The famous misquote regarding Mark Twain is a case in point when it comes to Facebook this week. What he actually said was “The report of my death was an exaggeration” and it is presumed that newspapers confused the serious illness of his cousin James Ross Clemens, with the man himself, Samuel Langhorne Clemens.
Facebook’s demise has likewise been widely broadcast, based on some new research from Princeton which mapped its progress to date against the spread of an infectious disease. The Princeton results concluded that 80% of all Facebook users will have deserted the site by 2017. Interestingly, the research was conducted by the aeronautical engineering department.
Taking their data from Google Trends they cross-compared the searches with older data from MySpace and predicted that Facebook will go the way of its predecessor, peaking and dying.
What the aeronautical engineers did not take into account is that MySpace, when it came on the scene, was pretty much the only option available, give or take a little competition from Bebo. As social networking rapidly expanded and matured there were dozens more choices available. Now, the vast majority have settled on Facebook. When new adopters come to make a decision about setting up an account they are more likely to go where their friends already hang out. Facebook. It is not a very realistic comparison.
A lot of those who wrote about the findings pointed out that it was not peer-reviewed, however, the story made worldwide headlines. Instead of fighting a rearguard action, Facebook came back to fight “facts” with “facts”.
Mike Develin, who works for Facebook as a data scientist, posted a remark mocking the Princeton University’s “innovative use” of the Google trend data. He then really turned the tables by using the same techniques to analyse the great institution itself. According to Develin’s study of the Google search data on Princeton, it will only have half of the present enrollment on the books by 2018 and, sadly, by 2021, absolutely no students left at all.
This could well be another instance of reports of death being greatly exaggerated but the humorous tactic shows up the unreliable nature of the exercise in statistics.
Develin uses a cheeky tone in his note, with the subject header “Debunking Princeton.” He said that, in keeping with “the scientific principle of correlation equals causation” he could show that Princeton was in danger of completely disappearing. A graph demonstrated how page likes on Facebook showed an “alarming trend” of grave decline.
Even more tongue-in-cheek, he admits that Facebook is not the one and only “repository of human knowledge.” Turning to Google Scholar, a “plethora of scholarly articles of great scholarliness” he found a similar picture. Journals with papers in them about Princeton were dropping like stones since 2009.
With mock regret, he laments that in time to come, people will be left to only imagine the “now-rubble institution” that once existed. Of even more concern was the evidence that Google trends for the word “air” were also in massive decline, suggesting strongly that life on earth may be finished by 2060.
The Facebook riposte is in good spirit and serves as a potent reminder that not all research is “created equal” nor should it ever be taken at face value. Indeed, some analysis can lead to “crazy conclusions.”
With the teens going elsewhere, as known for a long while now, and corroborated by anthropologists from University College London in December 2013, Facebook may well be facing up to a less certain future, but the Princeton infectious disease analogy is questionable, at the very least.
The spat is a good-natured one but it is fascinating to see these two sides line up against each other. Princeton represents the Ivy League, the East Coast, old school values, whereas Facebook is the brash new West Coast, silicon valley computer geeks. Both sides are super smart and the exchange has earned the epithet a “nerd brawl.”
Getting back to the world of actuality, not surmise, neither Princeton nor Facebook looks in imminent danger of collapse. Princeton remains an elite university, accepting only 7.4% from almost 25,000 applicants this year, and latest available figures show Facebook still has 1.2 billion active users per month. Reports of either’s death do appear to be grossly exaggerated.
By Kate Henderson