Facebook's Growing Silent-Majority Problem
For all its talk about bringing people together online, Facebook has been a pretty divisive company. There have always been two vocal camps: One took to the the social network, sharing their quotidian lives in piecemeal updates and shifting a good portion of their social interactions onto Facebook's sprawling social graph. The other took the opposite direction, avoiding the site entirely, or canceling their accounts, or griping as they came to endure Facebook as a necessary evil of being online.
All along, there was a third camp that was not very vocal. People who had no serious qualms with Facebook ads or privacy policies, but who didn't feel drawn to publish their daily activities. They'd lurk more than they liked. They'd check in as needed – maybe daily, maybe weekly – to communicate with their friends.
This third group – the silent majority of Facebook users – hold the key to the company's future. Facebook is never going to win over its harshest critics, and it's unlikely to alienate the people who see it as part of the fabric of their everyday lives. If the company can persuade that silent majority to become more engaged in the site – interacting with bands, liking consumer brands, clicking on the ads targeted to their surfing habits – its future looks pretty bright.
But that's a big if. Inactivity among Facebook users is becoming a vexing problem. Facebook's overall user base continues to grow globally, even if growth in the U.S., its largest and most mature market, is relatively sluggish. Yet it seems that people are using the site less. In August, according to comScore, the time people spent on Facebook's website dropped 12 percent from a year earlier. By contrast, time spent on Google grew 11 percent in the same period.
It's not just because of the migration away from the Web. Evercore Partners analyst Ken Sena noted that Facebook's mobile growth was in line with that of peers like Google. So Facebook is maintaining mobile market share while losing share on the Web. Or as Sena put it on an interview with CNBC, “When you’re talking about combining the two, desktop and mobile, Facebook looks to be a share loser.”
It's helpful to weigh cold metrics like comScore with anecdotal evidence. Mark Zuckerberg has often said he likes to gather such evidence by asking high-school and college students – the core of Facebook's market – how they use software. He even overhauled Facebook's messaging system after he discovered that many people in that demographic don't use email as much anymore. So I started doing the same. And what I've found over the past year constitutes ample anecdotal evidence to back up the comScore numbers: Many people under the age of 25 say that Facebook is growing more peripheral to their daily lives.
The shift, as one high-school senior explained it, is a subtle one: It's not that people are abandoning Facebook, or that they're not using it every day. It's that they use it in a less compelling way than they used to. Some said they are checking in daily just to connect with their friends who are still very much into the site. The social network, for many, has become just one way of several for people to communicate on the Web. The “modern messaging system” Zuckerberg unveiled after talking with young users is being bypassed in favor of, for example, good old text messaging.
That's borne out by the data showing that Facebook users between 12 and 17 spent 42 percent less time on its website last month, and those between 18 and 24 spent 25 percent less time. Again, the migration to mobile devices accounts for some of that decline, but not all of it. The remainder is caused by a trend that could be even more vexing to Facebook than its mobile quandary: Facebook's social graph isn't the ubiquitous social Web that it had hoped for. It's not – as some had fretted – taking over our lives. It's just one more part of our online lives.
This doesn't mean that Facebook's future is at risk. But it does suggest that it is going to have a lot of trouble growing into the vision it's outlined for itself. The social graph the company is building was supposed to become the very infrastructure of a new social Web. In Zuckerberg's letter to shareholders, he spoke of his “hope to rewire the way people spread and consume information” through a social platform built from the bottom up.
In one sense, that is happening. Facebook is the largest website in the world. Its social platform has linked many of its users' news feeds with some of the Web's most trafficked websites. Its Ad Exchange is helping the company better target ads to its users, based on their activities elsewhere on the web. That will help keep its revenue growing at a 30 percent clip, admirable for any company Facebook's size.
Viewed from another angle, Facebook is falling short of its vision at the very moment it should be redoubling its efforts to achieve it. The company may count nearly a billion users, but more and more of them seem to be joining that silent majority. And as long as that continues, it means Facebook will need to grow revenue by focusing more on a smaller percentage of its most active users, drawing them to interact with more features, apps and targeted advertisements.
The company's best hope of re-engaging that silent majority lies in mobile. The integration of Facebook technology into iOS 6 could be a first step, but there's more work to do. I notice people using Facebook on mobile devices mostly when they're waiting – in checkout lines, on train platforms. Robert Scoble recently defended Facebook's mobile prospects after observing on a recent trip to Disneyland that “everyone was on Facebook.” But isn't 90 percent of time at Disneyland spent waiting?
And that's what Facebook is becoming in 2012 for many of its users. Not the ubiquitous social Web utility that would become indispensable to our online lives. But a way of filling the grey spaces, to kill the time we would otherwise be sitting and waiting -- perhaps useful, but not the grand vision Zuckerberg has in mind.
[Image Credit: WikiMedia]