Facebook users create their own virtual newspaper and it looks a lot like a tabloid

Earlier this week, Facebook published a list of the 40 most-shared stories in 2011. Once we put aside the definitional problem that arises when you publish an annual list for a year before the year is actually over, we can have a lot of fun with this list.

What I did was to categorize all 40 of the most-shared stories in terms of broad subject areas that might describe sections of a newspaper, segments of a TV news show, or topic areas on a news website such as Google News or the homepage of Yahoo!

Here are the results of my analysis:

Topic # of Stories
Child-rearing 7
Humans doing weird or stupid things 7
Breaking news stories 5
Cute animal stories (mostly dogs) 4
Technology stories 4
Famous people dying 3
Career and relationship advice 3
Astrology 3
News-related opinion pieces 3
Science 1

The astrology stories all concern the buzz earlier in the year that there were really 13 zodiac signs. That’s not going to happen in every year, so let’s take these out of consideration. Now I’m not proposing to remove the famous death category, even though that category was dominated by Steve Jobs, nor to take out breaking news, even though that category was dominated by the Japanese tsunami and subsequent nuclear disaster. Every year a person as well-known as Steve Jobs will die, and every year there will be some major disaster as well as other important news. But not every year will astrology get a jolt.

The first thing that should hit all of use is the fact that Facebook users pass so many stories about child rearing on to their friends. It makes a lot of sense, though, because when people get together, those with children spend a lot of time talking about them.

Let’s say we were to take child-rearing and astrology stories out of the list. What we’re left with looks a lot like the contents of a tabloid newspaper, the home page of Google News or Yahoo! and the lineup for a local television news show: some news or news analysis and a lot of features.

It’s striking what’s missing from this list that is a staple in the mass media:

  • Stories about celebrities such as movie and reality TV stars living out their lives through buying, using or displaying material possessions
  • Stories about new things to buy, whether it’s gadgets, food, vacations or entertainments.

Not one story about Lady Gaga, J-Lo, Kate Middleton’s wedding, the Kardashians, Charlie Sheen or any of the “Jersey Shore” crew made the top 40.

While analyzing the top 40 stories transmitted via Facebook  may not provide an accurate reflection of what people want to see  in the mass media, it does suggest what people value enough to pass on to those who are close to them. The analysis makes a good case but doesn’t prove that Americans, or at least those who use Facebook, are not that interested in the steady stream we receive of information meant to inspire, coerce or goad us to mindlessly buy more things.

The other missing topic on the list is sports.  There were two sports-related stories, the Penn State sex abuse scandal and Former Duke basketball player Grant Hill’s New York Times Op/Ed piece defending the Dukee’s African-American b-ballers from Jalen Rose’s accusation that they were “Uncle Toms.” Child abuse went into the breaking news category and Hill’s Op/Ed went into the opinion category. If one of the top 40 had been about the marriage of a sports star, I would have put it in the untapped celebrity column.

The bigger point is that based on this one list, we can postulate that people don’t use Facebook to share real sports stories to the degree that they do to share stories about stupid dog tricks or breaking news. No game-winning homers, incredible catches or posterizations made the list. Why is that?

Here’s one thought: We are completely inundated with sports reporting on sports-only radio stations, TV networks and websites, sports reporting in virtually all other media (such as National Public Radio) and sports star advertising spokespersons. I’m a casual sports fan, but I have noticed over the past few years that when I watch a game with a rabid sports fan, he (always a he) usually is on his cell talking or texting about the game to other friends of his. I imagine that some are keeping in touch via Facebook. What I think has happened is that social media has been integrated into the sports viewing experience so that it is less necessary to share the results after the game.

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