Facebook reported dazzling first quarter results last week: Net income nearly tripled to $1.5 billion, and monthly active users hit a record 1.65 billion. But it’s a much smaller number that leapt out at me.
That’s the average amount of time, the company said, that users spend each day on its Facebook, Instagram and Messenger platforms (and that’s not counting the popular messaging app WhatsApp).
Maybe that doesn’t sound like so much. But there are only 24 hours in a day, and the average person sleeps for 8.8 of them. That means more than one-sixteenth of the average user’s waking time is spent on Facebook.
The average time that users spend on Facebook is nearing an hour. That’s more than any other leisure activity surveyed by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, with the exception of watching television programs and movies (an average per day of 2.8 hours). It’s more time than people spend reading (19 minutes); participating in sports or exercise (17 minutes); or social events (four minutes). It’s almost as much time as people spend eating and drinking (1.07 hours).
“When you really think about it, 50 minutes is a tremendous amount of time — it’s huge,” said Ken Sena, a managing director and analyst at Evercore who covers consumer Internet companies. “Usually, when a platform expands its user base, the average time spent goes down, because a lot of new people aren’t that active.”
But the average time people spend on Facebook has gone up — from around 40 minutes in 2014 — even as the number of monthly active users has surged. And that’s just the average. Some users must be spending many hours a day on the site, prone to the unofficial syndrome known as Internet Addiction Disorder.
“They’re doing a tremendous job of finding ways to keep people on the site,” Mr. Sena said.
While the Bureau of Labor Statistics surveys nearly every conceivable time-occupying activity (even fencing and spelunking), it doesn’t specifically tally the time spent on social media. Credit Ira Gay Sealy/The Denver Post, via Getty Images
Facebook’s chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg, disclosed the 50 minutes metric almost as an aside during the company’s earnings call last month. But it could well have been the opening slide in his presentation, because time has become the holy grail of digital media.
Continue reading the main story
Facebook Plans New Stock Class to Solidify Mark Zuckerberg’s Control APRIL 27, 2016
How You’re Making Facebook a Money Machine APRIL 29, 2016
Americans Use More Online Social Networks JAN. 9, 2015
A column by James B. Stewart that goes inside the world of business.
Europe’s Case Against Google Might Help Rivals More Than Consumers
A Marriage Gone Bad: Walgreens Struggles to Shake Off Theranos
The S.U.V. Arms Race Goes Upscale
Behind the Scenes at Disney as It Purged a Favorite Son
Corporations No Longer Sit Idly By on Discrimination
See More »
Time is the best measure of engagement, and engagement correlates with advertising effectiveness. Time also increases the supply of impressions that Facebook can sell, which brings in more revenue (a 52 percent increase last quarter to $5.4 billion).
And time enables Facebook to learn more about its users — their habits and interests — and thus better target its ads. The result is a powerful network effect that competitors will be hard pressed to match.
Ranked by average time spent on the platform, Facebook has few rivals. According to the latest data from comScore, the only one that comes close is Alphabet’s YouTube, where users spent an average of 17 minutes a day on the site. That’s less than half the 35 minutes a day users spent on Facebook, based on comScore’s data (which, unlike Facebook’s 50 minutes, is derived only from users in the United States).
Users spent an average of nine minutes on all of Yahoo’s sites, two minutes on LinkedIn and just one minute on Twitter, according to comScore. No wonder Twitter is struggling to attract ad spending.
People spending the most time on Facebook also tend to fall into the prized 18-to-34 demographic sought by advertisers.
“Generally speaking, higher usage on Facebook skews to younger users, and towards millennials specifically,” said Andrew Lipsman, vice president for marketing and insights at comScore. “You hear a narrative that young people are fleeing Facebook. The data show that’s just not true. Younger users have a wider appetite for social media, and they spend a lot of time on multiple networks. But they spend more time on Facebook by a wide margin.”
Schoolboys sitting on a window sill squeeze together to get a better look at a comic book in 1955. In 2014, the average American spent 19 minutes a day reading. Credit Van Ophuysen/BIPs, via Getty Images
The surging popularity of Facebook and other social media naturally brings up some questions: What aren’t Facebook users doing during the 50 minutes they spend there? Is it possibly interfering with work (and productivity), or, in the case of young people, studying and reading?
That data is hard to come by. For one thing, people don’t want to admit in surveys that they are using social media when they are supposed to be doing something else.
While the Bureau of Labor Statistics surveys nearly every conceivable time-occupying activity (even fencing and spelunking), it doesn’t specifically tally the time spent on social media, both because the activity may have multiple purposes — both work and leisure — and because people often do it at the same time they are ostensibly engaged in other activities, according to a bureau spokeswoman.
The closest category would be “computer use for leisure,” which has grown from eight minutes in 2006, when the bureau began collecting the data, to 14 minutes in 2014, the most recent survey. Or perhaps it would be “socializing and communicating with others,” which slipped from 40 minutes to 38 minutes.
But time spent on most leisure activities hasn’t changed much in those eight years of the bureau’s surveys. Time spent reading dropped from an average of 22 minutes to 19 minutes. Watching television and movies increased from 2.57 hours to 2.8. Average time spent working declined from 3.4 hours to 3.25. (Those hours seem low because much of the population, which includes both young people and the elderly, does not work.)
The bureau’s numbers, since they cover the entire population, may be too broad to capture important shifts among important demographic groups. ComScore reported that television viewing (both live and recorded) dropped 2 percent last year, and it said younger viewers in particular are abandoning traditional live television. People ages 18-34 spent just 47 percent of their viewing time on television screens, and 40 percent on mobile devices. Among those 55 and older, 70 percent of their viewing time was on television, according to comScore. So among young people, much social media time may be coming at the expense of traditional television.
A family watching television together in 1950. The average time Americans spent watching TV in 2014 was 2.8 hours a day. Credit Keystone Features/Getty Images
Mr. Lipsman of comScore said he was skeptical that social media use could be blamed for stagnating productivity or a decline in educational standards. He said comScore’s data suggests that people are spending on average just six to seven minutes a day using social media on their work computers. “I don’t think Facebook is displacing other activity,” he said. “People use it during downtime during the course of their day, in the elevator, or while commuting, or waiting. That’s the biggest driver of so much of this engagement.”
Facebook, naturally, is busy cooking up ways to get us to spend even more time on the platform. A crucial initiative is improving its News Feed, tailoring it more precisely to the needs and interests of its users, based on how long people spend reading particular posts. For people who demonstrate a preference for video, more video will appear near the top of their news feed. The more time people spend on Facebook, the more data they will generate about themselves, and the better the company will get at the task.
As a company spokeswoman, Jessie Baker, told me: “The time people spend on our site is a good measure of whether we’re delivering value to them. The better we do at providing what people most want to see, the more likely they are to return to the app and spend time.”
Obviously there are limits to how much time Facebook users can spend since there are only 24 hours in a day. But short of that, “I don’t feel there’s any upper limit,” said Mr. Sena, the analyst. “Everybody wants to be the platform that’s on all day, kind of like some people used to have their television on all the time. Facebook is probably in the best position because people are already such active users.”