Wed, Nov 13, 2013 - Page 9 News List

Facebook threatened by teen exodus to new messaging apps

Teenagers are saying ‘goodbye’ to Facebook and ‘hello’ to messenger apps just as their parents get the hang of social networking, because these apps offer more privacy and give online communication a more personal feel

By Parmy Olson  /  The Observer, LONDON

Illustration: Mountain People

Facebook made a startling admission in its earnings announcement this month: It was seeing a “decrease in daily users, specifically among teens.” In other words, teenagers are still on Facebook, but they are not using it as much as they used to. It was a landmark statement, since teenagers are the demographic who often point the rest of society toward the next big thing.

Their gradual exodus to messaging apps such as WhatsApp, WeChat and KakaoTalk boils down to Facebook becoming a victim of its own success. The road to gaining nearly 1.2 billion monthly active users has seen the mothers, fathers, aunts and uncles of the generation who pioneered Facebook join it too, spamming their walls with inspirational quotes and images of cute animals, and — shock, horror — commenting on their children’s photos.

No surprise, then, that Facebook is no longer a place for uninhibited status updates about pub antics, but an obligatory communication tool that younger people maintain because everyone else does.

All the fun stuff is happening elsewhere: on their mobile phones.

When mobile messaging apps such as WhatsApp first emerged in 2009, they looked like a threat to mobile carriers. Everyone from Vodafone to Dutch operator KPN was mentioning them in sales calls.

Mobile operators are estimated to have lost US$23 billion in text message revenue last year due to messaging apps, which host free instant messages through a phone’s data connection, which these days is often unlimited. Now these apps are becoming a threat to established social networks as well.

WhatsApp, the most popular messaging app in the UK and on half the country’s iPhones, according to Mobile Marketing Magazine, has more than 350 million monthly active users globally. That makes it the biggest messaging app in the world by users, with even more active users than social media darling Twitter, which counts 218 million.

About 90 percent of the population of Brazil uses messaging apps, three-quarters of Russians and half of Britons, according to mobile consultancy Tyntec. WhatsApp alone is on more than 95 percent of all smartphones in Spain. The power users and early adopters of these apps, the ones you are most likely to see tapping their thumbs over a tiny screen, are under 25.

Part of the reason is that gradual encroachment of the gray-haired ones on Facebook. Another is what messaging apps have to offer: private chatting with people you are friends with in real life.

Instead of passively stalking people you barely know on Facebook, messaging apps promote dynamic real-time chatting with different groups of real-life friends, real life because to connect with them on these apps you will typically already have their mobile number.

The trend flies in the face of the recurring criticism of young people that their social lives are largely virtual, when many more are embracing the virtues of privacy and services like WhatsApp, which shun advertising.

“I only use WhatsApp to communicate and send pics these days,” said Natalie West, a twenty-something financial sales associate in London.

In the past few years she has used Facebook less and less because she does not want “the whole world to know” what she is doing.

When people set up events and get-togethers on Facebook, West and her boyfriend tend to reply on WhatsApp instead because “it’s more personal.”

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