Just how long social media stalwarts like Facebook (NASDAQ:FB) can continue to dominate Internet users' time isn't a new question. But the debate gained a bit of steam recently when a noted venture capitalist with a knack for locating, and profiting from, upstart social media platforms -- including Facebook wannabe Twitter (NYSE:TWTR) -- said that 2014 was when "the social media phase of the Internet ended."
That can't be good news for industry leader Facebook, right? However, even if the social media prognosticators are correct -- which they might not be -- Facebook shareholders shouldn't be too concerned. Why? Because the growth of social media usage is by no means "ended," and Facebook is leading the way in taking advantage of future opportunities. And while there is a shift in how "friends" are communicating, which some pundits predict will overtake the Facebooks and Twitters of the world this year, CEO Mark Zuckerberg has it covered.
It's not what you say, but how you say it
According to social media naysayers, "The big platforms are mature. Their place is secure," which leaves little to no growth potential going forward. The culprit, the story goes, is the advent of messaging -- and this is backed up by data on the explosive use of big-time messaging apps like WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger.
After compiling usage information over the past two years, Business Insider suggests that the combined growth of the top four messaging apps has pushed the number of users to nearly 2 billion, just shy of the combined usage of the top four social media apps. And, assuming the trend toward messaging continues, there will actually be more total messagers than social media users before 2015 comes to an end.
There's certainly empirical evidence supporting the messaging growth data. For example, it's taken very little time for WhatsApp to skyrocket to 700 million monthly average users (MAUs), and with a little help from Facebook, its Messenger app jumped to 500 million MAUs just as quickly. Of course, requiring users to download Messenger rather than use the "traditional" Facebook site to shoot notes to friends jump-started its rapid MAU growth, but it's likely Messenger will continue to add users.
Not so fast
Though Twitter remains in a growth stage, albeit a slowing one, as it battles to gain all-important MAUs and improve user engagement, social media sites like Facebook are certainly maturing. But to suggest there aren't growth drivers going forward, let alone social media MAUs increasing today, is a bit of a stretch. In fact, Facebook, and possibly Twitter, have plenty of opportunities to gain new MAUs.
Case in point: there are about 3 billion Internet users today, which is equal to approximately 40% of the world's population. As of last quarter, Facebook boasted 1.35 billion MAUs, or nearly half the world's online population. Toss in Twitter's 284 million MAUs, and it's easy to see why industry pundits would suggest the upside is minimal. But not so fast.
Though Zuckerberg's Internet.org initiative isn't expected to dramatically impact the four billion or so potential non-connected folks in the near future, it's certainly a step in the right direction. As Facebook's penetration makes abundantly clear, a good-sized portion of Internet users will make friends with social media once they're connected. That makes those four billion non-connected folks all potential MAUs.
In the near term, one of Facebook's prime properties -- Instagram -- flies in the face of the idea that social media growth is over. Last month's announcement that Instagram's MAU's have jumped to over 300 million from about 200 million just nine months earlier doesn't quite fit the negative mold. Instagram also boasts engaged users, nearly twice that of Twitter. As for Facebook, 864 million users access its products daily, a level of engagement that is the envy of the social media universe.
As for the messaging apps, the largest around is WhatsApp, a $19 billion acquisition of Facebook's that could prove to be a windfall, along with Messenger. Social media will continue to grow, and Facebook will continue to generate impressive revenues as a result. But even if that growth slows while the rest of the world gets connected, there's a good chance all those MAUs shifting to messaging are using Facebook properties to do it.