Is Facebook In Decline?

I know the question posed in the title seems almost laughable, given that Facebook is the literal giant in the social media industry, but let’s look a little closer.

A Different Kind Of Viral

A recent study by researchers at Princeton University found a strong correlation between the rise and fall of social media networks and viruses.  They first looked at the trajectory of MySpace and correlated the number of weekly Google search queries, and noticed that its path was virtually identical to that of a pathogen like influenza.  This may seem like a silly thing to do, but evidence shows that an analysis of Google search queries can actually predict pathogen outbreaks several weeks earlier than the CDC.  When applying two different pathogen models to MySpace, researchers found very strong correlations in both:

So, using the same theories and formulas, the Princeton researchers analyzed Facebook and found this:

If this holds true, Facebook should lose roughly 80% of its users over the next 2-4 years.  Not good news if you’re Mark Zuckerberg or a stockholder!  Speaking of stockholders, Facebook now has obligations to make profits that most other platforms don’t have, which only increases the pressure on Big Blue.  Thus far most attempts to meet those obligations have been somewhat clumsy, and have netted less than exemplary results.  Clickable ads and pay-for-exposure posts are the most prevalent methods to monetize Facebook and have driven some decent revenue gains, but they are not popular.  Businesses don’t really like having to now pay for the reach on the platform that used to be free and organic, and there has been a noticeable drop in reach since the new rules went into effect.  Casual users rebel at the new reality of having news articles and advertisements pushed onto their news feeds without their consent, and the resulting effects are now starting to reveal themselves.  In America alone, the number of users logging into Facebook at least once in a 30-day period dropped by 1.4 million, and statistics show that Facebook usage by older teenagers — which has always been one of the key demographics of the platform — is down drastically in both the EU and the U.S.  Those users are turning their attention instead to Instagram, SnapChat, and others.

There may be a number of reasons for this shift.  Perhaps foremost among them is the rapidly expanding set of alternatives.  We’ve talked about many different social media platforms on this blog, and chances are you use at least some of them.  The industry trend is clear, and services with visuals (either pictures or videos) are picking up speed fast, and while Facebook does allow both the functionality isn’t particularly streamlined or clean.  It has also been claimed that Facebook gets “in the face” of users, pushing sponsored content; if this had been the case from day one it probably wouldn’t be a big deal, but users are now seeing these changes and it’s turning them off.  It is also interesting to note that Facebook links user accounts with their real names and pictures, and is perceived to regularly trample on users’ privacy concerns, whereas most other platforms allow pseudonyms and do more (at least in terms of perception) to protect user privacy.


All is not lost, however.  While youth are fleeing Facebook, it seems likely one of the primary drivers of their flight is the fact that older users — parents and grandparents of those teenagers — are actually increasing their usage.  Mobile-only use is also still on the rise, and revenue from mobile ads actually exceeded expectations late last year.  Facebook has the advantage of examining the demise of MySpace to learn what not to do, and is already showing an adaptability to incorporate features that are popular on other social media platforms, such as hashtags and better integration with pictures and videos.  Keep in mind, too, that Facebook actually owns Instagram, so there is probably going to be either tighter integration or some sort of merging between the two at some point, thus bringing at least some of those fleeing users back into the fold.

For businesses in particular, it is still the biggest social media megaphone on the planet, and many consumers expect a Facebook presence.  However, it is equally clear that a business cannot simply dump resources into Facebook alone and expect to penetrate as deeply into the social media space as they have in the past.  Whether Facebook turns its downward trend around or not, diversification is needed.

Having well over 1 billion global users, it’s certainly too soon to declare Facebook dead.  But, they are on a trajectory that doesn’t look good for long term prosperity and growth, so they need to somehow innovate or reinvent their brand…and fast.  Whether it’s a new revenue model, a new set of features, a new product line, or something else, it is clear their current path is doomed so they need to find or create a new one.  Can Facebook perform a successful pivot and make its way out of the MySpace trajectory?  Only time will tell.  The good news is that with speed of technology in the 21st century, we probably won’t have to wait too long to find out.