The social media autopsy

By Toby Manhire In Technology, The Internaut

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The 10th birthday of Facebook has been greeted with self-congratulation, analysis, and doomsaying. One study that made many headlines predicted social media’s colossus was on the brink of a Bubonic-plague-style evisceration, which would see 80% of users ditch the thing in four years.

But it doesn’t really stack up, not least because the authors don’t explain why Facebook usage should mimic the behaviour of an infectious disease, notes Will Oremus at Slate.

This was “about as solid as one might cynically expect from a paper on epidemiology and social networking published online without peer review by a pair of graduate students in mechanical and aerospace engineering”.

A more reliable guide may come in the form of a “digital autopsy” that a group of computer scientists in Zurich have conducted on Friendster, a social network that reached 100 million users before plunging in popularity after a redesign (and the launch of Facebook).

Decline begins, they say, when “the costs – the time and effort – associated with being a member of a social network outweigh the benefits”, explains MIT Technology Review. A “general exodus” will only ensue, however, if the “k-core distribution” is vulnerable – that is, if the number of friends a user has is substantially affected by the drop-off.

That should be enough to have Facebook Towers fretting, reckons MIT Review.

Facebook and other social networks ought to be paranoid about this kind of problem, if they’re not already.  It’s not hard to imagine how botched design changes could send people away, particularly if there is another emerging network ready to pick up the slack.

In 2009, Facebook is thought to have benefited from Friendster’s collapse. It’s far from unlikely that Facebook itself will one day be a victim of a similar set of circumstances.

One of the Swiss paper’s authors, David Garcia, tells Slate it’s unlikely Facebook would underake such a dramatic design overhaul and fall into the Friendster trap.

It’s not going to happen like this anymore If they are learning from our research, they will introduce changes slowly. Gradual changes will not introduce such giant cascades. There might be other risks, but hopefully this is something they can avoid.

Slate’s Joshua Keating writes:

As long as users continue using the Web in the way it’s currently formatted for computers and mobile devices, it seems as though Facebook will serve an unsexy but necessary purpose: as a tool for organising your social life and keeping track of friends and acquaintances. It seems unlikely that any rival (sorry, Google Plus) will be able to ramp up to challenge it. Barring a security catastrophe or a monumental unforced error on the part of the company, it seems like the downfall of Facebook may only come when users transition away from the Web to … well … whatever comes next.

The majority of my friends have stopped posting regular updates, and my timeline is dominated by a handful of not particularly close acquaintances. I’ve strongly considered deleting my profile entirely, but stay on mainly because the minimal benefit I get from it—easy contact info, quick answers to “what ever happened to that guy?” questions, periodic uses for work research—outweigh the trouble of being on it. It’s a stretch to call Facebook “resilient” as a community these days, but its ubiquity has become self-reinforcing: Even if you’re not interested in it, it’s worth being on it simply because everyone else is. It’s a network effect of the least engaging kind.

 See also: Facebook – is the social hydra on the slide?


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