‘The report of my death was an exaggeration,’ Mark Twain famously said in 1897 after a newspaper report confused him with a seriously-ill cousin.
Today, a rather different American icon – Facebook - seems to be suffering a similar problem, though in its case the confusion is being fuelled by a lack of definitive research.
No one – with the possible exception of Rupert Murdoch in moments of wishful thinking – seems to be saying Facebook is dead per se.
Indeed, the medium’s power was admirably demonstrated last week when £20,000 was raised via the site in just 16 hours to help save the leg of Ben Cornick, a skydiver from Swansea who had been severely injured in an accident in Fiji.
Some social media analysts are, however, saying Facebook simply isn’t cool among teenagers any more.
The Pew Center in the US started the ball rolling last year with a report saying ‘teens had “waning enthusiasm” for Facebook and were more excited by newer platforms such as Instagram and Twitter.
In the UK, Professor Daniel Miller from University College London went further, saying that among 16-18 year olds he had spoken to the platform was ‘basically dead, finished, kaput, over’.
“It is about the least cool thing you could be associated with on the planet,” he added. “It has been replaced by a combination of four media, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat and WhatsApp.”
Paradoxically, as Instagram is owned by Facebook, the debate may not dent the inflated share price of a company whose $137 billion market value dwarfs expected revenue in 2013 of $7.5billion.
But it does seem to have hit a nerve in Silicon Valley, prompting Facebook’s chief financial officer, David Ebersman, to admit during a market update that in the US there had been a decrease in use by ‘younger teens’.
Professor Miller thinks the main reason for this is the growing adult presence on Facebook. “Pretty much everyone remembers the shock of that moment when ‘my mother just asked to friend me on Facebook’,” he says. “You just can’t be young and free while all the time Mum is watching you.”
But Professor Miller is not saying teens have stopped using Facebook completely. “In my surveys at schools it is now Twitter, Instagram, WhatsApp and Snapchat that connect pupils with other young people…. By contrast, Facebook has become the place where (they) interact with older people, especially parents and the wider family, or even older siblings who have gone to university.”
For businesses needing to reach a teen market, the obvious conclusion is it could now be best not to put too many eggs in the Facebook basket.
But it would be a mistake to write off the world’s biggest social network just yet. Facebook may not be growing as fast as it was a few years ago, or as fast as some newer rivals, but its monthly and daily active users are still growing year-on-year at 18% and 24% respectively.
In the third quarter last year, Facebook reported having 1,189 million active monthly users, of which 276 million were in Europe.
That’s a staggeringly large audience by any standards, but the biggest advantage of Facebook for marketers is its ability to target advertising at specific groups by location, interests or other factors.
Facebook’s advertising revenue grew 65% year-on-year in the third quarter as brands realised the site’s potential.
But the challenge for advertisers is to make their message engaging. As Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief executive, says: “We want our ads to fit the format of the product they’re part of…to be as good as the user shared content.”
The trend in social media is towards ‘rich’ content in the form of photographs and video. On Twitter, it is now the images that catch the eye – a feature that has always been Facebook’s strength.
Abusing social media with content that crudely promotes a product or service won’t work. If teens are switched off by Mum, everyone will be by Facebook updates that lack imagination or impact.
For Facebook, there is a tension between growing the number of users and increasing revenue per user through advertising. That contradiction could prove more problematic than being ‘uncool’ among teens.