Talking Points

The real threat to Facebook isn't regulation. It's teenagers.

Facebook has had a terrible fall. Documents released to the media by whistleblower Frances Haugen have provided a cornucopia of revelations — that Mark Zuckerberg's company bargained away free speech rights for access to Vietnam, that execs knew its Instagram app harms teen girls, and that its algorithm promoted rage-inducing content to keep users engaged. (No wonder we're so angry all the time.)

The parade of scoops is at least partly a function of Facebook's power and size. The platform reportedly has 2.91 billion monthly users, which is a sizable portion of the planet's population. Facebook might not be a country, exactly, but it touches more people in more places than just about any institution on Earth. What it does matters

But what if Facebook has peaked? 

There was a hint of flop sweat coming from Zuckerberg Monday during an earnings call with investors, but not because of all the recent bad publicity. He said the company is "retooling" to become more popular with young people. Facebook might be huge with your mom and her generation, but it's the favorite social network of just 3 percent of American teens. (Snapchat and TikTok, at 31 and 30 percent respectively, lead the pack.) Teen users of Facebook have declined by 13 percent in the last two years. Going forward, Zuckerberg said, Facebook's focus will be making "our services ... stronger for young adults."

Good luck with that. If the social media era has taught us anything, it's that once a social network loses its cachet, it's tough — perhaps impossible — to recover. The first platform I ever used was Friendster, which was very briefly popular back in the aughts. After that came MySpace, which created so much frenzy Rupert Murdoch bought it. Today, Friendster no longer exists, and MySpace no longer matters.

Facebook probably won't decline so precipitously. It's inserted itself into our online interactions so thoroughly it's difficult to simply ignore the app. Lots of people use their Facebook account to sign into other services, like Spotify. And one of the company's offerings, WhatsApp, is used by a billion people the way earlier generations used AT&T: as the default form of long-distance communication. 

Before a company can entangle itself in your life, though, you actually have to use it. Young people aren't doing that. Whistleblower revelations may lead Congress to regulate Facebook or even break up the company. But the real threat to Facebook's power and influence in our lives might be all those teens who think Snapchat is cooler.