How Will Facebook Die?

Not like Friendster.

A recent paper used archive data to conduct a “digital autopsy” on the once dominant social network Friendster.

Screenshot via Internet Archive

Babylonia, ancient Egypt, the Mongols, the Roman Empire, Myspace: All great civilizations must fall eventually, but few can foresee their own demise when they are at the height of their influence and power.

It’s now been 10 years since Facebook was unleashed from a dorm room in Cambridge, Mass., onto an unsuspecting world, becoming integral to the lives of more than 1 billion people. Given the network’s rapid growth, it’s not at all surprising that people are beginning to wonder if there’s a ceiling to the network’s success. Like any superpower, Facebook has its prophets of doom.

A research paper that went viral last month predicted, based on a comparison to the decline of MySpace, that the site is on the cusp of losing up to 80 percent of its user base within the next four years. The paper was convincingly debunked by my colleague Will Oremus; the site is still adding users and getting better at monetizing them. Still, nothing lasts forever. Given what we know now, what’s most likely to cause the site’s downfall?

The direct MySpace comparison may have been off-base, but the downfall of Facebook’s forbears could yet hold some clue to its future. A recent paper by David Garcia and two other researchers at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology used archive data to conduct a “digital autopsy” on the once dominant social network Friendster. Though it once boasted over 100 million users and shared a number of design features with Facebook, the site—which once turned down a $30 million buyout offer—collapsed in popularity in 2009. Today, only the URL lives on, unrecognizable from its former self, as a Kuala Lumpur–based online gaming portal.

So what happened? The authors, whose paper winkingly references an Onion News video about Internet archaeologists conducting an excavation on the lost civilization of Friendster, make the case that social networks fail in cascades. As users leave, and others find themselves with fewer active friends, there’s no longer enough benefit to justify the time and energy needed to maintain an active presence on the network. “Changes may cause users to leave, which may trigger further leaves of others who lost connection to their friends,” they write. “This may lead to cascades of users leaving. A social network is said to be resilient if the size of such cascades can be limited.”

With users being leeched away by Facebook and MySpace, Friendster was no longer resilient enough to prevent a cascade after an unpopular design change in 2009.

Garcia feels it’s unlikely Facebook would ever rehaul its site as radically as Friendster did, or would ever need to, given its hegemonic popularity. “It’s not going to happen like this anymore,” he told Slate. “If they are learning from our research, they will introduce changes slowly. Gradual changes will not introduce such giant cascades. There might be other risks, but hopefully this is something they can avoid.”

Jason Kaufman, a sociologist at Harvard’s Berkman Center for the Internet and Society, says the only foreseeable factor that could lead to a mass exodus from the network would be “some type of data breach that would just destroy the confidence people have in Facebook having access to their data.” But, he says, it would have to be extremely severe, as “people are already aware that their Facebook data isn’t exactly private.” Revelations of government surveillance of Facebook data, for instance, don’t appear to have had much of an impact on use.

It’s true that people are no longer as excited about using Facebook, but that isn’t actually so important in terms of an endgame, Kaufman argues. “It’s passing into a mature phase where it’s no longer the new thing and it’s no longer cool but it’s still very useful,” he says. “So it’s fairly invulnerable to competition. Something would have to be so much better to ramp up subscriber numbers quickly enough to challenge them.” Kaufman believes the site may come to resemble the old telephone white pages, a tool that no one was exactly excited about, but that nearly everyone found useful.

But that raises an obvious question: When was the last time you looked at the white pages?

As long as users continue using the Web in the way it’s currently formatted for computers and mobile devices, it seems as though Facebook will serve an unsexy but necessary purpose: as a tool for organizing your social life and keeping track of friends and acquaintances. It seems unlikely that any rival (sorry, Google Plus) will be able to ramp up to challenge it. Barring a security catastrophe or a monumental unforced error on the part of the company, it seems like the downfall of Facebook may only come when users transition away from the Web to … well … whatever comes next.

As a community, though—the type of entity that sociologists study and writers pen chin-scratchy speculative articles about—Facebook may already be dying. For me, logging on to Facebook today—I’ve had a page since it was first introduced to my college in late 2004—feels perfunctory and more than a little depressing. The majority of my friends have stopped posting regular updates, and my timeline is dominated by a handful of not particularly close acquaintances. I’ve strongly considered deleting my profile entirely, but stay on mainly because the minimal benefit I get from it—easy contact info, quick answers to “what ever happened to that guy?” questions, periodic uses for work research—outweigh the trouble of being on it. It’s a stretch to call Facebook “resilient” as a community these days, but its ubiquity has become self-reinforcing: Even if you’re not interested in it, it’s worth being on it simply because everyone else is. It’s a network effect of the least engaging kind.

I suspect I’m not alone in interacting with the site this way. There might be some people out there pining for their phone books, but it seems like by the time Facebook dies, we’ll be long past the point of missing it.