June 7, 2013 at 5:54 AM ET
Sorry, Facebook — but it's time to change our relationship status to "It's complicated." While the Home of the Poke still retains a billion-strong user base, people are starting to use it less, divvying up their interactions and uploads, and all kinds of apps and services benefit as Facebook's hotness fades.
It used to be that we used Facebook to schedule parties, trade phone numbers, find old classmates, keep in touch with distant family members, share photos and generally opine. Now there are other ways to share photos and thoughts — and to connect with one another. Tumblr, Instagram, Google+ Hangouts, WhatsApp, SnapChat and others are luring people away from the convenience of Facebook's one-stop shop.
Part of the reason may be, well, your mom.
Facebook's full house
"It's hard to imagine any social space being forever cool once everyone is there," Danah Boyd, a senior researcher at Microsoft Research, who focuses on young people and social media, told NBC News. "It's all about hanging out with your friends in a place that's fun to explore without also having to put up with your great aunt's sense of humor and little sister's inappropriate comments."
Such a shift isn't exactly unprecedented. MySpace's downfall could be considered a recent example, and let's not forget about AOL Instant Messenger, LiveJournal, Friendster and the other proto-social nets. Do you remember thinking you couldn't live without AIM? It was great ... right up until your grandma started IMing you links to Snopes articles.
"For a while, consolidation made sense," Boyd acknowledged. Yet while teens aren't exactly deleting their Facebook profiles en masse now, she said, "they are exploring other spaces."
"I don't see — at this point — signs of a platform that has yet reached the dominance that we have with Facebook, but I think that folks are starting to compartmentalize more and use different platforms for different functions," Mary Madden — a senior researcher for the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project — told NBC News.
"We did hear again and again about the need to have a presence on Facebook," she said, referring to the focus groups conducted as part of her research. "But other tools and other platforms are starting to attract teens for a variety of reasons."
"I am basically dividing things up," a 16-year-old girl who took part in the Pew focus groups said. "Instagram is mostly for pictures. Twitter is mostly for just saying what you are thinking. Facebook is both of them combined so you have to give a little bit of each."
The shift to mobile
Teens live and breathe through their phones nowadays. And now, according to survey results released by the Pew Research Center in early 2013, over a third of them have smartphones. There, Facebook becomes just one of the many apps competing for their greasy finger taps.
Snapchat, a service that lets people send images or videos which self-destruct after 10 seconds, is a good example of an app benefiting from the most recent shift in social interest. In April, Snapchat reported 150 million "snaps" — or messages — per day, up from just 20 million in October 2012. (By comparison, there are now about 350 million new images uploaded to Facebook daily.)
Twitter's Vine, an app which allows users to record and share six-second videos, can count nearly eight percent of U.S.-based iPhone owners as active users, according to an annual Internet trends report from Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers partner Mary Meeker. WhatsApp, a messaging app, had over 200 million active users as of April, its CEO revealed during the AllThingsD Dive Into Mobile conference. Despite the fact that Facebook acquired Instagram, the app — which reached enormous popularity before it ever had a website — is typically viewed as an independent entity. It currently has 100 million active users, who upload about 40 million photos per day.
With smartphone apps, teens explore new spaces "with more emotional energy and enthusiasm because of the various ways that these new tools allow them to connect, share and socialize," Boyd told NBC News.
More importantly, she said, app experiences can be fleeting and light-hearted. It's a stark contrast to the drama involved when someone forges a more permanent "friend" bond on Facebook — only to later sever it with a click.
Meeker's report shows a jump in the percentage of people who say that, in 2012, they used YouTube, Twitter, Google+, LinkedIn, Pinterest, MySpace (yes, really), Instagram and Foursquare. At the same time, Facebook saw a little dip.
"Some of these sites are built to support and extend networks and others are really focused on sharing content and not so much on network extension," Pew's Madden said, remarking that it's difficult to even properly explain what a "social media" site or app is at this point.
As the definition of "social media" loosens, so does Facebook's grip on the masses — especially as people seek to recapture the lighthearted fun which drove them online in the first place.
"On Facebook, people imply things and say things, even just by a like, that they wouldn't say in real life," a 14-year-old who took part in a Pew focus group explained. "Facebook can be fun, but also it's drama central."
Want more tech news or interesting links? You'll get plenty of both if you keep up with Rosa Golijan, the writer of this post, by following her on Twitter, subscribing to her Facebook posts, or circling her on Google+.