Fixation Factor on Fading Facebook

FacebookHonestReporting's social media editor, Alex Margolin, contributes occasional posts on social media issues. He oversees HonestReporting on Facebook.

When it comes to spreading information across the Internet, it is difficult to find a platform more effective than Facebook.

The site boasts an international membership of more than 400 million, including a whopping 125 million active users in the US alone. And its main purpose – keeping friends connected – means that information travels from friend to friend, network to network, though trusted relationships, the most effective way to get people’s attention.

Facebook has become such a major part of mainstream culture that it functions almost as a miniature Internet inside the Internet — except that Facebook does not allow anonymity, which keeps discourse cleaner and more responsible (for the most part.)

We saw how effective Facebook could be during the Gaza flotilla crisis. One Facebook group devoted to spreading truth about the flotilla “activists” reached 252,700 members. Another group with a similar purpose has 97,000 members. A Facebook group also played a key role in HonestReporting’s campaign to force Comedy Central to remove an offensive game from its website.

But it looks as thought he Internet giant has started to approach its plateau.

According to the website Inside Facebook, the site gained only 320,800 new members in June. While most Internet properties would envy that sort of growth, it represents a monumental drop from the 7.8 million new members it gained in May.

Even more surprising, the site lost members from its key demographic – people ages 18 to 44. At the same time, Facebook added more members in the 13-17 range and the 45-55 range.

Wired magazine offered its own assessment of Facebook’s decline in growth:

One possibility is that the May and June controversies over Facebook's privacy policies and dominance have kept the company from tremendous new growth and even led some to curtail their use.

Another possibility is that it's just a statistical aberration, or a result of changes to the advertising system, where Inside Facebook says it gleans its numbers.

But there's also the possibility that almost every American who has any interest in joining Facebook already has. Facebook says it has about 125 million active U.S. accounts and is likely closing on half a billion accounts worldwide.

Does that mean Facebook has reached its peak? Will it soon fade from its exalted Internet status? Not likely. It still holds second place (behind Google) as the most visited site on the Internet. And it remains the biggest site for sharing photos online.

But as the site’s growth flattens, it could mean a change of approach for the company. Instead of looking to draw more members, it could focus instead on improving services for its current members. That might mean finding new ways to strengthen connections between friends, and new ways to share information.

So for those who see Facebook as a platform for viral content, Facebook’s “decline” could be the best news yet.

Previously in Alex's series: Are Hyperlinks Hyper-Jinxed?

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