Are Social Readers Really Collapsing?

Buzzfeed ran an interesting article earlier on the demise of social readers. Apparently user numbers for Facebook apps from the Washington Post and the Guardian are falling off a cliff. CNET even went so far as to say “the only thing that’s spreading is a viral disgust with the application”. Ouch.

Now this is pretty big news seeing as it’s just a few weeks since the Guardian was saying that social would overtake search as a traffic driver, a prediction trumpeted by Facebook in it’s IPO prospectus on Thursday.

What’s more, the Buzzfeed article came only a couple of weeks after a remarkably a similar piece on Business Insider, this time using the same Appdata reporting to show how Pinterest was ‘dying’.

Again, we can see the same pattern of an apparently popular app suddenly falling off a cliff:

But this is where it gets interesting. If you check the stats today, you’ll see that Pinterest is suddenly making the sort of recovery that would impress Lazarus, if not the writers at BI.

So how do we explain this change of fortune? And are Open Graph applications really doomed?

Well firstly, changes in technology usually have a far bigger impact on these sorts of numbers than any conscious decision by users to change their behavior. It’s unlikely that 10% of Pinterest’s audience decide, over the course of 48 hours, that they’re not interested in it anymore. But it’s entirely possible that tweaks to Facebook’s Graphrank algorithm mean you see a 10% drop in ticker impressions, and hence clicks, overnight. I think that’s what Ryan Kellett, an Engagement Producer at WaPo, was getting at with his Tweeted response to the Buzzfeed piece.

Secondly, a degree of flux in the numbers is inevitable as all these apps are pretty new. Taking a 30 day snapshot of the data and using it to illustrate a long term trend is hardly useful, as the Pinterest example illustrates.

Unfortunately, ‘hot property X crashes and burns’ makes a better headline than something more nuanced.

The boring truth is that establishing the long term value of some of these apps will take time. And while maybe they won’t overtake search as a traffic driver, as a core part of Facebook’s product strategy you can be sure they’re not just going to ‘die’ overnight.