Sceptical Questions: Will Facebook REALLY lose 80% of its users by 2017?

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A story has been doing the rounds suggesting that according to some scientists, Facebook will lose 80% of its users by 2017. How on earth do they make that prediction? Here’s some sceptical questions.

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This is an attractive claim to cover for the media as it feeds into the “Facebook is dying” narrative. Remember a few weeks ago when everyone reported claims that teenagers were turning away from Facebook? It turns out that the research it was based on was a tiny sample, and it was thoroughly debunked by the BBC.

Whilst I’m no epidemiologist, from the reporting there’s a number of red flags which suggest to me this could be dodgy – and in any case, there’s a whole bunch of assumptions that have been made, arguably on a false premise.

1) Google Trends… really?

This is perhaps the biggest danger marker. The whole research is predicated on the use of “Google Trends”, that shows how many times a given term has been searched on Google in that time. Here’s how the Graun described the research:

“John Cannarella and Joshua Spechler, from the US university’s mechanical and aerospace engineering department, have based their prediction on the number of times Facebook is typed into Google as a search term. The charts produced by the Google Trends service show Facebook searches peaked in December 2012 and have since begun to trail off.”

It doesn’t take a genius to see why this may give bad data. Even if the number of people Googling for Facebook has decreased – it doesn’t factor in whether people have been accessing Facebook in different ways: by, say, learning that you can type “facebook.com” into the address bar to get there… or by using apps on phones and tablets. Given the continued explosion in phone and tablet use – where Facebook is going to be an app on the homescreen and not a website found via Google, is it any surprise searches have gone down?

In any case if we applied this, umm, “methodology” to Google then Google would be viewed as dead in the water… and only very few people are going to be Googling for Google.

2) Is Facebook really like MySpace?

Apparently the researchers came up with the 80% projection by comparing Facebook traffic to that of MySpace. But are the two really the same?

Though the two share superficial similarities (both are social networking websites), remember what MySpace actually looked like? It was essentially a pile of sick on a webpage. Perhaps even more crucially, the demographics were completely different: MySpace was mostly young people whereas Facebook has now achieved a level of universality rarely seen on the web – if you quit Facebook, you essentially quit all of your friends at once. This gives it huge amounts of staying power.

3) Can Facebook not bounce back?

Even if it is true that Facebook is declining (we’ve no data either way), it doesn’t mean that it can’t reinvent itself, or change what it does to increase popularity again. Were epidemiologists in 1905 writing off Coca Cola as a popular drink now that sales had dented slightly after they took the cocaine out? Remember in the 90s when Apple were having hard times as Microsoft were crushing them? Whatever happened there?

The epidemiologists built their Facebook decline model by basing it on the behaviour of viruses – and whilst there is certainly an interesting discussion to be had about the transmission of memes, the key difference to me seems to be that whereas viruses can only evolve based on random mutations and natural selection – businesses can change based on, umm, intelligent design – with the product being radically redesigned or repositioned to meet market needs if necessary, rather than by slowly making gradual changes. A bit like how when MySpace truly was dead, it reinvented itself as a music-centric website.

So whilst there are interesting discussions to be had about the longevity of Facebook – it seems to be that this study is based on a number of shaky premises. And (unsurprisingly) Facebook themselves agree with me – take a look at their sarcastic response to the study for yourself.

James O’Malley