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Has Facebook's Active User Growth Dropped 25% to 50%?

Are a significant number of people canceling their Facebook accounts because of privacy concerns? The easy answer would be for Facebook to publish cancellation stats. I asked; they declined and gave me growth figures instead. Those growth figures suggest that yes, the privacy issues might be hurting.

Does Interest In Deleting = Quitting?

I’ve written twice this week now about how search-related data shows a spike in people seeking information about how to cancel their Facebook accounts:

But does that interest translate into actual cancellations? I asked Facebook if it would provide month-by-month figures for those deleting their accounts, along with user growth figures. Instead, I was provided this:

We don’t release the specific data you’re looking for. I can say that since our recent developer conference, Facebook has grown by more than 10 million active users.

How’s 15 Million Growth Compare?

That figure is referenced off Facebook’s F8 conference, held on April 21, three weeks ago. Changes announced during that conference sparked the current privacy outcry that Facebook has been struggling with ever since.

Despite that struggle, Facebook has gained more than 10 million active users in 3 weeks, it says. If that trend continues another week, Facebook would gain at least 13 million active users after a full month. Facebook also said it gained “more than” 10 million users in 3 weeks, so the figure could be higher. Let’s be generous and estimate that Facebook will see a 15 million active user gain after a full month.

That sounds positive. But to know for certain, you’d have to compare to past growth. If the privacy issue is taking a toll, you’d expect the number of active users to drop compared to previous months.

Looking At Past Growth

How many active users per month does Facebook typically gain? To get that figure, I turned to the official Facebook timeline and official Facebook blog posts, where they list and report on the number of “active” users. Here’s the summary, with links leading to blog posts that provided the figures:

  • August 26, 2008: 100 million
  • January 7, 2009: 150 million
    (50 million gain over about 4 months = 12.5 million per month)
  • April 8, 2009: 200 million
    (50 million gain over about 3 months = 16.7 million per month)
  • July 15, 2009: 250 million
    (50 million gain over about 3 months = 16.7 million per month)
  • September 15, 2009: 300 million
    (50 million gain over about 2 months = 25 million per month)
  • December 1, 2009: 350 million
    (50 million gain over about 2.5 months = 20 million per month)
  • February 4, 2009: 400 million
    (50 million gain over about 2 months = 25 million per month)

Growth Drop Of 25% to 50%

As you can see, lately Facebook has been reporting that it gains between 20 to 25 million active users per month. But since F8, Facebook looks likely to only gain 13-15 million active users per month. At worst (dropping from 25 million to 13 million), that’s a 48% decline — a drop of about half. At best, (dropping from 20 million to 15 million, that’s a 25% decline — a 1/4 drop.

Are Deleted Accounts Still Counted?

Is this drop due to people quitting their accounts? That’s hard to say. Much depends on what an “active user” is.

Facebook defines an active user as someone who’s logged in at least once in the previous 30 days, from the day stats are pulled (FYI, Facebook also says on its statistics page that half of its active users use the service on any given day).

Since the current privacy uproar is less than a month old, it seems too early for it to have caused the active user numbers to have dropped. Maybe some people have abandoned their Facebook accounts because of the change rather than formally deleting them. If so, they won’t be dropped as active users for a few more weeks, after a full 30 days of non-activity has passed.

As for people deleting accounts, if Facebook drops someone as an active user as soon as they delete their account (as you’d think they should), then perhaps there’s been a rise in deletions that is reflected in the lower growth figures.

Of course, Facebook also imposes a 14 day waiting period before before it really kills an account. It might not drop someone as an active user until then — which means fewer deletions would register against the growth figures.

Facebook also might not drop someone until a full 30 days has passed, even if they’ve put in a deletion request. In that case, no deletions would yet register against growth.

Are Fewer People Signing Up?

Another reason for the drop could be that fewer people are now signing up. Maybe Facebook’s growth just suddenly peaked. It does have a huge number of users already. Maybe fewer people are signing up because the privacy issues have put them off. Maybe something else has happend. I don’t know.

Facebook’s Take

I sent the calculations I’ve done above to Facebook, the estimates of growth from each time they’re reported a benchmark and how things seem to have slowed based on the latest figures they gave me. Was I way off base? If not, was there a reason for the drop?

Apparently, I’m way off base:

The 10 million figure is a rough approximation, which was a conservative, round number based on a conservative, round time frame.

