Facebook is “dead and buried,” or what happens when academic research goes viral

Take some academic research on Facebook (s fb), add a sexy quote about how teens are abandoning the social network in droves, and combine it with a slow news period. What do you get? A small-scale media frenzy about how Facebook is dying. In this case, part of the problem appears to be the original researcher’s attempt to “sex up” his work in the hope of getting more attention for it — something he clearly succeeded in doing, if for the wrong reasons.

This particular viral snowball started with a post on a site called The Conversation, which focuses on news-style reporting about academic research. Just before Christmas, an article appeared under the byline of sociologist and ethnographer Daniel Miller from University College in London, who runs a large-scale research project called the Global Social Media Impact Study that is looking at social media use in eight countries, including the UK.

According to the post, Miller’s research showed that the world’s largest social network was undergoing what he called a “sustained decline” in usage among young people. As the introduction described it:

“This year marked the start of what looks likely to be a sustained decline of what had been the most pervasive of all social networking sites. Young people are turning away in their droves and adopting other social networks instead… Facebook is not just on the slide, it is basically dead and buried.”

Facebook in decline? Stop the presses!

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This was like catnip for some news outlets, in part because Facebook’s usage levels among young people have been a source of controversy ever since the social network went public last year with a market value of $100 billion. Comments from Facebook’s chief financial officer — in which he said that the network saw a “decrease in daily users, especially younger teens” — seemed to lend weight to the idea that usage was declining, and a report from the Pew Research Center earlier this year added additional fuel to the fire by saying that teens were showing “waning enthusiasm” for the site.

Given the shortage of news during the holidays, a report from a respected academic that suggested Facebook was all but “dead and buried” for younger users definitely made for headlines. But then the researcher himself spoke up — first on Twitter and then in a follow-up blog post — and admitted that he helped create the frenzy by over-simplifying his own research.

According to Miller, the post on The Conversation that started the ball rolling — which appeared with his byline and photo — was rewritten by a journalist, and while he said he checked the final version for errors, he admitted he should have been more careful about how the research was described (Megan Clement, deputy editor of The Conversation, says that articles are written by academics and then edited by journalists who work for the site). Said Miller:

“I realize now that I left in elements in her version that perhaps over-simplified the original. I should have corrected and qualified more precisely. I apologize for this and regret that I didn’t… small shifts in meaning that came with the rewrite became accentuated in later less careful reportage by other journalists.”

A close reading of Miller’s description of his research, which is only halfway completed, shows that while the project involves users in eight countries (including the UK, China, India and Turkey), the comments about Facebook being in decline came from a small pool of users in one specific suburb of London — and the tone of their comments was just that Facebook was no longer “cool,” not necessarily that it is dead to them.

The researcher becomes part of his research

In a similar way, the Pew study found that teens were still using Facebook but no longer saw it as something compelling — more like a chore (our Eliza Kern wrote at the time about how for many younger users like herself, the network was a lot like cable: i.e., a necessary evil). newspaper boxes As Miller explained in his follow-up post, he is still only 9 months into a 15-month project that he says will eventually result in “ten books of data, an Open Access university course and perhaps teaching material for school children, all free and online” — and that a final report won’t be ready until at least 2016. Miller said that he hoped to spark some interest in the study with his original post, and wasn’t fully prepared for what happened next. As he describes it:

“In some media, my post was used for more sensationalist purposes to claim that Facebook itself was doomed. This was ‘news’ at a Christmas period when journalists were short of news. Most important was the way items spread easily through the viral impact of digital media. Phrases such as `dead and buried’ shifted from a description of Facebook losing its cool for English schoolchildren, to the supposed fate of Facebook as a whole.”

Unfortunately, that is how news often travels now — through multiple channels, each of which distorts some aspects of the story by a relatively small amount, until the final result is sometimes unrecognizable. For his part, Prof. Miller said that being a participant in such a viral event was “quite a useful experience,” and that he hoped to learn some lessons from it that might help with his research.

This post was updated after it was published to clarify how The Conversation handles articles posted by academics like Prof. Miller. Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Shutterstock / mj007 and Flickr user George Kelly