In several previous posts I discussed the possibility that Facebook is approaching natural limits on user growth and engagement, which prompted some indignant responses (via comments and email) from readers who I will call "the Facebook fanatics," among whom it is apparently an article of faith that Facebook will continue growing and sucking up a larger share of online activity, like, forever. So I thought it might be appropriate to return to the issue, looking at both sides of the argument and sharing the results of an informal poll I did.
There is data to support both sides of this argument. On the "Facebook fanatic" side, Facebook has seen active users grow from 150 million worldwide in January 2009 to 750 million in July 2011. But on the other side, growth at home has slowed dramatically, leveling off at roughly 155 million unique visitors per month. And I'll point (yet again -- sorry if it sounds familiar) to calculations based on figures from Nielsen, comScore, and Pingdom, showing that the average number of page views per user slipped from 1,423 per month in January 2011 to roughly 1,200 in June 2011. A recent survey of 100,000 Facebook users in 27 markets around the world (including the U.S., U.K., and Canada) by Trendstream's GlobalWebIndex also 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 that the GWI researchers concluded "time has wearied users of Facebook," adding, "The trend is even more pronounced among U.S. college educated 20somethings, the original users of the platform."
There are a couple obvious rebuttals that "Facebook fanatics" can make at this point, both of which are worth considering. First of all, if Facebook's U.S. growth has leveled off at around 155 million, well, that's half the U.S. population -- not exactly a small proportion. Second, Facebook has previously seen substantial variations (often apparently of a seasonal nature) in metrics like number of page views per user and number of visits per user, which didn't prove to be lasting setbacks. But the data showing "sharp declines" in basic Facebook activities like status updates, content-sharing, messaging and installing apps may be more significant.
On that note, I did an informal and highly unscientific poll of friends and co-workers (mostly tech-savvy types in their 20s-30s, with a handful in their 40s-60s for good measure) to investigate the general usage patterns in my social circle. The top line result is that many people I surveyed do indeed seem to be using Facebook less than they used to. Out of 43 individuals who responded to my email query, 13 (30%) said they are currently using Facebook less than they were six months ago and 16 (37%) said they are currently using Facebook less than they were a year ago. That compares to just six (14%) people who said they're using it more than six months ago and nine (21%) who said they're using it more than a year ago. Meanwhile 24 people (56%) said they're using it the same amount as six months ago, and 16 (37%) said they're using it the same amount as a year ago (not everyone responded to both questions).
In other words, most people I polled are using Facebook roughly the same amount as before, but a significant minority is using it less than before -- compared to an even smaller group that is using it more. It's also worth noting that six people (14%) who answered "same" added that they barely use Facebook at all in the first place, and three people (who I didn't include in the 43-respondent data set) admitted that they aren't on Facebook at all, the poor dears. Furthermore, several people who said they use Facebook more attached the caveat that they are sharing less, in favor of "stalking" (or "loitering" in one amusing description). Interestingly, several respondents who said they are using Facebook more attributed the increase to work-related activity.