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Why do some people like to think that Facebook might die?

Would they be relieved to be free from its grip? Validated in a secret conviction that it was never as big a deal as everyone said? Does Facebook’s death seem so impossible it’s become a kind of underdog to root for? Or is it just good gossip: Did some of us have a good time bragging over who was the first to leave MySpace, and do we want to do it all over again?

A study by Princeton University researchers went viral last week when news sites spread its prediction that 80 percent of Facebook’s users would abandon the site by 2017.

Eighty percent. By 2017.

Yikes.

That idea is particularly tough to accept after today’s announcement that Facebook took in $2.6 billion in revenue last quarter and grew to 1.2 billion users, beating expectations. But this prediction had a reputable source — Princeton! — and the weight of science.

People couldn’t resist it. I couldn’t resist it. I tweeted out The Guardian’s story on the study to the tune of 10 retweets, 4 favorites and later, regret.

As you might have guessed, the study is not as credible as the straight-faced headlines made it appear. It’s not peer reviewed, for one. (Why it was published so media could pick it up is a great question.)

It’s by graduate students in Princeton’s department of mechanical and aerospace engineering, not some acclaimed social media specialists (though the students did win third place at a Princeton research symposium for ideas behind the paper).

As for the basis for the study’s prediction — a model for the spread of infectious diseases applied to an analysis of Google search trends for the word “Facebook” — it raises too many questions to believe.

The graph behind the prediction, from the Princeton researchers' draft paper.
The graph behind the prediction, from the Princeton researchers’ draft paper.

“Nothing sells on Facebook like another story about how Facebook is evil, uncool, or—best of all—doomed,” wrote Will Oremus of Slate. He’s right.

Oremus gave a layman’s look at the paper’s flaws, as did Lance Ulanoff of Mashable, David Holmes of Pando Daily, tech experts consulted by MarketWatch, social interactions researcher P.J. Lamberson and even Facebook itself.

In a rebuttal, Facebook data scientist Mike Develin wrote that using the researchers’ same logic, Princeton will have half its current enrollment by 2018 and there will be no air left on earth by 2060, since searches for the word “air” have been in steady claim.

The post was tongue in cheek. Obviously. But he made his point.

“As data scientists, we wanted to give a fun reminder that not all research is created equal – and some methods of analysis lead to pretty crazy conclusions,” Develin wrote.

The 80 percent prediction has been all but dismissed by thinking geeks by now, for now.

It’s been used as evidence that journalists can be too quick to bait page views (true) and that academics and scholarly conventions can be too slow to keep up with a fast changing space (also true). Facebook has been losing teenage users here and there, but it’s hardly in decline.

The researchers model what could happen to Facebook after what happened to MySpace. From the researchers' published draft paper.
The researchers model what could happen to Facebook after what happened to MySpace. From the researchers’ published draft paper.

Oremus summed up the paper’s findings another way: “If you assume that Facebook is like Myspace, bring in a fancy model adapted from epidemiology, and crunch the numbers, it turns out that Facebook is a lot like Myspace.”

But weak papers with weak convictions come out all the time. These researchers are in the crosshairs because they made a high stakes claim about not just one of the most talked about companies on the planet, but the platform that’s done the most to change the way we talk at all.

It starts to feel like political ideology: Either you like Facebook or you despise it. Either you’re enlightened or infected. Either you want it to live, or you’re waiting for evidence that it’s about to die.

Or a little of both.

“The only thing people love more than using Facebook is hating on it,” Holmes wrote.

It’s possible Facebook will lose 80 percent of its users in three years. But it should take more than a headline to expect it.

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