According to a new study, Facebook, one of the world's most popular social networks, may be about to go the way of the dinosaur. Researchers at Princeton University published a report Dec. 22 about a model they devised predicting that Facebook will lose 80 percent of its users by 2017. Based on data that reflected the number of times "Facebook" was typed into Google Search (the number has declined since December 2012), researchers inserted that information into a modified statistical model called SIR for the spread of infectious disease. The results showed that Facebook may fizzle out like MySpace in the near future.
The researchers believe the comparison to the process of disease is an accurate one, because users typically join social networks when their friends do, and leave when their friends do. This is similar to being infected with a disease and recovering from it, they note. The model was first applied to MySpace, which they consider an exemplar for the average longevity of a social network.
"Ideas, like diseases, have been shown to spread infectiously between people before eventually dying out, and have been successfully described with epidemiological models," wrote John Cannarella and Joshua A. Spechler, researchers with Princeton's Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering. "The SIR model is applied to search query data for 'Facebook,' which is just beginning to show the onset of an abandonment phase. Extrapolating the best fit model into the future predicts a rapid decline in Facebook activity in the next few years."
According to the LA Times, however, MySpace may not be the best "test subject" to juxtapose with Facebook. "At its peak, MySpace had 75.9 million monthly active users," the Times article noted. "Facebook, meanwhile, said it had 1.19 billion active members in September. Facebook has reached levels MySpace never hit. With so many users, losing 80 percent would mean that 952 million active users would have to stop visiting the popular social network by 2017. Facebook would have to average losing 317 million users annually for three years - that's about the population of the U.S."
Few deny that Facebook's popularity is waning - its attempts to copy aspects of Twitter, like incorporating hashtags, are further indicative of this. But many consider it unlikely that the social network will see that large of a drop in usership in a mere four years' time. The base decline is still likely to continue, many believe, but at a slower rate than the SIR model predicts. The general idea, however, that Facebook is essentially doomed, may be correct.
"Social networks are made to dissolve," Charlie Jane Anders wrote on io9. "You don't want to get stuck with the same version of your friend network indefinitely, or get trapped with the exact same identity forever. It's often kind of a relief when you quit using an old social media site, because you get to start over from scratch." Some question whether there's even a slight chance that Facebook could disprove this rule and become the first "evergreen network."
But there's another fact counting against Facebook, which is that no website has really maintained dominance or mass popularity for longer than two decades. Google, for example, did not become truly dominant until around 2004. Facebook has already "lasted a long time, in Internet years," according to Douglas Rushkoff, author of Program or Be Programmed: Ten Commands for a Digital Age. In order to survive for many more years, it would need to become as prevalent as email, he believes, which is highly unlikely.
People's loyalty to Facebook seems even flimsier when the issue is presented against the backdrop of modern civil liberties issues, like NSA surveillance and the watchful eyes kept on users' Facebook accounts by police, employers, and other authority figures. Rushkoff remarked, "People will get scared that using these things will get them 'suspected.' That will make people use them in less and less 'real' ways, eventually leading to their demise." Many people are increasingly concerned about how their Facebook content matters in the long run, he suggested. "We haven't really yet seen the full consequences in job hunting, mate-acquisition, mortgage applications, and so on."
Rocco Pendola, writer for financial news site TheStreet, said, "Facebook is a sustainable fad. Im other words, it serves a purpose. It has a brighter future than its bandwagon-jumping critics think." Will it begin to fade by 2017? It won't likely happen quite that quickly, Pendola believes, but it will happen, regardless. "When I claim Facebook will die, I'm talking five, 10, maybe 20 years from now. In our world, that's an eternity."