Why You Need Facebook More Than It Needs Your Love
Facebook doesn't need the teens...or you, for that matter.
This week, the research firm Piper Jaffray issued its biannual teen research report, revealing some seemingly bleak news for Facebook: Only 14% of teens consider Facebook their most important social network. This is noteworthy in that the figure is down 19% since 2013. It also adds to the yarn that Facebook has lost a step with tech’s most coveted, hyperactive user demographic. But that’s a narrative that’s far too tidy for the messy and convoluted worlds of the internet and teen social media use. Far from a wholesale teen rejection, this survey seems to suggest a different reality: Facebook has ascended to the level of utility company.
Facebook’s dominance as a social network is a result of its ability to successfully bring our real lives online. Facebook profiles largely reflect one’s actual identity, and the company has woven itself extensively into the fabric of the modern internet — for many, especially those in developing nations, it is the internet. The social network has also made itself a part of the connective tissue of the web with its Facebook Connect authentication and log-in system, which allows users to use Facebook to sign into third-party apps and sites (including this one).
Which is all to say that maintaining a Facebook profile and presence can feel like a little bit of work, especially compared with other social media services. Like using email, having a Facebook profile isn't necessarily fun — it's practical. And while privacy settings can keep users from sharing too broadly, there is — for most people — a sense of public exposure on Facebook that thwarts some of the more free-spirited behavior that is more common on networks like Snapchat. Facebook is where your relatives and co-workers live; Snapchat and Instagram are for friends and flings. Facebook is function; Snapchat and Instagram are fun.
Reading the teen tea leaves is a favorite pastime of technology watchers. Even the most anecdotal insights from inside the not-yet-fully-formed brains of our youngest "digital natives" often take the form of gospel, despite the fact that the age group — like any age group — contains multitudes. Surveys and anecdotal teen blog posts about social media are rarely representative of all races and classes and, as researcher danah boyd pointed out in a wonderful piece this year, nobody learns anything when we “presum[e] that a single person’s experience can speak on behalf of an entire generation.”
That said, though, this post, published by a 19-year-old in January, illustrates this point about Facebook:
It’s dead to us. Facebook is something we all got in middle school because it was cool but now is seen as an awkward family dinner party we can't really leave. It’s weird and can even be annoying to have Facebook at times. That being said, if you don't have Facebook, that’s even more weird and annoying. Weird because of the social pressure behind the question, “Everyone has Facebook, why don't you?”
The writer goes on to note that Facebook’s best use is as a contact tool because of its ubiquity. That squares with the idea that many maintain Facebook accounts for whatever reason because it’s just easier that way — because of social pressure, fear of missing out, the fact that you’ve authenticated dozens of other services and accounts via Facebook, or as a rudimentary contact/messaging tool. It may not be teens' most vital social network, but according to Pew Research, 71% percent of 13- to 17-year-olds still use Facebook.
In a growing number of ways, Facebook is a lot like Time Warner or Comcast. If surveyed, very few sentient human beings are likely to say that Comcast or Time Warner are the most important company in their lives. And yet, even as the most digitally savvy are cutting cords and abandoning the television and phone services, these utilities are basic necessities of modern life, offering up a gateway to boundless information, entertainment, and even cable television. You’ll never put Time Warner at the top of a “most important company in your life” survey, but a prolonged cable service outage quickly reveals how dependent you are on its presence in your life.
This is something that Facebook and its founder, specifically, seem to not only understand but embrace. In September 2013, in response to one of many Facebook teen exodus stories, Mark Zuckerberg framed Facebook in an interview with The Atlantic as a utility:
Maybe electricity was cool when it first came out, but pretty quickly people stopped talking about it because it’s not the new thing, the real question you want to track at that point is are fewer people turning on their lights because it’s less cool?
Facebook doesn't need to be the “most important” social network to anyone. The active user numbers, time on the site, and ad revenue numbers speak for themselves and suggest a company that’s not just healthy but powerful. Its high-profile acquisitions of companies like WhatsApp and Oculus, coupled its with ambitious plans to turn ancillary services like Messenger into its own mobile ecosystem with third-party apps, suggest a company that’s perhaps even poised to eat the internet. Oh, and it’s also worth noting that the company bought the survey’s most popular social network, Instagram, for a steal back in 2012.
Perhaps, then, a better way to frame a survey question about Facebook to teens would be to ask, "Which social network, if it went down for good, would be the biggest inconvenience to lose?"
Of course, there’s a chance the results wouldn’t change, which is OK because that’s how utility companies work. Any service that is firmly cast into the foundation of one's daily life becomes a utility — an invisible thing whose true importance is only noticed in its absence.