Has Facebook lost its cool? A new study suggests fashion-conscious teens are fleeing the world's largest social network site, spooked by 'friend' requests from Mum and Dad and the creeping sense that Mark Zuckerberg's $104bn behemoth may no longer be at the bleeding edge of technological chic.
"Facebook is not just on the slide, it is basically dead and buried," Professor Daniel Miller, one of the authors of the report, wrote this week on academic website The Conversation. "Mostly (teenagers) feel embarrassed even to be associated with it."
Attracted to Facebook because they believed it was an environment where they could communicate with friends free of adult eavesdropping, young people have grown increasingly weary of fobbing off 'likes' from their parents and are clicking elsewhere, research conducted across four continents by Miller's Global Social Media Impact Study found.
"Where once parents worried about their children joining Facebook, the children say it is their family that insists they stay there to post about their lives," Miller's article in The Conversation states. "Parents have worked out how to use the site and see it as a way for the family to remain connected. In response, the young are moving on to cooler things." ( Miller later clarified that his comments were 'retold' by a journalist writing for The Conversation though he had read and approved them prior to publication).
Setting the sensationalist language aside -- can a corporation worth more than the GDP of Hungary and Croatia combined be "dead and buried"? -- the conclusions have a ring of veracity. Long the plucky upstart, Facebook, which employs several hundred at its Dublin subsidiary, is presently the 800lb gorilla in social networking and it is natural that those drawn to the trendy and underground -- ie young people -- are moving on.
The company certainly does not lack for hungry rivals, with irreverent newcomers such as SnapChat (which allows you to send images that automatically erase after 10 seconds) and WhatsApp (a free texting 'app' for your smartphone) attracting huge user-bases among teens and early 20-somethings. Such services remain largely unheard of within the parent demographic, surely part of the appeal.
"It does seem to be true that Facebook has lost its zeitgeist amongst teenagers with SnapChat and WhatsApp acquiring the 'cool' factor," says Dublin -based social media consultant Robert Ryan. "Facebook is one of the oldest and biggest social networks ever and as more mothers and fathers crept on to it, it was inevitable that the younger generation would seek out someplace else -- better to avoid the dreaded friend request from a parent than to decline it."
An organisation that has always understood its place in the grander scheme, Facebook appears alive to the possibility of joining the tech sector's Club Naff (see also: Microsoft, Nokia, BlackBerry). A report filed last year to the US Securities and Exchange Commission acknowledged "younger users" were going elsewhere to feed their social media habit.
Facebook will no doubt draw comfort from the fact that, even as teenagers drift away, most everyone else -- from 20-somethings seeking to reconnect with school pals to parents sharing baby pics and older people tentatively exploring the online realm -- is staying loyal. Over one billion logged on to Facebook every month in 2013 and while studies by the Pew Research Centre in the US confirmed slippage among teens and young adults, this was surely compensated for by fast-rising popularity among those in their 30s and older, to say nothing of Facebook's growing user base in non-Western markets. Does a tech giant have to be hip?
"It's unclear whether Facebook actually needs to be loved by teens or if it can thrive as an unhip but ubiquitous utility," notes website Techcrunch. "As kids flock from one social app to the next, adults might follow them, or they might simply dismiss the teens as chasing the next fad."
Still, there are precedents for Facebook's decoupling from the cool set that may give it pause. When Facebook launched in 2004, two major players dominated social networking: Friendster and MySpace. Within a few years the newcomer, with its friendly interface and bright, clean design, had sent its competitors spinning into the ditch. Friendster rebranded as a 'social gaming site' in 2011; MySpace, today part-owned by singer Justin Timberlake, has seen its audience and valuation plunge despite several redesigns. The worry is that Facebook may fall victim to the same trends and be usurped by shinier, hipper insurgents.
"When you start getting friended by your grandmother, I think that's when it starts to lose its cool," brand expert Huw Griffiths told Adweek as far back as 2009.
Amid the predictions of imminent doom, however, it is instructive that one person, at least, is not taking the warnings seriously. When asked about Facebook's supposedly waning cool quotient, founder Mark Zuckerberg first response is usually to chuckle out loud.
"People assume that we're trying to be cool. It's never been my goal. I'm the least cool person there is. We're almost 10 years old so we're definitely not a niche thing any more so that kind of angle for coolness is done for us," he said in a recent public interview.
"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?"
Such logic is difficult to refute, especially coming from a 29-year-old multibillionaire who founded one of the world's biggest technology enterprises in his college dorm and seems to wear his uber-schlubby hoodies as a badge of honour. Facebook may no longer be hip. But it's a long way from dead and buried.
The year Pope Francis got Facebook talking
* Number of users: 1.26 billion (roughly one sixth of global population).
* Number of people who log on to Facebook every day: 728 million.
* Average number of 'friends' of a Facebook user in their teens: 300.
* Number of times Facebook users 'like' something every day: 22 billion.
* Number of pictures uploaded to Facebook every day: 350 million.
* Average time spent logged on to Facebook: 20 minutes.
* Most talked about Facebook topic 2013: The election of Pope Francis.
* Estimated number of fake Facebook accounts: 83 million.
* Net worth of Mark Zuckerberg: $19bn (€13.8bn).
* Facebook profits, 2012: $1bn (€728m).