I have always avoided Facebook like the plague. What I hadn’t realised is that the growth of the social network actually mirrors the spread of infectious diseases like the bubonic plague. And just like such infections, this spread will eventually lessen and come to an end.
That is the prediction of two scientists in the mechanical and aerospace engineering department of Princeton University. By 2017, say John Cannarella and Joshua Spechler, Facebook will have been largely abandoned as users defect to other networks. They tested their model against MySpace first before turning to the world’s largest social network, just now enjoying its tenth birthday.
Compelling as this study might be, its authors have made a significant data error - one that overlooks a key evolution in the “Facebook disease” and which actually spells serious trouble for Google Search. They may unwittingly have revealed that it is the other US dot.com giant which is facing an uncertain future.
To build their model, the authors used data on the number of times “Facebook” has been entered as a search term in Google. This identified a significant trend in which searches peaked at December 2012 and have since tailed off. Using the susceptible, infected, recovered model commonly adopted by epidemiologists, they projected the rate and decay of Facebook searches and arrived at the conclusion it has a time-limited future.
What this data set did not provide the authors with was any insight into users of the Facebook mobile app, since data from this source is not visible to Google Search. Having downloaded the app once, users become hosts and carriers - no longer vectors of infection, but living with the disease.
Followers of Facebook will recall that it was a lack of mobile strategy that attracted most criticism ahead of its IPO in 2012. Since then, the network has not only fixed the problem, it has 945 million monthly active users of its mobile product and it pulled 53 per cent of its ad revenues from mobile in Q4 of 2013.
This shift gives the network a closer - and more exclusive - relationship with its users. At the same time, it blanks Google Search, just as the current trend towards mobile apps by other brands is doing. While there are currently no signs of a slowdown in the growth of the search engine, apps present a major headache and potential health risk.
Mobile apps are walled gardens and are jealously guarded by the brands that create them. This runs directly counter to the open internet model which Google is architected around and for which it set itself the task of indexing information. At the same time, natural search remains a weak point compared to simple product searches, which may explain the $400 million which Google just paid for artificial intelligence business Deep Mind. If the search engine can understand queries structured the way humans actually speak, it will significantly increase its usefulness and relevance. That could help it to counter the strength-sapping effects of apps.
Researchers still need to explain why social networks come and go in fashion. As the Stamford pair found with MySpace, there are no barriers to exit - they just used the wrong data set to arrive at the right conclusion. I still have no desire to “catch” Facebook, by the way.