Will Facebook go bye-bye when teens do?

Flickr user Rodrigo Bertolino

(MoneyWatch) Although Facebook (FB) has struggled in its early days as a public company, that's nothing compared to its latest hurdle: Teenagers may be tiring of the social network, according to some studies and anecdotal reports.

Why should it matter if  U.S. teens turn their noses up at Facebook, which after all has more than 1 billion users? Because the U.S. is the company's biggest source of revenue. More broadly, when you consider adoption of social technology, the emphasis has to be on the social, not the technology. If you look at how Facebook became popular in the first place, it was the clever -- whether conscious or not -- tactic of appealing to teens in a society that focuses and follows youth. When the young go off for something else, older users are bound to eventually follow.

Computer scientists have tried to understand how social networks die by looking at the demise of Friendster, as reported at TechnologyReview.com:

They say that when the costs -- the time and effort -- associated with being a member of a social network outweigh the benefits, then the conditions are ripe for a general exodus. The thinking is that if one person leaves, then his or her friends become more likely to leave as well and this can cascade through the network causing a collapse in membership.

But, frankly, that only touches on the mechanism, not the underlying cause, of how social networks lose popularity. That mechanism is an embodiment of the old Yogi Berra observation of a famous St. Louis restaurant: "Nobody goes there anymore. It's too crowded."

The question is who will be the first to go. In the case of Facebook, it may be teens. A recent survey suggests that teens now spend more time on Tumblr and Twitter, and even photo-sharing services Instagram and Snapchat, than on Facebook. In fact, Facebook has noticed the trend and mentioned it in its latest 10-K filing with the SEC. You might wonder whether this is why Facebook bought Instagram for $1 billion.

The obvious problem for Facebook is that it established itself with youth. Only then did it open its doors to older users, who were drawn by what the kids found so interesting. But what was new and interesting to young people almost a decade ago is now established and, well, old.

Facebook faces the distinct possibility that it could become the next MySpace. It seems more solid now, and would probably take longer to spiral out of control, but once the kids go, the adults are eventually sure to follow.

Image courtesy of Flickr user Rodrigo Bertolino

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    Erik Sherman is a widely published writer and editor who also does select ghosting and corporate work. The views expressed in this column belong to Sherman and do not represent the views of CBS Interactive. Follow him on Twitter at @ErikSherman or on Facebook.

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