A research paper by two Princeton University students recently went viral predicting the impending doom of a giant in the world of viral web content, and it did so using an analogy based on how actual viruses spread. In case you haven’t heard, graduate students John Cannarella and Joshua A. Spechler, of Princeton’s Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, predicted ”Facebook will undergo a rapid decline in the coming years, losing 80% of its peak user base between 2015 and 2017.”
It didn’t take long for social media experts (including Facebook data scientist Mike Develin) and internet rhetoricians to dismantle the techniques and conclusions of the research paper. As Slate’s Will Oremus pointed out in reference to the fact the paper went viral, ”Nothing sells on Facebook like another story about how Facebook is evil, uncool, or-best of all-doomed.”
But suppose Cannarella and Spechler are correct. Twenty percent of Facebook’s peak user base is still an awful lot of people. If your online newspaper or trade publication website counts on a strong social media strategy or recruitment advertising through a custom job board for audience and revenue development, the Princeton paper may be troubling. But there’s no reason for it to discourage these strategies. Here’s why.
What the Princeton Article Said
Cannarella and Spechler based their prediction partly on the number of times ”Facebook” is typed into Google’s search engine. Search trends are easy to determine by simply typing a search term into Google Trends and seeing how searches rise or fall over time. For Facebook, searches peaked in December 2012 and then started dropping slowly. The researchers did a similar trend search for MySpace, which reached its peak in 2007 and has basically fallen off most people’s radar screens since.
They also drew an analogy to the factors governing the spread of infectious diseases, saying ”Ideas, like diseases, have been shown to spread infectiously between people before eventually dying out, and have been successfully described with epidemiological models.” They used epidemiological models to analyze search query data by fitting the ”infected” population curve (Facebook users over time) to how a virus would play out over time and basically concluded that Facebook use is like an illness, and will eventually run its course.
Logical Flaws in the Paper
At first glance the hypothesis that ideas are like diseases that spread and eventually die out makes sense. Any number of ideas in history have caught on wildly and then died out, like Tulip Mania, or the housing bubble. However, there are plenty of ideas that have ”infected” people and stuck, like democracy, blue jeans, or the internet itself. In fact, when you plug ”the internet” into Google Trends, you can see that it, too peaked and started dropping, but not many people think it will go away.
The MySpace analogy also doesn’t hold up that well. Mismanagement is considered the primary reason the site fell out of favor, and the purchase and sale of the former internet juggernaut by NewsCorp at a fire sale price didn’t help. Unlike diseases, social networks tend to maintain saturation levels unless and until there is a disruption. In the case of MySpace, Facebook was the disruption, not people abandoning social media altogether.
Is Social Recruiting Doomed?
No. Social recruiting is a tool in the recruitment advertising toolkit, and as long as social media platforms exist, employers will use them in their quest to fill important job positions. Social recruiting has never showed signs of disrupting the tried and true recruitment advertising success of job boards. Another social platform could come along and become wildly popular, but as long as social recruitment advertising isn’t restricted to whatever the hot social platform of the moment is, it will continue to be useful. Smart social recruiters shouldn’t be limiting their recruitment advertising to Facebook anyway.
What the Hullaballoo Over the Princeton Paper Tells Recruiters
Were a social recruitment advertising specialist to read the Princeton paper and conclude that Facebook is going to die out, he’s still not going to abandon social recruiting altogether. Rather, he might use the questions raised by the paper as an opportunity to reevaluate his social recruiting strategy. Is it diverse enough? Are job boards and his social recruiting tactics mutually reinforcing? The ultimate ”lesson” of Cannarella and Spechler’s work is something any recruiter should know already: don’t keep all your recruiting eggs in one basket.
If you use social recruiting as an adjunct to custom job boards on your website, or if you count on Facebook as an important part of your site’s overall audience and revenue development strategy, you already know what to do. Tracking results, keeping up with social media trends, and watching for new technological developments and social platforms are the keys to leveraging social media to make your job boards and your website more successful. That would be true even if Facebook imploded tomorrow.