Dropping out of Hyperspace?

Dropping Out of Hyperspace

As social media gains a stronger footing in the public arena, its users wane.

Social media seems to be everywhere you look nowadays - no longer just connecting individuals but actually making the news. In recent months, social media has helped to bring down the government of Egypt, spread the word about the killing of Osama bin Laden, voice frustrations over the debt-ceiling crisis, register public outrage over the U.K. phone-hacking scandal and catalyze a massive outburst of civil disorder in the same country not long after. Meanwhile, Google, by far the largest company on the Internet in revenue terms, is desperately trying to crack the social media market with Google+. But for all its apparent ubiquity, is social media (gasp) wearing out its welcome? 

The knee-jerk answer for most marketers, tech writers and venture capitalists would probably be a resounding "no," and a lot of data certainly seems to support this stance. Facebook, the biggest social network, has seen active users grow from 150 million worldwide in January 2009 to 750 million in July 2011 - not exactly evidence of waning interest, at first glance. But a closer look shows that this growth is increasingly sustained by overseas markets, while growth at home has slowed dramatically, leveling off at roughly 150 million unique visitors per month. 

True, 150 million equals half the u.s. population - admittedly a huge number, suggesting that Facebook has simply reached saturation in its country of origin. But there are other data, indicating a slow-down in time spent and engagement, that aren't so easy to dismiss. After peaking at 421 minutes per month in January 2011, average time spent on Facebook per user gradually declined to 378 minutes per day in May 2011, according to comScore's figures.

Meanwhile, the average number of page views per user has slipped from 1,423 per month in January 2011 to roughly 1,200 in June 2011, according to calculations based on figures from Nielsen, comScore and Pingdom. And according to Experian Hitwise, the proportion of u.s. adults who visited Facebook 16 or more times in the past 30 days fell from 57% at the end of January 2011 to 52% at the end of April. 

It's also worth considering the results of a recent survey of 100,000 Facebook users in 27 markets around the world (including the u.s., the u.k. and Canada) by Trendstream's GlobalWebIndex, which found "sharp declines" in activities like status updates, content-sharing, messaging and installing apps. Facebook messaging in the U.S. declined 15% from June to July, while the number of people joining groups declined 10% over the same period. The findings were striking enough for the GWI researchers to conclude that "time has wearied users of Facebook," adding, "The trend is even more pronounced among u.s. college-educated twenty-somethings, the original users of the platform." These trends may be behind Interpublic's move to sell half its stake in Facebook in mid-August, when Interpublic chairman and ceo Michael Roth explained that the "strategic value of our initial investment has moderated" even as Facebook continues to grow.  

Again, none of this necessarily means that Facebook is in decline: the site has previously seen seasonal variations in number of users, time spent, visits per month and other measures - but the new stats certainly raise the question of whether Facebook is reaching its limits for user interest and engagement, at least in its current format. Further, will this trend eventually be felt by other social media, besides Facebook? 

Broader surveys suggest this may be the case. According to comScore, social networking's share of total time spent on the Internet seemed to level off at about 15% from January to May in 2011. And a global survey of 6,295 individuals released by Gartner in August found that 24% of respondents said they're using their favorite social networks less than they did when they first signed up - a proportion that climbed to 31% among "Aspirers," defined as "younger, more mobile, brand-conscious consumers."  

These results are hardly unambiguous - 37% of respondents in the Gartner survey said they were using their favorite social network more than they had been when they first signed up - but the simple fact that a quarter of respondents described themselves as "bored" with their favorite social network is ominous, all the more so because the proportion is even higher among respondents who fit the early-adopter profile. ("Early adopters" have presumably been engaged with social media longer than average users have, and their behavior may foreshadow future trends among the broader population). 

In this light, the rapid rise and fall of MySpace (and Friendster before it) looks more significant: rather than being "practice runs" - flawed, early versions of a social network model that eventually assumed its final, stable form in Facebook - their demise may reflect intrinsic volatility and transience in social media usage, as once-novel forms of online social connectivity come to appear humdrum and even dull.  

If this is the case, newcomers like Google+ won't necessarily benefit from "boredom" in Facebook's user base, as it merely reflects broader social media ennui. Though it's still way too early to judge the success of the search giant's new social platform, it's noteworthy that Google+ usage moderated noticeably not long after its launch, according to data from Experian Hitwise, which found that U.S. visits to Google+ actually declined 3% from 1.86 million in the week ending July 16 to 1.79 million in the week ending July 23. Over the same period, average time spent on the site slipped 10% from five minutes and 50 seconds to five minutes and 15 seconds.

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