The figures you’ve deduced from our user growth announcements on the Facebook blog are too inaccurate to use for any semblance of statistical analysis.  This is because the user number milestones we announce publicly do not always correspond to the exact date we reach these milestones.  For example, we sometimes hold a growth milestone announcement to correspond with another announcement (such as a product launch), so the number may be significantly higher on the date we actually make the announcement.  It’s impossible to speculate when exactly we reached these milestones.

I can’t say I found the response reassuring. The 10 million figure was accurate enough when handed out the first time, but when I question it, it transforms magically into a “rough approximation.” If it’s that bad, then when I ask a follow up on the figure, provide a more accurate one.

As for the growth figures, I know Facebook is still a private company, but it feels pretty misleading to do blog posts declaring you’ve reached a new growth milestone that apparently may be “significantly” different from the actual date.

But Here’s What You Said…

Heck, let’s look at exactly the words Facebook used. When Facebook hit 100 million:

We hit a big milestone today — 100 million people around the world are now using Facebook.

“Today,” not last week, not two weeks ago but we’re only telling you now because we have an event coming up. And 100 million. Not “more than” or “significantly higher” than 100 million.

At 150 million:

Today, we reached another milestone: 150 million people around the world are now actively using Facebook and almost half of them are using Facebook every day.

Same specific language as before. And which happens again with 200 million:

We will welcome our 200 millionth active user to Facebook some time today, and I want to take this opportunity to describe what this means to us and what we hope it can mean for everyone using Facebook.

Today. Yes, “some time today,” but not a week earlier, a month earlier — and a specific figure, 200 million.

At 250 million:

As of today, 250 million people are using Facebook to stay updated on what’s happening around them and share with the people in their lives.

Again: today. Again, a specific figure. And again, the same thing for the next announcement, of 300 million:

As of today, Facebook now serves 300 million people across the world.

It’s not until the 350 million mark that for the first time, Facebook mentions a new milestone without using the very specific word “today” and the qualification of “more than” before the figure it put out:

It has been a great year for making the world more open and connected. Thanks to your help, more than 350 million people around the world are using Facebook to share their lives online.

But at the next announcement, the specifics are back:

Today we’re celebrating our sixth birthday, and this week there will be 400 million people on Facebook. Just one year ago we served less than half as many people, and thanks to you we’ve made great progress over the last year towards making the world more open and connected.

“This week” is used — so at best, my estimates of the growth between the 350 million and 400 million marks — 25 million active users gained per month — gave them credit for something that maybe took a few days longer. Maybe gave them a few million more people because I was working from a “more than” 350 million mark. But the growth for that period doesn’t seem that far off even considering because of these factors — which themselves seem pretty insignificant.

I Still Think There’s Been A Drop

Overall, I feel pretty accurate that Facebook has been posting gains of 20 to 25 million people per month, based on their own blog posts. Far from being “impossible to speculate,” as Facebook argues, it seems pretty easy to benchmark exactly what’s happening given the very precise dates and active user figures Facebook itself has been reporting. If the dates and figures are incorrect, then Facebook needs to start qualifying stuff properly.

I also feel pretty accurate saying that Facebook is only likely to gain 13-15 million people in the month after F8, when the latest privacy issues exploded, working off the 10 million people gained in 3 weeks figure that I was originally given. If that was a rough conservative approximation, then Facebook’s now had two chances to get a more accurate figure to me. Deciding after the fact that an initial figure is “conservative’ when things don’t seem to add up doesn’t ring true.

As for why there’s been a drop, I don’t know. Facebook didn’t didn’t answer whether someone is still considered active if they’ve deleted their account.

Postscript: Followed up again with Facebook on counting deleted accounts and was told that deleted or deactivated accounts are not included in active user figures.

Postscript, July 23, 2010: Facebook announced that as of July 21, 2010, it hit the 500 million mark precisely:

As of this morning, 500 million people all around the world are actively using Facebook to stay connected with their friends and the people around them.

So how’s that measure against the growth numbers I posted above? Here they are again, this time with the 500 million mark added:

  • August 26, 2008: 100 million
  • January 7, 2009: 150 million
    (50 million gain over about 4 months = 12.5 million per month)
  • April 8, 2009: 200 million
    (50 million gain over about 3 months = 16.7 million per month)
  • July 15, 2009: 250 million
    (50 million gain over about 3 months = 16.7 million per month)
  • September 15, 2009: 300 million
    (50 million gain over about 2 months = 25 million per month)
  • December 1, 2009: 350 million
    (50 million gain over about 2.5 months = 20 million per month)
  • February 4, 2009: 400 million
    (50 million gain over about 2 months = 25 million per month)
  • July 23, 2010: 500 million
    (100 million gain over about 4.5 months = 22 million per month)

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