MENLO PARK, CALIFORNIA — Is social media giant Facebook headed for the same ignoble fate as its now-extinct predecessors, Friendster and MySpace?
The prospect of the reigning social media champ’s demise shouldn’t be exaggerated, but recent data digital market research company eMarketer suggests that the platform’s popularity is reaching a point of stagnation among younger users, as netizens aged 12 to 17 flock to mobile app competitor Snapchat.
The news comes after Facebook’s Q4 earnings call last year revealed that people spent 50 million fewer hours per day on the social platform.
Potential factors for the drop in user interest over the course of last year could include algorithm changes that narrows users’ exposure to certain content generated by friends and publishers; the war against so-called “fake news” and alleged “interference from nation states;” the proliferation of ads on the site; or general fatigue among users of the site, which has been linked to increased mental distress among users.
A shrinking giant?
In 2018, the network’s estimated growth rate will amount to less than 1 percent, a pale shadow of its explosive growth in the past years. That growth was fueled by users across the Global South, accessing the site through cheap Android cell phones and low-bandwidth data connections.
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Younger users in the more affluent North American market, however, are increasingly migrating to flashier multimedia and image-sharing apps while abandoning Facebook’s fuddy-duddy newsfeed populated by irrelevant content arbitrarily selected through the site’s ever-shifting algorithm. According to eMarketer, fewer than half of U.S. internet users in the crucial 12- to 17-year-old teenage market are logging into Facebook at least once per month.
The research firm also estimates that Facebook will lose 2 million U.S. internet users ages 24 and younger in 2018. Meanwhile, Facebook, Inc. photo-sharing app Instagram will add 1.6 million users while competitor Snapchat leads the pack with an estimated 1.9 million joining its network.
Ads, angst, and “deeply human” technocapitalism
Despite the negative forecasts, Facebook retains access to a vast amount of personal data extracted from its 2.1 billion users, which it claims to use mainly for targeted advertising. The company still dominates app marketing, with data leveraged to target users with personalized app-install ads that redirect mobile users to Apple and Google app stores. Meanwhile, shareholding boosters breathlessly assert the company’s incomparable reach and huge user base.
However, several studies have suggested that use of Facebook can lead to increased depression, eroded self-esteem, and negative self-comparisons with other online users. Last November, the company introduced a new AI-based pattern-recognition software that detects suicidal intent in scanned conversations before notifying local authorities.
The company is clearly attempting to cleanse itself of numerous scandals — including “fake news” allegations, live-streamed bloodshed, and growing awareness of the unhealthy nature of internet addiction — with “empathy-washing” talking-points, stressing “deeply human” relationships it seeks to mediate through new algorithm changes allegedly prioritizing “meaningful” time spent on the site. The strategy isn’t too different from McDonalds’ desperate attempts to market the ostensibly “nutritious” nature of its junk food to skeptical consumers.
Online trends come and go, changing tastes are constant
Facebook is still adding monthly users and remains the largest social network, with 169.5 million users in the U.S., but its growth rate is largely due to latecomers from older age groups.
As eMarketer’s principal analyst Debra Aho Williamson noted:
Snapchat could eventually experience more growth in older age groups, since it’s redesigning its platform to be easier to use … The question will be whether younger users will still find Snapchat cool if more of their parents and grandparents are on it. That’s the predicament Facebook is in.”
A brief glance at social media’s recent history shows how fickle audiences tend to be. Once-ubiquitous platforms that commanded user attachment verging on addiction typically fade into obscurity as new services attract media-hungry consumers looking for fresher and freer online experiences.
Despite Facebook’s present clout as an advertising behemoth and major technology firm, the company must always contend with the possibility that users will gradually nudge Facebook into the same media scrap-heap as party lines, Usenet newsgroups, AOL chat rooms, LiveJournal, and MySpace.
Elliott Gabriel is a former staff writer for teleSUR English and a MintPress News contributor based in Quito, Ecuador. He has taken extensive part in advocacy and organizing in the pro-labor, migrant justice and police accountability movements of Southern California and the state’s Central Coast.