Of all the revelations stemming from the recent Facebook Files expose, based on documents leaked by former Facebook staffer Frances Haugen, the most significant insight was not that Instagram might be bad for kids (which we already knew), nor that Facebook gave additional consideration to high profile users (which actually makes some sense).
Potentially the biggest insight, in a broader business sense, was this note, included as part of Haugen’s pre-prepared testimony for her appearance before a Senate panel on consumer protection:
“Facebook has failed to disclose internal data showing a contraction of the user base in important demographics, including American teenagers and young adults. The company has also hidden the extent to which content production per user has been in long term decline.”
Haugen has also provided internal research stats to support this claim, including this chart:
Which isn’t overly surprising - Facebook stopped being the cool platform years ago (evidently about nine years ago to be exact). But it is a major issue for The Social Network, because like MySpace before it, Facebook knows that longer-term usage trends take root in younger age groups, which makes the projections for the platform’s longer-term appeal seem somewhat bleak.
But then, of course, these stats don’t tell the whole story, because Facebook purchased Instagram in 2012 for this exact reason. Facebook knew that it was losing its place as the top social app among the youth, while Instagram was steadily on the rise, so it moved to acquire the visual-focused app in order to cover its bases, and ensure that it didn’t lose touch with the kids (note: Facebook also made a big push to buy up Snapchat as well, but was rebuffed by Snap CEO Evan Spiegel).
Which has worked out, mostly. Instagram has gone from 50 million users to a billion under Facebook’s ownership. But there’s also more detail to this than the top line figures would suggest, because while Instagram does have a billion active users, it actually reached that milestone in 2018. It hasn’t posted an update to that usage figure in the three years since.
Does that mean that Instagram’s momentum has slowed - and with TikTok on a rapid rise, does that also suggest that Instagram has also now lost its youth appeal, and is no longer able to act as Facebook’s ambassador for the younger social media crowd?
We don’t know, of course, because as Haugen notes in her testimony:
“For years, Facebook has misrepresented core metrics to investors and advertisers including the amount of content produced on its platforms and the growth in individual users.”
Facebook only reports the data it chooses to, and because of this, we can only speculate based on the information that Facebook does provide, which provides some indication of broader trends, but not demographic or platform-specific usage data, for the most part.
Facebook doesn’t share Instagram-specific user data, but for the last two years, it has provided regular updates on its ‘Family’ of apps usage, incorporating total users across Facebook, Messenger, Instagram and WhatsApp.
So what does that tell us?
As you can see here, in the last two years, Facebook’s Family of apps stats have gone from 2.76 billion to 3.51 billion monthly active users in total (+750m). Facebook itself, which we do have individual stats for, has added 481m users in this time frame, which means that, overall, Facebook’s other apps have added 269m unique users in the same span.
That’s not exactly mind-blowing growth - and that, to be clear, is not Instagram specific, that figure is across all of Facebook’s apps.
That’s also not a full overview of Instagram. Messenger and WhatsApp usage necessarily, as the data here accounts for unique users, so people who are already active on Facebook could have also downloaded these other apps and they wouldn’t be counted in this variance.
But still, the lack of an Instagram-specific update in three years is a concern.
Maybe it now makes more sense as to why IG has been so keen to replicate TikTok.
Does that mean that Facebook is done for? Definitely not. The company is on track to bring in more than $100 billion in revenue in 2021, and it continues to expand into new regions around the world. But its investment into new technologies, like VR and AR, as well as its commitment to the evolving Metaverse concept, are critical levers that will help the company maintain relevance.
But it could change the focus for ad dollars moving forward - and if Facebook stumbles on these new tech bets, that could indeed become a much bigger issue for its future.