If Facebook is like a disease, I don't mind getting infected
Facebook has been in the news over the past few days after a report suggested that the social network is spreading in a similar way to a virus. Like all epidemics, the report suggests, the rate of infection will ultimately drop off, leading to the suggestion that by 2017 the social network will have shed 80 percent of its users. To which I -- and many others of reasonably sound mind -- cry "nonsense!" The catchily titled "Epidemiological modeling of online social network dynamics" paper published by, of all places, Princeton University puts forward the idea that Facebook users are set to abandon the social network in droves in the coming years.
Things don’t get off to a good start. In explaining the methodology, authors John Cannarella and Joshua A. Spechler say they will use "epidemiological models to explain user adoption and abandonment of OSNs [online social networks], where adoption is analogous to infection and abandonment is analogous to recovery". The abstract gets off on the wrong foot by suggesting that Facebook "is just beginning to show the onset of an abandonment phase" -- a wonderfully vapid term with no grounding in, well, anything really. It's easy to pick holes in papers that have slight flaws, but right from the start it is almost too easy here.
It is worth taking a read through the paper in its entirety. It's only eleven pages long -- much less if you discount the meaningless graphs and citations -- but it's a perfect example of approaching something from the wrong angle, and bending the facts to suit what you set out to prove. It is twaddle. Nonsense. Tosh. Flim flam. Drivel. Crap. So why are we talking about it? Well, any paper that makes such drastic sounding suggestions about the future of such a successful institution -- for this is what Facebook has become -- is bound to attract attention. Indeed that was almost certainly the intention. It pains me slightly to fall into the trap of advertising a report apparently designed to bring short-lived fame to the authors. But just in case the authors do genuinely believe what they've written, it's worth spending the time blowing their absurdities out of the water.
The analogy drawn between Facebook and disease epidemics is, put simply, wrong. Sure, there may be similarities in the way epidemics spread and mutate and how social networks increase in popularity around the world, but this certainly does not mean that their full lifecycles are comparable. The paper looks at the rise and fall of MySpace which seems to fit the spread and decline of infectious disease quite nicely. But so what? MySpace got things wrong. It peaked too early. It was purchased by a company with no clue what to do with it. Competitors did things better. It did not fall into decline because of a natural lifecycle. It failed because it was terrible. Facebook could be seen as the cure.
Disease dies out for a few reasons. It might be countered by medicine. To stick with the stupid analogies, this could be seen as a rival service emerging to kill off Facebook. The chances of this happening are just so slight, it's not even worth considering. It's like suggesting that Coca-Cola will lose 80 percent of its customer base following the arrival of a cheeky startup. A disease could kill off everything it infects. If there are no hosts left for the infection, the infection dies. Facebook cannot have too many users. More users is in no way going to contribute to any decline in Facebook's success -- this could be nonsensical.
Facebook didn’t really need to enter the fray, but it chose to respond to the paper, doing an excellent, and amusing, job of demonstrating that it is possible to use the same methodology to prove whatever you like. Myth busted. Fewer people are performing Google searches for Facebook? This means there's less interest in the site, says the paper. Or maybe the millions upon millions of users have the site bookmarked, or are able to remember the URL between visits, eliminating the need to search for it. Visit any website and you're probably going to see a button to 'like' the article you're reading or share it with your friends. People don’t need to search for Facebook -- it does a good job of seeking people out on its own.
But what is worrying is the number of online publications who have reported about the paper as if it was peer-reviewed. It is in no way a scientific study. The figures have not been exactly plucked out of the air, but they have been thrown at the page like discarded runes in the hope that some meaningful pattern would emerge. It didn't ... but that didn’t stop the paper from being published anyway.
Love it, like it or loathe it, Facebook is not going to disappear or lose its users in droves. It's simply not going to happen. Facebook is going nowhere -- and I mean that in a good way.