Online social networking isn't just for teenagers anymore.
The glitzy websites where young people bare their souls -- and more -- have gone mainstream over the past year, attracting users from grade school to retirement.
The past year has seen a proliferation of new online hangouts, with Imbee.com courting pre-MySpace tweens and Eons.com offering baby boomers a place to hang out and set up obituary alerts. Even the original teen-centric websites are getting a little grayer: 41 percent of the people over age 18 who visited MySpace.com during a recent four-week period were 35 or older, according to Internet tracking firm Hitwise USA Inc. Three years ago, 62 percent of Facebook.com visitors were ages 18 to 24; today, it's less than half.
"The demographics are starting to spread out" as the total number of users skyrockets, said Bill Tancer , general manager of global research at Hitwise.
Visits to MySpace outpaced those to any other website in January, Tancer said. The top-20 social networking websites account for 6 percent of all Web visits, making them competitive in popularity with the Web's other top pulls -- adult sites, e-mail, entertainment, search engines, finance, and shopping.
It's too soon to know whether today's MySpace users will continue to use social networking websites as marriage, mortgages, and other real-life events begin to distract them from their virtual friends, but as users of all ages go online, MySpace has spawned dozens of clones targeting specific ages or interests.
Cheneka Hobbs , a 28-year-old mother, logs on to CafeMom.com just about every day to keep in touch with other moms, to post pictures of her 2-year-old daughter Chelia, and just to talk to adults.
"I work in a community center and work with teens all day; I go home and am with my daughter at night," she said. "It's a way to get some conversation and get some advice and see who I can meet in Massachusetts."
Alexander Fryer is interested in more basic forms of play online. The 9-year-old from Edmond, Okla., began using social-networking websites two years ago, before he could even type, frequenting club.Lego.com to build his own virtual projects.
"It's been exciting because you can see how many people have actually seen what I've done," he said.
Today, the third grader uses ClubPenguin.com, where every child has his or her own penguin and igloo, and has tried out Imbee.com. His father, Wesley, said both sites offer a safe social-networking experience in contrast to the MySpace page, which has been criticized for allowing young people to post revealing personal details.
The social-networking platforms and options keep expanding:
Last week, Netscape co founder Marc Andreesen officially launched Ning.com , a tool that allows people to create custom social-networking communities.
In January, itLinkz Corp. started NurseLinkup.com, the first of 13 websites to be launched this year based on hobbies and professions.
Boston-based Adesso Systems Inc. recently unveiled Tubes , at tubesnow.com -- a personal, private file-sharing network that allows people to drag video, audio, and other files into a shared " tube" that shows up on their friends' computers.
HeyLetsGo.com, a website where friends share events they're interested in attending, expanded beyond Boston last month into San Francisco and New York.
On Monday, networking company Cisco Systems acquired assets of Utah Street Networks Inc., which powers the community website Tribe.net. Cisco also finished its acquisition of Five Across Inc., which builds social-networking platforms.
And yesterday Boston-based Eons.com revealed it closed on $22 million in additional financing.
"I think the Internet has always been about social sharing -- it's like the new water cooler. If there's the new video clip on YouTube, you want to be part of a group" that knows about it, said Steve Chazin , vice president of marketing for Adesso Systems.
When Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. bought MySpace.com for $580 million in 2005, critics saw it as a gamble. But last summer, Google Inc. agreed to pay $900 million to offer Web search and advertising on Fox Interactive Media's websites, including MySpace.com. Research firm eMarketer predicts companies will spend $1.9 billion on advertising on social network sites in 2010.
But the fertile social networking landscape also presents a fundamental challenge to site operators: how to attract a critical mass of members and capture the attention of advertisers.
Each of the new companies is looking for a sweet spot, emphasizing a slightly different approach: better privacy controls, more media sharing, or a community of people with similar hobbies or ages.
"I think right now we have a bunch of very compartmentalized websites" outside of MySpace, Tancer said. "We don't have a clear migration path. The time is ripe for that."
One of the most successful spaces so far is LinkedIn.com, a website scrubbed of MySpace's glitz , where professionals post bland résumé items and connect with others in the same profession.
The site has 9 million members, and has been adding more than 100,000 users a week, indicating that this might be one path social networkers take as they age out of their teens.
"When you're below 30, you have a lot of disposable time -- you're looking for friends, looking to make social connections, and roughly after 30 you have enough friends; you don't have a lot of time; your priorities in life may have started to change," said Kay Luo , director of corporate communications for LinkedIn.
A website that yields professional connections or job opportunities may be more valuable than one for sharing photos with random strangers. For now, the appeal of online networking is spreading as people experiment with new ways of connecting.
Larry Vernaglia , a partner at Foley & Lardner LLP, said he uses Multiply.com to plan golf trips, ask for advice when buying a car, and share photos with family.
"Someone put me on Friendster one time and it was horrible," he said, recalling his first foray into social networking. "At first I thought it was cool -- but all these other people from other countries who had nothing to do with me" were online.
Brian Balfour , 23, a product manager at Zoom Information Inc. in Waltham who writes a blog about social networking, said he uses Facebook to keep in touch with college friends, HeyLetsGo to fuel his social life, and LinkedIn to make professional contacts.
"They all serve a different purpose, which is why I think there's still room for all these niche players," he said.
Jennifer Simpson , analyst at the Yankee Group, predicted that social networking membership would work out much the way people now maintain multiple e-mail accounts for different purposes.
That's what Medford resident Catherine Miller, 59, has done -- exploring the entire social-networking landscape, from dating websites to senior websites.
Miller visited MySpace recently, but didn't find anything to hold her interest. Instead, she logs on to Eons.com, posting pictures of her roses and looking for people who share her dream of walking across the United States one day.
"It's not that I'm an old fogy," she said. "Our tastes are just different."
Carolyn Y. Johnson can be reached at email@example.com.