Facebook, the kids are moving out

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Social media is a finicky business—just ask MySpace.

Just a few months after being acquired by News Corporation in 2006, MySpace somehow lost its ‘cool factor’, turning from a once thriving social network where teenagers shared music, videos, and photos in ways only teenagers could fathom, to the online version of a ghost town.

MySpace losing its reputation as the cool place to be on the Internet can be partly attributed to the rise of Facebook, which has grown to have a base of 1.2 billion active users as of September 2013. But even the social media giant may not be so safe, with a recent blog post casting doubts on the company’s perception among youths, potentially leading to a similar exodus of users.

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Speculations like these are important because Facebook has for the most part, enjoyed the bullish patronage of investors. Since going public, the company’s share price has soared to more than double in 2013, ending the year above $54. It’s a clear indication of how the market just loves to gobble up social media stocks, and it shows their belief that Facebook’s users won’t tire of the site.

Enter Daniel Miller

Stirring up the pot is an article on the academic research site, The Conversation. Published by Daniel Miller, professor of material culture at University College London, the article describes how young users are reportedly turning away from Facebook in large numbers, going as far as to say the social network “is not just on the slide, it is basically dead and buried.” Miller notes that most teenagers now prefer to use photo-sharing and messaging mobile apps like Instagram, WhatsApp, and Snapchat—places where parents aren’t around.

Miller drew his conclusions on Facebook’s waning popularity with young Internet users after conducting a survey among 16- to 18-year olds in Britain, part of an EU-funded report on social networks.

Critics responded to the article, pointing out that Miller’s small sample of just 40 students was far too small to extrapolate such a sweeping conclusion from. In response, Miller published a follow-up article to defend his findings, revealing that he had based his conclusions on a wider set of discussions. He also pointed out that a journalist had written his original post, which explains its alarmist tone—something he vowed would be fixed in the future.

Facebook’s safe, or is it?

So as it turns out, Facebook isn’t quite facing a MySpace moment. Still, the social network can’t afford to rest easy, which might partly explain the acquisition of Instagram for $1 billion. As is common with big networks, Facebook has drawn huge numbers of older users, as shown by this chart below from Pew Research Centre.

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It’s also worth mentioning that Facebook CFO David Ebersman  admitted that daily usage of Facebook by younger teens had decreased. It doesn’t help that the social network has a growing reputation of being inhabited by parents, the bane of most youngsters.

But saying there’s a mass defection happening would be irresponsible. It is true, however, that teens now use a wide range of social networks for different purposes, this according to Lee Rainie of the Pew Research Centre’s Internet and American Life project. They’ve observed that ‘safer’ content is posted on Facebook, while more intimate posts (read risqué) are uploaded to networks not penetrated by parents as of yet—it’s an observation echoed by Professor Miller.

The teens may not be leaving in droves, but Facebook knows all too well the dangers of being casted as ‘uncool,’ as evidenced by their recent attempt to acquire Snapchat.