When we think of tenth birthdays, we associate them with youth and the cusp of tweenhood, a life only just begun and about to get more exciting. But it’s different in the technology industry and, as it approaches the end of its first decade, Facebook is seen by many as more like an octogenarian. Social media technologies like the ephemeral Snapchat are being lauded as nubile and exciting, while Facebook is part of the old guard.
Whether you love or hate Facebook, it has become part of everyday life. It has developed a gargantuan user base of 1.23 billion and now counts as a source of news for one third of US adults. To say you are Facebook friends with someone is an understood relationship and concepts such as a “like” and writing on someone’s “wall” or “timeline” are part of daily parlance for many.
Ultimately, Facebook has tremendous influence on the content that is consumed on the internet. It played a significant role in the spread of the controversial Kony 2012 video, for example, which went viral across the world when it was shared between friends on social networks. And the We Are All Khaled Said group was prominently used in the Arab spring in Egypt.
But there are signs of a backlash as its first decade draws to a close. Some fear the site may be affecting our ability to interact with others, as some users prioritise “Facebooking” the moment rather than “physically” living in it offline. For example, critics see social detachment when Facebook users post pictures of a concert as it happens instead of watching the live action or they discuss a film or television programme they are watching while it’s still playing in front of them.
This growing sense of Facebook fatigue has prompted movements such as the 2010 Quit Facebook Day and is playing out in the numbers too. A survey of American teens in 2013 saw just 23% citing Facebook as the most important social site to them, compared with 42% the previous year.
It has also been said Facebook has become a forum for cyber-bullying and a vehicle for the circulation of controversial content including beheading videos. It has faced criticism for its response to both issues and for its heavy handed approach to regulating political discourse.
As the techno-dog years pile on, questions about Facebook’s future are everywhere. Some think it is too big for its own good and is destined to follow defunct social networks like Myspace down the path of obscurity. A recent paper which uses disease models to infer the future fate of Facebook concluded that it will “undergo a rapid decline in the coming years, losing 80% of its peak user base between 2015 and 2017”.
Though Facebook’s user base could decline rapidly, an epidemiological model is perhaps not the best analogy here. Some may see Facebook use as akin to a disease but it is, after all, a communications technology. Its survival is much more likely to hinge on economic factors. Myspace died out because Facebook aggressively took over its market share. Its fate, in turn, will be decided by complex market dynamics.
Communications technologies evolve and adapt to our social needs. As society has become more mobile, we have moved from landlines to mobile telephones and email. Facebook appears to be moving well with this trend and has recently been seen to be focusing strongly on the mobile side of its service, though whether it will succeed in this venture is yet to be seen.
Even if Facebook goes the way of Myspace, another online social network will fill the void. We live in a global networked society where we now expect to connect with friends, colleagues, world news and family in an integrated way. The apps market is quickly filling with contenders for the crown in separate parts of the offering, such as Instagram or LinkedIn, but none currently appear to provide the spectrum that Facebook does. Whatever happens in the next decade, its effects on social communication will continue to be felt.