By José van Dijck
We often seem to forget that when Facebook itself faced formidable competition from other social network sites when it just entered the online stage. Remember Friendster, the most popular social networking site until Myspace took over in 2003? In 2006, 85% of teenagers online still had a Myspace account. And yet, Facebook took over from Myspace as the world’s leading social network in April 2008 and reached the critical point of 100 million users worldwide shortly after. A glance at today’s statistics shows that on 1 January 2014, Facebook had over 1,310,000,000 users and three million like buttons were pushed every single hour.
Last November, technology reporter Jenna Wortham of the New York Times observed: “Just a few years ago, most of my online social activity revolved around Facebook … But lately, my formerly hyperactive Facebook life has slowed to a crawl. … I rarely add photographs or post updates about what I’ve been doing… Is it just me, or is Facebook fading?” Evidently, it isn’t just Wortham: despite a growth in user numbers last year, Facebook saw a significant decline in young teenagers’ daily checking of the site. An interesting paradox emerges: now that Facebook has turned ten years old—Marc Zuckerberg established his company on 4 February 2004—the world’s largest social network site appears to loose its popularity among teenagers. Is this a sign of decline or is it merely a temporary hitch in the company’s extraordinary development—a teenager’s growing pains on its way to adulthood?
With a staggering size like this, has Facebook become invincible? Or is a Myspace scenario still possible for Facebook? When Twitter and Tumblr came along in 2006, users added microblogging sites to their social repertoire; even though Twitter and Tumblr attracted many teenagers, these sites never really challenged their Facebook loyalty. Over the years, Facebook adopted many typical Twitter features, such as News Feed and Trending Topics, which certainly helped the site’s phenomenal growth. But new features could not prevent Facebook’s freshness from wearing off and an entire generation who has grown up with Facebook now regards the site as a utility rather than a novelty. Since 2010, an impressive number of new social networking sites have arrived on the scene whose growth spurts seem to outpace Facebook’s early maturation.
Teenagers are known to favor the many young, trendy services that emerged over the past four years; Pinterest, Instagram, Snapchat, Vine, Tinder, and WhatsApp all heavily compete with Facebook to attract teens’ attention. What these sites have in common is their preference for transience: short messages, quickly fading pictures, provisional pin ups, and instant swiping. A Vine video lasts six seconds, swiping away a Tinder-selfie takes even less than that. Teenagers decide on a whim who’s hot and who’s not, what’s cool and what’s dated.
As early adopters, teens pave the way for older generations. They taught their parents and grandparents how to hook up with Facebook, but once adults started to flock to the site, youngsters turned away from it. Teenagers trended Twitter before middle-aged males started to boost its popularity. In more than one way, an online site’s initial popularity among teenagers is crucial for its survival in the global ecosystem of connective media.
That is why big fish like Facebook—even if itself just a teenager—are constantly on the lookout for small fish just before their growth spurt. Instagram, only 18 months old before Facebook swallowed it up, attracted flocks of teenagers who loved the vintage photo-app. Vine just got four months to mature after its birth in 2012 before Twitter snatched up the app that popularized the six-second video clip as a favorite teenage genre. But waiting for a baby to become a toddler may turn out to be an expensive strategy. When Facebook tried to acquire Snapchat (born 2011) last November, the site’s founders reportedly refused a cash offer of three billion dollars. It remains to be seen whether Snapchat’s novelty—users decide how long a recipient can view their Snap, ranging from 1 to 10 seconds, after which it will be deleted—will wear off or whether it will grow into the Next Big Thing.
Now that parents and grandparents have taken over their children’s online turf, Facebook is no longer the place for the hip and happening. Whatever adults like, teens reject and whatever becomes mainstream is no longer trendy. Eat up the young to stay young and attract the young. That is how Facebook and other aging social networking sites are constantly trying to acquire companies less than half their age—preferably newborns who have the potential to serve as bait for gullible teenagers.
José van Dijck is a professor of Comparative Media Studies at the University of Amsterdam. She is the author of The Culture of Connectivity: A Critical History of Social Media