The most significant finding from the latest Facebook Files disclosure, based on documents stolen by former Facebook staffer Frances Haugen, was not that Instagram might be hazardous for kids (which we already knew), nor that Facebook gave high-profile users extra consideration (which actually makes some sense).
Haugen has also supplied internal research statistics to back up his allegation, such as the graph below:
This memo, which was presented as part of Haugen’s pre-prepared testimony for her appearance before a Senate panel on consumer protection, may have provided the most valuable insight in a broader economic sense:
“Facebook has withheld internal data showing a drop in the number of users in key demographics, such as American teenagers and young adults. The corporation has also kept quiet about how much content is produced per user on a long-term basis.”
Which isn’t unexpected given that Facebook hasn’t been the coolest platform in years (evidently about nine years ago to be exact). However, it is a huge concern for The Social Network, because, like MySpace before it, Facebook understands that longer-term usage tendencies emerge in younger age groups, making long-term estimates for the platform’s attractiveness appear grim.
Of course, these figures don’t represent the whole storey, because Facebook bought Instagram in 2012 for precisely this reason. Facebook recognised that it was losing its position as the most popular social app among teenagers, and that Instagram was steadily growing in popularity, so it moved to acquire the visual-focused app to ensure that it didn’t lose touch with them (note: Facebook also made a big push to buy up Snapchat as well, but was rebuffed by Snap CEO Evan Spiegel).
Which, for the most part, has worked out. Under Facebook’s control, Instagram has grown from 50 million to a billion users. But there’s more to it than the headline numbers suggest, because while Instagram does have a billion active users, it only did so in 2018. In the three years since, it has not updated that utilisation number.
Family Monthly Active user
Does this mean that Instagram’s growth has halted, and that, with TikTok’s rapid rise, Instagram has lost its youth appeal and is no longer able to serve as Facebook’s ambassador for the younger social media crowd?
Of course, we don’t know since, as Haugen points out in her testimony:
“For years, Facebook has misled investors and advertisers on key metrics such as the volume of material published on its platforms and the growth of individual users.”
Because Facebook only publishes the data it chooses to, we can only assume based on the information it does provide, which, for the most part, provides some indication of general trends but not demographic or platform-specific usage statistics.
Facebook does not release Instagram user numbers, but it has provided frequent updates on its ‘Family’ of applications usage, which includes total users across Facebook, Messenger, Instagram, and WhatsApp, for the past two years.
As you can see, Facebook’s Family of applications has grown from 2.76 billion to 3.51 billion monthly active users (+750 million) in the last two years. We have individual numbers for Facebook, which has added 481 million users in this time range, implying that Facebook’s other apps have added 269 million unique users in the same time frame.
That’s not exactly mind-blowing growth – and to be clear, that figure applies to all of Facebook’s apps, not just Instagram.
That’s also not an exhaustive list of Instagram’s features. Because the data above only accounted for unique users, those who are already engaged on Facebook could have downloaded these other applications as well, and they would not be counted in this variation.
However, the fact that there hasn’t been an Instagram-specific update in three years is a cause for concern.
Perhaps it’s clearer now why IG was so eager to copy TikTok.
Is this to say that Facebook is no longer relevant? Certainly not. In 2021, the corporation expects to generate more over $100 billion in revenue, as it continues to expand into new markets throughout the world. However, the company’s investment in emerging technologies such as virtual reality and augmented reality, as well as its devotion to the growing Metaverse concept, are crucial levers that will help it stay relevant.
But it might shift the emphasis of ad money in the future – and if Facebook fails to capitalise on these new tech bets, it could become a much greater problem for the company’s future.