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​Facebook could die out in few years, like 'infectious disease' – study

Published time: January 23, 2014 17:55
Reuters / Eric Thayer

Reuters / Eric Thayer

The revolutionary social network is losing its hype – quickly and could die in a couple of years. Its growth (and fading) has been compared to a disease by scientists. Using a mathematical model, they charted Facebook’s demise.

The so far unreviewed paper from Princeton University was written by John Cannarella and Joshua Spechler of the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering. Although not exactly a sociology department, their findings make some interesting connections between tangible and non-tangible things.

The study uses standard epidemiological models dealing with disease lifespans and dynamics. By simply going to ‘Google Trends’ for freely available search statistics, Cannarella and Spechler are able to make a diagram of the different phases a social networking site goes through, which very closely match that of a disease e.g. ‘adoption’, ‘abandonment’ phases.

The researchers first used the number of search queries for MySpace, a similar popular site which experienced a steep rise and an even steeper decline. An updated version of their formula, including the phases, was then applied to Facebook.

AFP Photo / Lionel Bonaventure

And the math says the networking giant is at the slow beginning of its abandonment phase, which means the next few years could see a rapid decline in popularity. How do the numbers look for Facebook? To put it mildly, not good. If the model is correct, the company stands to lose 80 percent of its user base in 2015-2017.

The model works by comparing the dynamics of adoption and abandonment across social networks with the same dynamics regulating the life of an infectious disease. It was the best analogy the team could find, because, similar to how an infection works, people join a network when they see that their friends have joined.

The idea for applying epidemiological models to non-disease situations is not new either. And the spread of ideas is a remarkably similar process, because “like diseases, [they] have been shown to spread infectiously between people before eventually dying out,” the pair say. Similar to a disease leaving the sick body gradually, “idea ‘manifesters’ ultimately lose interest with the idea and no longer manifest the idea.” Cannarella and Spechler compare this to developing “immunity” to it.

Google has been instrumental in a vast number of different researches, ranging from economics models to flu epidemics. The correlation of search query frequencies with real-life cases has proven to be a very reliable method. And unlike data and/or views obtained manually, and from real conversations and questionnaires, search data is much faster.

Furthermore, because online social network user number data is very difficult to obtain, Cannarella and Spechler simply used diseases as a viable proxy.

The following graph illustrates the rise and fall of MySpace and Facebook, in which the latter indeed appears to be at the beginning of a decline.

Epidemiological modeling of online social network dynamics, John Cannarella, Joshua A. Spechler Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, Princeton University, Princeton, NJ, USA

That decline started in 2013, around the time other recent research suggested that the social networking giant has started to lose its younger teenage user base, dramatically.

Although the numbers and predictions look solid, the pair refuses to give any real comment to the press before their paper has passed a peer review.

Furthermore, some say it would be wise to remember that Canarella and Spechlrer come from a university department that has very little to do with sociology or social research. Therefore, further studies should be undertaken if this conclusion on Facebook’s impending doom is to be taken seriously.