Reports of Facebook's imminent death have been exaggerated

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Reports of Facebook's imminent death have been greatly exaggerated.

In fact, the site could remain the model of social media sustainability -- until something comes along to steal its spotlight, said Bruno Ribeiro, Carnegie Mellon University post-doctoral researcher.

"What is very interesting about this model is it's not saying you're competing against a certain type of product -- you're competing for attention," said Mr. Ribeiro. "If some other website that has nothing to do with Facebook comes and steals users' attention, then that's the one [that takes its place]. It doesn't have to be the same product, it's just attention."

With Tuesday's 10-year anniversary of the social network coming only weeks after a Princeton study predicted Facebook could lose 80 percent of its members in the next three years, Mr. Ribeiro's model offers a breath of fresh air for a company smothered by recent predictions of doom.

Despite a decade of success that has seen the Menlo Park, Calif.-based company grow from a network of college students to a $153.9 billion public holding with a following of 1.23 billion monthly active users as of last December, a handful of analysts are predicting the salad days are over.

The company has lost more than 11 million users since 2011, according to an estimate by Washington, D.C.-based digital consulting company iStrategy. The Princeton study, conducted by researchers John Cannarella and Joshua Spechler, noted that a drop in Google searches for Facebook correlates with a similar drop for searches that preceded a massive decline of members for the social networking site MySpace years ago.

Rejecting the data in the Princeton study as unreliable, Mr. Ribeiro's study, "Modeling and Predicting the Growth and Death of Membership-based Websites," argues the death of any membership site comes once members move toward something equally or more engaging.

"Their study is based on saying that Facebook will die the same way that MySpace did and that MySpace died of natural causes -- [that] even if Facebook didn't exist, MySpace would have died. My recent studies argue that MySpace would have been sustainable if there was no Facebook," said Mr. Ribeiro.

The CMU study was inspired by a 1969 lecture by Nobel Prize winning economist Herbert A. Simon that predicted an "attention market" driven by an excess of new computer-driven data would transform the ways people decide how and when to consume media.

In other words, if computers weren't designed in ways that helped people process information faster than they helped people create new content, an entirely new "marketplace of attention" would emerge.

Mr. Ribeiro believes that moment has arrived and that the most successful websites have adopted strategies designed to help their companies consume the lion's share of the nation's eyes and ears.

Using six years worth of data surrounding the daily number of active users from 22 websites, the study determined the most "sustainable" sites were able to grow users through word of mouth; used media marketing through news sites or advertising; and, most importantly, ensured current users were always signing on to check on each other's activities.

In order to stay alive, Mr. Ribeiro predicts, sites will adapt formats to grab the attention of a user's friends, will use smartphone-chiming notifications more often and will encourage every consumer to act like a tween.

"Regarding teenagers -- because it's important to grab a larger and larger share of their attention -- it's beneficial for websites to encourage behavior that teenagers [want to check websites] in class, would not leave their smartphone anywhere and would be addicted to it," he said.

"It's a very good behavior to drive activity on your website and whoever does that best I think would be the one that would be sustainable."

With Facebook maintaining billions of users despite a shift toward Twitter among younger users, Mr. Ribeiro said the company isn't feeling the impact of user decline for now. However, any ground lost when it comes to attention-seeking strategies could easily turn Facebook into the next MySpace if the right competitive product emerges.

"Facebook popularity seems to be stable, but whether or not that will remain is to be seen," he said.

Deborah M. Todd: or 412-263-1652.

Correction (Posted Feb. 5, 2014) An earlier of this version had an incorrect number of users that Facebook has lost since 2011.

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