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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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder