Has Facebook Lost The Plot?

Research released last week shows that Facebook use is growing for the >65s. Sound the death knell.

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You might have read last week’s research from the Pew Centre, which shows a whopping 71% of Americans use Facebook — more than any other social networking platform. You might have read allegations that the social networking giant scans private messages to gather data; or about how a selfie saved one woman’s life, and another was almost killed after unfriending someone. Then there was the claim a few weeks back, that Facebook was making us drink more.

The social networking platform is used by over one billion people worldwide, and there’s no shortage of news stories about it. But while Facebook is being obsessed over by middle aged people in the press, young people seem to be moving on. Facebook may be going the way of Myspace.

Facebook is sew 2004

As a rule, by the time your Grandparents have worked out what’s cool with young people, it’s no longer cool at all. Not only did my Nanna buy me rollerblades when I was 14, but she’s recently joined Facebook.

And so have many other older people. In fact, the Pew Centre research released on December 30 found that 45% of Americans aged over 65 are on the ‘book, up from 35% in 2012 — the fastest growth of any age group. They were no doubt encouraged by their younger buddies: two thirds of all 50 to 65-year-olds in the US are already ‘liking’ their grandchildren’s photos and writing status updates entirely in capital letters. The overall age of Facebook users is getting older too: 65% are aged 35 and above, up by two years from the last survey in 2011.

Younger users, meanwhile,  are shunning the platform. Growth in the US among users aged 18-29 fell 2% from last year (compared to growth of 10% for over 65s). Another study, this one by US youth marketing firm mobileYouth, found 60% of teens accessed Facebook on their phones last year, down from 73% in 2012. In the UK, an academic who was researching social media use among 16 to 18-year-olds declared Facebook to be “dead and buried” for young people. Though the study was small, it reflects a trend researchers are starting to pick up.

Facebook itself admits that young people are becoming less active daily users. “We did see a decrease in [teenage] daily users [during the quarter], especially younger teens,” said Chief Financial Officer David Ebersam on CNN in October. ‘Daily users’ is the key term here. While many people still maintain and update a Facebook account, the amount of people who actively use it is decreasing.

And for an application that makes its money selling advertising, that presents a significant problem.

Selfies, and dick pics: Instagram and Snapchat are winning with the youth

You’ve read all about Instagram and Snapchat; the chortles when ‘selfie’ was named 2013’s word of the year; the moral panic about teen sexting on Snapchat. The coverage tended to make young people look self-absorbed and silly, a bunch of airheads obsessed with taking photos of themselves.

But they’re looking less silly now. The Snowden leaks have revealed just how much information is sucked up and stored by Governments, and it turns out that Facebook — who, as we know, already owns and sells your personal data to advertisers — has been complicit in the process, giving the NSA direct access to its servers.

90% of the world’s data was created in the past two years, and most of our communication is recorded by default. In that context, it’s not hard to see why young people are spurning platforms like Facebook, which collects the most personal data, and compiles it into a near-permanent internet museum of dumb shit people have said, done and worn.

That same UK academic who claimed Facebook is dead for young people believes it’s being replaced by instant messaging services, like Snapchat and Whatsapp — and he’s not alone. Pew Centre researcher Mary Madden sees the popularity of these new social networks as evidence that teens are concerned about privacy. “Some feel the burden of the public nature of social networking,” she told The Guardian in October. “They’re creating smaller groups with these new services.”

Snapchat now processes 400 million photos daily — more than Faceboook, which offered Snapchat US$3 billion in an attempted buyout. Snapchat rejected the offer.

LinkedIn is becoming more popular? Really?

The flight of the young people isn’t the only worrying trend for Facebook.

Another Pew report shows that 61% of Facebook users have taken a break from using the platform of at least several weeks, and 38% of 18 to 29-year-olds are planning to spend less time on the platform in the coming year. Facebook likes to publically count its users, but it doesn’t make money from people creating profiles; it makes money from people engaging with the platform — something LinkedIn, that much-maligned posh Facebook for corporates, does much better.

According to Forbes, while Facebook users spend an average of 6.4 hours online per month compared to LinkedIn’s 18 minutes, LinkedIn users generate $1.30 per hour, compared to 6.2 cents for Facebook.  Revenue growth at Facebook is also slower than LinkedIn, with LinkedIn’s profits expected to double this year.

Why? It could be because Facebook has so many other apps nipping at its heals, which perform many of its functions — like private messaging and picture sharing — better than the behemoth; meanwhile, LinkedIn has a monopoly when it comes to professional profiles.

LinkedIn is also increasingly being used by recruiters and businesses, with 81% of American companies logged onto the network. LinkedIn is doing more than simply selling advertising; it’s selling a recruitment and job vacancy advertising service, which generates 50% of its revenue.

Right now, LinkedIn isn’t cool or popular among young people; it’s even less cool than Facebook. Linkedin’s audience is old — on average 44.2 years — but it will need to get younger. Worldwide demographics are shifting, and within the next couple of decades baby boomers will retire, and the job market in Australia and the US will get younger. In response, the social network launched a site for alumni and US college students, which they’re progressively phasing in. It has also targeted high school students by dropping the minimum age of users to 14.  Yep, high school students.

Considering a future without Facebook is easy, especially for those of us who once maintained a Myspace profile. But high school students on Linkedin? That just sounds horrible.

Callum Denness is Melbourne-based freelance writer who makes films, takes photos and watches television. You can tweet him here: @CalBD.

Screengrab from The Social Network (2010)