Sick of Facebook? Read on...

by Marianne Freiberger

If Facebook is a disease, then most of us know the symptoms: obsessive checking, a compulsion to share trivialities, and confusion about what's real and what isn't. But if Facebook is a disease, then why not use epidemiological methods to try and predict its future? This is what two scientists from Princeton University, New Jersey, have done. And they predict that Facebook is heading for a "rapid decline": between 2015 and 2017 it will lose 80% of the users it had when it was at its peak in 2012.

Books and apple

Hooked?

The idea that Facebook and other social networking sites are like diseases isn't purely metaphorical. An infectious disease spreads through contacts between people, and so does the usage of something like Facebook: people join because other people they know have joined. And just as with a disease, some people recover. They get bored, and eventually they quit.

When epidemiologists try and predict the spread of a disease they often use a beautifully straight-forward model. The general idea is to divide the population into three classes: those who are susceptible (not yet ill but not immune), those who are infected, and those who have recovered and are assumed to be immune from then on. A set of equations the describes how people flow from one class to the other.

That flow is different for every disease of course: it depends on the infection rate typical for the disease (roughly speaking, how many people are infected by a sick person on average) and the recovery rate (how long it takes on average before someone gets better). The values of these parameters can be estimated by looking at real-life data. Once you have the estimates you can simulate the course of the disease, predict if it is likely to escalate or fizzle out, and you can also work out things like how many people should be vaccinated to prevent a disease from spreading. (See this article for more detail.)

Online networking is infectious just as a disease is, but there is an important difference when it comes to recovery. With a normal disease people recover, on average, in some specified time period. With social networking, however, recovery is infectious too. People get bored because their friends do, or at least this is what existing data seem to suggest. The authors of the new study, John Cannarella and Joshua A. Spechler, therefore used a tweaked version of the traditional SIR model (SIR is an acronym for susceptible, infected, recovered), which takes account of this infectious recovery.

In order to use their model the researchers had to estimate the rate of infection and the rate of infectious recovery. You'd think that this requires information from Facebook itself, but the researchers used publicly available search query data from Google instead. It tells you the relative number of Google search queries for a given search terms (such as "Facebook"), and therefore, so the researchers claim, provides a good measure for the web traffic to a site like Facebook. The added advantage, according to the researchers, is that people who are a member of Facebook but never use it are not counted in this data, whereas they would be counted if you only looked at the number of Facebook accounts.

The Google data suggests that Facebook has already been in decline since 2012, so it gives infromation not only about the uptake of Facebook but also about the loss of active users. The researchers chose their parameters so that the model, when applied to a time period in the past, best matched the data suggested by Google. They then extrapolated the model into the future, and this is what led to the prediction of a rapid decline.

Mathematical modelling is a tricky business, of course, because everything depends on the underlying assumptions. As the statistician George Box once said, "all models are wrong, but some are useful." But Cannarella and Spechler did test the strength of their model on a social networking site that has already all but died out: MySpace. And they claim that it simulates MySpace's life cycle well enough to validate the model. But if you try you could probably come up with plenty of arguments why Facebook and Myspace are two different kettle of fish, or other reasons why the model may not be valid.

If you are one of those people who believes that online social networking will ultimately lead to the downfall of civilisation, then there is another bit of good news arising from the predictions. Assuming that recovery is infectious, it stands to reason that one might be able to "vaccinate" the population against recovery, just as one can vaccinate a population against infection. Perhaps Facebook and other networking sites could come up with a devious strategy of social engineering, to prevent their dying out. But this, so the researchers say their model predicts, is impossible. If Facebook is going to go, it's going to go.

You can read Cannarella and Spechler's paper on the arxiv pre-print server. Or you can simply wait until 2017 to see if their predictions have come true. And if you like this article, then why not follow us on Facebook? Or read a reply from Facebook, predicting imminent doom for Princeton University.

Comments

FACEBOOK'S DEMISE

very interesting article, however, FaceBook has allowed me personally to reconnect with and converse with relatives and friends with whom I would not otherwise be able to afford to call long distance and speak with daily. It isn't just gossip and sharing 'stuff' with others, it's staying in touch with people with important things to share. I am new to FaceBook but so far its pros outweigh its cons.

You're wrong

The reason you see more pros than cons is because you haven't put the time into finding/learning about the cons.
You and everyone who thinks Facebook allowed them to reconnect with long lost "friends" and family. *EEZZZZZ* Wrong.

You got this ability just by having the power of the internet at your fingertips. And you think that it's FB that gave you this but it's because it's the first social forum you've tried. There's are millions of forums on the internet with infinitely more value. For personal connections, if they're worth it, you'll find them through one of the many valuable messengers that existed for years/decades. Or maybe visit them in person?

Everyone has to stop thanking FB for this. Where's all this love that should be for email that has openly helped many more people connect and communicate for decades? Email is 100x more valuable than FB wishes it could be. And it's based on open protocols/code. Which is something that FB is not. You're not even limited to a single platform. You can talk to any email address out there!

Very strange article

This article is predicated on the assumption that Facebook and social media have no use-value, meaningful function or utility of any kind aside from distraction or entertainment. That's ridiculous. Social media, including Facebook, facilitate many types of exchanges and functionalities— professional, personal, cultural and familial— aside from trading memes and quizzes. Two examples:

1) On a professional level, every week literally dozens of professional opportunities circulate through Facebook. Another thing that constantly circulates is awareness of the accomplishments and activities of my professional peers— they know what I'm up to and I know what they're up to. It's incredibly useful.

2) I've moved to a new city for work every two years for the last eight years. If not for Facebook, making (and maintaining) an entirely new social circle from scratch every two years would've been far more difficult. Not to mention simply being aware of cultural, social and professional events going on in the area.

I'm not cheerleading or shilling for Facebook, but I'm baffled that a journalist (albeit sans byline) can't see how social media is useful for creating & reaching an audience and creating & participating in meaningful conversations.

ddnkkb

makes people lazy, too focused with social media

Kaos Bayi

And couldn't this be applied

And couldn't this be applied to pornography on the internet...? No inevitable decline? It could easily be perceived as a form of addiction or a disease as well.

Re:

But I think it's important that this article is talking about Facebook specifically and not social media more generally. Any specific site/service could see a decline but, as with diseases, mutations will appear. How much overlap was there between MySpace's demise and Facebook's hold on the market for example?

Surely the same is true of other sites online that may appear and disappear even though the 'genre' lasts much longer.