Academic research ain’t what it used to be. As you’ve undoubtedly read, researchers from Princeton applied an infectious disease model to analyze Facebook usage and potentially predict the future trajectory of the social network.
The researchers relied primarily on Google Trends search data to glean traffic patterns and audience interest in Facebook. The conclusion of the study was that “Facebook will undergo a rapid decline in the coming years, losing 80% of its peak user base between 2015 and 2017.”
Facebook’s response was humorous and highly sarcastic. Taking a methodologically similar look at future Princeton enrollment, Facebook concludes “that Princeton will have only half its current enrollment by 2018, and by 2021 it will have no students at all, agreeing with the previous graph of scholarly scholarliness.”
The Princeton researchers’ idea of applying an infectious disease model to social networking patterns is not a terrible one. However it did perhaps bias them. There’s an operating assumption that the “disease” or virus (Facebook) will eventually subside and disappear, just as flu and other disease outbreaks tend to do.
Feeding into that assumption, the researchers discuss MySpace as though it’s a predictive model of what will inevitably happen to Facebook:
MySpace is a particularly useful case study for model validation because it represents one of the largest OSNs in history to exhibit the full life cycle of an OSN, from rise to fall.
The notion is that the decline and fall of all social networks is inevitable. That’s a reasonable assumption inasmuch as nothing lasts forever and so on. However the idea that Facebook will necessarily exhibit the same patterns of decline as MySpace is flawed and false. Facebook is a much better managed and more successful company.
Facebook has its well-documented challenges. It will also mature and its growth in key markets may peak and plateau. That doesn’t necessarily mean Facebook will equally see an inevitable and precipitous usage decline as predicted by the Princeton study.
Finally, the almost exclusive reliance on Google Trends data is another significant flaw in the researchers’ methodology. Google Trends in this case represents a limited data set and only partial view of what’s going on in the market. For example it doesn’t capture what’s happening with Facebook’s mobile apps and other key metrics (e.g., engagement, time on site, actual traffic). Facebook went public in May 2012 but the company has now made available several years of usage data. None of that was apparently included in the study.
Though dressed up in seeming academic rigor, the Princeton study is ultimately a mildly clever but sloppy piece of research — likely conceived and published to gain attention for its authors. You can read the full paper below.