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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Erdogan’s purge was too big and too organised to be a mere reaction to the failed coup

There is a specific word for the melancholy of Istanbul. The city is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. 

Even at the worst of times Istanbul is a beautiful city, and the Bosphorus is a remarkable stretch of sea. Turks get very irritated if you call it a river. They are right. The Bosphorus has a life and energy that a river could never equal. Spend five minutes watching the Bosphorus and you can understand why Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s Nobel laureate for literature, became fixated by it as he grew up, tracking the movements of the ocean-going vessels, the warships and the freighters as they steamed between Asia and Europe.

I went to an Ottoman palace on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, waiting to interview the former prime minister Ahmet Davu­toglu. He was pushed out of office two months ago by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan when he appeared to be too wedded to the clauses in the Turkish constitution which say that the prime minister is the head of government and the president is a ceremonial head of state. Erdogan was happy with that when he was prime minister. But now he’s president, he wants to change the constitution. If Erdogan can win the vote in parliament he will, in effect, be rubber-stamping the reality he has created since he became president. In the days since the attempted coup, no one has had any doubt about who is the power in the land.

 

City of melancholy

The view from the Ottoman palace was magnificent. Beneath a luscious, pine-shaded garden an oil tanker plied its way towards the Black Sea. Small ferries dodged across the sea lanes. It was not, I hasten to add, Davutoglu’s private residence. It had just been borrowed, for the backdrop. But it reminded a Turkish friend of something she had heard once from the AKP, Erdogan’s ruling party: that they would not rest until they were living in the apartments with balconies and gardens overlooking the Bosphorus that had always been the preserve of the secular elite they wanted to replace.

Pamuk also writes about hüzün, the melancholy that afflicts the citizens of Istanbul. It comes, he says, from the city’s history and its decline, the foghorns on the Bosphorus, from tumbledown walls that have been ruins since the fall of the Byzantine empire, unemployed men in tea houses, covered women waiting for buses that never come, pelting rain and dark evenings: the city’s whole fabric and all the lives within it. “My starting point,” Pamuk wrote, “was the emotion that a child might feel while looking through a steamy window.”

Istanbul is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. In Pamuk’s work the citizens of Istanbul take a perverse pride in hüzün. No one in Istanbul, or elsewhere in Turkey, can draw comfort from what is happening now. Erdogan’s opponents wonder what kind of future they can have in his Turkey. I think I sensed it, too, in the triumphalist crowds of Erdogan supporters that have been gathering day after day since the coup was defeated.

 

Down with the generals

Erdogan’s opponents are not downcast because the coup failed; a big reason why it did was that it had no public support. Turks know way too much about the authoritarian ways of military rule to want it back. The melancholy is because Erdogan is using the coup to entrench himself even more deeply in power. The purge looks too far-reaching, too organised and too big to have been a quick reaction to the attempt on his power. Instead it seems to be a plan that was waiting to be used.

Turkey is a deeply unhappy country. It is hard to imagine now, but when the Arab uprisings happened in 2011 it seemed to be a model for the Middle East. It had elections and an economy that worked and grew. When I asked Davutoglu around that time whether there would be a new Ottoman sphere of influence for the 21st century, he smiled modestly, denied any such ambition and went on to explain that the 2011 uprisings were the true succession to the Ottoman empire. A century of European, and then American, domination was ending. It had been a false start in Middle Eastern history. Now it was back on track. The people of the region were deciding their futures, and perhaps Turkey would have a role, almost like a big brother.

Turkey’s position – straddling east and west, facing Europe and Asia – is the key to its history and its future. It could be, should be, a rock of stability in a desperately un­stable part of the world. But it isn’t, and that is a problem for all of us.

 

Contagion of war

The coup did not come out of a clear sky. Turkey was in deep crisis before the attempt was made. Part of the problem has come from Erdogan’s divisive policies. He has led the AKP to successive election victories since it first won in 2002. But the policies of his governments have not been inclusive. As long as his supporters are happy, the president seems unconcerned about the resentment and opposition he is generating on the other side of politics.

Perhaps that was inevitable. His mission, as a political Islamist, was to change the country, to end the power of secular elites, including the army, which had been dominant since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk created modern Turkey after the collapse of the Ottoman empire. And there is also the influence of chaos and war in the Middle East. Turkey has borders with Iraq and Syria, and is deeply involved in their wars. The borders do not stop the contagion of violence. Hundreds of people have died in the past year in bomb attacks in Turkish cities, some carried out by the jihadists of so-called Islamic State, and some sent by Kurdish separatists working under the PKK.

It is a horrible mix. Erdogan might be able to deal with it better if he had used the attempted coup to try to unite Turkey. All the parliamentary parties condemned it. But instead, he has turned the power of the state against his opponents. More rough times lie ahead.

Jeremy Bowen is the BBC’s Middle East editor. He tweets @bowenbbc

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue