Digital Future director predicts Facebook decline

Facebook just reported record levels of user engagement along with fourth quarter sales and profits that blew away forecasts, but a new study offers a more measured view of the social media network’s longer term prospects.

The director of the USC Annenberg Center for the Digital Future Jeffrey Coles and the research firm Bovitz conducted a survey last fall in which one third of respondents said they will be using Facebook less in five years.

"While many users say they will use Facebook less, the service will continue to be a primary communications tool for large numbers of users," said Greg Bovitz, president of Bovitz and a senior fellow at the Center for the Digital Future. "We anticipate that Facebook will continue to serve as an 'online watering hole' — a place where users can coordinate their communications, stay in touch with friends and groups, create events, and build a comprehensive personal online presence — in a way that microblogs currently can't.”

According to Cole, the growth of Twitter and Instagram show that users are eager to get their voices out there in a quick and engaging way. Social media users, teens and Millennials especially, are craving to be heard and microblogs like Twitter, Instagram, and Tumblr are becoming the most powerful way to deliver their messages.

“It's all about having a highly visible personal presence online that can be communicated quickly, if anyone is listening,” Cole said.

According to Cole, the survey’s findings reinforce his earlier predictions about erosion in the use of mass-market social media sites by young audiences. For example, in 2005, Cole said he predicted that the young user base at MySpace would decline and in 2010 he said Facebook would continue to grow for at least five years while losing some of its appeal with young audiences.

Facebook won't collapse as a social platform as MySpace did, according to Cole, since it now has more than one billion users and should reach at least 1.5 billion users with especially strong growth in developing countries.

"Facebook paid $1 billion for Instagram and unsuccessfully offered $3 billion for Snapchat," said Cole. "If Facebook wants to maintain its dominance among teenagers, it will have to continue to open its checkbook and write multi-billion dollar checks."

Instead of being the primary social media site for trendsetters, Cole said, "Facebook will become the phone directory for the planet. Young users will to go to Facebook as the place where they communicate with their families, and as the site where they search for someone. Then users will move that relationship to a smaller online community, such as a microblog."

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