Facebook is 14 years old this month. In Silicon Valley terms, that’s positively middle-aged, which may explain why human 14-year-olds are avoiding the social network like an overbearing mother in a shopping mall.
Research from eMarketer indicates that only 71% of British 12 to 17-year-olds will use Facebook on a regular basis this year, down eight percentage points from its earlier forecast. That compares with 83% of 18-24-year-olds, a figure which has also been revised downwards, from 88%.
Don’t for a moment think that Generation Z is abstaining from the temptations of technology in favour of good old-fashioned pastimes like climbing trees or playing gin rummy. They’re just not using Facebook. Indeed, increasingly they’re migrating to the one major Western communications platform that Facebook doesn’t own: Snapchat.
If you’ve not tried it, Snapchat is a picture-based, self-deleting messaging system that, unlike Facebook, limits your network to immediate contacts and doesn’t leave a cringeworthy online trail. eMarketer found that 43% of social network users regularly go on Snapchat, more than double the penetration of three years ago.
Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg won’t like that one bit. His noble mission for Facebook is to ‘connect the world’; the slightly less noble unofficial subscript is ‘and furiously monetise that connection’. As a result, he doesn’t want other people to connect the world, he wants Facebook to do it.
That’s why Facebook forked out $1bn for Instagram in 2012 and $19bn for WhatsApp two years later, purchases that then seemed wildly overpriced, especially given that Instagram had only 13 employees at the time. It’s also why Zuckerberg tried to acquire Snap Inc, the company behind Snapchat, on two occasions – the latter with $3bn in his virtual black attaché case – only to be rebuffed both times by Snap’s founder Evan Spiegel.
It’s probably a bit premature to say that he fears Snap, which self-identifies as a camera company. At $40.6bn, Facebook’s revenues are 49 times bigger than its rival’s. It also makes a profit (a rather healthy one, at $16bn), while Snap lost $3.4bn last year as it struggles to monetise its product – sending photos to your mates on a messaging app leaves much less room for advertisers than scrolling through a news feed.
Then there’s the success of Facebook’s earlier acquisitions, Instagram and WhatsApp, both of which are going from strength to strength (in the former case, this may have something to do with the company copying Snapchat’s ‘stories’ feature).
But as Zuckerberg of all people knows, things can change very quickly in the world of tech. If Snap can continue to steal young people’s attention, converting an age-group advantage into a generational advantage, then Facebook will surely start to feel the pinch.
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