Making the rounds in the tech world this week is a scientific paper published online by a pair of Princeton researchers. Using a model adapted from epidemiology, the paper predicts that Facebook is about to go the way of Myspace. Specifically, the authors conclude, “Facebook will undergo a rapid decline in the coming years, losing 80 percent of its peak user base between 2015 and 2017.”
Eighty percent! The paper rocketed to the top of Reddit’s technology section. For bloggers around the Internet, the headlines practically wrote themselves. An uncritical three-paragraph write-up in Time has pulled in 21,000 Facebook likes and counting. Nothing sells on Facebook like another story about how Facebook is evil, uncool, or—best of all—doomed.
I hate to be the Grinch who actually read the paper, but its conclusions are less bankable than Dogecoin. Which is to say, about as solid as one might cynically expect from a paper on epidemiology and social networking published online without peer review by a pair of graduate students in mechanical and aerospace engineering.
But it’s not the authors’ credentials that are the problem. They’re certainly no less qualified to write such a paper than I am to criticize it. The problem lies in the assumptions they make in order to reach their headline-grabbing conclusions. Let me summarize the paper’s underlying logic:
A) Social networks’ growth can be likened to the spread of an infectious disease.
B) In the case of Myspace, the network’s decline can also be likened to the spread of an infectious disease.
C) Like Myspace, Facebook has begun to show signs of decline after a period of rapid growth.
D) Ergo, Facebook will be dead within three years.
Let’s go through these one by one.
Point A is fairly well documented by this point. That’s why we call it “going viral.”
Point B is interesting, and less obvious than it might seem. As the authors acknowledge, social networks aren’t like the flu in that there’s no inherently predictable recovery rate. That is, you don’t necessarily join a social network with the expectation that you’ll be over it in a week. So instead of comparing the decline of social networks to recovery from an illness, the authors make an interesting leap. They hypothesize instead that the decline of a social network is like the spread of an illness—that leaving is as contagious as joining.
The way they wrote the paper, the authors made it seem as though they arrived at this model a priori, then decided to try it out on Myspace, and voila—it worked! In their words, they “validated” the model by testing it on Myspace and finding that it was a good fit.
But wait: What reason do they have to believe that it works on any social network other than Myspace? The authors’ attempt to justify applying an epidemiological model to the decline of social networks in general—as opposed to just Myspace in particular—is contorted, bordering on comical. In the absence of concrete examples or literature, they draw yet another analogy, this time to “ideas”:
Ideas, like diseases, have been shown to spread infectiously between people before eventually dying out, and have been successfully described with epidemiological models. Again, this follows intuitively, as ideas are spread through communicative contact between different people who share ideas with each other. Idea manifesters ultimately lose interest with the idea and no longer manifest the idea, which can be thought of as the gain of “immunity” to the idea.
“Follows intuitively?” “Idea manifesters?” Come on, now you’re just making stuff up. Sure, some ideas spread infectiously and then die out. Others, like democracy, gravity, and evolution, have shown impressive staying power.
Anyway, where were we? Oh right, we’re still on Point (b). In short, if the paper had confined itself to the observation that the decline of Myspace could be modeled using insights from epidemiology, then we’d have no problem. But we also wouldn’t be seeing the piece go nuts on Reddit.