Facebook Isn’t In a Death Spiral

On paper, the bell tolls for Facebook.

Facebook will bleed the majority of its users over the next three years, according to a pair of Princeton researchers in a new paper (PDF).

Those researchers, John Cannarella and Joshua Spechler, arrived at that conclusion by comparing Facebook to an infectious disease. That’s sort of logical: both depend on networks of human beings to “transmit” and grow; and just as people shake off viruses, they should (according to the theory, at least) eventually stop using Facebook: “Recovery spreads infectiously as users begin to lose interest in the social network.”

But how do a bunch of determined scientists actually trace Facebook’s theoretical rise and fall? Cannarella and Spechler decided to use the frequency with which “Facebook” is typed into Google as their main dataset (various other studies have also relied on Google Trends as the basis for predictions). Those search queries reached a peak in December 2012.

The researchers took that dataset and plugged it into prebuilt model for the spread of infectious disease, tweaked things a bit, and found that Facebook—like any plague that’s burned through a significant portion of a population—will decline before the decade is out.

“The search query data suggests that Facebook has already reached the peak of its popularity and has entered a decline phase, as evidenced by the downward trend in search frequency after 2012,” the paper noted. “Extrapolating the best fit into the future shows that Facebook is expected to undergo rapid decline in the upcoming years, shrinking to 20 [percent] of its maximum size by December 2014.”

Between 2015 and 2017, it added, Facebook will lose 80 percent of its peak user base—if the social network actually follows the “best fit” model established by the researchers’ underlying algorithm. It’s equally likely, the researchers wrote, that Facebook ends up declining at a slower rate than the one predicted by that model. “The reason for this asymmetry is that the decline is entirely dictated by data occurring in after 2012,” they wrote. “If the post-2012 data is ignored, a solution in which Facebook continues indefinitely at a constant size is possible.”

In other words, multiple models exist for Facebook’s triumph, stagnation, or outright ruin—all supported by the data (that’s science for you). To be fair, the researchers ran the term “MySpace” through their model and found it traced that social network’s rise and fall with some accuracy; but Facebook is much larger than MySpace at its peak, and woven much more pervasively throughout the fabric of the Web—thousands of Websites rely on the Network That Zuckerberg Built to connect with users, advertise, sell products, and much more. That prevalence alone should slow any Facebook decline.

In addition, Facebook has begun releasing standalone apps such as Messenger, as part of a broader strategy to expand the company’s branding and functionality beyond its core Website. (The Instagram acquisition was part of this effort, as well.) Whether that helps Facebook maintain its userbase in coming years is an open question, especially as new generations of startups arise to take it on—but it’s clear that the social network, like any good virus, intends to mutate into ever-hardier forms.


Image: John Cannarella and Joshua Spechler