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What will we learn from the fall of Facebook?

By Daniel Miller, on 24 November 2013

kids computer

Photo by Lucélia Ribeiro (Creative Commons)

The ‘Fall of Facebook’ seems an odd title given this is a social media platform that continues to expand worldwide. Yet there is no doubt that we can and should be commenting on its demise at least for some. This month my focus has been on the sixth formers, that is 16-18 year olds at schools in The Glades, our UK fieldsite. For this group Facebook is not just falling, it is basically dead, finished, kaput, over. It is about the least cool thing you could be associated with on the planet. It has been replaced by a combination of four media, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat and WhatsApp.

Looking back on my career as an academic I have rarely made predictions, partly because when I have, they have almost always turned out to be wrong. In the case of Facebook, however, even when everyone saw it as a university peer group thing, I predicted that Facebook was much more naturally a platform for older persons, not the young, a prediction that was repeated in Tales From Facebook. Just for a change I think this will prove correct, since most of the schoolchildren say they will remain on Facebook, but in essence as a mode of family interaction because their parents and even grandparents are starting to see it as almost an obligation to keep in touch through Facebook. So I don’t expect Facebook to necessarily disappear altogether. Rather it is finally finding its appropriate niche where it will remain. But I think it’s finished for the young in the UK and I suspect other countries will follow.

So what lessons should we learn from this?

  1. The development of new social media is not a story of increasing or better functionality replacing older or worse functionality. Actually most of the schoolkids I am interviewing are perfectly happy to admit that there were various ways in which Facebook works more effectively than things like Twitter or Instagram. As one boy put it ‘I don’t think Twitter is better, I think people just get bored looking at that blue sign.’ Most people feel Facebook is more integrated, better for photo albums, more effective for stalking people’s relationships, and in most respects worked more effectively than those platforms that replaced it. WhatApp is probably a better social messenger service, but then WhatsApp is as much a replacement for texting. The lesson therefore is that when something goes out of fashion, that factor may be more important than the reduction in functionality.
  2. Changes in social media do not reflect the attitudes that other people hoped would be the primary influence in determining such movements. As Facebook became a behemoth, like all media that grow in size, many adults started to hate it and see it as something that ‘represented’ global neo-liberal capitalism, or Americanization or some other of the usual objects of loathing. Even pre-Snowden, they saw it as a mode of global surveillance. They hoped people would leave Facebook because it was an over commercialised and over controlling platform, ideally moving to something more open source and less commercial. In fact, however, young people have replaced Facebook with Instagram, which is of course owned by – Facebook. In short while journalists and activists are highly concerned with issues such as media ownership, most young people couldn’t give a rat’s arse about such matters or who indeed who gets to see what data. It’s simply that it’s no longer cool to be there.
  3. All of which begs the question as to why Facebook lost its cool. Pretty much everyone remembers the shock of that moment when ‘my mother just asked to friend me on Facebook’, and that is probably the single major reason that it lost status. You just can’t be young and free while all the time Mum is watching you. The second reason is simply that there is a desire for the new which allows each new age grade of youth to find their own media, some, such as Snapchat may be short explosive fashions, that may not last, others more foundational, but it is enough that they are new. It is nothing new however that young people care about style and status in relation to their peers, which seems sufficient to explain change in this instance.
  4. This is also our best evidence for the way polymedia (Madianou and Miller 2012) corresponds to the earlier theoretical ideas within structural anthropology. The innovative insight of structural anthropology was that things are not entities; rather they exist through their relationship with that which they are not. Fast forward and we can see this idea transmuted into the ‘ecological’ model of modern media, in which each media is said to occupy a niche that is different from those occupied by the rival or complementary media.

It follows from this that a change in Facebook can arise, not from anything that happens within Facebook itself, but because of changes in the other media it is differentiated from. In my surveys at schools it is now Twitter, Instagram, WhatsApp and Snapchat that connect pupils with other young people. Snapchat connects the closest friends, WhatsApp the quite close friends, Twitter the wider friends, while Instagram can include strangers. By contrast, Facebook has become the place where people interact with older people, especially parents and the wider family, or even older siblings who have gone to university. To prevent overgrazing, Facebook has to feed off somewhere else. It has thereby evolved into a very different animal – not that anyone seems to have noticed.

UPDATE
30 December 2013 – Daniel Miller posted a response to the widespread media coverage of this blog article.