Facebook isn’t dying, it’s stagnating

In the last year there’s been a rather large shift in the air in Social Media. Facebook is no longer the ‘too big to fail’ site that once it may have seemed, and instead it is facing new and diverse competition from a number of interesting companies creating varied and compelling social spaces for interaction.

The inevitable and increasing diversity of social media platforms has led to many academics and media sources predicting a mass exodus of youths away Facebook, and towards other, ‘cooler’ platforms like SnapChat or Instagram. UCL’s prolific and inspiring Daniel Miller, for example, wrote a fantastic piece at the beginning of last year predicting the mass exodus away from Facebook. Similarly, a large number of media outlets have written about teens leaving Facebook for other Social Networking Sites (See here, here, here, here… the list goes on…)

Having conducted research into the Social Networking habits of teenagers over the last year, I was keen to see if this was true. Were teenagers leaving Facebook? What was driving them away? Where were they going? What had changed?

The answer was unequivocally no, teens are not leaving Facebook, and probably won’t for some time to come. They were, however, embracing a plethora of new Social Networking Platforms, and shifting their attitudes towards the site, and the way that they use the site. PEW research‘s latest statistics published this month paint a similar picture, Facebook is still far and away the most popular site, but there has been a large uptake of users across a number of other sites, with Facebook seemingly plateauing at it’s current level of popularity.

So how do teenagers view Facebook now? A recent post by a teenager has been doing the rounds on Twitter, and seems to suggest Facebook has become a sort of modern obligation ( they suggest it “is seen as an awkward family dinner party we can’t really leave”). This very much matches the attitudes of participants in my own research. There seems to be an ambivalence towards the site; a feeling that Facebook is something that you have to have and maintain, but something that is a burden and a pain. My participants saw Facebook as something that they have to partake in, but that they don’t really care for.

The thought of leaving Facebook was not even entertained however. In the words of one participant “it’s Facebook! You can’t not be a part of it nowadays”. Indeed, all my participants said they thought anyone without Facebook was freakish and uncool. There seemed to be a distrust towards anyone who didn’t have a Facebook, but at the same time an ambivalence towards the site. I asked many of the participants why they didn’t just leave if they didn’t like the site, to which the general reply was that they felt they couldn’t, or that it just wasn’t worth the hassle.

Facebook seems to have turned into one of those things you just ‘have’. We don’t use it like we use to, there’s other things that do it’s job 100 times better, and yet we feel obliged to still have it; like a landline phone, a garlic press, or the Queen.

So whilst it isn’t dying, Facebook certainly is changing. Why is this? A lot of the teenage participants in my research suggest this is due to the large uptake by older generations. Facebook’s is easy to use, it’s simple, it’s intuitive, and it quick to set up. This means that not only is it simple for teenagers to use, it’s also relatively simple and accessible for their parents and grandparents. For the teenagers I have talked to, this has meant their interactions are potentially more guarded.

The change in audience bought about by the presence of parents on Facebook has meant that there is a change in the tone and content of the messages shared. Awareness of the audience was always high on Facebook, but now this audience is different; drunken pictures, flirty messages, and ill-informed rants can all be seen and commented upon by Aunt Sally. One participant suggested this was why they went to other Social Networking Sites; to express parts of their identity that they no longer felt they could openly show on Facebook.

In a way, Facebook’s site design has always encouraged this sort of real-world connection. In a recent paper I wrote, currently under review, I discuss the differences between the Discourse of Social constructed by Facebook and the Discourse of Social constructed by Twitter. Rather than assuming all Social Networking Sites are equal, as researchers we should be careful to take into account the rather large difference in site design, ethos, and available modes of interaction, and the effects these can have upon the social interactions and actions seen on the site, the perceived audiences on these sites, and to how identity is built, maintained, and expressed from one site to the next.

Part of what makes Facebook so different as a Social Networking Site is how they define what it means to be social on their Social Networking Site. Facebook constructs a Discourse of Social that revolves around the past. To be Social on Facebook is to interact with ‘friends‘; to extend and build upon offline-established contacts and events. Facebook’s Discourse of Social is built upon an extension of already occurring past relationships, and interactions are grounded in shared moments, shared geographies and shared histories.

Twitter in comparison constructs the Discourse of Social in the ‘now’. Followers (not friends) are chosen and interacted with by and through shared interests. Rather than interacting with fellow users due to offline established relationships, hashtags allow users to find people talking about subjects that interest them, and allows them to talk about these events and interests in real time as they unfold on their constantly moving newsfeeds. Twitter fosters a Discourse of Social that focuses on current events and shared topics of interest. This shapes the way the sites are approached and utilized by the participants, and affects the goals and aims of the participants on each site, the ways they use the sites, and the information they put on these sites. It also shapes the way the participants felt about and understand the maintenance of their identity and, importantly, the audience they feel they are writing for.

Newer sites are presenting alternate Discourses of Social, showing users that what it means to be social doesn’t have to be about maintaining offline relationships, but that it can be about sharing interests (Twitter and tumblr), moments (snapchat), images (Instagram) videos (vine, youtube), content (Yik Yak) and so on. This growth and expansion of the Discourse of Social online can have a huge impact on the identities users show on the sites, and the types, timbre and tones of interactions, meaning now, more than ever, there is a need for a diverse range of research into the diverse range of interactions and actions online.

SO, despite all the scaremongering, Facebook isn’t dead, and isn’t likely to die soon. It’s not a case of abandoning one site for another, just assimilating more social Networking Sites into the roster.

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