Where is the saturation point in social media penetration?

Earlier this year, some media outlets pinpointed that the Facebook user statistics published by social media analytics platform Socialbakers would indicate a decrease in the absolute number of “Monthly active Facebook users” over the last six months in the US, Indonesia and the UK. Even though the data indicated growth to continue at even two-digit rates in some markets, also France and Germany appeared to have joined that former group in early 2013.

Apparent development in Facebook user numbers between October 2012 and April 2013 (Screenshot: socialbakers.com, 2013-04-19)
Image caption: Apparent development in Facebook user numbers between October 2012 and April 2013 (Screenshot: socialbakers.com, 2013-04-19)

The media reports quickly turned out to be based on misinterpreted data. Apart from the subsequent debate on reliability and interpretability of the data – which in early May led to Socialbakers withdrawing the statistics in question from their public website – the more interesting point surfacing is the analysts’ estimate that, regardless of the initially false interpretation of their data, 62% of UK internet users using Facebook might indeed be a saturation point of sort.

From a social scientist’s perspective, there is much more authoritative data (especially of the qualitative kind) describing “social media fatigue” and the average citizen’s critical view on online technology than explicitly reverse-engineered quantitative data for use by marketing executives.

Yet, the discourse about the current data set reveals how there is a an awakening discussion on the fact that even the most popular technology will inevitably hit a point where growth stalls. The interesting question is how to account for this newly spreading attention that not everybody is going to be a user will eventually affect not just the design but also the business of social network services.

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