Facebook v academia: The gloves are off

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In December we learned that Facebook was "dead to teens", according to anthropological researchers from University College London, whose conclusions seemed questionable. Now this week we've heard from academics at Princeton University that Facebook is like an infectious disease which will die out, losing 80% of its users by 2017.

This seems even more dubious - the research uses epidemiological models but was carried out by aeronautical engineers. It takes data from Google Trends about searches for Facebook, maps it against similar data for MySpace - and concludes that users will abandon today's leading social network just as they did with its forerunner.

What that ignores is that social networking was in its infancy when MySpace peaked, with new users arriving on the scene and being able to choose which service to adopt - then switching as something else came along. Today, it's a far more mature market - existing users have made their choice and are going to take some convincing to go elsewhere, whereas new users are more likely to go to where their friends already hang out. And that very often means Facebook.

But this latest story once again sparked headlines around the world, even if articles often made the point that the research was not peer-reviewed. What was different, however, was Facebook's reaction. Previously, its PR team has gone into overdrive behind the scenes to rubbish this kind of research but said nothing in public.

This time they used a new tactic, humour, to undermine the story. Mike Develin, a data scientist for the social network, published a note on Facebook mocking the Princeton team's "innovative use of Google search trends". He went on to use the same techniques to analyse the university's own prospects, concluding that a decline in searches over recent years "suggests that Princeton will have only half its current enrollment by 2018, and by 2021 it will have no students at all".

Now, who knows, Facebook may well face an uncertain future. But academics looking to predict its demise have been put on notice - the company employs some pretty smart scientists who may take your research apart and fire back. The gloves are off.