waves021108.pngSkeptics looking for signs that social networks like MySpace and Facebook are in terminal decline got excited last month. Then, Comscore numbers surfaced that showed social network users had spent relatively less time on sites in December and clicked on fewer pages than in previous months.

Well, MySpace has taken a look at its Comscore numbers for January (which Comscore hasn’t yet officially published), and is in turn excitedly telling blogs that engagement levels are up. The average Myspace user spent 204 minutes on the site, a 14 percent rise over December and the highest number since August, with a near-equal rise in number of pageviews.

Monthly fluctuations in traffic shouldn’t be read into too much, either for positive or negative spin, in my opinion. Sometimes waves go up, sometimes they go down.

I, for one, don’t expect these sites to keep growing forever, and to keep every single user they’ve ever gained. There are only around 300-some million people in the US, and they can’t possibly all use a social network — or two or three — for two hours every day, and keep their activity up forever.

Instead, these changes in number of users and pageviews seem to be best explained as seasonal changes in user behavior, as Nick O’Neill points out. Facebook experienced 23 percent growth in page views over the past year, and an 80.5 percent growth the total number of minutes spent on the site.

Meanwhile, MySpace, which got big before years before Facebook, experienced an 8.6 percent growth in page views over the past year and was flat for the total number of minutes spent on the site compared to last year.

Note: MySpace redesigned its site last fall to reduce the number of pages that users had to click on to navigate the site. Rising pageviews and time on the site could indicate that users appreciated the changes and responded by using MySpace more in January. To me, this indicates that social networks are in increasingly stiff competition to keep their users happy.

Long term, what’s realistic to expect out of social network user stats? Is a slight drop in users or time on the site a sign of “fatigue” as Silicon Alley Insider puts its, or is it maturity.

Going forward, I expect to see sites like MySpace and Facebook showing month-to-month traffic stats that look like a wave — peaks and troughs, with a flat line that you can draw through the midpoint of each wave. I don’t expect to see an eternal hockey-stick of growth in number of users, pageviews, or time spent on site.

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