Twitter, for all its sins, has made it to 10. A whole decade. Which, given that the world wide web itself is only around a quarter of a century old, is no mean feat.
In the past 15 year or so, social networks have come and gone like Henry VIII’s wives: occasionally overlapping, but never lasting long amid our Tudor-esque attention spans. Meteoric rise is usually matched by catastrophic downturn after a decade or less.
What remains to be seen is whether today’s social heavyweights, Facebook and Twitter, are around for good, or will, in their turn, fall into the electronic abyss. Is Twitter an Anne Boleyn? Or a Catherine Parr?
To that end, I’ve taken a look at where other social networks were at their 10th birthdays, to see whether Twitter might yet make it into its terrible tweens and beyond, or whether its falling user numbers and poor financial returns signify disaster.
For each, I’ve included a Google trends graph to show how often the site was searched for over its lifespan as a proportion of total search. Here, for reference, is Twitter:
This isn’t an accurate portrait of user numbers (which are patchily released by the companies themselves, or inaccurately guessed at by commentators), but, as the name suggests, it illustrates the trend of each network’s popularity over time.
Friends Reunited – founded July 2000
Note: Google’s data only begins in 2004.
Friends Reunited first popularised the idea that you could find long-lost friends over the internet (during the innocence-washed period in the early noughties when we thought we actually wanted to) and finally closed its doors for good in February 2016.
On its tenth birthday, in 2010, it was faring better, but not by much: it had already been sold twice; once to ITV, and then again to Brightsold Ltd. By 2011, it was only worth £5.2m. The tide really turned in 2007-2008, when it lost nearly half its unique users in a single year following highs of around 15 million in 2005. Part of this may be down to its subscription-based model, but dropping this didn’t turn the company’s fortunes around.
Myspace – founded August 2003
Myspace was the behemoth of social media until Facebook came along. It offered users an individual page, with a side focus on self-promotion for musicians and entertainers. In June 2006, it was visited more times than Google. Like other early social media sites, though, its success lasted for around five years before declining usership set in, and in 2008 it was overtaken by Facebook.
By its tenth birthday in 2013, Myspace had been bought by Justin Timberlake of all people, and was undergoing a relaunch as a more music-centric site. User content from the old site was deleted, marking a clear break with the past. This relaunch did nothing to regain users’ favour (see above) and in February of this year the site’s owner was bought by Time Inc. Time will mine the site’s shell for user data so it can better target its digital ads. MySpace was, quite literally, sold for parts.
Facebook – founded February 2004
Facebook has always been, and still is, fine. Its user base is the biggest of any social network ever, while available user statistics show its user base steadily growing past 1 billion (though they don’t go past the end of 2015, so may not have picked up the dip suggested by the graph above).
In its tenth year, 2014, a billion users logged in during each of the year’s first three months. It also successfully cornered mobile: in 2014, it announced that almost two thirds of its advertising revenue was now coming from mobile. Its successful app could account for the drop in search traffic shown above, since you don’t access it through a browser.
There could still be trouble ahead, though. Facebook’s engagement with older markets is putting off young people loathe to share a platform with their parents. But Facebook also owns Instagram, queen of the teens, so it probably isn’t too worried.
Bebo – founded January 2005
Bebo, notable for its spangly background “skins” on user profiles and the opportunity to give a chosen friend your “love” each day, had already gone bankrupt and been sold back to its founders by the time it turned 10. It, like Myspace, only sustained around five years of popularity before user interest tailed off.
The site went down for maintenance post-sale, but user profiles are now gone for good and in January 2015, ten years after launch, a notice appeared announcing Bebo’s new form: a messaging app focussed on hashtags and avatars. .
This, so far, has not taken off, perhaps thanks to its weird new slogan: “Probably not for boring people.” Have some conviction.
It is notable that the two social networks that carried high user numbers past 2008, Facebook and Twitter, have survived for much longer than their ancestors. This may be because Facebook and Twitter (but especially Facebook) have cornered the market so effectively that competitors can’t match their reach, or that increased internet literacy means there are more users to draw on in the first place.
Facebook and Twitter also frequently tweak their offering, while attempting to keep their USP intact. Older sites were less flexible to change, which is perhaps why they bombed so dramatically once user tastes changed, or a competitor emerged.
Personally, I still think Twitter is on the way out – but you have to admit, ten years is a pretty good run in this game. Perhaps Twitter is Anne of Cleves: long-lived, but never first in our affections.
Now listen to Barbara Speed discuss the subject with Helen Lewis and Stephen Bush, on the New Statesman podcast: