Facebook and us? It’s complicated

Users seem to be falling out of love with the social networking service, perhaps because it leaves many people feeling as if the party’s always happening somewhere else

Before Facebook: how social networks used to look. Photograph: Jeffrey Coolidge/Iconica/Getty

Before Facebook: how social networks used to look. Photograph: Jeffrey Coolidge/Iconica/Getty

Sat, May 4, 2013, 06:00

There’s an episode of Friends from 10 years ago in which Ross shows Chandler something on his laptop. “Have you seen this? It’s our new alumni website for college. It’s cool! You can post messages for people, let everyone know what you’re up to. . .” Chandler replies: “Great, a faster way to tell people that I’m unemployed and childless.”

A decade ago the idea of a website that would let you reconnect with all the people you spent years trying to avoid at college seemed so outlandish that only a loser like Ross Geller could possibly buy into it.

A year later a college student called Mark Zuckerberg set up Facebook with a group of Harvard University friends. Today many of us find it hard to imagine life without it.

But earlier this week the internet was busy with speculation that Facebook might one day go the way of MySpace, the last social network users couldn’t imagine life without.

Some worrying figures – at least if you’re a Facebook shareholder – from independent data reports were published by the Guardian . The first set, from the analysis firm SocialBakers, showed that Facebook had lost nine million US visitors in six months, and two million in Britain.

Rough estimates
SocialBakers pointed out that its figures were “rough estimates” not intended for journalists. In the middle of the week Nielsen revealed that Facebook had lost 10 million users in the US and experienced zero growth in the UK over the past year.

Let’s not get carried away. Facebook remains the second-most-visited website in the world. It is used by a sixth of the world’s population. It is unlikely to go the way of the Dodo overnight.

And there was better news from Facebook itself in its latest quarterly results. It reported 1.11 billion monthly active users around the world, up 23 per cent from a year ago; monthly active users were up 54 per cent.

But much of the growth is coming from poorer nations, where advertising revenues are lower. If the SocialBakers and Nielsen figures are accurate, Facebook’s growth in some parts of the world may be beginning to plateau.

It may be straightforward competition from apps such as WhatsApp, Instagram and Twitter. I suspect a lot more of it is do with irritation about the sponsored posts, fridge-magnet wisdom and “share if you don’t want this child to die” status updates.

Impromptu survey
According to ComScore, Facebook is still the third-most-visited site in Ireland, with use up 4 per cent on the previous year. To find out more I conducted an impromptu, not-very-scientific survey on Twitter and Facebook to get a snapshot of public opinion in Ireland.

Of the first 100 responses, a fifth were still fans; 29 said they were using Facebook in a limited way, or less than they used to; and just over half claimed to loathe it (although only a handful had deleted their accounts).

Privacy was a concern for only a few of the Facebook users I spoke to: “irritating”, not “intrusive”, was the adjective of choice.

For others the issue was more personal. As one user put it, “I fell out of love with it when I was going through a tough time and ‘Boastbook’ made me feel worse. Facebook is where people put up their best version of their life. No one ever admits that they’re having a tough time.”

In essence, the problem with Facebook seems to be that it leaves many people feeling exactly like that: a bit hollow, as though the party’s always happening somewhere else.

Ironically, this is the very message that Facebook has chosen to focus on in a series of ads it screened in the US for its latest product, Facebook Home – a skin, or set of apps, for your Android phone. (When it launches here, Facebook Home will allow you to turn your smartphone’s home screen into an advertising billboard. Go on, form an orderly queue.)

One of the advertisements shows a family sitting down to dinner. An aunt-like figure is holding court – think Dame Edna in argyle – with an anecdote about buying pet food. Her more attractive, younger relative throws her a withering look before turning her attention to her phone. She swipes through a series of photos and escapes her actual home into her other, better “Facebook home”, where the cool kids are all playing drums and having snowball fights.

The ad has prompted a lot of criticism in the US for its apparent subversion of social norms and its celebration of egocentricity.

For me the message is simpler, more depressing and more . . . well, more Facebook. Whatever you’re doing, someone, somewhere online is having a better time than you.

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