Last week Princeton researchers released a widely covered study saying Facebook would lose 80% of its users by 2015-2017. But now Facebook’s data scientists have turned the study’s silly “correlation equals causation” methodology of tracking Google search volume against it to show Princeton would lose all of its students by 2021.
A Facebook spokesperson says “the report that Princeton put out is utter nonsense.” Indeed, it’s flawed throughout.
First, it makes a strained epidemiological analogy comparing Facebook to a “disease” that users eventually “recover” from. Facebook may be a massive drain on our attention that some people get sick of, but that doesn’t mean it actually operates like a virus. The researchers then use Myspace as an example of how users recover from a social network and abandon it as if it happened naturally. They make no mention of how Myspace was in fact killed by Facebook.
But the critical error in the non-peer-reviewed study is stating that since the volume of searches for “Facebook” began declining in 2012, it must mean there’s an ongoing decline in Facebook usage.
Yeah, no. Back in Facebook’s web heyday around 2007, many people did surf to the social network by searching for “Facebook” or “Facebook login.” But then this thing called mobile came along and people started getting to Facebook by opening an app, not searching for a website. So searches for “Facebook” declining doesn’t prove much considering over half of Facebook’s traffic now comes from mobile. Since 2012 Facebook has kept growing to its current 1.19 billion users, and it has never had an overall decline in user count.
This isn’t to say Facebook doesn’t have some big, big problems on the horizon. It’s certainlynot “cool” anymore, whether or not it cares. It’s admitted a slight drop in usage amongst young teens in the U.S. It’s seeing increasing competition from mobile-first social apps likeSnapchat and WhatsApp. It will eventually need to weather the medium shift to wearables. Many of its early superstars have left. Hackers are shaking faith in sharing private information. And mobile phones, where you own your social graph in the form of your friends’ phone numbers, make it easier for people to switch to another social network.
Any combination of these could prevent Facebook from growing and cause it to eventually shrink. It’s quite likely that smartphone-carrying Westerners may divide their attention among more apps not owned by Facebook over the next few years. But completely losing 952 million monthly users by 2017 would require cataclysmic disaster.
And even if that happens, it’s as likely to be because fewer people search for “Facebook” or that it resembles a “disease” as the Earth running out of air by 2060 — which is exactly what Facebook’s tongue-in-cheek data scientists prove will happen using Princeton’s methodology. As one of our readers tweeted, “maybe Princeton should worry less about who’s googling Facebook and more about who’s googling Coursera“
Read the full Note below (published with permission) from Facebook’s Mike Develin, Lada Adamic, and Sean Taylor. It’s chock full of lols.
Like many of you, we were intrigued by a recent article by Princeton researchers predicting the imminent demise of Facebook. Of particular interest was the innovative use of Google search data to predict engagement trends, instead of studying the actual engagement trends. Using the same robust methodology featured in the paper, we attempted to find out more about this “Princeton University” – and you won’t believe what we found!
In keeping with the scientific principle “correlation equals causation,” our research unequivocally demonstrated that Princeton may be in danger of disappearing entirely. Looking at page likes on Facebook, we find the following alarming trend:
Now, Facebook isn’t the only repository of human knowledge out there. A search of Google Scholar revealing a plethora of scholarly articles of great scholarliness turned up the following results, showing the percentage of articles matching the query “Princeton” by year:
The trend is similarly alarming: since 2009, the percentage of “Princeton” papers in journals has dropped dramatically.
Of course, Princeton University is primarily an institution of higher learning – so as long as it has students, it’ll be fine. Unfortunately, in investigating this, we found a strong correlation between the undergraduate enrollment of an institution and its Google Trends index:
Sadly, this spells bad news for this Princeton entity, whose Google Trends search scores have been declining for the last several years:
This trend suggests that Princeton will have only half its current enrollment by 2018, and by 2021 it will have no students at all, agreeing with the previous graph of scholarly scholarliness. Based on our robust scientific analysis, future generations will only be able to imagine this now-rubble institution that once walked this earth.
While we are concerned for Princeton University, we are even more concerned about the fate of the planet — Google Trends for “air” have also been declining steadily, and our projections show that by the year 2060 there will be no air left:
As previous researchers [J. Sparks, 2008] have expressed in the past, this will have grievous consequences for the fate of all humanity, not just our academic colleagues in New Jersey.
P.S. We don’t really think Princeton or the world’s air supply is going anywhere soon. We love Princeton (and air). As data scientists, we wanted to give a fun reminder that not all research is created equal – and some methods of analysis lead to pretty crazy conclusions.