Slate's Tech Blogger Apologizes to a 13-Year-Old Mashable Blogger

The Citizen's Guide to the Future
Oct. 30 2013 7:10 PM

Sorry, Slate's 31-Year-Old Correspondent Was Wrong About Facebook

13-year-old Ruby Karp was right: Her peers appear to be spending less time on Facebook.
13-year-old Ruby Karp was right: Her peers appear to be spending less time on Facebook.

Screenshot / HuffPost Live

I owe a certain 13-year-old an apology. 

Will Oremus Will Oremus

Will Oremus is Slate's senior technology writer.

On Mashable a couple of months ago, teenager Ruby Karp wrote a blog post headlined, "I'm 13 and None of My Friends Use Facebook." When the post went viral and major media outlets began pontificating about "the decline of Facebook," I quickly penned a rather critical response. Karp's anecdotes, I pointed out, were no substitute for real data, and it was silly for journalists to draw sweeping generalizations about Facebook's future on the basis of her post—especially when the best available data at the time showed no significant decline in Facebook usage among teens.

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I stand by that criticism of the way in which major media outlets covered Karp's story. To Karp herself, though, I must now humbly apologize. As it turns out, my own headline—Sorry, Mashable's 13-Year-Old Correspondent Is Wrong About Facebook—was the one proven wrong.

Three months after Mark Zuckerberg flatly denied that Facebook is losing ground among teens, the company backpedaled in its earnings call Wednesday afternoon. "Usage of Facebook among U.S. teens overall was stable" from the second quarter of 2013 to the third quarter, said Chief Financial Officer David Ebersman. "But we did see a decrease in daily users specifically among younger teens."

Ebersman added that the "younger teens" finding was "of questionable statistical significance," because Facebook's youngest users don't always accurately report their ages. And he maintained that the overwhelming majority of U.S. teens still have Facebook accounts. (His exact phrasing—"We remain close to fully penetrated among teens in the U.S."—probably did not come out quite the way he intended it to.)

Nonetheless, the admission may have spooked some investors. After soaring 10 percent on Facebook's earnings report, the stock dropped all the way back down beneath its closing price following Wednesday's call.

To be clear, none of this justifies the sort of wild doomsaying that several outlets engaged in when Karp's post went viral. Facebook is a huge and still fast-growing company, and it has never been reliant on teens to drive its popularity, let alone its revenue. (Remember, kids younger than 13 still aren't even allowed on the site, though plenty find ways around that.) That said, Ebersman's admission dovetails with the latest research from Piper Jaffray, which finds Twitter overtaking Facebook as the social network that teens consider most important to their lives.

It appears in retrospect that Karp was onto something after all. And while I made it clear in my post that my goal was not to criticize her, my headline was condescending and, as it turns out, misleading. You were right, Ruby, and I was wrong. Please accept the headline above as a mea culpa.

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University.