By Caroline Parry, contributor, UTalkMarketing
Back in the heady days of 2007, when Facebook’s popularity really started to take off, it seemed as if the friend frenzy would last forever or, at the very least until everyone on the planet had joined.
Yet nearly 700 million active users, several redesigns, endless furores over privacy, one or two failed advertising policies and a Hollywood movie later, it seems interest in Facebook is waning.
The number of people using Facebook declined during May in the US, UK, Canada, Norway and Russia, according to Facebook’s advertising tool Inside Facebook. While it is still approaching 700m users worldwide, growth has slowed for the second consecutive month as more and more people deactivate their accounts. In the US alone, it lost 6 million users, while in the UK around 100,000 users have deserted.
While it is entirely predictable that user growth would fall back when it reached maturity (which appears to be penetration of around 50%) in each market, that people are going as far as deactivating their accounts rather than leaving them dormant suggests that they are fed up of it in someway – perhaps the frequent changes to the service, perhaps the privacy issues or, worst of all for Facebook, perhaps it is simply boredom.
“The Facebook friend frenzy is definitely over,” says James Kirkham, director of digital agency Holler. “Facebook is fast becoming a place where a comparatively small number of the user base are the only regular contributors. This means that even with the right dabbling in your preferences, many people still can't seem to avoid the constant mutterings of the inescapable narcissistic few.”
A stark contrast, he admits, from the days when Facebook was like a club where everyone who was anyone was seen there and variety was key, he says. “For many, Facebook has become a photo sharing site, where you can quickly and easily see what people have been up to at the weekend.”
The slowing of interest in Facebook does not denote a general shift away from social networking. A brief look to the next most-hyped network Twitter shows that it continues to go from strength to strength and now has around 200 million users.
Meanwhile, a growing number of people are now looking to use social networking to enhance their real life social networks, through sites that offer tangible benefits and actively limit how many friends you can invite to join.
Kirkham agrees that this disillusionment with Facebook will lead to a rise in more private networks. “They are very much the antidote to the 'show all' culture we're used to and will similarly be about selective display where everyone carefully chooses what information they put on show,” he says. “Their entire appearance will be carefully stage managed and often many people will start to have duel identities and profiles for exactly those circumstances, which require a more considered appearance.”
While specialist interest forums and groups that limit membership are as old as the internet itself, a raft of “private” social networks are now springing up to offer people a place to hang out online with their close friends and family. Path, perhaps the best known to date, launched in November 2010. Speaking about the site’s ambitions, Dave Morin, co-founder and chief executive, has said that “our long-term grand vision here is to build a network that is very high quality and that people feel comfortable contributing to at any time.”
Path is not alone. There has been an explosion in services that aims to help people cut through the clutter of their social networks to get to their real friends including GroupMe, the group texting service; location-based social networking site Rally-Up; social planning (with a limited network) site Shizzlr and Huddle, a more business focused site that allows people to manage projects, share files and collaborate with people securely.
But while the Facebook “friend-frenzy” might be slowing, Will Francis, social advertising consultant at Tribal DDB points out that for many people Facebook is the web.
For Francis, the growing use of niche social networks mirrors how people live in the physical world – they want to be part of several different social groups, which allow them to express different parts of their personality – however, he is certain that a majority will continue to do a bulk of this day-to-day communications through Facebook and email.
“These niche networks almost all connect to Facebook and Twitter and their growth is driven by publishing out to these larger sites with established user bases. Rather than being an antidote to Facebook, it is more accurate to describe them as satellite networks. Many people join these niche social networks for a particular utility or function they provide, not necessarily because of a desire to socialise outside of Facebook - many of these services serve to feed your Facebook with content anyway.”
For that reason Dan Betts, director of digital at agency Focus Integrated Marketing Communications, is adamant that niche social networking will not shape the future of social media.
He explains, “The platforms available for ‘private’ social networking may have a place within the larger social networks, specifically Facebook, as tools to help users interact and engage with their closest friends, but I don’t see the future of the social web with these as standalone platforms. There is a definite role for applications and channels that enrich the way we use the social web, particularly those which help to highlight what is most influential on our lives, to make the biggest impact.”
For Betts, if anything has the power to influence the future of social media for both users and advertisers it is location-based services, as by their nature they promote a shift back to the physical world. That said, he believes that current location-based platforms need to be refined to take the emphasis away from social noise.
“Something limited to just those close to you, or at least, those within a particular interest range, could potentially be more user-friendly and even lead to great take on the elements that make these more attractive to marketers. It could be as simple as something like Foursquare, but also augmented reality apps such as Layar, which have heavy social media links would be perfect for refined social media integration for physical discovery.”
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