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Study: Princeton Researchers Predict Facebook Will Lose Millions of Users Within Three Years

In an attempt to predict the changing popularity of existing social networking websites, researchers from the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering at Princeton University predicted that Facebook will undergo a massive decline during the next few years. The researchers, John Cannarella and Joshua Spochler, analyzed the popularity of specific "online social networks" (OSNs) by using mathematical models of the spread of infectious diseases:

"The application of disease-like dynamics to OSN adoption follows intuitively, since users typically join OSNs because their friends have already joined. The precedent for applying epidemiological models to non-disease applications has previously been set by research focused on modeling the spread of less-tangible applications such as ideas..."

With about 1.19 billion users worldwide, Facebook definitely qualifies as a large social networking website. Anyone active on Internet knows that social networking websites (Who remembers Friendster?) come and go:

"Despite the recent success of Facebook and Twitter, the last decade also provides numerous examples of OSNs that have risen and fallen in popularity, most notably MySpace. MySpace, founded in 2003, reached its peak in 2008 with 75.9 million unique monthly visits in the US before subsequently decaying to obscurity by 2011."

Accurately predictions of changes in the popularity of specific social networking websites can help investors with financial decisions. the researchers used Google search data to specific social networking websites:

"The epidemiological models presented in this study are used to analyze publicly available Google search query data for different OSNs, which can be obtained from Google’s "Google Trends” service. Google search query data has been used in a range of studies, including the monitoring of disease outbreak, economic forecasting, and the prediction of financial trading behavior..."

The researchers adapted and validated their mathematical model using the adoption and decline data from the Myspace OSN. The researchers concluded:

"Extrapolating the best fit model into the future suggests that Facebook will undergo a rapid decline in the coming years, losing 80% of its peak user base between 2015 and 2017."

The Los Angeles Times reported:

"... Myspace is not the best social network with which to compare Facebook. At its peak, Myspace had 75.9 million monthly active users. Facebook, meanwhile, said it had 1.19 billion active members in September. Facebook has reached levels Myspace never hit... Although search queries -- not active users -- for Facebook did decline in 2013, the company has only seen its monthly active user base grow since it launched in 2004. Seeing a drop as big as the one the researchers predict would be more than surprising -- it'd be the first time Facebook sees a decline in users."

The Motley Fool reported that teens are leaving Facebook in substantial numbers, but it may not matter:

"... Facebook's teen base had fallen 25% in the past three years. Facebook CFO David Ebersman confirmed that the issue is real during a recent earnings call... the iStrategy Labs study draws from Facebook's Social Advertising platform... Facebook has 4,292,080 fewer high-school aged users and 6,948,848 college-aged users than it did in 2011... it definitely shows that Facebook is not as hot with teens as it once was... According to the same iStrategy Labs Study, the number of users 55+ has exploded with 80.4% growth in the past three years. These older users may not be as desirable as teenagers, but they are more stable and less likely to leave..."

While the researchers analyzed search data, there are more metrics that describe social networking website popularity. Some metrics that come to mind include:

  • Active users
  • Average time and $ on site per user by demographics (e.g., age, country, income, etc.)
  • Average time and $ spent on site by platform (e.g., smart phone, tablets, etc.) by user
  • Average profile completion percentage per user (e.g., work history, residential history,  education history, basic information, relationship and family information, etc.)
  • Average number of connection types (e.g., groups, fan pages, pages Liked, events, etc.) per user
  • Average data usage per user (e.g., megabytes of photos, videos uploaded)
  • Gaming $ spent per user
  • Advertising $ spent per user

Then, you would want to see which of those metrics most accurately precede subscription terminations.

The OSN study has not been peer reviewed. Download the Princeton study: "Epidemiological Modeling of Online Social Network Dynamic" report (Adobe PDF). It is also available here (Adobe PDF, 436.3K bytes).


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