Will loss of anonymity spell Facebook’s death in US?

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By Dharmakumar /  11 May 2013 , 11:44

With 78 million monthly active users – up 50 percent over the last year – in India Facebook is growing in leaps and bounds. But evidence from its home market – the US – and other developed countries seems to suggest that its growth there may have plateaued.

A Pew Research study on Facebook’s US users – comprising 67 percent of the country’s population – found that 61 percent of users had voluntarily taken a break from the site ranging from a few weeks to more. Of the people who aren’t using Facebook currently, 20 percent said they were active members in the recent past, before deciding to quit the site.

Meanwhile another study by SocialBakers, a Czekh startup that analyses social networks, says that in December 2012 Facebook’s monthly active user base fell by 1.4 million in the US and 600,000 in the UK.

And remember the “Facebook Phone”? The co-branded phone Facebook released with HTC that modified the default Android home to put Facebook bang on the centre of your mobile phone? In less than a month the phone’s price was reduced from $99, to 99 cents !

But the worst data came from investment bank Piper Jaffray, which in April published a detailed research study on US teens , a key group for social networks, advertisers and brands. The study showed that US teens were actively disengaging themselves from Facebook at a rather alarming rate.

Chart showing the depletion of Facebook's user base.
Chart showing the user base of various social networking sites.

In the one year between Spring 2012 and Spring 2013, Facebook – the clear social networking favourite among teens – fell in popularity from 32 percent to 23 percent. This tied it for first place with YouTube, which was a clear number two earlier. Twitter followed the two. Of course many other social networks – YouTube, Google+ and Tumblr – also fell in popularity during the same period, but none as much as Facebook.

Now teens are very important audience for marketers and advertisers around the world. Firstly because they are huge spenders, especially in categories like apparel, smartphones, beauty products and eating out. And secondly because they are often the early adopters of most trends, whether it be fashion or technology. But if teens are ditching Facebook, where are they headed for?

According to Piper Jaffray, the five relative gainers from Facebook’s exodus are Reddit, Twitter, Snapchat, Vine and 4chan.

To the lay internet user, or maybe the middle-aged and the old, some of these sites can appear chaotic and unstructured. A Reddit for instance has oceans of posts under its various “sub-reddits” that can literally envelope your brain. As Simon Dumenco at AdAge says, “Reddit has become, simply put, mainstream media.” Twitter is a never-ending stream of information, news and opinion that doesn’t stop for anyone. Vine, Twitter’s micro-video sharing service, is too, rather unexpectedly some would say, exploding in popularity.

SnapChat, an app that allows people to send each other photos that “self destruct” after 10 seconds, is massively popular with teens and young adults, never mind the engineering flaws that supposedly allow deleted photos to be recovered. And 4Chan? Well, what does one say about 4Chan !

Do you know what’s common between all five of them? The freedom to be anonymous.

It would appear that US teens are seeing the risks of exposing all of your personal information online, even within closed social networks. Instead, they’re heading for sites where they can use interact with others without giving up their privacy or identities (by using pseudonyms).

Teens in US are preferring to use social networking sites that allow for anonymity. Image Courtesy: @zigazou76/Flickr
Teens in US are preferring to use social networking sites that allow for anonymity. Image Courtesy: @zigazou76/Flickr

Facebook was the social network that started the trend of forcing users to use their real names, which alas even Google has now adopted across its social networks like YouTube and Google+. Many of us thought giving up your anonymity would be okay within the closed walls of a network where only our real friends could interact with us.

But over the last few years Facebook has progressively eroded or convoluted privacy controls in an attempt to make sharing, and no doubt advertising, seamless. But during the same time we’ve come to realize that nothing we say on Facebook is really anonymous, or even restricted.

Say you post a critical post about the government, or your local politician on your Facebook wall. Each of your 500 friends can of course see it, but as one of them interacts with your post by either commenting or liking it, so can (in most cases), their own friends. So the post you thought was meant for 500 people may, by design, be reaching tens of thousands of people you don’t know.

And in India when you run afoul with the government or political parties, God help you. For instance:
* TMC man posts Mamata Banerjee cartoon on Facebook, quits before backlash
* India woman arrested over Facebook post in ‘shock’
* Arrested for Facebook posts, they spent 12 days in jail, lost their Air India jobs
* Man arrested for Facebook posts on PM, Kapil Sibal and Mulayam Singh Yadav
* Bengal professor’s ‘offending’ picture [on Facebook] goes viral

Given the tumultuous political times we live in and the number of people hounded by powerful people over their Facebook posts, Facebook users in India ought to reconsider their loyalty to the site even more than those in the US, where freedom of speech has much more meaning.


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