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The Facebook juggernaut rolls on in Europe, but the first sign of declining growth rates has appeared. In particular, the site’s meteoric expansion in the UK is tailing off.
The social network gained more than 2.2 million active UK users in May 2010, according to Inside Facebook—an 8.9% rise that took total UK user numbers to 27.1 million on June 1. Growth was higher in the UK than anywhere else in Western Europe.
By midsummer a different pattern was emerging. In France, user numbers continued to climb, reaching 19.4 million on August 1, according to data from Inside Facebook. In the UK, by contrast, the tally of active users fell in June, and rose only 1.8% in July. As a result, UK user numbers on August 1 were actually lower than in June 2010. Seasonality may be responsible for some of this shrinkage, but this should not be a greater factor in the UK than in other European countries.
Robin Goad, research director at Experian Hitwise, summed up the trend: “Facebook's market share of UK page views has trebled over the last five years, but growth has slowed significantly over the last six months.” Hitwise also reported that the average amount of time spent on Facebook by UK users fell from 30 minutes in December 2009 to 27.36 minutes during June and July 2010.
This is not to say that the power of Facebook is necessarily waning among UK web users. More than a third of the entire population have Facebook accounts—the second largest national membership in the world, after the US. In May 2010, Facebook was the second most visited site in the UK after Google. According to Hitwise, it accounted for over 7% of all UK internet visits that month, and maintained that level of popularity through June and July.
Such usage figures point to the most likely cause of the slowdown in UK growth: market maturity. Inside Facebook calculated that in the month to August 1, 44.2% of UK residents visited the site. Only the US, with 42.1% penetration, approached this level of involvement. In France, about 30% of the population was active on Facebook in July 2010. Germany, with fewer than 10 million active Facebook users, also offers more potential for growth than the UK.
From a wider perspective, the apparent leveling off in Facebook’s UK user population is just one facet of consolidation in the social network space. Charles Arthur, writing in The Guardian in July 2010, suggested that social networking itself has left its formative phase behind: “Where are all the new social networks? I think they're gone. Done, dusted, over. I don't think anyone is going to build a social network from scratch whose only purpose is to connect people. We’ve got Facebook (personal), LinkedIn (business) and Twitter (SMS-length for mobile).”
The good news for Facebook is that—as Arthur’s comment implies—in 2010 the site has no serious rivals on the global stage.
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