The Beginning of the End for Facebook?

My friends at comScore shared with me that, in September 2011 in the U.S., the average number of minutes that each Facebook user spent on the site was 410. Last year, that month’s average was 287, signaling a 42% increase. Also during September 2011, Facebook commanded 14.7% of total U.S. consumer Internet-usage minutes, the most of any website. Given that the site is still on a growth trend, how could I be crazy enough to ask if it’s the beginning of the end for Facebook? Let’s explore.

One of the things you learn living in Silicon Valley your whole life is how fast things can change. Big companies can come and go in extremely short periods of time. Yahoo! was once what Google is today. MySpace was once what Facebook is today. Innovation happens everywhere and waits for no company.

Rightly or wrongly, what’s caused me to start to evaluate whether Facebook has peaked is my own declining use of the site. I find myself using it less and less each day, sometimes going days or weeks without checking it. Interestingly, I have also observed that many in my network are posting less often. What may be happening is that consumers are experiencing Facebook fatigue.

I recently polled almost 500 high school students in San Jose, and shockingly, not all of them were on Facebook. But perhaps not surprisingly, nearly all who were said they were basically bored with the site and had been using it significantly less.

Now, depending on how heavy of a technology user you are, you may find the idea of Facebook on its way out surprising or not surprising. For example, many of the young people I surveyed conveyed that they were ready for something else. Call me crazy, but I firmly believe that Facebook has either peaked or is on the cusp of peaking.

All of my thinking on this comes, of course, on the heels of news reports about Facebook’s preparing its IPO. But it also comes at a time when Facebook has to overcome negative press due to a settlement with the FTC over privacy issues. Those events are on opposite sides of the spectrum and could potentially be used to argue for or against Facebook’s long-term staying power.

If you’ve been using Facebook for more than a few years and think back to how you used it in the beginning, you’ll most likely remember using it quite frequently for long periods of time. Much of this initial time spent connecting with friends and family or rediscovering old friends was what made Facebook great. Even many who are new to Facebook may still find themselves using it heavily by doing some of those same things.

But at some point, Facebook usage becomes more about profile management and quick checkups than heavy usage. Now, although this isn’t bad, it’s not what Facebook wants as it looks to maintain a large, healthy business.

I’m not entirely sure why a consumer’s usage of Facebook starts out heavy, then gradually declines, but I believe it has something to do with the size of that person’s network of friends, brands, family members, colleagues, acquaintances and brand fan pages. As those numbers go up, Facebook becomes overloaded with information and cluttered with content that’s not that interesting or relevant.

And some recent experiences with apps that are taking a different approach to social networking are slowly convincing me that Facebook may be in trouble. One of those is called Path. Path has been around for about a year but has just received a major update that makes it much more compelling.

The basic concept of Path is that it limits the amount of people you can be friends with, which means you connect only with those you’re genuinely close to. This, in my opinion, is quite compelling, because it’s a case of less being more. The app is designed around the social sharing of life with those closest to you, and the experience delivers on that promise.

Even something like Xbox Live, a social network for Xbox gamers, gives a preview of how people may spend their time engaging with others of like-minded interests.

Pinterest, something I’m hearing is taking quite a bit of time away from Facebook, is another site that’s growing extremely fast. It brings a completely unique approach to interests by wrapping a social experience around it.

What these services all have in common is a focus on something specific, rather than an attempt to try to please everyone. That’s something that may ultimately be disruptive for Facebook. In fact, I suspect that just the idea of managing hundreds or thousands of Facebook friends alone is off-putting to many. So services like the ones I have mentioned may be more appealing and, in turn, draw people away from Facebook.

When I survey the landscape and look at trends, which is one of my jobs as an industry analyst, I see declining usage of Facebook as a significant trend. Taking that into context and combining it with the unique new offerings coming up daily, you can see why I’m asking the question. Facebook may have run its course.

Of course, it’s too early to tell, and Facebook can still innovate and, in essence, disrupt itself. But the social networks that are more focused may turn out to be more interesting to consumers in the future.

______

Ben Bajarin is the director of consumer technology analysis and research at Creative Strategies Inc., a technology industry analysis and market-intelligence firm in Silicon Valley.

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  1. #1 by Jamie on December 5, 2011 - 10:32 pm

    Your thoughts are apt, in my opinion. I noticed a shift in my facebook usage about a year and a half ago. Before, it was about creating events and keeping up with people, but now it’s more about occasionally checking in with people I’m not very close to. I cut my friend list in half, and almost stopped writing on people’s walls.

    My vote is for pinterest as the next big social network. I caught on with it a few months ago and have heard chatter pick up more recently. A question, though, is what the slope of a graph of the decline of facebook usage will look like, if this is in fact near its peak.

  2. #2 by PCC Advantage on December 5, 2011 - 11:35 pm

    I must say that I do agree with you. When I first joined FB, I was on it almost constantly – updating my status, commenting on friends’ photos, writing on walls, etc. Now that it’s been a couple of years for me, I find myself becoming more and more bored with the site. I use it significantly less than I used to, and check it on a very sporadic basis.

    I’m intrigued to see what Facebook will do to curb its current downtrend.

    Great post!

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