OXFORD: Facebook is showing signs of a “mid-life crisis” as social media users aged 20 to 45 increasingly turn to messaging apps to share and discuss news with their real friends, according to an in-depth study.

While Facebook is still valued as a discovery platform, it appears that younger consumers are losing faith in it as a news source amid privacy fears, content clutter issues and partly because they want to avoid the toxicity of political debate in more open spaces.

In short, Facebook is often perceived as being too visible, especially after its well-publicised data privacy and “fake news” problems, and this is leading to a situation whereby news is surfaced on Facebook but socialised on apps like WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger.

These are some of the key findings in a report released last week by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford University, which aimed to provide more context and qualitative information to its 2018 Digital News Report that was published in June.

Conducted by Kantar Media, the research was based on focus groups with people aged 20 to 45 who said they used Facebook and messaging apps for news at least weekly.

The fieldwork – which assessed the views of users in the UK, US, Germany and Brazil – was conducted in February 2018 and therefore took account of Facebook’s changes to its News Feed algorithm that it announced in January.

As messaging apps grow in popularity, the report said that Facebook has “reached a peak” as a platform for news in many markets, noting that accessing Facebook for news has declined to 52% in Brazil from a high of 67% in 2014.

Similarly, just 39% of Americans now access Facebook each week for news compared to 48% in 2017, while usage in Germany and the UK remains at 24% and 27% respectively.

“Facebook’s remarkable growth over the past decade and a half has altered the user experience, and in some respects the platform has become a hostage to its own success,” the report said.

“Users’ growing collection of more distant acquaintances, and the expanded content mix of brands and advertising, have diluted the experience for many people, requiring them to become more discriminating in the way they use the platform. As news gained traction, and brand marketing grew, the posting of content by ordinary users began to be squeezed out.”

Further evidence of changing consumer perceptions came when the Kantar researchers asked their focus groups to come up with word associations for various social media platforms.

While Facebook was described as “professional”, respondents also used less flattering terms such as “sociopath”, “uncool uncle” and “mid-life crisis”.

By contrast, Facebook-owned WhatsApp was praised for being “fun”, “honest”, “reliable”, “discreet” and “dynamic” among other compliments.

Sourced from Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism; additional content by WARC staff