Facebook - not dead, not buried

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Over the weekend, there was some scary news for the world's biggest social network. Facebook, the story went, was "dead and buried", teenagers were turning away "in their droves", put off by their parents' presence on the network.

It was "the start of what looks likely to be a sustained decline". The headlines appeared first in the UK, then spread rapidly around the world. But I was sceptical.

I've seen plenty such stories over the years - I wrote my own first piece asking whether Facebook was in decline around Christmas 2007 - and each time the social network has just kept on growing.

But this story emerged not from some dodgy survey promoted by a marketing company or even from a journalist whipping something up in the quiet days between Christmas and New Year. It came from "comprehensive European research", something called the Global Social Media Impact Study.

This EU-funded project, headed by Professor Daniel Miller from University College London, looks like a serious piece of work. Its website tells us that its aim is to study how social media are changing our lives and involves "eight highly trained ethnographic researchers based at UCL... each spending 15 months during 2013-4, in small towns in Brazil, China (2), India, Italy, Trinidad, Turkey and the UK".

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[Teenagers] have gone off to cooler places like Snapchat, Instagram and WhatsApp, he tells us, because they are embarrassed to hang out on a network now frequented by their parents”

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There is some interesting material on the project's blog - the researchers have found that 40% of Italians have never changed their Facebook privacy settings - but nothing immediately apparent about the social network's demise among young people.

So, was this a case of journalists taking an academic research paper and overhyping it? No - the man who sold, perhaps oversold, the story turns out to be Professor Miller, leader of the GSMI study. All of the quotes in the opening paragraph of this blogpost came from a piece he wrote on a website called The Conversation, whose catchline is "academic rigour, journalistic flair."

The piece makes it clear that he has drawn his conclusions not from the study as a whole but from its work in the UK. "What we've learned from working with 16-18 year olds in the UK is that Facebook is not just on the slide, it is basically dead and buried." They have gone off to cooler places like Snapchat, Instagram and WhatsApp, he tells us, because they are embarrassed to hang out on a network now frequented by their parents.

What the piece does not make clear is how this research has been conducted, how many teenagers were involved, where they were and how they were selected. Professor Miller is hard to contact right now - his Twitter account (@dannyanth) tells us he's "at work/rest in remote site in Caribbean with intermittent/poor internet access. Back end January."

But he has used Twitter to answer some questions about his research. He says it involves school kids in villages north of London from three schools with a population of more than 2,000, and "the data is ethnographic/qualitative but I strongly encourage people to interview schoolkids to find confirmation," he said.

Now it is obviously true that rival networks and apps are increasingly popular amongst teenagers, and it may also be the case that some of them are leaving Facebook for good.

But do interviews with some 16 to 18 year olds in one small area really tell us that young people are leaving Facebook "in their droves" and herald a "sustained decline"?

That seems quite a stretch - the plural of anecdote is not data, as the man said. And there is plenty of data out there about Facebook - notably from the company itself which now has to update investors regularly about its users. The company's chief financial officer David Ebersman caused a tremor in the share price in October when he indicated that there had been a slight fall in daily activity on Facebook among teenagers.

The shares quickly recovered and have now scaled new heights - but surely when trading begins in New York on Monday afternoon traders will rush to sell in response to the "dead and buried" story?

Or perhaps they will decide that Professor Miller's theories show more journalistic flair than academic rigour.

UPDATE 15:00 GMT, 30 December

Professor Daniel Miller has now written a blogpost responding to this post and defending his research methods.

He reveals that the article in The Conversation which appeared under his name - and which made the story go viral - was in fact written by a journalist. He says he checked her piece for factual errors but "left in elements in her version that perhaps over-simplified the original".

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

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  • rate this

    Comment number 17.

    I find myself using Facebook less and less these days.

    Why ?

    1. Facebook brings out the worst narcissistic behaviour in people.
    2. US government snooping
    3. Too much advertising - especially for Sky TV (yuck)

  • rate this

    Comment number 58.

    What puts me off Facebook is the plethora of personal information it constantly asks you to provide. Just look at the permissions it requires for the latest Android app update - being able to read your texts, change audio settings, record audio, take pictures and video, read and modify call log and calendar events, send emails to guests without your knowledge. An unbelievable invasion of privacy.

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    I've used Facebook less and less over the years and so have all of my friends on Facebook. I think people are rowing back from throwing everything out there. Everyone got a bit drunk on stage and now the hangover is kicking in.

  • rate this

    Comment number 85.

    A bit like HYS really.

    when people realise they can only comment on selected topics which can close after a few posts or totally disappear after 1500+

    One does assume that its because the topic isn't going as intended by the propaganda team.

    Facebook now bombards you with unwanted advertising and after selling out to the secret services is on a road to no where.

    no one likes being spied on.

  • rate this

    Comment number 144.

    Remember CB Radio? CompuServe? Friends Reunited? Blackberry Messenger?

    Platforms for tittle tattle don't last because they are gimmicks without substance. But if you can devise the next gimmick you should be able to make a mint by selling shares to greedy mugs.


Comments 5 of 389



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