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Science

Facebook's growing pains

Fewer young people are using Facebook, and turning toward a plethora of other social media sites. Is the world's largest social network getting old?

Facebook has grown up. At least that's what researchers dealing with the behavior of young Internet users are saying and the user numbers reflect this. The social media network has a problem in 2013: users under 35 years are gradually turning to other platforms that are more interesting for them. That news came from no less an authority than Facebook's chief financial officer David Ebersman, speaking about the company's figures at a conference of financial analysts. The share price briefly went into a tailspin.

But it's not yet a problem for Facebook, said media educator Niels Bruggen from Munich's JFF media research institute. "In the fast-paced social media business, the Facebook platform has become so large that it is currently not in serious danger."

That was not true for German student network "Studi-VZ." It was hard hit by the competition from Facebook and shut down its services in Spain, France, Italy and Poland in 2009. "The problem with that platform is that at some point, there stopped being new developments" said Karsten Wenzlaff from the Institute for Communication and Social Media in Berlin.

Keeping interest growing

With Facebook it was different. "We can already say that the platform is outdated, but that's not a big issue," Wenzlaff said. The company is trying to remain interesting with new apps and features, he said. This helps to maintain the number of users, even though with younger users, this only works to a limited extent. "They increasingly want a separate network for each function," Wenzlaff said. Young people share photos with Instagram and they can chat via WhatsApp or Snapchat, which are growing quickly.

WhatsApp Messenger on a smartphone. (Photo: Imago Rüdiger Wölk )

The WhatsApp chat app is highly popular - and has taken over part of Facebook's role

Few social media experts believe this will be fatal for Facebook. The average lifespan of social networks on the Internet is five to seven years, but examples such as the "Wer weiss wen?" (Who knows whom?) network in southern Germany show that while user numbers can decline over time, a dedicated core of users remains. And if the competition poses a threat, Facebook simply buys it, as most recently in the case of Instagram.

Lack of privacy no problem

But why is the number of people under 35 falling? A distinction must be made between young adults and teenagers, the researchers agree. Schoolchildren increasingly find it "uncool" when their parents, teachers and football coaches sign up for the network - the belief that Facebook is "infested with parents" has become widespread. "They also don't go to the same bars as their parents," Wenzlaff said.

Another problem that is often raised is something young users are mostly indifferent to but also have trouble coming to grips with: the lack of privacy. "The privacy settings on Facebook are very complicated and hardly anyone actually knows who can see the things they post."

The network has become quite "youth-unfriendly," Wenzlaff said. Users were previously shown all their friends' news, but now Facebook only shows selected posts. "Back then, everything was much more interesting," he said, adding that he believes Facebook has simply become too complicated. Users preferred to switch - and the barriers to other portals have fallen.

"Previously, no one wanted to use other networks, because they did not want to re-enter their 400 friends," Bruggen said. "Today they don't need to worry about that anymore." Smartphones will take care of this - and those are the devices most young people use for social media like the popular chat service "WhatsApp." All in all, Facebook has lost approximately 1.2 million users in the US in the first quarter of 2013, research firm Socialbakers estimates.

Passive participation

Older user learning about data security on a laptop. (Photo: DW/R. Breuer)

Older users are happy with Facebook's comprehensiveness

But Facebook doesn't need to panic yet. For one, user numbers have always fluctuated. Bruggen says the numbers are less about people leaving Facebook, and more about lower active participation on the platform.

And there are still users who are older than 35. They continue to remain true to Facebook. And that too can be explained. They are often interested in business and politics pages, where they find what is relevant to them. Moreover, they are often happy using a single Internet portal for networking, while their children are increasingly looking for new places they can spend time together. Facebook has simply grown up.

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