Webb said.

"If you're married and you and your husband use (social networking) to tell everybody you're in the Bahamas for the weekend, you're broadcasting to the world: hey, come and attack our house because you know we're both not there."

But if you think today's social networking is starting to get a little disturbing, consider the not-too-distant future, Webb said, which will combine mobile access, augmented reality, and facial recognition.

Augmented reality takes an image from a mobile phone and digitally overlays information over top it. For example, pointing a phone's camera at a store window could retrieve information about the business, specials, and hours of operation.

A new Google product for mobile phones, called Google Goggles, is already experimenting with the idea but some users are concerned about privacy implications associated with facial recognition. Google's photo software Picasa already has a feature that sorts images based on facial recognition and it's not unrealistic to think similar technology will make it into social networking, Webb said.

"The idea would be I'm walking down the street and I see somebody I kind of recognize. So I turn on my phone application which recognizes who that person is because it's done an image scan. That's not out of the realm of possibility, given the amount of data we're freely giving to Google and Facebook," she said.

"This stuff exists and it's just a matter of time (before we see it)."

In the nearer future, users will notice more corporate attempts to profit off social networking, both subliminally and overtly.

Some companies have paid popular Twitter users to subtly mention their products in tweets, while others are scouring the web looking to capitalize on word-of-mouth buzz.

Trident recently ran a full-page ad in U.S. newspapers consisting of 10 real tweets users posted about a new brand of gum.

"Consumers are much more likely to embrace messages about brands when they come from other consumers ... only something like 20 per cent of us will believe advertising but 70 per cent of us will believe messages about brands that come from friends, online and in person," said Queen's University professor Sidney Eve Matrix.

"It doesn't even have to be a real friend, it can be a Facebook friend, but it has to have a human face."

Latest From ...