Indeed, only four years after a $240m investment by Microsoft valued the site at a hefty £15bn – and recent estimates have suggested a value of as much as $100bn – it looks as some people are defriending the platform. According to the site Inside Facebook, which used data gathered from Facebook’s advertising tool, the site lost around six million users in the US alone in May, from 155.2 million at the start of the month to 149.4 million at the end. Meanwhile, Canada shed 1.52 million users to 16.6 million, and the UK, Norway and Russia all saw falls of more than 100,000.
So what’s going on (assuming this data is accurate)? The slowing growth suggests that Facebook has hit the limits of expansion in the countries where it was first successful – and that some early adopters have stopped using it. Over the past year the site has typically lured 20 million new users a month, reaching 687 million monthly active users – but that fell to 11.8 million new users in May. This will be grist to the mill for those who argue that Facebook’s success will be short-lived, just like that of MySpace and Bebo before it, with users eventually moving on to the latest faddy platform instead – or those who believe people are getting increasingly twitchy about how normal it’s becoming to sacrifice our privacy to powerful tech giants.
But perhaps that’s a bit excessive. Inside Facebook reckons that by the time Facebook reaches around half of the total population in a given country, ‘growth generally slows to a halt’. Apparently half the world just isn’t bothered about chatting, uploading photos and quantifying their friend totals in the first place – but as online penetration levels go, 50% is still mightily impressive.
And, while Facebook’s appeal may be slowing in some countries, it’s probably not worried enough to start posting stress-filled status updates: the world’s a big place, and the site has been able to compensate by gaining users in other areas. The fastest-growing countries among the top 25 largest user areas were Brazil and Russia, which were each up almost fourfold in the same period – to 17.1 million and 4.6 million users respectively. User figures for India, Thailand, Poland and Peru were all up more than 125%. And if Facebook ever works out how to crack China (and its plans for the country still appear to be up in the air) then that could be a big opportunity too.
So, while Facebook’s overall user totals may have fallen month on month, it still has 23% more users than it had this time last year – a lot more new friends than most of us will have gained in the past 12 months. So not exactly a crisis, then.