Over the weekend, innumerable media sources posted a story along the lines that “Facebook is dead and buried.” A European study, they wrote, had found that teenagers were turning from the social media site in droves because it was just, like, totally not cool any more.
That sounds like big news, right—a mass exodus of teens from the world’s most popular social network? Facebook is doomed! Except for the small problem that that’s not what the study really found at all.
To get to the truth behind these sensational claims, you have to work through a mess of qualitative versus quantitative research, artificially “sexed-up” academic writing, and lazy journalism with loose headlines. Unraveled, the real story shows just how easy academic findings can get twisted beyond recognition when studies go viral under exaggerated assertions.
The whole saga started with a blog post by anthropologist Daniel Miller. He’s working on a European Union-funded project called the Global Social Media Impact Study, which, as the title suggests, is looking into the impact of social media on our world. In the post, he wrote that today’s sixth formers (16- to 18-year-olds) considered Facebook uncool because their older relatives were using it.
“For this group Facebook is not just falling, it is basically dead, finished, kaput, over,” he said “It is about the least cool thing you could be associated with on the planet.”
But where the story seems to have been picked up on by most media outlets was a similar blog post written under Miller's name (though actually not really written by him, as we’ll see), on the Conversation, a site that reports on academic work for a general readership.
“What we’ve learned from working with 16-18 year olds in the UK is that Facebook is not just on the slide, it is basically dead and buried. Mostly they feel embarrassed even to be associated with it,” reads the report.
The report continues by stating that alternatives such as Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat and WhatsApp were increasingly popular with that demographic, and explained that the increasing use of Facebook by adults was the main turn-off for young people. “What appears to be the most seminal moment in a young person’s decision to leave Facebook was surely that dreaded day your mum sends you a friend request," it says.
I found the claim that Facebook was so far gone to teens—dead and buried already!—intriguing, and reached out to Miller via the email address listed on his University of College London staff page. I asked him if I he had any specific findings on this, and what his methods were. I got a generic response that explained he was currently in the Caribbean with limited internet access, but which contained some general information for journalists contacting him about the study. “I wanted to make clear I am NOT saying Facebook is doomed,” he wrote about halfway through. Oh.
Since then, Miller has posted a further explanation on his UCL site of exactly what research he did to get the findings he wrote about, what conclusions he really reached, and how they ended up being distorted by many media outlets covering the story.
An interesting point to start with is the nature of the research itself. On reading the various reports on this study, I imagine that most people, like myself, presumed it was based on quantitative findings: that fewer teens were signed up to Facebook these days, or that more had abandoned it—something like that. But Miller and his team weren’t looking at figures like that; they're undertaking qualitative research.
The trend he referred to was something he noted in field work he started last April, which involved door-to-door interviews around unnamed villages in North London, and interviews with schoolchildren in the same area. He hasn’t published any results yet, as he still has six months’ work left to do on the project.
It’s still interesting that the schoolchildren Miller spoke to said they weren’t so into Facebook these days, but it’s hard for us to draw any real conclusions without having access to data on who they were, what they actually said, and the reasons they gave.
Furthermore, just because kids are saying Facebook isn’t “cool” any more doesn’t mean they’re not using it. In fact, Miller wrote in his email that a quantitative study would not give the same results—because teens aren’t actually stopping using the service.
“With respect to this item, my informants do not close their Facebook accounts, they keep them for purposes such as family connections, friends abroad, old photo albums etc. So a quantitative study of accounts would not bring out this finding,” he said. “But all you would need to do is ask school children anywhere in the region (SE England) and I am confident they would confirm my results.”
That’s another point: these particular findings are so far only based on surveys in one very restricted area. The study hardly represents the whole of Europe, and Miller called out those journalists that suggested it did. Just because something's an EU-funded project doesn’t mean it necessarily has anything to do with the whole of Europe, or every country in the EU, or even any country in the EU. It’s a confusion I’ve noticed before when news sites (especially non-European ones, though not always) report on European projects.
"I nowhere imply a demise for Facebook.”—Daniel Miller
So why did journalists get the wrong end of the stick, and exaggerate Miller’s findings until they were unrecognisable, or even untrue? He accepts some of the blame, and puts a large part of the confusion down to the issue of sexing up academic research so the general public is interested in it. There's a reason most general sites don't just straight-up publish academic reports; a certain level of simplification, explanation and yes, titillation, is necessary to convey the message to readers who don't have a background in the subject area. But too much can begin to push the integrity of the actual findings. Add in a slow news day over the Christmas period, and you’ve got a recipe for factual disaster.
Miller explained that the Conversation post published under his name, which ended up going viral, was largely rewritten by a journalist, and that in retrospect he realises it was a little over-embellished. “The journalist gave me the opportunity to review her version, which I checked for factual errors,” he wrote in his most recent blog post. “But, mea culpa, I realize now that I left in elements in her version that perhaps over-simplified the original.”
This had a knock-on effect as the piece was re-reported across the web, potentially losing accuracy with each step like in a game of Chinese whispers. “Small shifts in meaning that came with the rewrite became accentuated in later less careful reportage by other journalists,” explained Miller. “Yet the substance was accurate, and I nowhere imply a demise for Facebook.”
To be fair to the journalists responsible for some of the flimsier reports on this story, Miller’s claims that he never said “that Facebook is doomed” don’t ring entirely true. In his original blog post, he wrote that “there is no doubt that we can and should be commenting on its [Facebook’s] demise at least for some," which sounds a lot like the implied demise for Facebook he insisted he never suggested.
And while he defended the Conversation story by saying, “The phrase ‘dead and buried’ unambiguously only refers to the way Facebook is never going to be cool again for this age group,” it’s not actually all that clear in the original context. I can sympathise to an extent with those who misunderstood the claim, “What we’ve learned from working with 16-18 year olds in the UK is that Facebook is not just on the slide, it is basically dead and buried,” as referring to actual Facebook usage, rather than to it’s “cool” status.
Ultimately, no one comes out of the affair smelling completely of roses. Miller wasn’t as clear as he perhaps should have been when he first blogged his results; the journalist who wrote the Conversation piece wasn’t as precise as she perhaps should have been when she tried to liven the findings up; and the journalists who then reported on that should have taken the time to look more closely into the matter, and been more careful with their interpretation of the facts.
Because while teens poopooing Facebook may seem like a trivial issue, media reports on such matters can do more than just misinform the public. As Miller explained, “I soon began to get emails from financial analysts, because in our world there are many people who couldn’t care a less about academic research but care hugely about share prices.”