By drawing similarities between Facebook's rapid adoption and the proliferation of an infectious disease, researchers at Princeton have devised a model that predicts Facebook will lose 80% of its users by 2017.
"Ideas, like diseases, have been shown to spread infectiously between people before eventually dying out, and have been successfully described with epidemiological models," write authors John Cannarella and Joshua A. Spechler in an article recently posted to the preprint database arXiv. The basic premise is simple: epidemiological models, the researchers argue, can be used to explain user adoption and abandonment of online social networks, "where adoption is analogous to infection and abandonment is analogous to recovery."
The authors have based their models on data that reflect the number of times "Facebook" has been typed into Google as a search term. Checking Google Trends reveals that these weekly "search queues" reached a peak in December of 2012, and have since begun to level off. Plugging these figures into a modified SIR model for the spread of infectious disease – the researchers call theirs an "infection recovery," or "irSIR," model – yields the chart at the top of this post, and "suggests that Facebook will undergo a rapid decline in the coming years, losing 80% of its peak user base between 2015 and 2017."
The researchers tested their model by comparing Google search query data for "Myspace" against adoption/abandonment curves predicted by both traditional and infectious recovery SIR models, demonstrating "that the traditional SIR model for modeling disease dynamics provides a poor description of the data." By comparison, the search query data matches up rather neatly with the proposed irSIR model.
While the infectious disease analogy for social media uptake is a compelling one (and believe us, the characterization of Facebook as a disease is one we can get behind), we're skeptical of the comparison the researchers draw between Facebook and MySpace. While each of these entities certainly qualifies as an "immense online social network" (or, in MySpace's case, did at one time), Facebook, like Twitter, remains fundamentally different from MySpace in that it has come to be equally important (some would argue more important) to the daily ongoings of businesses, news agencies, and media outlets as it is to its human users. It's the Ma Bell, and more, of the 21st Century.
It is reasonable to assume that Facebook's position at the crest of the recent wave of social-media dependence has raised it above the plane on which the infectious-disease equivalence holds true*. That's not to say Facebook won't die out, or be supplanted by some other, even more immense online social network, it's just to say that it probably won't play out in the way these models are predicting. To belabor the epidemiological analogy: In Facebook, we have ourselves a plague the likes of which the world has never known.
* Unless you subscribe to the idea that infectious diseases are intentionally engineered and introduced into society by governments and corporations to subvert, control, and profit from the masses. Man – analogies are scary.