Will “disease-like” Facebook lose 80 percent of users by 2017? Don’t make me laugh

Facepalm, face palm

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  • This study has not been peer-reviewed.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.

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