Memo to Princeton: Facebook Users Are Not Viruses

Maybe it’s not as scary as an outbreak of a contagious disease, but I am absolutely terrified of what passes for research at some of America’s top schools, these days. Judging by the pseudo-science used in a Princeton University paper that went viral last week, I’m afraid we’re all doomed.

In case you missed it, a couple of Princeton PhD students came up with a model that equates social network adoption to an infectious disease. And since the number of Google queries for Facebook (NASDAQ:FB) has begun to decline, as it once did for MySpace, these geniuses concluded that Facebook would lose 80% of its users within the next three years.

Oh yes they did.

As you might expect, that got all the left coast geeks really excited. It also incited tech bloggers from Mashable, Techcrunch, Slate and everyone else to study the paper and devote thousands of words to debunking its validity and methodology. The only reason I’m chiming in is that I think they all somehow managed to miss the point.

So what is the point? The point is, how in the world did something so absurd ever get all this airplay, let alone being published by an Ivy League University?

First of all, these guys and the professor who advised them are from the mechanical and aerospace engineering department. With all due respect to interdisciplinary studies, what in God’s name do these propeller heads know about social networks, Internet businesses, or the epidemiology of pathogens, for that matter?

The answer to that question is clearly “not much,” since the adoption and subsequent demise of MySpace, Facebook, and every other service or product – Internet, technology or otherwise – is primarily governed by the behavior of customers in competitive markets.

Look at it this way. People started using Facebook because they liked the product, enjoyed it, benefited from it, whatever. Likewise with LinkedIn (NYSE:LNKD) and Twitter (NYSE:TWTR). And, if you assume that people will continue to be into that sort of thing – which certainly appears to be the case – then as long as Facebook continues to keep them engaged with new features that beat the competition, that’s all she wrote, folks.

I’m not saying that will happen – I have no idea what Facebook or its users will do in the future – but that is the point. Nobody knows. And some dumb model can’t predict it, either.

In other words, this is about business, not biology. Just because somebody coined a phrase about products going viral doesn’t mean high-tech products literally behave like viruses invading living hosts, getting eradicated, and who knows that else? That’s just plain idiotic.

MySpace initially succeeded because people liked it. It ultimately failed for a whole bunch of reasons that are well documented: it was built on a lousy platform that didn’t scale well, it let ads get out of hand, and was acquired by a media company – not exactly a perfect cultural fit, to say the least.

As for the assumption that the entire paper is based on – that you can measure the adoption and abandonment of something, anything, based on how many hits it gets in a Google query – it took Facebook all of a day to similarly demonstrate that Princeton will have no students left by 2021 and that, by 2060, there will be no air left on planet Earth.

According to the paper’s acknowledgements, it is “the culmination of a talk originally presented at the 2012 Princeton Research Symposium … an intellectually stimulating forum for the discussion of research, without which this work would not have been conceived.” The authors also thanked the dean of the grad school, William B. Russel, for supporting the publication.

At this point, I’m thinking that anyone endowing the Princeton Graduate School has got to be scratching their heads, wondering what the heck is going on up there in New Jersey. I know I am.