When Dennis Ah Yo began fighting colon cancer two years ago, the emotional isolation of being homebound was as tough as the physical hardships of chemotherapy.
A Silicon Valley social network threw the San Jose, Calif., man an emotional "lifesaver" during that tough time, but it wasn't Facebook or Twitter.
Ah Yo's connection to the outside world was a social gaming site called Winster, whose membership is four-fifths female and the same proportion older than 45.
"I could find somebody and just talk, and while we were playing the game, not be lonely anymore," Ah Yo said. "I found that filling up a void for me."
Until recently, online social networks have revolved around youthful relationships and emotional needs. Facebook's meteoric climb to more than 550 million members started with college undergrads hunting for hook-ups, while one recent study found that Twitter's users skew young and urban.
But as older Americans flock to social networks, many of them to play games or reconnect with people from their past, Winster has a different take. It uses social games based on trust and collaboration, rather than competition, to create new friendships -- some of which have blossomed into real-world friendships and even romantic relationships. A majority of Winster's members live in small towns and depopulated stretches of rural America like the Great Plains.
"They don't have the opportunity to socialize in the real world. Some people live on farms, and they are isolated," said Michelle Kaplan, the co-founder of Winster, who also serves as "Winnie Winster," the face of the site.
Winster, which has about 2 million monthly unique visitors and has only intermittently been profitable, hasn't attained anything like the multibillion-dollar valuations of privately held online social networks and social gaming companies like Facebook, Zynga and Twitter. But Kaplan, who founded Winster six years ago with her entrepreneur husband Jerry Kaplan -- he founded the auction site Onsale in the 1990s -- believes that in an aging America, a social game site based on trust rather than competition can prosper. An added bonus, Winster's founders have discovered is that the site also helps older adults build new connections that can be a source of support during a life crisis like the death of a spouse or a tough illness.
"It's going to be a huge market," Michelle Kaplan said in an interview from the 11-employee company's compact offices in a San Mateo, Calif., office park. While Winster's older, more rural users make it tougher to tell the company's story to potential venture investors, she said, "I think it'll become an area of interest down the road, and we'll get more respect."
Baby boomers and seniors are an increasingly significant share of social networks like Facebook. A report by the Pew Research Center's Internet & American Life Project found that social network use by people 50 and older doubled over the past year.
"This is a pattern that is pretty much close to an ironclad law of nature," said Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Internet project. "If something has enough appeal and has enough value, eventually people who were highly resistant at first will become involved with it, and in many cases happily so. Adoption proceeds in waves."
Other research shows that older Internet users, particularly women, have a strong affinity for social games, with 46 percent of social gamers in the U.S. older than 50, according to research by Bellevue, Wash.-based Information Solutions Group.
Jerry Kaplan said Winster also has noticed a jump in users over 50 playing within the last year. The site's ability to forge new human connections through online social games has led to a number of real-world social connections.
Debbie Trosin of Waterford, Mich., got so friendly with other Winster players that this past summer, she invited them to travel from Pennsylvania, Ohio and elsewhere in Michigan to attend a weekend "Winster Party" at her lakeside home. This coming summer, Trosin hopes to host other Winster players from as far away as Oklahoma, Texas and Colorado.
Trosin, 58, became a widow five years ago and had to retire from a nursing career she loved because of injuries from a car accident caused by a drunk driver. She plays games on Winster about four hours a day, and when she has "a bad day" emotionally or physically, Trosin said her friends on Winster are "like a big family."
Brian Robinson, a 54-year-old temp worker from Wilmington, Mass., was playing Winster more than two years ago when he noticed a player named Vicki from the same town and began chatting with her. It turned out that Robinson and Vicki Jordan had first met in the fourth grade but had lost touch over the intervening 40-odd years, after he joined the military and she moved to Florida and California.
They hadn't known that they were now living only a few blocks apart in Wilmington, a town of about 23,000 people northwest of Boston. They are now engaged and plan to get married on Sept. 10 at noon -- 9/1 0/1 1 at 12 p.m. -- two years after Robinson skillfully parlayed an online chat about Jordan's computer problems into a first date.
Winster's revenues come from a roughly half-and-half split between display advertising on the site and subscription fees paid by players.
While it's possible to play for free, buying a subscription that ranges from a 99-cent day pass to a monthly pass for $9.99 allows people to amass points faster -- and win prizes, generally gift coupons, that Winster sends out.
Winster offers games where groups of five players collaborate on games like "Slot Social," "Bingo Bash" and "Poker Pals," working collectively by trading game pieces and using the chat feature to help each other earn points faster to win prizes.