Is Facebook Headed For Collapse?

Facebook may be headed toward the same unhappy fate as its predecessors, Friendster and MySpace, according to a provocative new study from researchers at Princeton’s Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, who predict that Facebook will lose 80% of its user base by 2017.
 
Sound crazy? Maybe, maybe not.

The study, titled “Epidemiological Modeling of Online Social Network Dynamics,” which has not been peer reviewed, applies statistical techniques for the study of contagious diseases to social networks. The model basically treats an online social network like Facebook as a disease that spreads between individuals: an individual is “infected” (becomes a user) after exposure to a certain number of other “infected” people, meaning people who are already using the site.
 
The same principle is then applied, in reverse, to the “recovery” phase: Someone who is using the social network will “recover” (stop using the network) after exposure to a certain number of other non-users, including people who stopped using the network or never joined in the first place.

The researchers draw their data from Google Trend search query data to provide a measure of the level of Web traffic for a given online social network, focusing on active users rather than mere registered (possibly inactive) users.
 
This model resembles one proposed in a previous study, “Social Resilience in Online Communities: The Autopsy of Friendster,” which identified a “cascade” phenomenon in both the growth and decline of social networks. Similarly, in that model, the probability that an individual will stop using a social network increases with the number of people they know who have left that social network. Both models suggest that the rate of decline can accelerate very quickly once users begin abandoning the social network, leading to a snowball effect finally resulting in mass desertion.
 
There are a few obvious issues about using the infectious disease model to analyze online social networks, which the researchers readily admit they do not address. For example, while recovery from a disease is a biological phenomenon, the decision to leave a social network is social-psychological. That raises the question of what sets the process in motion: The first individuals to recover from a disease do so as a natural function of their immune systems, but why do the first users choose to abandon the social network?

(As the researchers point out, the model also requires a small “initially recovered” population, meaning a group that never converted in the first place, otherwise, there would be no possibility of general recovery).
 
Nonetheless, assuming the basic approach is valid, the implications are clear, according to the researchers, who believe “the search query data suggests that Facebook has already reached the peak of its popularity and has entered a decline phase, as evidenced by the downward trend in search frequency after 2012.”

Looking ahead, “Extrapolating the best fit into the future shows that Facebook is expected to undergo rapid decline in the upcoming years, shrinking to 20% of its maximum size by December 2014,” and eventually “losing 80% of its peak user base between 2015 and 2017.”
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7 comments about "Is Facebook Headed For Collapse? ".
  1. Dale Brose from dBroseGroup , January 22, 2014 at 1:25 p.m.
    Ok. Interesting "academic" project but I don't know how helpful it is to marketers. The basis just seems like it takes a big leap of faith to follow it. After all, comparing a disease to a social network is a rather hard parallel. From the moment a person contracts a disease they have a strong interest to find a cure. In the case of the social network use, I'm not sure the need to be cured is as urgent or compelling to the user. Therefore, I'm not sure of abandonment of social channels would be as dramatic.
  2. Brian Spain from Integer , January 22, 2014 at 1:30 p.m.
    Fascinating! But is it an "infection" or an "addiction" - where recover rates are considerably lower?
  3. Stosh TheMan from aCompany , January 22, 2014 at 1:46 p.m.
    Unlike a disease social media users may migrate to a different platform or product, say from FB to Pinterest, or perhaps multiple platforms FB->Twitter + Pinterest + Reddit. No one with the Flu migrates to Diabetes. This "research" has critical conceptual flaws.
  4. Adam Hartung from spark partners , January 22, 2014 at 1:49 p.m.
    Forecasts based on bad assumptions are pretty worthless (http://onforb.es/1m7NAOE). In this case, Facebook is a platform onto which people build games, advertising, communication plans, picture books, etc. It is not a virus which is either in place, or not. Once a platform is in place, and people use that platform, it is long-lived. Rather than being negative on Facebook Forbes recommends it as the one stock to own in 2014 http://onforb.es/K7qYBs
  5. Harry Hawk from Bread Depo, Inc , January 22, 2014 at 2:13 p.m.
    Every previous social network has collapsed along the lines of what the researchers present. However, many systemic changes culturally and within Facebook mitigate some of these issues. Facebook has the advantage of the massive deployment of smart phones which didn't exist for any of the previous network. Facebook's EdgeRank prevented users from leaving the network do to firehose issues (flood of comments). Facebook has a wider range of businesses associated with it which attract customers, fanboys, Etc. Facebook has a well used social login feature which makes a Facebook account have value beyond it's use as a social network. Facebook is the most powerful, flexible and affordable advertising medium for sole proprietorships and small businesses.
  6. Noah Wieder from SearchBug, Inc. , January 22, 2014 at 4:06 p.m.
    Hey Eric, Interesting but maybe it's just simpler than that. Maybe this "study" was concocted by some stock traders that are shorting the stock or waiting for a pull back to enter positions. All I know is my 12 year old son asks me monthly if he can have a FB account yet. Until and if something "cooler" that FB is born, I see a huge wave of young digital enthusiasts that can't wait to join the platform.
  7. Craig Mcdaniel from Sweepstakes Today LLC , January 23, 2014 at 1:54 p.m.
    Sounds like Al Gore supporters, the Global Warming of Facebook. lol I see decline in Facebook for other reasons. Mainly when Facebook has topped vertical growth, I don't see a horizontal strategy by them other than international expansion.