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Innoculations against the virus of Facebook falsehoods

Stuart Lauchlan Profile picture for user slauchlan January 29, 2014
The death of Facebook or the death of Princeton University? Another silly 'Facebook's doomed' report and some rather more potent stats about its mobile success.

If you fancy a bit of light reading for the weekend, chances are you won’t be turning to ‘Epidemiological modelling of online social network dynamics’ as your first choice.

But you quite probably have heard a fair bit about this snappily-titled tome this past week as it’s also known as ‘that Princeton University report that says Facebook is on its last legs’.

You can read it here in full if you’ve got the stamina,  but frankly I wouldn’t bother as once you plough through the dense academic language, it comes across pretty clearly that overall that there are some fundamental issues with the base methodology.

In case you missed the lurid headlines in the mainstream media, the gist of the thesis is that some 80% of Facebook users will vanish over the next few years.

The researchers use infectious diseases and epidemiological models to map and project the life cycle of social media, equating the spread and fall of Facebook to a virus burning out. They argue:

”Ideas, like diseases, have been shown to spread infectiously between people before eventually dying out, and have been successfully described with epidemiological models.”

Mike Develin, data scientist at Facebook, fought back at the Princeton conclusions in a witty little riposte:

“Of particular interest was the innovative use of Google search data to predict engagement trends, instead of studying the actual engagement trends. Using the same robust methodology featured in the paper, we attempted to find out more about this "Princeton University" - and you won't believe what we found!

“In keeping with the scientific principle "correlation equals causation," our research unequivocally demonstrated that Princeton may be in danger of disappearing entirely.”

He added:

“As data scientists, we wanted to give a fun reminder that not all research is created equal – and some methods of analysis lead to pretty crazy conclusions.”

Over at Forrester Research Nate Elliott points out another problem with the Princeton conclusion:

The MySpace ‘virus’ hardly mutated in all the years it infected the world, but the Facebook ‘virus’ mutates frequently. One of Facebook’s greatest strengths is its practice of regularly adding new features and functionality to its site; this both ensures it infects new users and also makes sure existing users don’t become immune to its charms.

Sure, Facebook must work hard to keep young users engaged. But the fact remains, Facebook claims far more young users than any other social network — indeed, probably more than any other media property on earth.

In fact, from a user perspective, Facebook is in rude health…at this moment Facebook has relatively few problems with its user base. The site’s not going anywhere for a while.

The mobile success story

It’s a point that Facebook execs made themselves this week on a con call with analysts. Some stats that emerged from that:

  • The number of people using Facebook on a daily basis increased by 139 million to 757 million over the past 12 months.
  • The number of people using Facebook each month grew by 172 million to 1.23 billion.
  • In December 2013, 62% of monthly users used Facebook every day.
  • Daily users on mobile outnumbered desktop by around 200 million.
  • On the average day in December, Facebook say the number of likes rise to 6 billion likes, up 59% from 3.8 billion likes a year ago.
  • Q4 mobile ad revenue of $1.25 billion was nearly as large as total ad revenue in Q4 of last year.
  • The number of people using Messenger grew more than 70% in the past three months.
  • More than 500 million people using Facebook Groups every month.
  • 25 million SMBs that have pages on Facebook.

CEO Mark Zuckerberg argues that Facebook has passed a particular tipping point:

“Last quarter was our first quarter where more than 50% of our ad revenue came from mobile.

“If 2012 was the year we turned our core product into a mobile product, then 2013 was the year when we turned our business into a mobile business.

“I expect 2014 will be the year when we begin to deliver new and engaging types of mobile experiences.”

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 It’s a point expanded upon by Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg when she argues that Facebook’s mobile focus assists in making marketing and advertising a more personal experience:

“Facebook is the only place where 750 million people visit every day, increasingly on mobile, to discover what matters to them.

"As we continue to leverage our understanding of people to make marketing more personal, and do it at massive scale, we will dramatically improve the quality of ads and drive more personal discovery.

“Before mass media, all business was personal. Sales happened customer by customer at the local store or door to door. The evolution of mass media made it possible to sell at scale, but business was no longer personal.

“On Facebook, marketers can do both. We’re building the world’s first global platform that lets marketers personalize their messages at unprecedented scale. This is marketing where you are for who you are.”

Zuckerberg argues that Facebook’s strategy is paying dividends:

“We’ve put a lot of effort into measuring people’s sentiment around our ads and seeing how people engage with them. We do some of the broadest surveys in the world. We survey more than 35,000 people every day to see how we’re doing, and we use the results to drive our product development.

“Our approach is working. In the second half of 2013, we saw an improvement in sentiment about ads on mobile, even as volume grew during that period.”


I find myself immune against the viral logic of Princeton’s conclusions.

It won’t be the last time we hear the ‘Facebook is dying’ meme this year of course.

It’s significant that Facebook learned from its mistake three months ago when it caused a stock market scare by commenting on teen demographics and skipped past that this time around to focus on the undeniably more upbeat data about its mobile strategy.

The firm’s ability to monetise its mobile offerings is impressive to date and it’s this that bodes well for the future.


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