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Facebook is an icon of the modern business world, a totemic example of how an internet user’s desire for connectivity and interaction can be turned into a hugely profitable and social influential corporate entity.

But if the recent flurry of reports, speculation and apocalyptic predictions about the site across the internet are to be believed then Facebook has begun to haemorrhage a significant amount of its most precious asset: its users.

The reported drop in users regularly visiting the site has been linked to a mysterious condition known as ‘Facebook fatigue’ that is beginning to affect people in the site’s core markets and if true, could have some serious repercussions.

Facebook’s huge value as a company comes from the fact that at one point or another around one in seven of the global population have registered as users, and the company makes its money from selling advertising spaces that target different slices of this huge demographic to companies. A drop in the number of users has a significant effect on the site’s ability to generate its main source of income, especially if the drop is coming from certain key sections of the user population.

But is there actually anything going on here?

Is ‘Facebook Fatigue’ a Real Thing?

To start making sense from all the noise that permanently rages across the internet regarding the future of the world’s most famous social network, we need to get to the bottom of what is actually being said here.

The evidence that supports the latest flurry of media activity comes largely from two sources. The first is a Pew Internet survey that claimed that of the American internet users asked:

61% were registered members of Facebook, but had taken a break from Facebook lasting several weeks or more

20% had once been Facebook members but no longer used the site at all

Interestingly, the survey also asked people to give a reason for not visiting the site as often. Unsurprisingly, the main reason given (by 21% of relevant respondents) was being too busy to spend their time regularly visiting site, but 10% said a lack of compelling content or general interest in the site itself as the main reason for taking a break.

The second source came from figures available on the SocialBakers site, which formed the basis of the Guardian article above, as well as a host of other news pieces from around the globe. Taken together, the picture painted by these articles was that Facebook had begun tanking users in its key markets (9 million US visitors in 6 Months! 2 million UK users in 6 Months! 400,000 less visitors globally a month!) in a fairly dramatic style.

But then proceedings took a strange turn. Jan Rezab, CEO of SocialBakers released a statement publicly claiming that the analysis used in the Guardian article using figures that weren’t meant for them had caused them to jump to conclusions, concluding that:

“The bottom line is that there is no story.”

Complicating things further, Facebook itself recently released its financial figures for Q1 of 2013 which claimed double digit year-over-year increases in daily, monthly and mobile users.

So What Are We to Make of All This?

The truth is simply that Facebook does not even have an exact count of its users that isn’t based on estimates, making it impossible to give a concrete statement as to the existence of Facebook fatigue. But the Pew survey clearly indicates that there is some fluidity to Facebook use around the world so let’s go a little deeper and see what we find.

Is It All about Demographics?

“Everyone knows that most teenagers will like something right up until their parents get involved”

Everyone knows that most teenagers will like something right up until the point when their parents start to become involved and this is likely to be no different with Facebook. Surveys by Piper Jaffray and Pew seem to show that it is the important (yet notoriously fickle) teen demographic that seems to be turning away from the site, with many citing the presence of their parents or other adults as one of the main reasons for doing so.

While these teens are not completely halting their use of Facebook, they are beginning to look for their desired form of interaction over a larger amount of social networks, with the most popular being Tumblr, Reddit, Twitter and 4chan as well as relative newcomers such as Snapchat and Vine.

So while Facebook remains the definitive top dog in terms of membership, there is a clear indication that younger users are beginning to see its ubiquity as one of its biggest limitations and are looking for sites that are more specialised.

What about the Emerging Economies?

Of course, Facebook may not actually be overly concerned that its youngest users in the US and Europe are checking in with less frequency, because user uptake is booming in other parts of the world. While Facebook seems to be reaching some kind of saturation point in its early footholds, its continued growth in users are now largely coming from the emerging economies of India, Brazil, Russia, the Middle East and parts of Africa.

The potential for growth for Facebook in these emerging economies is mind-numbingly vast, with there already being around 65 million (more than the entire population of the UK) active Facebook users in Brazil alone where the average monthly time spent on the site jumped 208% last year.

Is Facebook Itself Changing Its Strategy?

This growth in emerging markets highlights an important factor that is likely to see the site shrug off any dip in users it suffers in the more developed geographies, and that is the increasing convergence of the smartphone and social media markets. Because users in emerging markets tend to access their social media accounts from their mobiles at a much greater rate than their western counterparts, Facebook has begun to unleash a new mobile strategy in these countries where, in collaboration with handset companies, users can buy phones that come with “free Facebook” data packages.

In fact, some people would even argue that the whole Facebook fatigue phenomena itself can be explained away by chalking it up to a substantial move towards using mobiles to access the site instead of desktops.

Others are even claiming that the slight drop in advertising revenue that may result from a widespread contagion of Facebook fatigue may not even matter to the company that much in the near future. Why? Because Facebook is in the middle of a very substantial Big Data play which will vastly increase the scope of its reach and the sheer volume of user information it will have at its disposal.

Phew… well, what does this mass of information tell us about Facebook fatigue then? Well, for a start that it is not a problem that is likely to be bringing Mr Zuckerberg many restless nights any time soon. Whether it is a phenomenon that is only affected western teenagers or is a temporary aberration caused by the switch to smartphones and tablets, it pales in the face of the potential prizes that its emerging markets and big data plays could bring.

But whatever the validity of the Facebook fatigue argument, what is clear is that the social media marketplace is shifting in a two, important structural ways: the continuing diffusion of users throughout a diverse range of social networks and a big swing towards smartphones.

However, the habits and routines of its users around the world continue to change one thing is clear: Facebook is most likely going to remain top dog for some time yet.

Written by Colm Hebblethwaite


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