Remaining relevant will be key as other platforms such as TikTok surge in popularity…
I doubt whether this will come as much of a surprise to anyone, but the ubiquity of Facebook continues, seemingly unbound. At the beginning of this year the company, since 2021 rebranded under the name of Meta, released figures which placed it’s number of monthly active users at 2.8 billion worldwide. This figure is made all the more remarkable by the fact that it doesn’t include users for either WhatsApp or Instagram, which are also owned by Facebook.
In global terms, India has the biggest overall number of users with 351 million. Which, as online statistics company Statista says, if India’s Facebook audience were a country then it would be ranked third in terms of largest population worldwide. In the US, 71.43% of the country spend time on Facebook, in the UK the number is 66%. In terms of time spent using the platform, the average user will spend is 33 minutes a day on it, three hours 15 minutes a week and 16 hours 30 minutes a month.
The impact of Facebook upon the lives of those who engage with it is remarkable. It is, in fact, a massive database of information which collects vast quantities of personal material. Facebook records everything that’s done. Everything that’s favoured, every single page visited, every profile. Think of what is personally volunteered when someone signs up: name, age, marital status, city of residence, employment and education, all these details are harvested and stored. This information can then be used.
It’s not sold on to advertisers as such, Facebook says. It states on the online help desk: “We don’t sell your information. Instead, based on the information that we have, advertisers and other partners pay us to show you personalised ads on the Facebook family of apps and technologies.”
However, as the New York Times reported in 2018: “Facebook can learn almost anything about you by using artificial intelligence to analyse your behaviour,” said Peter Eckersley, the chief computer scientist for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital rights non-profit organisation in the US. “That knowledge turns out to be perfect both for advertising and propaganda.”
Over the years the company has found itself at the centre of major scandals involving what it does with user data. The most high profile of these occurred in 2018 when the Observer newspaper revealed that Cambridge Analytica, a UK-based consultancy firm, had used the personal data of millions of US Facebook subscribers to build profiles of potential voters for the successful presidential campaign of Donald Trump in 2016.
And just a matter of days ago, Ireland’s Data Protection Commission, which acts for the European Union, announced that it had fined the company 1.2 billion euros for transferring information from its European users to its US servers. In one of the biggest fines of its kind ever delivered, the ruling, according to the Columbian Journalism Review, calls into question “not just Facebook’s data-collection apparatus—and the multi-billion-dollar business model that it supports—but the similar data-handling and monetisation practices of almost every other global social network and online service”.
So, despite the mind-bending usage figures quoted at the beginning of this article, and the fact the net worth of Facebook is around $320 billion in 2023, there are signs that it is in decline. Indeed, in 2018 it lost around one million users in Europe and, in the US, it’s market share among social networks dropped to 50.8% from 54.3% in 2019.
In the UK, usage has been steadily dwindling for some years. The Daily Telegraph reported in July 2019 that “the number of online interactions made on Facebook’s mobile app in the UK plummeted by 38 percent between June 2018 and June 2019”.
So, why are Briton’s leaving the platform? There are a number of reasons, some of them explored by Mark Whitehead of Aberystwyth University. He has found that the public scandals Facebook has been involved in, contrary to his own assumptions, are rarely the “primary reasons for leaving the network”. Some explanations are relatable and perhaps speak of a growing distrust of social media in general. People are asking: Why am I spending time and so much energy constantly comparing my life with others?
Amongst the younger generations the issue is choice. Teenagers, who let’s remember have grown up with the online world as a constant companion, see Facebook as outdated and the area where their parents gather. Instagram, also owned by Facebook’s parent company, is clearly much more geared toward younger users. It has a basic, understandable design which focusses on imagery rather than self-involved narrative.
Then there is the Chinese-owned phenomenon of TikTok. TikTok allows its aficionados to make and broadcast short videos. It is unbelievably popular with 18-to-24 age range. Forty percent of its users are in that age bracket and it is now the most downloaded of all the apps – more than three billion times, in fact.
So, whilst some may say that the age of social media is in entering its death throes, the popularity of the newer forms, with an evolving audience, suggests otherwise. And maybe Facebook will find a way to stay relevant. After all, its global range and presence is startling. It also offers so many things that its younger competitors don’t. It still appeals to people of all ages – and we all grow up, unfortunately.