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
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Forget gaining £350m a week, Brexit would cost the UK £300m a week

Figures from the government's own Office for Budget Responsibility reveal the negative economic impact Brexit would have. 

Even now, there are some who persist in claiming that Boris Johnson's use of the £350m a week figure was accurate. The UK's gross, as opposed to net EU contribution, is precisely this large, they say. Yet this ignores that Britain's annual rebate (which reduced its overall 2016 contribution to £252m a week) is not "returned" by Brussels but, rather, never leaves Britain to begin with. 

Then there is the £4.1bn that the government received from the EU in public funding, and the £1.5bn allocated directly to British organisations. Fine, the Leavers say, the latter could be better managed by the UK after Brexit (with more for the NHS and less for agriculture).

But this entire discussion ignores that EU withdrawal is set to leave the UK with less, rather than more, to spend. As Carl Emmerson, the deputy director of the Institute for Fiscal Studies, notes in a letter in today's Times: "The bigger picture is that the forecast health of the public finances was downgraded by £15bn per year - or almost £300m per week - as a direct result of the Brexit vote. Not only will we not regain control of £350m weekly as a result of Brexit, we are likely to make a net fiscal loss from it. Those are the numbers and forecasts which the government has adopted. It is perhaps surprising that members of the government are suggesting rather different figures."

The Office for Budget Responsibility forecasts, to which Emmerson refers, are shown below (the £15bn figure appearing in the 2020/21 column).

Some on the right contend that a blitz of tax cuts and deregulation following Brexit would unleash  higher growth. But aside from the deleterious economic and social consequences that could result, there is, as I noted yesterday, no majority in parliament or in the country for this course. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.