Future Tense

The Death and Burial of Facebook, In Two Charts

Facebook, that venerable nine-year-old social network, has been growing long in the tooth for quite some time now, if you believe the headlines. The latest comes from the Guardian: “Facebook ‘dead and buried to teens,’ research finds.” It’s research, so it must be true, right? From the story:

Facebook is ‘dead and buried’ to older teenagers, an extensive European study has found, as the key age group moves on to Twitter, Instagram, WhatsApp and Snapchat.

Researching the Facebook use of 16-18 year olds in eight EU countries, the Global Social Media Impact Study found that as parents and older users saturate Facebook, its younger users are shifting to alternative platforms. “Facebook is not just on the slide—it is basically dead and buried,” wrote Daniel Miller, lead anthropologist on the research team, who is professor of material culture of University College London.

The story was a big hit for the Guardian and others. Too bad it’s wrong. As the researcher in question later clarified, his claims were not based on an “extensive European study.” They were based on door-to-door interviews with people living in a cluster of villages north of London. And Miller says he never meant to claim that Facebook as a whole was in decline, let alone deceased. “The phrase `dead and buried’ unambiguously only refers to the way Facebook is never going to be cool again for this age group,” Miller wrote in a follow-up blog post. He added:

In some media, my post was used for more sensationalist purposes to claim that Facebook itself was doomed. This was ‘news’ at a Christmas period when journalists were short of news. Most important was the way items spread easily through the viral impact of digital media. Phrases such as `dead and buried’ shifted from a description of Facebook losing its cool for English schoolchildren, to the supposed fate of Facebook as a whole.

Miller’s full post is worth reading for its insight into how academic research findings get “sexed up” in the press, not only by journalists, but by the academics themselves, who are eager to gain broad exposure for their work.

In the case of Facebook, the confusion arises when people conflate the site’s “cool factor” with its popularity. Yes, the site is seeing less engagement among younger teens. But as I’ve explained, the social network’s success as a company simply does not depend on its cachet among teens. Social networks can either be cool or they can be ubiquitous, and Facebook chose the latter long ago.

Meanwhile, back in the realm of quantitative data, Pew Internet today released the results of a survey of 1,801 U.S. adults that examines the relative popularity of several of the largest social networks. Once again, Facebook comes in first, and no other network is close. It leads among all demographics, including ages 18-29. Not only that, but it actually appears to have expanded its overall lead in the past year.

And not only does it have the most users, but its users are the most likely to visit the site on a regular basis.

Maybe best to hold off on those funeral plans for a while. The full Pew survey is here.

Previously in Slate: