How does a social network die?

Just as researchers such Malcolm Gladwell (just kidding!) like to talk about how trend adoption follow the disease SIR (susceptible, infectious, and removed/recovered) model, so are they equally enthusiastic in comparing and anticipating the death of Facebook (which is certainly a kind of disease in itself).

The latest salvo was fired by Princeton researchers, who have devised a model based on data from Google search queries, that predicts Facebook will lose 80% of its users by 2017.

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“Ideas, like diseases, have been shown to spread infectiously between people before eventually dying out, and have been successfully described with epidemiological models,” write authors John Cannarella and Joshua A. Spechler in an article recently posted to the preprint databasearXiv.

The authors have based their models on data that reflect the number of times “Facebook” has been typed into Google as a search term. Checking Google Trends reveals that these weekly “search queues” reached a peak in December of 2012, and have since begun to level off. Plugging these figures into a modified SIR model for the spread of infectious disease – the researchers call theirs an “infection recovery,” or “irSIR,” model – yields the chart at the top of this post, and “suggests that Facebook will undergo a rapid decline in the coming years, losing 80% of its peak user base between 2015 and 2017.”

The real “proof” comes from the researchers testing their model with Myspace by comparing the Google search query data with the same adoption/abandonment curves predicted by the SIR model, and finding a fit.

I’m not entirely convinced. Facebook is a different creature, of a different time and place, against Myspace. As the io9 piece has stated, Facebook is fundamentally different in terms of the place it now occupies, not just among individual users, but also businesses and media outlets.

That’s not to say it may not eventually be supplanted by another social network. But think of Facebook more as a chronic disease – rate of increase in accounts will slow down, plateau, and eventually decline, slowly; or not! depending on what else the company decides to do with its brand and product (i.e. yay for getting rid of sponsored posts, nay for continuing to operate as an advertising platform). The challenge for an online social network is the same as any other brand – how do you stay fresh and relevant?

via io9 . Also check out a related post, featuring predictions about Facebook’s future. Interesting to note: no internet site has truly been dominant for more than a decade. In that context, Facebook is a grandfather in Internet years, and maybe the grandfather who will outlive us all.

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