Is the writing on the wall for Facebook?

Has the Facebook fad seen its day?

We’ve seen it happen to Myspace, and then Bebo; but now Facebook faces being cast off into the pile of unwanted internet has-beens. Recent statistics suggest that the social networking giant has lost nearly a million users in the past month. SocialBakers, a Czech social media statistics company, monitors the activity and membership levels around the globe, and its latest figures illustrate that the United Kingdom has seen the most dramatic drop of all over the past month, with 2.88 per cent of its users backing out.

These statistics come almost simultaneously with Facebook launching their latest venture, Graph Search, an advanced search engine enabling searches within a user’s network. Could we be witnessing Mark Zuckerberg clutching at straws in an attempt to re-boost their dwindling monopoly?

Of course not! (say Facebook). In fact, they’re not worried about declining numbers at all. A spokesperson said,

We are very pleased with our growth and with the way people are engaged with Facebook – more than 50 per cent of our active users log on to Facebook in any given day.

Great stuff, but it still doesn’t explain why 946,120 users in their sixth most popular territory have apparently abandoned them in the past month alone. I bet I could hazard some guesses.

It might be to do with the lull in social networking activity that is quite common to the festive period. Christmas is, after all, about spending time with those you love, not talking to them on Facebook Chat. But disregarding December statistics, over 1 per cent of British Facebook users have still ditched the site throughout January, totalling a hefty loss of nearly 350,000 members in just two weeks.

Or perhaps it’s the concept that people are ready to move on from. 2013 might be the year people finally realise that stockpiling "friends" by the thousands is simply not necessary. A recent study by British anthropologist Robin Dunbar has found that:

The figure of 150 seems to represent the maximum number of individuals with whom we can have a genuinely social relationship, the kind of relationship that goes with knowing who they are and how they relate to us.

But with Facebook allowing for up to 5,000 friends, does this indicate that its ethos could be all wrong for today’s society?

There has been a generational transition since the beginning of Facebook. Most of those using it when it first began in 2004 were students, but almost a decade later this prime audience are professional adults and may not consider it a social necessity anymore. Perhaps the conformity issues which drove everyone on to social networks might drive them off as well: let’s all agree to not-conform!

The introduction of other social networks is also an obvious detriment. Old, reliable Facebook is now being discarded in favour of new, younger models. The public are being seduced by the allure of Twitter’s sleek 140-character-limit and its enviably close relationship with A-list celebrities; and users just can’t resist the enticing charm of Linked In, which promises to unlock the secrets to career progression and therefore eternal happiness.

But the most likely cause of this harsh abandonment? It’s that old chestnut, rights. Rights to property; rights to privacy. Facebook-owned Instagram caused a furore when it attempted to change its terms and conditions to allow for its ownership of subscribers’ photos. They may have backed down a day later, but they certainly lost some users and a whole lot of trust in the process.

Ned RocknRoll has been a victim of Facebook privacy rights. Photos from a party years ago have emerged and are now argued to be a possession of the public. Debates like this mean that the population has increasingly been reminded of the immeasurable information Facebook possesses: what you ate for breakfast; what your telephone number is; what your controversial opinions are – and once posted, these will never cease to be in the public domain.

Is it easier just to bow out altogether?

What will the future hold for Facebook? Photograph: Getty Images
Photo: Getty
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A good apprenticeship is about more than box-ticking

The political apprenticeships arms race, promising ever increasing numbers of apprenticeships but with little focus on quality, is helping nobody. 

The political apprenticeships arms race, promising ever increasing numbers of apprenticeships but with little focus on quality, is helping nobody. Playing a numbers game often means the quality and the personal touch that turns a placement into a career opportunity can be lost. The government has set a target of three million new apprenticeships by 2020. In London Boris Johnson set a target for 250,000 apprentice starts, but fell short by over 100,000. Both targets miss the point; any target should focus on outcomes, not just numbers through the door.

Policy makers need to step back from the rigid frameworks and see what works on the ground.  For me this involved eating a bacon sandwich, which is arguably a risky exercise for politicians.  I was seeing how the owner of the Bermondsey Community Kitchen and Café, Mike, has transformed the space above his café into a training kitchen teaching young unemployed people the skills they need to gain qualifications to work in restaurants.

The posters on the wall spell out the choices available to the young people. They make it explicitly clear that there is an alternative to a life in prison, which some of the trainee chefs have already experienced, with pictures of celebrity chefs including Jamie Oliver, Delia Smith and Gordon Ramsay outlining how they worked their way to where they are now. None of the young people have had an easy start in life. Barriers they face include autism, lack of literacy skills, insufficient funds to pay the fare to the café and criminal records. But Mike and the team running the kitchen are determined to give them the chances every young person deserves. From City & Guilds qualifications, work placements and ensuring they have a job at the end of the process, this is the type of grass roots project that the government could learn from. With two groups of eight students over three half days, this is skills training that is about as personal as it gets. The young people are enthusiastic about the course, the practical skills they are learning and optimistic about the future.

The project is funded partly through the café, but mainly through grants and donations (including pots and pans from Raymond Blanc and funding from trusts as well as the local council). Mike has plans to expand. He wants premises with space for a nursery so young mothers who might otherwise struggle to complete a course can attend, he has a vision for two or three more similar enterprises across Southwark. I have no doubt he will achieve this but the challenge for policy makers is making it easier for people like Mike who are delivering flexible qualifications and delivering better results. Bureaucratic processes, lengthy forms and refusals would have put less determined people off. As the funding for skills is devolved, there is both an opportunity and a challenge to look at how innovative models can be supported. Unless more is done to ensure groups that might be defined as ‘hard to reach’ get opportunities, there will always be significant numbers falling through the gaps in a sometimes impersonal system.

Over 60 per cent of the apprenticeships in London focus on low level qualifications with little prospect of employment upon completion. Many skills based apprenticeships fail to match demand, the booming construction industry for example is crying out for skilled workers and with all parties agreeing new homes are a priority its surprising to learn that in London only 3 per cent of apprenticeships are in construction.

Apprenticeships need to focus on leading to work, and work that is skilled and pays enough to live on. They should be about opportunity not opportunistic employers. In a report published in October 2015, Ofsted was critical of apprenticeships saying too many of them ‘do not provide sufficient training that stretches the apprentices and improves their capabilities. Instead they frequently are being used as a means of accrediting existing low-level skills, like making coffee and cleaning floors.’

The new apprenticeship levy charged to businesses with a wage bill over a certain amount could be a useful way of enhancing opportunities but the definition of apprenticeship needs to be refined. On a recent visit to the iconic Brompton Bikes factory, the London Assembly Economy Committee was told that although the firm has to pay the new levy as a result of its size, they have a bespoke way of training their apprenticeships so they have the skills to get jobs with Brompton Bikes at the end of the process. Because this tailored training doesn’t meet the narrow government criteria they aren’t formally accredited apprenticeships and thus Brompton are unable to claim any funding back from government despite their excellent work.

I am increasingly frustrated that the most exciting and inspiring projects I visit don’t always meet the criteria for funding. We are doing something wrong if people are asked to fit something that works into a form that meets criteria rather than rewarding their successes. Instead huge amounts of public money are being put into funding low quality low skilled apprenticeships that sometimes appear to be more about avoiding the minimum wage. This is not just a waste of money; it is a waste of the lives of the young people. As the Bermondsey fishmonger we bumped in to on the way out of the café told us, sometimes what works is smashing the box, not ticking the box.