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Could Facebook really lose 80% of users by 2017? Not likely

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A study by Princeton University researchers says Facebook could lose 80% of its users by 2017, but that if that sounds far fetched to you, it's because it is.

To forecast Facebook's downfall, the researchers applied a model that is used to study the spread of disease to search queries made on Google for the Menlo Park social network.

The researchers chose that method because they said social networks can be accurately compared to disease as users typically join them when their friends do, and they also leave them when their friends do. This is comparable to being infected with a disease and then recovering from it, according to the study.

To validate that theory, the researchers first applied the disease model to Myspace, saying the once popular website accurately portrays the full lifespan of the social network. After concluding that the model fit for MySpace, it was applied to Facebook, whose search queries saw a decline in 2013.

Using the model, the researchers conclude that Facebook will lose 20% of its base by December and will lose an additional 60% of its users from 2015 to 2017.

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Although the science seems to add up, there are a few reasons why this probably won't happen.

For starters, Myspace is not the best social network with which to compare Facebook. At its peak, Myspace had 75.9 million monthly active users. Facebook, meanwhile, said it had 1.19 billion active members in September. Facebook has reached levels Myspace never hit.

With so many users, losing 80% would mean that 952 million active users would have to stop visiting the popular social network by 2017. Facebook would have to average losing more than 317 million users annually for three years -- that's about the population of the U.S.

Although search queries -- not active users -- for Facebook did decline in 2013, the company has only seen its monthly active user base grow since it launched in 2004. Seeing a drop as big as the one the researchers predict would be more than surprising -- it'd be the first time Facebook sees a decline in users.

There's no question Facebook's popularity is beginning to fall among some groups, especially teenagers, but unlike MySpace or other social networks, Facebook has gone beyond being just a social network.

The Menlo Park company provides services that are vital to users and businesses. Facebook is used by companies to reach out to consumers, it's used by users to message one another, it is used to sign into other apps and online services, and most importantly, it is the world's directory.

It's not impossible for Facebook to see its user base decline, but even if it does, it probably won't lose 80% of its users in the next three years.

Facebook and the Princeton University researchers declined to comment.

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