Facebook turned 10 this week, which is something like 100 in Internet years. Maybe it's not a senior citizen, but it's certainly an adult, and so are its core users. That's caused a lot of hand-wringing concerning whether Facebook will become a ghost town the way MySpace did, but such predictions misread Facebook and the Internet.
Saying that Facebook is doomed because it's losing young people misinterprets how the Internet works. It's excusable, because the Internet has been evolving so quickly; 10 years ago, it was thought of as a network of young people.
But today’s Internet doesn't work like that, at least in the UK and US. It's been 20 years since most people first heard about the web. There's a huge bulge of people in their 30s, 40s, and 50s online, and they're not going away. The technophobic old-person stereotype isn't applicable to today's 50-year-olds, it only has limited utility with today's 65-year-olds, and it's even fading with today's 80-year-olds.
Look at these stats from the US. Facebook may be losing the 13-17 age group, but it's booming among ages 35 and up. And those 55 and up folks, who may be coming online a little later than the younger crowd did? Eighty per cent growth.
Older users tend to be stickier, which is good for a social network. When you're a kid, you're trying on identities, churning email addresses, handles, and blog names as you get different interests and tastes. As you get older, your life usually gets more stable.
I'm speaking from personal history here, as one of the first kids on the Internet in the first place. I'm pushing 40 now. Between the ages of 12 and 26 I must have had a dozen different email addresses on different services. Yeah, yeah, I know, the Internet's a different place now, but I think a lot of today's kids have the same experience. But I've had the same email address for the past 10 years, at least. I found a service I liked and settled. That seems to happen as you get older.
Admittedly, there is a danger there for an ad-based service. Conventional wisdom says that younger consumers are more susceptible to ads because they're fickle, so ad firms pay more to reach younger people. But that conventional wisdom is shifting, as advertisers realise that kids today are flat broke and it's the baby boomers who are rolling in dough. Over in the States, intelligently targeting older viewers has led CBS to consistent profits, for instance.
Growing up is good
Facebook has grown up with its users. It's about keeping extended networks of people in touch. If you look at currently hotter social communication fads like Snapchat or Tumblr, they're generally about one-to-one communication, small group communication, or self-expression through images.
Sites like Tumblr also excel at connecting virtual strangers through shared interests via pseudonyms. In other words, they're low-risk social connectors for younger people who are trying on new identities.
Facebook, on the other hand, has become the premier way for extended families, university friends, ex-co-workers, and other far-flung affinity groups to stay in touch. To best use Facebook, you have to know a lot of people already, and not want to leave them behind. In other words, you're more likely to be a grownup.
So why isn't Facebook in danger the way MySpace was? It should be obvious by now: MySpace never grew up.
Loud and chaotic, MySpace was always a youth club. Its noisy backgrounds, auto-playing music, and endlessly configurable home screens spoke to teenagers' needs for self-definition and self-expression, as well as their usual lack of subtlety and any sort of editing or design sense. MySpace didn't grow up or old with anyone, and, a victim of endlessly changing youth tastes, it fell quickly to the next big thing.
(Don't even talk to me about Friendster; that was just too early. Sometimes you're too early).
Facebook's long-term danger, of course, is if the kids who aren't joining Facebook right now become "Facebook-nevers," lost to the service forever. But that's a really long-term threat, at least in the 10-year timeframe. And I suspect that a website ideal for connecting extended families will show some attraction as these kids get older and are more interested in connecting to their families than avoiding them.
For the foreseeable future, there are enough people 30 and over in the UK and US to sustain a social network. As long as Facebook keeps paying attention to the eternal needs of families and far-flung real-life friends, it's a social network people will stick with.
For more, check out our closer look at 10 major Facebook milestones, and our discussion of how Facebook’s design has evolved over the past decade.