Hot gossip, recipes, cute baby photos and juicy tidbits about office Christmas party shenanigans aren't the only things being shared on Facebook these days. Many folks actually use the social network king to pass on interesting news articles, too. In fact, a look at what made the list of the top 40 most shared articles on Facebook in 2011 can offer some interesting clues to publishers and media outlets as to what makes a story "shareable."
Topping the list is a sobering New York Times post featuring satellite photos of Japan before and after the massive earthquake and tsunami from earlier this year. Most of the links in the top 10 and beyond, however, represent what many experts might construe as inconsequential human interest stories, trivial oddities, and sensationalistic snippets that cater to short attention spans-with headlines ranging from "Parents, don't dress your girls like tramps" and "Giant crocodile captured alive in the Philippines" to "No, your zodiac sign hasn't' changed" and "Man robs bank to get medical care in jail." But perhaps there is more here than meets the eye.
What can we learn from this list? Plenty, says Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Research Center's Internet and American Life Project, Washington, DC. "A lot of these articles have an over-the-back-fence feel to them, representative of the kinds of things people talk about when socializing," says Rainie. "They help drive conversations. Facebook users think, ‘This will get more attention for my wall if I post this story.'"
Wendell Potter, a media analyst, author and watchdog based in Philadelphia, says the common thread shared by all their articles is the ability of each to connect emotionally with readers. "Many of these stories are very offbeat and not typically seen in the six o'clock headline news," said Potter. "But what struck me overall was that all of these articles had strong human interest elements. Some really tugged on your heartstrings, like the piece about the dog mourning the death of the Navy Seal killed in Afghanistan. This reinforces that you can personalize a story and have a much greater chance of connecting with your audience."
While most of the ranked articles boast "good-old-fashioned storytelling," other elements-including compelling headlines, and multimedia dimensionality a la eye-catching photos, graphics and video-combine to capture readers' attention, says Rainie.
"In a social media and sharing environment, people's personal news agendas often don't line up with the items getting the most coverage in the mainstream media on a given day," Rainie says. "(Facebook users) can have very different sensibilities and tastes than journalists."
Rainie found it interesting that all 40 items on the list were generated by only six publishers: CNN, Yahoo, The Huffington Post, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post.
"This reinforces the fact that there are fewer originators of the news today. There's a conglomeration of news outlets, which is a disturbing trend," Potter says. "We're seeing more metropolitan areas lose newspapers, and fewer news organizations have the allegiances of readers. It's ironic that we're led to believe that the internet has enabled us to get news and even become our own publishers, but people are still accessing a limited number of sources they consider to be the most reliable."
Nevertheless, in an era dominated by social networking sites, news can be the ultimate conversation starter, Rainie insists. "With new online tools for sharing, linking and posting at your disposal, it becomes an even richer conversation," he says.
The lessons to be learned by publishers who didn't make Facebook's list are numerous, says Potter. "If I ran a newspaper, I'd spend a lot of time studying this list, how the stories were developed and what made them appealing," Potter added. "To survive in today's media world, you want to be on a list like this."