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Summary:

Facebook has risen and it may fall, but using a disease analogy is tenuous at best. That hasn’t stopped a piece of non-peer-reviewed modeling by Princeton researchers from, er, going viral though.

There’s some non-peer-reviewed “research” (PDF) going around that claims Facebook will have lost 80 percent of its users in a few years’ time, based on the idea that you can draw a reasonable analogy between the social network’s trajectory and that of a contagious disease.

For my own sanity, I would like to pretend I never read about this Princeton study, but there are a lot of articles out there taking it quite seriously — the most irksome headline I’ve encountered reads: “Facebook is an ‘infectious disease’ and will lose 80% of users by 2017, say researchers.” It should go without saying that this story is nonsense, but apparently it doesn’t, so please allow me:

  • This study has not been peer-reviewed. I would like to think journalists can fulfil the same role with equal expertise, but LOL. (And yes that goes for me too — if someone with greater expertise can analyze the fine points of the researchers’ modeling, please do.)
  • There is a tenuous case for drawing an analogy between the spread of a disease and uptake of a social network (people say “viral” for a reason) but the analogy collapses once you get to the other side. Simply put, people don’t “recover” from joining a social network within a set amount of time.
  • The authors seem aware of this, so they modify their model by including “infectious recovery dynamics”, which relies on the idea that a “small initial recovered population” will trigger a sort-of-mirroring of the uptake trajectory. When people go “I’m done with Facebook” and leave, does that lead all their friends to leave? There’s no evidence, not even anecdotal, to suggest this.
  • The study is largely predicated on the rise and fall of MySpace, which is a lousy point of comparison. MySpace conditioned people to the use of social networks, aiding Facebook’s subsequent rise, but never got anywhere near as widespread as Facebook has. Facebook has at least ten times the number of users MySpace ever achieved at its peak, and it’s also tapped into an older demographic that is far less likely to move onto the next big thing.
  • MySpace was also badly mismanaged (as Lance Ulanoff points out over on Mashable), which was a big factor in its decline. Additionally, the researchers don’t take into account the ways in which Facebook is evolving – sure, it’s a social network, but also an online identity mechanism that’s getting baked into more and more services, for example.
  • As Ulanoff notes, if the model is correct, Facebook will lose 200 million active users by the end of 2014. It really won’t.

And who’s to say people will leave Facebook anyway? The far more likely scenario to my mind is that they end up using it only for certain things, like networking with family members, while they go elsewhere for the fun stuff. As my colleague Lauren Hockenson reported this week, teens are picking up on Instagram and Snapchat and whatever the platform of the day is, but not actually leaving Facebook in order to do so.

The idea of an all-engaging social networking platform is becoming outdated. That’s something that is no doubt worrying Facebook – engagement is everything when you’re trying to sell ads – but it’s not a scenario you can model using a disease analogy.

I think we can comfortably file this alongside last month’s viral misreading of Facebook research, which shed an equal amount of light on reality. Ever since last year’s Q3 results call called teens’ active use of Facebook into question, people seem to have been desperately looking for evidence to back up the notion of Facebook’s decline. If that evidence exists, this surely isn’t it.

UPDATE: Facebook data scientists have done their own debunking, proving along the way that Princeton and, sadly for all of us, air itself, will soon be depleted.

  1. Face reality.. sooner or later everyone will overdose on those mini dopamine shots that likes and comments on a make believe view of ones self creates.

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    1. Every adult who uses facebook was a teen at one time. I suspect a good share of the teens who feel that FB has lost its cool will become more active and receptive to FB as they mature. Why? Social networking in college, establishing a career , or starting a business. These teens are the future and will be looking for every advantage for a better quality of life for themselves and families. Using facebook in moderation could help.

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  2. While i’ll agree that modeling it after MySpace was a bad idea , not everything is all that bad.
    They should have maybe modeled it after Yahoo .after all at their core the two are not that different.
    And then you got the actions of the management team that can go either way but they can’t really factor that one in.
    You also seem to doubt that FB will decline but everything online has so far. Google is yet to do so i guess but not so sure you can equal FB with Google (and it’s never too late for them to lose to some other search engine).
    I would look at it as a continuous struggle to offset that declining curve but it will always be very difficult to stay on top.
    The fact that the hardware is changing fast is also a huge risk for “desktop based”players. They need to transition to phones, then maybe glasses and those will require pretty big changes. Maybe someone like WhatsApp will end FB ,hard to say..
    Anyway modeling hype based businesses after viral diseases is a better idea than most. You got the explosive growth ,then “lame”people joining are the medication and then we heal- we get bored and migrate to other things -we’ll see how long the convalescence lasts ,unless this disease is incurable lol.

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    1. I’m not closed to the idea of Facebook’s decline – indeed, I think it will come at some point. But there’s little to suggest that this is a useful model for analysing how or when that will happen. I suspect, as I say, that Facebook will continue to fulfil a certain function into the medium term, but something else will divert people’s attention/engagement. It may be that that’s even starting to happen now, but Facebook’s overall growth is probably going to continue for a while yet.

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  3. What? Why does that make you laugh? Does everything you don’t believe or don’t agree with make you laugh? I bet the Darwin theory makes you laugh if you believe in God or Bible makes you laugh if you don’t.

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  4. I believe that Facebook may lose 80 percent of its users, but I’m not entirely sure. I have many friends who have deleted accounts for many reasons as I’ve already deleted mine. So yeah! :P

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  5. smileylinda.da@gmail.com Wednesday, February 19, 2014

    im not clear, what reasons bring Facebook may lose in 2017?

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  6. Who’s trying to make you laugh? Who’s to say that people WON’T leave Facebook?
    There are many other different social networks out there besides Facebook, and I reckon some people will migrate to these other networks and leave Facebook behind them, I even bet on it.

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