Is Facebook still making friends?

Facebook page The social networking site has 687 million users around the world

Is Facebook forging relentlessly onwards towards world domination - or has it peaked, a social network that appeals more to silver surfers than young digital natives?

Two recent research reports reach very different conclusions - but on closer examination both may be telling the same story.

The latest figures from Nielsen, which has been tracking Facebook for some years, show record numbers of UK visitors to the social network.  

In May this year 26.8 million people visited the site, with Facebook leap-frogging MSN to become the UK's second most visited site. Even more significantly from the point of view of advertisers, each user is spending more time on the site - an average of six hours and 39 minutes a month in May 2011, compared to five hours and 56 minutes in May 2009.

And while there's been lots of talk of a mass migration to the more fashionable Twitter, Nielsen's figures show Facebook does not have much to fear on that front. Yes, UK Twitter users were up from four million to six million in a year, but each one is spending just 24 minutes a month on the site.

But a couple of weeks ago, research from Inside Facebook painted a different story, and sparked off headlines around the world suggesting that Mark Zuckerberg's business was on its way out.  

The report said that between May and June, Facebook had somehow lost six million users in the United States, and around 100,000 in the UK.

A blip?

How to reconcile the two stories? First of all, it's important to say that the Inside Facebook research was vastly over-interpreted - not by the site itself, but in the headlines it produced. The report stressed that this could be just a one-month blip and that overall user numbers were rising, with countries like Brazil and India seeing rapid growth.

Then there's the fact that Nielsen and Inside Facebook are measuring different things over different timescales.

Hands on computer keyboard Facebook has no upper age limit

Nielsen gives an annual snapshot of Facebook's web traffic in May, whereas Inside Facebook gets figures every month from the network's advertising platform - though I'm a little hazy about the precise source of that data.

So it's perfectly possible that Facebook's growth continued to May - as shown by Nielsen - but levelled off or even dropped slightly in June, as Inside Facebook suggests.

After all, both reports show that around half of the UK population has now joined up - so it would hardly be surprising if growth had now peaked.

What Nielsen's data also shows is a big growth in the use of Facebook by the over-50s. That may be a double-edged sword - affluent older users will be attractive to advertisers, but if younger members decide they don't want their news feed cluttered up with their parents' news, they could begin to melt away.

For a business with a sky-high valuation, and planning a stock market debut next year, all of these figures are hugely significant.

Facebook is confident that it can reach the billion user milestone relatively quickly, as developing countries get more of their populations online. But most of the revenue it needs to justify a $50bn dollar price tag will come from territories like the US or the UK - and any suggestion that Facebook users there are getting a little weary with the whole business could be disastrous.

More than MySpace

And today another piece of analysis suggests just that.  

An economist and statistician Neil Charles has looked at Google search data, and concludes that Facebook's growth has pretty much ground to a halt in Europe and the United States.

He points out that the same thing happened to MySpace quite a long time before it went into a downward spiral, and suggests that Facebook has "become vulnerable for the first time in its short existence."

I don't really buy that - Facebook is far more widely used and cemented into millions of people's social lives than MySpace ever was.

But the closer it gets to the IPO that will make billions for its founders, the more nervously every piece of research about Facebook's users will be examined by them and by the market.

Rory Cellan-Jones Article written by Rory Cellan-Jones Rory Cellan-Jones Technology correspondent

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  • rate this

    Comment number 63.

    Facebook has peaked I feel, certainly for the US and UK. I was a user when it first arrived, but I deleted my account because the site is on the whole boring, nothing fresh is happening and I am very suspicious about data collection. Plenty to do if you are brain-dead and into stupid games! I am soon 60 btw.

  • rate this

    Comment number 62.

    I have only one problem with Facebook (a reason that I refuse to use it), and that is that like everything else in IT that started out as something for the average joe it has been hijacked by big business - every tom, dick, and corporation has a FB page!

    Twitter is getting that way as well, another medium I refuse to use, although I find twitter is more "look at me, look at what I'm doing"...

  • rate this

    Comment number 61.

    If facebook is attracting silver surfers it's no longer cool. They are undoubtedly huge and are the new hotmail of the social networking world. The latest Google+ offering will be the equivalent to what gmail did to hotmail, better but never as big.

  • rate this

    Comment number 60.

    #52: As a young adult it's amazing to see what a bunch of whiners the older generations are becoming.
    #53: Honestly who cares that you walked 3 more feet from your previous tweet.
    Pot, kettle, black?

  • rate this

    Comment number 59.

