Facebook - not dead, not buried

Rory Cellan-Jones
Technology correspondent
@BBCRoryCJon Twitter

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Facebook logoImage source, BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI

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".

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".