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Facebook at 10 – What to Do with the Silent Majority?

February 26, 2014

As Facebook reaches its tenth birthday, it claims to have 1.23 billion subscribers. That’s more users than any country has citizens, with the exception of China. I suspect that like most countries, it has a silent majority. But while many real-world regimes thrive on the apathy of their populations, silence is not golden for the world’s leading social media company.

When I first became one of those users five years ago I felt like a grouchy old interloper in a youthful world of parties, restaurants and foreign holidays. I hated the feckless narcissism of many of the posts, forgetting that in my twenties I did a good line in feckless narcissism myself, even though I didn’t have an application like Facebook as a mirror for my fragile vanity, and I couldn’t afford foreign holidays.

Though I’m as ambivalent about the site as I was then, I have to admit, grudgingly, that it’s become one of my most frequently visited websites. Not because I’m any fonder of the airware that people insist on sharing with their public, but because I’ve managed to pare the content I see down to posts from people who have something to say that I sometimes find interesting.

Of the posts that do appear on my home page, I’d say that maybe one in ten is worth reading. Ignoring the nine that are profoundly uninteresting is no more effort than ignoring the ads in a newspaper. So that’s enough to keep me scrolling.

Yes, I know, I’m just an antiquated killjoy who can’t stand seeing people taking pleasure in other people’s meals, fluffy animals, boozy nights out and one-liners about hangovers and phones not working. And yes, new babies are cute, and while parents and grandparents are entitled to post endless bulletins about the size of their nappies, their delightful burp-precursor smiles, you can definitely get too much of a good thing.

Most people post photos and little vignettes about their own lives, or links to other people’s content they find interesting. But the posts that attract me most are from people who do stuff themselves. People like Robin Valk, who writes a great music blog. And my own daughter, Nicola Royston, who posts the music she writes for films. Or Andrew Morton, an old friend, songwriter and Tolkien expert, who after a lifetime in music reckons that he’s probably writing the best stuff in his career for his two bands, Café Culture and The Details. I wouldn’t disagree with him, by the way. Then there’s Hunt Emerson, a superb cartoonist whose work I first came across in Birmingham in the early 70’s. And John Whelpton, author of a history of Nepal, who writes many of his posts in Latin, and who provides well-chosen links to political stuff ranging from Nepal to Ukraine, as well as cultural pieces, often about language. All provide stimulating content of a kind that keeps me coming back.

One of the classic criticisms of the site is that it dilutes the meaning of friendship. It takes some effort of will to avoid allowing people into your magic circle who are no more than acquaintances. And indeed, why should you refuse to admit them? So I do make friends with some people I barely know in the hope that they might have something worth looking at. I’m sure you do too, assuming you’re a user. Otherwise, how would you manage to accumulate 1345 friends?

Which leads to the strange phenomenon of millions of people opening a window into intimate areas of their lives to other people who otherwise would never have had the chance to peer through.

But what happens within, for mere acquaintances, is largely without context or meaning. So all you learn is that the person through whose window you are peeping has lots of friends, drinks a lot and likes tiramisu. Not so intimate, maybe. On the other hand, not knowing someone well is no bar to appreciating the links they post, be they political analysis or videos of talking dogs.

And speaking of political analysis, Facebook is also a useful conduit to writers I admire, such as the redoubtable Robert Fisk, whose angry writing about the Middle East is always worth reading, even if I don’t always agree with his views.

I actually post very little on the site apart from my blog pieces, but I do quite often comment on other people’s stuff.

So as an old fart, I have more than enough bombulous (as in bombulus, Latin for fart) content to keep me interested in Facebook thanks to the efforts of those who escape my periodic purges of friends whose posts are so tedious that blocking them is a significant contribution towards energy conservation.

That the site’s appeal has widened to encompass people of my age is not, I suspect, the result of a deliberate policy by Facebook beyond a general lust for users. Now that there are over a billion users, how many of them are real users, as opposed to people for whom having a presence is not much different from having their name in the phone book (if such things still exist)?

To put it another way, how many of those 1.23 billion users are inert – there because they’re there, not posting, not visiting and not contributing in any way to Facebook’s economic success? The company doesn’t tell you that.

