Are Messaging Apps to Blame for a Dip in Social Network Use?

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A recent study showed that the use of social networking services continues to rise in many countries, but in the U.S., U.K., China, and Japan, the usage of social networking websites fell. Could messaging apps and other forms of social media that often aren’t counted as traditional social networks be to blame for a dip in the usage of those traditional social networks?

As TechCrunch noted, research conducted by U.K. telecoms regulator Ofcom found that the use of social networking websites dipped in the U.S., U.K., China, and Japan between September 2013 and October 2014. The report notes that while social networking and reading news online are the two most popular Internet activities on a smartphone in all countries studied except Australia — where mobile banking is more popular than reading news online — the number of people accessing social networking sites in the U.K. each week fell to 56% of users in October 2014 from 65% in September 2013.

While the number of weekly social network users increased year-on-year in many countries, in the U.K., U.S., China, and Japan, the proportion fell. In September 2013, 65% of U.K. Internet respondents reported using social networks at least once a week; that figure fell to 56% in October 2014. In the U.S., the figure fell from 56% to 54%. In China, the proportion fell from 62% to 57% over the same period, and in Japan, it dropped three percentage points to 42%.

Source: Stakeholders.ofcom.org

The majority of Internet users accessed social networks on a weekly basis in all of the countries studied, except for Japan, where only 42% did so. Whereas 71% of mobile phone and smartphone owners in Spain and 74% in Italy used their phones for social networking, just under two-thirds of respondents in the U.K. said they accessed social networking sites on their phones. And in Japan and China, reading online news is more popular (58% and 75%, respectively) than social networking (47% and 64%, respectively).

Social networking is most popular among users ages 18 to 24, and in the U.K., 74% of users in that age group used social networks at least once per week. In France, Italy, Australia, and Spain, more than 80% of 18- to 24-year-olds used social networking sites each week. In Japan, where the reach of Facebook and Twitter is low, the majority of Internet users aside from those in the 18-to-24 age group did not use social networks on a weekly basis. But 65% of Internet users ages 55 to 64 in Italy and 70% of users in the same age group in Spain reported using social networks at least once a week, and users ages 55 to 64 in Italy and Spain were more likely to use social networks than 18- to 24-year-olds in the U.S., Japan, and China.

The social networking activities that users engage in are constantly diversifying

Ofcom says that a possible reason for the decline in social networking usage in the U.S., U.K., Japan, and China may be the growing popularity of social media services that don’t involve traditional networks of connections. TechCrunch notes that online video sites and instant messaging are two popular online activities that are thought to be detracting from social networks’ hold over users’ online social lives, and cannibalizing social network usage.

Video is an especially important part of the strategy for services all along the spectrum of social networking. So far, the traditional powerhouse in online video is still dominant. Ofcom reports that while a quarter of mobile Internet users used Facebook to access video content in the U.S., U.K., Spain, and Italy, 36% of U.S. mobile internet users visited YouTube at least once in August 2014.

But as Business Insider reported recently, online video is an area where Facebook is determined to increase its share. Facebook has added an autoplay feature for videos in the News Feed, increased mention of the importance of video in its calls with investors, and is reportedly trying to get YouTube stars to create content especially for its platform. Video is an area of focus for Twitter, as well, as it plans to add the ability to record and share native videos sometime in 2015.

YouTube has traditionally enjoyed a monopoly over online video, and Facebook wants in on the opportunity to reach a demographic that increasingly is turning away from Facebook: teenagers. And even YouTube isn’t immune to declines in usage. Facebook’s growth in desktop video views has already taken a small chunk out of YouTube’s audience as YouTube’s unique video viewers on desktop decline. YouTube showed a 9% decrease in viewers year-over-year, falling to 150 million unique viewers in September.  The decline is attributed in part to a shift to mobile and in part to broader industry trends diversifying where users get their content.

What constitutes a social network?

Similarly, users’ idea of social networking services — which Ofcom defines as “A website that allows users to join communities and interact with friends or to others that share common interests” — is expanding beyond the boundaries of traditional social networking services. That fact is further emphasized by Facebook’s acquisition of messaging app WhatsApp earlier this year, and by the popularity of alternate social platforms like Snapchat or Instagram, which Facebook also owns.

Instagram recently surpassed Twitter in its count of monthly active users. Instagram not only has more users than Twitter but is acquiring new users more quickly than Twitter. Social networks and apps that enable users to share visual posts, especially video, are considered a significant area of growth, and mobile-first services like Instagram are diverting attention from traditional social networks like Facebook.

Facebook, in its constant effort to experiment with ways to expand and diversify its reach through a variety of social experiences, recently released an app called Rooms, which enables users to create discussion boards on any topic and invite others to join, either via a private or public invitation. Rooms enables users to use different usernames from room to room and define the rules and tone of the rooms they create. The app is reminiscent of the early days of the Internet, recreating the unlinked array of chat rooms and discussion boards for the Instagram generation.

The social networking drop coincides with an uptick in the popularity of messaging apps

A Business Insider article over the summer referred to messaging apps as “the growth story of the decade in mobile.” Between March 2013 and March 2014, the messaging app market, as represented by the top seven players, expanded 148%, adding 900 million users.

While photo-sharing apps in general, and Instagram in particular, also saw impressive growth, messaging represents a much wider, more international category, with more companies building successful apps and finding ways to monetize them. From Facebook Messenger to Snapchat, WhatsApp, LINE, WeChat, Viber, and Tango, messaging apps continue to add users in record numbers, demonstrating that users are happy to build their own, private circles for their social interactions on mobile.

As Josh Miller, who leads the team that created Facebook’s Rooms, revealed at the time that the app was unveiled, the goal is to approach the app as a platform rather than a social network. A platform gives users the tools to create their own community and to choose their identities for themselves. He noted that with Rooms, “we didn’t build the social network, we built tools for you to make the social network that’s perfect for you.”

While not every new social networking app pushes that idea to the length that Rooms does, it’s clear from the diversity of the social experiences that users enjoy on their phones that they like to be able to define how they interact with others, choosing whether they converse privately or publicly; on a dedicated online video site or via the videos that show up in their feed on a social network; or via a large social network or through a messaging app that connects them with smaller, more immediate groups of people.

The increasing complexity of the social networking landscape makes it possible for users to try many modes of staying connected with each other, and traditional social networks face both more and wider competition than ever before.

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