A silly study came out of Princeton recently, alleging that Facebook would lose 800 million users by 2017 if it followed the growth and decline pattern of diseases. If Facebook follows that pattern, then sure, it probably will die out by 2017. However, who said that Facebook obeyed the rules of epidemiology?
The study suggests that, based on Google searches for the word “Facebook,” the social network is in decline and will meet the same fate as Friendster and MySpace. (A note before proceeding: when was the last time you had to Google the word “Facebook?”)
The more persuasive argument for the network’s death is that teenagers are leaving Facebook. That does appear to be based on real data. In fact, in the last 3 years, Facebook lost over 3 million teens and over 3 million 18-24 year olds. In a universe of infinite choice of websites, TV channels, and apps, who would expect teens to make the same choices as their parents?
The main reason that Facebook will not decline like a cured disease is because people find Facebook useful. People use Facebook to keep up with certain people and brands. That’s not permanent, of course. Plenty of people found MySpace and AOL useful right up until the time they quit. But judging by Facebook’s furious updating of core functionality and M&A, we should expect Facebook to stay relevant for several years.
In fairness, switching barriers are very low, and there’s no reason why Facebook is going to stop innovating any time soon. Also, don’t forget that Facebook looks like America now—it’s not for teens, it’s for everybody. Now that the world has changed, we should not expect social network growth curves to look the same. Friendster was dependent on NorCal hipsters; Facebook is dependent on your Aunt Dorothy the florist.
So is Facebook as cool as it used to be? Of course not—your aunts are on Facebook. But is Google as cool as it used to be? Is Twitter? Of course not—but Google still has 70% market share. Teens may think Facebook is uncool, but they still will maintain a presence there.
And even if Facebook is destined to fail, it doesn’t matter. The change has happened, and there’s no going back. Everyone expects two-way digital communication with friends and organizations. Maybe it will be on Facebook, or Google+, or Snapchat, but now, we’re all in the content production business, whether we like it or not. Buyers will still use Google to research their problems, and whoever publishes the most useful stuff will win.
The analogy is less about diseases and Friendster and more like the early days of the auto industry. This page shows a list of defunct automobile manufacturers in the United States. Hundreds of car companies have failed in the United States, but our culture is still deeply dependent on cars.
Regardless of the fate of one company, the culture continues to change. Dozens of airlines have failed, but our global culture is dependent on the airplane. Facebook’s work is already done; whether they live or die in the next ten years is irrelevant. The world has changed, and no matter what platforms might be cool or useful in the future, people will continue producing content and distributing it as widely or narrowly as they like.
Image Credit: CC by Andalib