Rumors of decline and hand-wringing speculation about pending doom aside, Facebook still rules the social realm by a wide, wide margin worldwide. According to Global Web Index’s social summary report on reach and use, Mark Zuckerberg's dorm room project still has an enviable penetration of 49% of the world's online population counted as active users. Even better for the “social network” is that 56% of those active users are logging in at least once a day. YouTube's active user base is closer to 25% of all onliners, with Google+ slightly lower. Twitter has just slightly above 20% worldwide GWI finds.
While Facebook is showing some peaking, with a 3% drop in active users in the last half of 2013, GWI considered tales of Facebook decline “significantly over-exaggerated.” “It is still hugely popular among all demographic groups and there have in fact been increases in the audience sizes for its apps,” according to the report.
Also good news for Zuckerberg and Co. is that its expensive Instagram acquisition is more than making up for any incremental slip in Facebook usage. Among all social networks, Instagram enjoyed the greatest growth (+23%) between Q2 and Q4 2013, although its global penetration is still under 10%. Reddit was the next-biggest growth story in social last year, with a last half increase of 13% in active users, followed by LinkedIn (+9&) and Chinese micro-blog Tencent Welbo (9%). Pinterest grew only 6%, and Twitter worriers have more to ponder, since that microblog was up a mere 2% in the last half of the year.
Facebook was not alone is seeing declining active users. YouTube was also down 3%.
Instagram’s unrivaled growth last year is part of the mobilization trend that is overwhelming all social nets and creating a new super-category of messaging apps. Among mobile phone owners, 69% now have used the Facebook app in the last month, while 59% have used the YouTube app, 37% the Google+ app and 37% Facebook Messenger. The new darling of messenger apps, Whatsapp, reaches 36% of mobile phone owners, up seven points since earlier in the year but still not quite as widespread as Facebook’s messenger entry. Twitter penetrates 34% of phone owners, Skype 32% and Instagram 21%. For all of the buzz around Vine, however, only 4% of the available audience use it. SnapChat is only slightly more widespread, at 5% penetration.
GWI says that while mobile social networks and apps still lag behind the desktop, smartphone users are more engaged, with higher frequency and overall activity. They find that this is especially true among iOS users.
Whether through a still awesomely powerful core product, or its ownership of the fastest-growing social network, Facebook remains in the driver’s seat for the genre. That said, there is no denying that the cool is long gone from the network. Speaking as someone who never liked the experience of the friend feed, and really loathed the aesthetics of the site, I never quite got where the coolness was to begin with. But I don’t think Facebook is really in serious danger of going the way of MySpace, regardless of Princeton researchers’ prediction that a cascade effect will accelerate its decline. As Eric Saas reported yesterday, the statisticians argue that the social effect impacts networks inversely. When friends start fleeing, the sentiment spreads among you and others so that the networks reverse course about as quickly as they ramped up.
Well, maybe. Facebook has been pretty effective in extending the impact of the network on people’s sharing and communication tasks. More so than its precedents, Facebook established a wider set of user dependencies so that it is harder to quit. And of course it operates at a scale we have never seen before in a network. Moreover, its wise purchase of Instagram gives it an important path to maintaining a growth path.
I am more inclined to believe that Facebook risks following Yahoo’s path than it does Friendster’s or Myspace’s. Its ad “innovations” risk adding clutter and annoyance -- something Yahoo was adept at doing over the years. It seems unsure how much of a media company it really wants to be rather than a portal, aggregator or pathway to others’ content. It is chasing hipness via acquisition. Apparently it made two runs at SnapChat. A rumored upcoming aggregation app underscores how envious the company is of Flipboard and even Twitter’s ability to align with media companies. Still, the sheer throw weight of the network ensures popularity for me-too products like the FB Messenger app. A new Myspace? I don’t think so. Instead, Facebook runs the risk of being boring, lost and lumbering, but still enormous despite itself.