Facebook has suffered its first drop in numbers in 17 months of successive monthly gains. That's according to online usage research firm Nielson Online, which claims the number one social networking site experienced a 5 per cent drop in unique users between December and January from 8.9m to 8.5m.

Facebook’s biggest rival, MySpace, also experienced a 5 per cent drop during the same period, with a unique monthly user figure of five million. Third-placed and teenage-focused network, Bebo, suffered a 2 per cent drop between December and January, with figures of 4.1 million unique monthly users.

Beginning of the end for Facebook?

So, is this the beginning of the end for the popularity of social networking sites in the UK? Alex Burmaster, European internet analyst at Nielsen Online, certainly doesn’t think so.

"Just as one swallow doesn't make a summer, so one month of falling audiences doesn't spell the decline of Facebook or social networking. It was inevitable that the early growth rates couldn't be sustained and the larger networks have been plateauing over the last few months.”

Increased competition between major players

As far as Burmaster is concerned, the main social networking sites could be about to enter a phase of increased competition with each other as the pool of new users decreases and sites are forced to ‘steal’ users from each other to facilitate growth:

“Growth amongst the big players looks to be more about getting people from their competitors, not attracting new people to social networking,” he said.

There’s certainly no need for any of the main players to panic though, because the global appetite for social networking remains insatiable – last month’s dip is but a drop in the ocean. In fact, even taking last month’s drop into account, Facebook’s audience in the UK has still risen by a huge 712 per cent in the past twelve months.

The curse of the zombie bite and pointless movie quiz invitation is going to be with us all for some time yet, it would seem.