    Facebook = 'a lot of tripe with a few morsels of caviar'
    Twitter = 'Fodder for the braindead'
    Sadly the BBC seem to think that closing all their interactive forums,msg boards etc will make people use both FB and Twitter as an alternative.Its a 'keep up with the jones' and a 'tabloid' mentality that does the BBC no credit whatsoever.

  • rate this

    Comment number 58.

    Google+ seems more promising, but i can't get to it. No invitation for me yet.
    Facebook is kind of loosing it's appeal. Still at the momnet it's a good place to share informaiton with my friends. I was carefull enoguh to let in only people i really know. But still i remember when i started using it there was much less clutter. I tried to disable some (or most) but i can't disable them all.

  • rate this

    Comment number 57.

    I think Facebook is just for plebs, its very conforming and not really rock and roll. Its for people who dont really see the outside world and need dearly for the outside world to see them. I say forget it and live

  • rate this

    Comment number 56.

    I find FB to be very "user unfriendly" but stay because many friends use FB.

    I am bored with"Getting back on Facebook" emails - "Blah-blah tagged a photo of you" emails - clicking "Friends" and getting a box to add my Email contacts - silly "Yes/No" questionnaires and "Blah-blah likes this" comments.

    "Friends" NEVER gives my friends, but a load of "suggestions" of cretins to add.

  • rate this

    Comment number 55.

    While the knives are out...

    Google+ anyone?

    It will be interesting to see whether Google can avoid the ire of Sir Tim with this new effort.

  • rate this

    Comment number 54.

    Having just had an invitation to Google Circles I can say it is truly ground breaking.

    I was a beta tester for Wave and couldn't see the point, but Circles takes my breath away. A very, very serious entry to Social which crosses barriers with social, video chats, defining your own "circles" (keep out the parents) - and I'm already using it for business.

    It's stunning :)

  • rate this

    Comment number 53.


    I have to agree with you as far as Twitter is concerned. At least on Facebook people don't post updates every few seconds like they do on Twitter. Some of my friends and even a few of my cousins think people actually care what they Tweet every 3 seconds.

    Honestly who cares that you walked 3 more feet from your previous tweet.

  • rate this

    Comment number 52.

    I can't help but notice that all the people complaining about Facebook.

    No one forced you to sign up, it was your own fault so start blaming yourself. But that would be asking too much wouldn't it. As a young adult it's amazing to see what a bunch of whiners the older generations are becoming.

  • rate this

    Comment number 51.


    Like many, I have spent loads of hours on FB, but in the last year or so I have barely touched it, mainly because it has become too overly cluttered with rubbish. It annoys me that its changed so much. What I used to do in 2 mouse clicks now takes me 10. The first few versions were the best - simple and user friendly, but now its too unnecessarily over-complicated.

  • rate this

    Comment number 50.

    Rory FB has peaked and cannot go anywhere. Commentators all agree that she has the largest user base and still millions are leaving the site every month(i will soon join them) . She won't suffer tha fate of Myspace and others but will not grow. In other words, she will remain stagnant like festid mosquito infested water.

  • rate this

    Comment number 49.

    I'd be interested to hear how Facebook measures the number of people joining or rejoining their site. I shut down my account about 3 years ago but last week received an email from Facebook advising that my account had been reactivated. I tried to contact Facebook to confirm this was an error (they are uncontactable so beware!). In the end I had to reactivate my account and then deactivate it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 48.

    I had an account for about 6 months, I soon deleted the account (I mean deleted not disabled) as I got sick of people tagging me in pointless photo's & getting 'friend' requests from people I never liked 15 years ago, let alone now.

    I can't see FB lasting the distance in it's current guise, many people are now seeing it for what it is, which is a harvesting of everything about YOU to profit from!

  • rate this

    Comment number 47.

    31 You are not alone, sign up to the resistance on our FaceBook page......

  • rate this

    Comment number 46.

    It just shows owners should go for and early IPO if you delay you may miss the boat. Is Facebook just another MySpace? Probably. While Myspace is in the death grasp of News Corporation with all that implies the embedded nature of Facebook means a move from revolution to evolution into something truly useful rather than just "cool".

  • rate this

    Comment number 45.

    The key is not Facebook itself. Let's remember Friends Reunited too.

    We know some of what's possible now and Facebook doesn't do everything right so if another social network comes along that offers a better service then I'm off.

  • rate this

    Comment number 44.

    Those who complain about puerile, trivial and tedious posts on Twitter and Facebook should really look to themselves - after all it was they who added those 'friends'. Don't join because everyone else has, join because it fills a need and you gain a benefit in doing so and then use it for those reasons only - otherwise just don't join!


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