Don't Predict Facebook's Decline Yet

Facebook should pursue growth despite overhyped Princeton research.

A big logo created from pictures of Facebook users worldwide is pictured in the company's Data Center, its first outside the US on Nov. 7, 2013 in Lulea, in Swedish Lapland.

Rumors of Facebook's death have been greatly exaggerated as reports predict a decline in users on the site, but that just means the social network needs to work hard to keep its popularity. Princeton University Ph.D. candidates Joshua Spechler and John Cannarella published research comparing the growth of an online trend to the spread of a disease, which then fades as people become immune to the infection. Based on this model applied to Google search trends, "Facebook will undergo a rapid decline in the coming years, losing 80 percent of its peak user base of between 2015 and 2017."

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The two researchers applied disease tracking models to Google search data, first analyzing the growth and decline of queries for "Myspace" before tracking frequency of searches for "Facebook," which they said peaked in late 2012 and is beginning to decline. Spechler said he and Cannarella prefer not to comment as the paper is being peer-reviewed.

Ahead of results from that peer-review the quality of the research seems "suspect," says Brian Blau, a research director at Gartner technology market research firm.

"That said, the results of the research painted an amazingly bad picture for Facebook, and one that should be a sign to Facebook that they need to really consider the future of their business and how they will find, attract and retain users," Blau says.

Facebook also created a parody study to debunk the Princeton report as "a fun reminder that not all research is created equal," according to a post from Mike Develin, a data scientist at Facebook. Based on a decline of searches for "Princeton" on Google Trends, Develin and two other data scientists predicted "Princeton will have only half its current enrollment by 2018, and by 2021 it will have no students at all."

"Google Trends for 'air' have also been declining steadily, and our projections show that by the year 2060 there will be no air left," Develin said.

Kidding aside, there are other studies citing a decreasing interest in Facebook among young users. In 2013 approximately 45 percent of seniors aged 65 and older used Facebook, up from 35 percent in 2012, according to a survey published in December by the Pew Center for Internet and American Life. Approximately 71 percent of adults older than age 30 use Facebook, up from 67 percent in 2012, the survey added, while users on the site between the ages of 18 and 29 dropped by 2 percent between 2013 and 2012.

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The rise of older users on Facebook is leading teenagers in the U.K. to abandon the site now that their parents and relatives can see what they post, said Daniel Miller, a professor of material culture at University College London. Contenders poised to become more cool among younger users in the U.K. are Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat and WhatsApp, Miller said.

"What we've learned from working with 16-18 year olds in the U.K. is that Facebook is not just on the slide, it is basically dead and buried," Miller said. "Where once parents worried about their children joining Facebook, the children now say it is their family that insists they stay there to post about their lives."

This rising competition from mobile applications does not mean Facebook is going to face the same decline as Myspace. Facebook is much better designed and secure than Myspace was at its peak user base in 2008, in part because it does not allow customizing of a page using HTML. Facebook has 1.19 billion monthly active users at a time when phone books for landlines are disappearing as a means to reconnect with old friends, but the site cannot rest on its laurels if it wants to stay cool with young users, Blau says.

"Facebook needs to continually add new services and revenue streams," Blau says. "If they don't change and adapt then its users will simply find other more interesting technologies to try out. I do see Facebook trying to change. They certainly experiment and while some of their efforts, like Facebook Home, haven't been a great success other have, such as Timeline, or the API platform."