Facebook is dying. By 2018 it will exist only in our memories and experimental laboratories. Comparing the most popular social networking site in the world with smallpox is a brave move but that’s what Princeton university researchers John Cannarella and Joshua Spechler have done. In their paper Epidemiological Modelling of online social network dynamics they theorize that based on the movement and structure of an infectious disease epidemic Facebook will die because like a disease we are slowly becoming ‘immune’ and in the way of Myspace and Bebo, it will be forgotten.
The story has –and I’m sure the irony will not be lost on Cannarella and Spechler – gone viral. In fact is it the use of this word that inspired these two scientists? Their specialist area is not disease control and much of their equations are based on Google hits and the sorry tale of the once beautiful Myspace. Also it’s worth pointing out the paper is not peer reviewed.
But Facebook users love a crisis, especially when it means it can talk about itself. The counter attack was swift and sarcastic. A data scientist at Facebook, Mike Devlin, wrote an article purporting to show that, according to his data, and using the same methodology, Princeton University would not exist by 2020. If only Cannarell and Spechler had gone to Yale.
Facebook mustn’t let itself be too smug though. As it approaches its tenth anniversary in February it doesn’t feel as vital as it once did. Facebook is yet to admit it’s vulnerable. Twitter is faster. Pinterest is prettier. But as time goes on we’re beginning to feel something we didn’t think possible for a website: affection. No one talks to my social network like that.
It’s hard not to have a little sympathy for the Princeton researchers. If you read the extremely thorough and dry paper you can’t help but feel its tongue is even deeper in its cheek than Devlin’s. They are using Facebook to get publicity and with features appearing in every major news outlet it appears to have worked brilliantly. With nearly 900 million Facebook users and Mark Zuckerberg down to his last 140 billion Facebook doesn’t appear to be coughing up blood just yet.
Graeme Swanson is a writer and journalist.