Periodically, new research shows that use and consumer “engagement” with Facebook Inc. (NASDAQ: FB) has fallen and is usually replaced by time people spend on some alternative social media. If all the research were accurate, put together it would paint a picture of Facebook’s near-term demise. But Facebook, at least for the time being, is flourishing.
The latest data about Facebook use, particularly in contrast to Twitter, is from Pew Internet. The report titled “Teens, Social Media, and Privacy” is an assessment of the use of the two huge social media sites:
Teen Twitter use has grown significantly: 24% of online teens use Twitter, up from 16% in 2011.
Focus group discussions with teens show that they have waning enthusiasm for Facebook, disliking the increasing adult presence, people sharing excessively, and stressful “drama,” but they keep using it because participation is an important part of overall teenage socializing.
The Pew study is much more about how teens manage privacy on the Web, but its observations about Twitter and Facebook are too incendiary to stay out of the headlines.
Investors are left with measuring Facebook’s one billion users with how much they use it. The size of the Facebook user base is extremely seductive to the marketers that ultimately will determine its financial fate. Facebook’s inventory is almost endless — by some estimates it has a quarter of all the online display ads in the United States. But many marketers are more interested in features that allow users to share marketing messages with one another, which makes advertising activity active and not passive as it is on other media, like TV. In theory, people who show ads to their friends are better potential customers than people who see ads and immediately forget them.
Because Facebook is a public company, it has to defend itself as often as possible with statistics that argue it is still the most important social medium of all, no matter what other research shows. Most recently, Facebook launched a new campaign about the huge numbers of people who use it. Among the data it released in its new “Facebook’s Growth in the Past Year” are that the company reported 4.5 billion “likes” per day in May, up 67% from the same measurement from August of last year. In addition, 4.5 billion pieces of content were shared each day in May, up 94% from last August. And active users have hit 1.11 billion this month, up 23% from March of last year. Facebook does not say why each of the comparisons is not identical, based on which months it used from the past. Perhaps August comparisons are better in some cases, and March comparisons in others. It does open up the possible accusation that Facebook has “gamed” the numbers to make them look as good as possible.
In the end, there is not enough information about an erosion of Facebook’s audience, a drop in user interest, for shareholders to panic. The company’s sales continue to rise at an impressive pace. It is still the number one, undisputed leader among social media sites. Pew might have cast another bit of doubt on Facebook’s future, but it is not one that it likely to linger. Another study about Facebook’s audience and that of its competitors will be along soon enough. And that, like others, is not likely to be conclusive.