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    Start Beef with Facebook and They'll Wreck You—With Data

    Written by

    Yannick LeJacq


    via JD Lasica/Flickr

    Not wanting to be outdone by a group of researchers at Princeton University, Facebook has shot back at a study that dramatically predicted the massive social network could lose up to 80 percent of its users in the next three years.

    The original study made headlines earlier this week for its unique perspective on the tenuous future of the social media giant. Likening it to an infectious disease, the researchers used an epidemiological model to assess Facebook's presence in Google search results. The findings were damning: "Facebook will undergo a rapid decline in the coming years, losing 80 percent of its peak user base between 2015 and 2017."

    Well, Mark Zuckerberg and company weren't having it. In a delightfully tongue-in-cheek response posted on the social network itself, a group of Facebook researchers basically told the Princeton academics: "I know you are, but what am I?"

    "Like many of you, we were intrigued by a recent article by Princeton researchers predicting the imminent demise of Facebook," the note reads. "Of particular interest was the innovative use of Google search data to predict engagement trends, instead of studying the actual engagement trends. Using the same robust methodology featured in the paper, we attempted to find out more about this 'Princeton University' - and you won't believe what we found!"

    The original Princeton study had used publicly available Google Trends data for MySpace as well as Facebook, using the decreasing popularity of the former in web searches to predict a similar demise for the latter. As we explained yesterday, the interesting part about the study was its unique application of epidemiological analysis. The reliance on Google data, however, could easily be seen as misguided—especially when you consider that Google is one of Facebook's chief competitors in all things internet and much of the chatter about Facebook (not to mention the actual use of the social network) thus happens behind closed doors (i.e., within Facebook itself).

    "Since 2009, the percentage of "Princeton" papers in journals has dropped dramatically," write Facebook researchers, presumably while high-fiving and mean-mugging.

    Facebook's researchers therefore pointed that simply riffing off Google data can have some hilariously spurious results. Using similar methods, they drew up a number of serious-looking graphs with apocalyptic predictions. Princeton is losing ground to competing universities, they showed, and could lose its entire student body by 2021. Even worse: according to their interpretation of Google Trends data, declining interest in "air" could mean that Earth runs out of stuff to breath by 2060.

    Leave it up to Facebook to subtly compare itself to something that humanity needs to survive. But jokes aside, the team has a point. The Princeton researchers haven't exactly been whoring themselves out to the media for this story, but this is exactly the kind of inconsequential curiosity that goes viral online thanks to the semi-serious tone that an academic perspective lends to it. And as GigaOM thankfully points out, the study wasn't even subjected to peer review.

    Content that it's here to stay, Facebook reminded everyone at the end of its note that the whole thing was in good fun.

    "We don’t really think Princeton or the world’s air supply is going anywhere soon. We love Princeton (and air)," the note said. "As data scientists, we wanted to give a fun reminder that not all research is created equal – and some methods of analysis lead to pretty crazy conclusions."