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First Published: Fri, Jan 24 2014. 02 13 PM IST
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Facebook takes on Princeton in data wars

Facebook debunks Princeton University’s research, predicts school won’t have students by 2021
Facebook takes on Princeton in data wars
Facebook’s irritation undoubtedly has stemmed from the fact that the Princeton researchers have drawn an analogy to the dynamics that govern the spread of infectious disease. Photo: AFP
Mumbai: Will Princeton University die before Facebook Inc., the world’s largest social networking site, collapses? Or, will it be the other way around? Or, is this simply an exercise in mindless data juggling to increase eyeballs?
If Princeton researchers are to be believed, then 80%, or about 800 million, Facebook users will abandon the site, similar to addicts getting rid of their addiction.
In a paper released last week, researchers John Cannarella and Joshua A. Spechlerthe used epidemiological (studying patterns, causes and effects of health and diseases) models to explain user adoption and abandonment of online social networks, where adoption is analogous to infection and abandonment is analogous to recovery.
The proposed infectious recovery model is validated using publicly available Google Inc. (which, ironically, has its own social networking site called Hangouts that was earlier Buzz, and, of course, not to forget Orkut, of which not much is seen or heard these days) search query data for MySpace as a case study of an online social network that exhibited both adoption and abandonment phases, the researchers said.
They then applied the same model to search query data for Facebook, which they say is just beginning to show the onset of an abandonment phase. “Extrapolating the best fit model into the future predicts a rapid decline in Facebook activity in the next few years,” the researchers said in their paper.
Not surprisingly, Facebook debunked the research. The firm’s data scientists Mike Develin, Lada Adamic and Sean Taylor used Google Trends search data to suggest, “Princeton will have only half its current enrolment by 2018, and by 2021 it will have no students at all, agreeing with the previous graph of scholarly scholarliness.”
“Based on our robust scientific analysis, future generations will only be able to imagine this now-rubble institution that once walked this earth,” the Facebook analysts said on 23 January. “While we are concerned for Princeton University, we are even more concerned about the fate of the planet. Google Trends for air have also been declining steadily, and our projections show that by the year 2060 there will be no air left.”
To be sure, both researches have published data that has not been reviewed by peers.
Facebook’s irritation undoubtedly has stemmed from the fact that the Princeton researchers have drawn an analogy to the dynamics that govern the spread of infectious disease.
“The application of disease-like dynamics to OSN (online social network) adoption follows intuitively, since users typically join OSNs because their friends have already joined,” the Princeton researchers said. “The precedent for applying epidemiological models to non-disease applications has previously been set by research focused on modelling the spread of less-tangible applications such as ideas.”
Ideas, like diseases, have been shown to spread infectiously between people before eventually dying out, and have been successfully described with epidemiological models, they said. Again, this follows intuitively, as ideas are spread through communicative contact between different people who share ideas with each other, they argued.
“Idea manifesters ultimately lose interest with the idea and no longer manifest the idea, which can be thought of as the gain of “immunity” to the idea,” the Princeton researchers said.
However, while there’s some amount of Facebook fatigue that would have set in, given that the site has over 1.2 billion users, comparing the website with a disease is more than just a stretch.
On 5 February last year, Pew Research Center’s Internet and American Life Project suggested considerable fluidity in the Facebook user population with 61% of users saying that at one time or another in the past they have voluntarily taken a break from using it for several weeks or more. It also found that 20% of online adults who do not currently use Facebook say they once used the site but no longer do so. while 8% of online adults who do not currently use Facebook are interested in becoming users in the future.
In the December-quarter earnings call, Facebook’s chief financial officer David Ebersman said that while overall number of teen users are stable, there have been persistent anecdotal accounts of a drop in teen usage of Facebook in favour of newer services such as Snapchat and Instagram (also owned by Facebook).
The fact remains that with Instagram, Facebook commands more mobile time spent on the service than YouTube, Pandora, Yahoo, Twitter, Pinterest, Tumblr, AOL, Snapchat, and LinkedIn combined, according to comScore, a data researcher.
Both Princeton and Facebook have their reputation to protect, and in this new age when data goes viral in minutes and gets viewed and reviewed by millions of users, they will do better with carrying on their good work rather than rubbishing each other’s achievements with uncooked data.
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