The top 40 most shared stories in America during 2011 have been revealed by Facebook. So what does America's 'most shared' list tell us about the state of media consumption and journalism in the US today?
The Huffington Post dominated topped the chart. 10 articles from the online-only news organisation feature in the list, more than any other outlet. The highest charting entry from the HuffPo was entitled: 'Michelle Obama dances 'The Dougie' & 'the Running Man''. Not exactly Pulitzer winning reporting. However, when it comes to all things political, HuffPo Politics was the most visited political news website in the USA this September, according to comScore.
Eric Eldon of TechCrunch judged the contents of the list to be "sensationalised" and "polarized" reporting, with few contributions from non-mainstream media outlets. It is interesting to note that provocative headlines like "Should the American flag be banned in America?", from Fox News made the chart at number 32 above MSNBC and CNN articles detailing President Obama's announcement of Osama Bin Laden's death, which came in a 35 and 36 respectively. The CNN article reporting the news of Bin Laden's death entitled 'Osama Bin Laden, the face of terror, killed in Pakistan' charted at number four.
The increased popularity of material with sensationalist headlines does seem to support Eldon's argument that content with the capacity to go viral is not necessarily neutral, well-balanced and objective. Does this mean that content-sharing statistics, which have rapidly become an important measure of success in the industry - particularly since the launch of Facebook's social reading applications in September - encourage bad journalism? Not necessarily.
Increased content sharing means increased page views - which means increased ad revenue. This could obviously lead news organisations increase production of sensationalist headlines, or 'linkbait', to lure readers into reading and then sharing. The Huffington Post is often accused of creating too much 'linkbait', the paper's 10 chart positions seem to show it's an effective strategy.
It could be assumed that users will share content that is amusing; i.e. Michelle Obama burning up the dancefloor and an ironic analysis of President Obama's birth certificate (numbers 6 and 7 respectively), simply because light-hearted content is simply more appropriate for everyday conversations between friends; however, result number 1 seems to go entirely against the idea that popular content is low-quality journalism from mainstream media outlets.
The most shared story in the US this year was the open letter explaining the position of Occupy Wall Street protestors to a man who posted a photograph showing his opposition to the movement. The letter was posted on a blog The Daily Kos, not a mainstream media outlet, the author was not a journalist by profession and while the letter expresses a political standpoint, it does so in a measured and empathic manner - hardly the 'polarized' and 'sensationalised' type of retort that would have topped the pole if content sharing was all about dancing First Ladies and Hawaiian birth certificates.
So while 'linkbait' might be useful in driving up page views, what Facebook's most-shared stories of 2011 show is that while America likes a laugh, it still has time to share and discuss opinions about the politics of the day.