Just a couple of months ago, when Facebook and Microsoft announced that they were taking their partnership to a new level to enhance social search, Facebook once again attracted attention as a potential Google Killer. It’s an idea that is periodically furthered by the fact that Facebook’s user-base has grown month-on-month for the past four years, as well as the fact that it rivals Google in terms of monthly visits. But recent figures indicate that the shine is wearing off and Facebook could very well be losing face with its millions of users.
Over the past two months Facebook has lost more users than it’s gained, and it is losing people in countries where its support has traditionally been the strongest. For instance, it’s lost six million users in the US, as well as hundreds of thousands each in the UK, France, Australia, Spain, Canada, Russia, Norway and Italy. Those are people who have deactivated their accounts; people who are so disillusioned that simply abandoning their profiles is not enough.
Why are people jumping ship?
Neil Charles painstakingly collected a mass of data that shows Facebook’s waning popularity is not based on groundless rumour but on cold clear stats. Damian Thompson analysed the data and came up with a few suppositions as to why people are, in effect, unfriending their biggest online society. The most telling of these is related to Facebook’s increasingly mercenary approach to advertising.
This approach has opened the door for spammers, which means that the previously clean user experience is starting to feel like one big infomercial.
Charles suggests that, despite the almost constant slew of changes, the site is actually stagnating. By this he means that it’s simply building on a platform that has always worked for it instead of trying anything new. You can say what you like about Google, but the company isn’t shy about taking on new developments – and watching them fail.
Caroline Parry adds another possible reason to the mix: boredom. As with Twitter, a minority of Facebook users post the bulk of the content. As with Twitter, a lot of it is self-promotional me-talk. There are only so many times you can listen to your cousin in Oz boast of her successful home-based company, her saintly children and her chokingly supportive husband.
I’d like to add a supposition of my own: Facebook is gradually being overrun by silver surfers. The over-50 age-group is Facebook’s fastest growing user-base (it’s also growing exponentially on Twitter, by the way). In theory there should be nothing wrong with that. It’s great to see older generations embracing technology. And, aside from Skype, there isn’t anything like Facebook for grannies to see their grandchildren grow up on the other side of the world.
But, the people for whom Facebook was originally created – the college students and 20-somethings – don’t want to see their moms and dads and aunts and uncles and grandparents on Facebook. How’re they going to post pictures of their drunken selves or post lewd comments to their friends when they’re under the eagle eye of their extended families? They can’t, so they don’t. They go in search of other social networks, and developers are meeting their needs.
Where are they going?
Parry points out the burgeoning private social network phenomenon. These networks provide a more selective and intimate social experience and many are also designed to promote offline interaction as a natural by-product. Parry mentions Path, Huddle, Shizzlr and Rally-Up.
Whether these niche social networks actually take over Facebook’s role in people’s lives has yet to be determined. But one thing is clear, if Facebook’s popularity continues to wane in the coming months, the social network will have to do some serious reflecting to find a way to stop the leak.
Otherwise Facebook could turn into its own biggest killer, instead of targeting its mighty foe, Google.