To get a snapshot from my own friends, I did a quick survey. I looked at every friend, and made a judgement on the extent of each person’s activity. I split them into three categories: inactive, posts less than once a month and posts more than once a month. Out of my modest total of 168 friends the result was:

  • Inactive 90 (55%)
  • Less than once a month: 22 (13%)
  • More than once a month: 53 (32%)

You could argue that the sample is too small to extrapolate from it the total number of inactive users on Facebook, but I’ll do it anyway: it’s 670 million users. In some countries I suspect that the proportion of inactive users is higher. I know that what follows is anecdotal evidence, but a few weeks ago I chatted with a group of young Saudis about the social media. They said that Facebook is being abandoned in the droves by his friends. Their favourite social media are Twitter, Instagram, YouTube and WhatsApp.

That would be of concern to Facebook because Saudi Arabia is a country, like others in the region, that’s going through a youth boom. There are over 5 million Saudi subscribers out of a population of 20 million, so if the number of active users in that wealthy country is falling, that’s not good news for the company.

But Saudi Arabia is also a country whose demographics justify Facebook’s move towards mobile. I’m regularly told by young Saudis that they don’t watch TV any more – virtually everything they view is via online media, and primarily through mobile devices, despite the fact that bandwidth that supports video streaming is not cheap.

So if I was running Facebook, my main concern would not be to acquire another billion users, but to convert existing users from inactive to active, and preferably economically active. And in this respect I wonder whether or not they’re missing a trick. Speaking as a user of, shall we say, advanced years, I can safely claim that I have contributed no economic benefit to Facebook beyond making my content accessible through the site and adding my vacuous comments to the zillions of others that flit like meteors across the cyber-sky. I never read the ads, and I can’t remember any corporate page that has caused me to buy anything. I don’t access the site through my IPhone when I’m on the move, though I do through the IPad. But that’s not 3G – I only have Wi-Fi.

And yet my generation typically has greater disposable income than Facebook’s early user base, with the possible exception of Zuckerberg’s Harvard colleagues, who by now are most likely as rich as Croesus as they scale the commanding heights of America’s robber economy. So what is the company doing to grab a piece of baby boomer action? Not a lot, as far as I can see. And if a sizeable number of users are like me, then they are wasting an opportunity to sell effectively to us.

Looking at the ads that Facebook believes are appropriate to me, I see that I’m invited to join a dating website for “mature Brits”, to enter a care home (or maybe put someone else in one), to get some false teeth, to become a day trader, deal with tinnitus, join a gym and buy life assurance. A pretty scatter-gun attempt to anticipate the needs of a male in late middle age, I would have thought.

But I’m not particularly important to Facebook, though my presence and those of millions more of my age do have consequences. As the site becomes universal, it becomes progressively uncool. After all, what university student wants a censorious parent, a potential employer or a religious policeman looking through their wild and woolly window? So rather than unsubscribe – because that would be far too much effort – people for whom Facebook is no longer “our thing”, slowly disengage and let their accounts go dormant.

If the declining participation of active users is fact rather than supposition, then that has to be a contributing factor towards the purchase of WhatsApp,  – definitely a “cool” service that shelters its users (for now) from the prying eyes of the silent majority. The gadarene rush to mobile – so important for Facebook’s market value – also deselects people of a certain age with poor eyesight and fingers like sausages.

Which leads me to wonder whether when Zuckerberg’s creation turns fifteen, its younger users will have abandoned it to their parents, and the site will be left with a massive majority of inactive users and a sizeable minority of people like me who are growing old disgracefully and flaunting it.

O fortuna, velut luna. Or, in the clichéd vernacular, what goes up comes down.

2 Comments
  1. Elif Todd permalink

    I really enjoyed this, Steve. I shared it on Google + where I can very easily choose with whom to share it.
    One of the reasons people don’t bother with closing their account is because Facebook makes it very difficult to do so. I know because I tried; for weeks. In the end I gave up.

    • Thanks Elif. Yes, I think that difficulty of closing an account will definitely contribute to the silent majority! S

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