NOT long after being snapped up by News Corporation in 2005, MySpace became a much emptier space when many teenagers who had used the social network to share music and photos of themselves in various states of undress decided it was no longer the cool place to be online. A recent blog post has sparked a debate about whether Facebook, which has 1.2 billion users, is suffering a similar exodus.
The fuss matters because investors have been very bullish about Facebook’s prospects. Its share price more than doubled in 2013, ending the year above $US54. This partly reflects the market’s insatiable appetite for social-media stocks, but it is also a sign of investors’ conviction that Facebook’s users will not tire of it.
Hence the interest in an article on The Conversation, a website showcasing academic research. Published by Daniel Miller, a professor at University College London, it said young people were “turning away in their droves” from Facebook and that the social network “is not just on the slide, it is basically dead and buried”. Teenagers now prefer to hang out on new photo-sharing and messaging services such as Snapchat (reportedly attacked by hackers this week), WhatsApp and Instagram, where mums and dads don’t lurk.
Mr Miller said he concluded that Facebook was losing its attraction to teenagers after interviewing 16- to 18-year-olds in Britain as part of a European Union-funded study of social networks. But critics were quick to point out that his sample–just 40 students–was tiny and that it was therefore rash to extrapolate from it. In a subsequent blog post, the academic defended his work, saying he had based his observations on a broader set of discussions. He also revealed that his original post had been crafted by a journalist and said he would be more careful about allowing his work to be “sexed up” in future.
So Facebook is not facing a MySpace moment. However, it should not be complacent. Like many other big networks, it has been vacuuming up older customers (see chart on previous page). And its growing reputation as a sort of parental NSA may explain why some youngsters are more wary of it. In October 2013 David Ebersman, Facebook’s chief financial officer, admitted that daily visits by younger teenagers had decreased.
But there is no mass defection under way. Instead, teenagers are using different social networks for different things, says Lee Rainie of the Pew Research Centre’s Internet and American Life project. They post less intimate stuff to Facebook and more risqué material to networks not yet gatecrashed by their parents. Mr Miller’s research has also highlighted this habit.
The danger for Facebook is that one of these newer places starts to attract parents. That is why the firm swallowed Instagram in 2012 and recently tried to snap up Snapchat. The teenagers on Facebook may not be rebelling, but keep an eye on them.
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