Tech Talk

Observations from Jamie DeLoma, journalist and computer nerd

Reading the pulse of our society

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Facebook released a fascinating snapshot of its users Monday afternoon.

In its most recent company blog post, Lars Backstrom offered a perspective of the world as perceived through the words of the social network’s users in status messages over the past year.

Among the top status trends in 2009 on Facebook in order, according to the blog:

  1. Facebook Applications
    Specific words: Farmville, Farm Town, Social Living
  2. FML (or F*** My Life)
    Specific words: FML
  3. Swine Flu
    Specific words: Flu, Swine Flu, H1N1
  4. Celebrity Deaths
    Specific words: Michael Jackson, Patrick Swayze, Billy Mays
  5. Family
    Specific words: Family, Mom, Dad, Son, Daughter, Kids
  6. Movies
    Specific words: New Moon, Transformers, Star Trek, The Hangover, Paranormal Activity, Harry Potter
  7. Sports
    Specific words: Steelers, Yankees
  8. Health Care
    Specific words: Health Care, No one should have to…
  9. FB
    Specific words: FB, FB Friends, News Feed
  10. Twitter
    Specific words: Twitter, RT
  11. Years
    Specific words: 2008, 2009, 2010
  12. Lady Gaga
    Specific words: Gaga, Poker Face
  13. Yard
    Specific words: Yard
  14. Religion
    Specific words: Easter, Lord, God
  15. I
    Specific words: I, is

The data provides some insight into the social network’s users.  Among the most striking aspects to me:

  • How prominent applications have become in users’ experiences on Facebook.  I could attest to how many notifications I receive daily sparked by applications; some days, I am sorry to admit I have nearly as many from applications as I do friends.
  • How honest, or perhaps frank, users are about their lives. 
    NOTE: According to the blog posting, this term was used the least over the summer and the most on Mondays and Tuesdays.  On a note, it was posted that it was used more commonly on Tuesdays.  This to me, seems to be an indicative of young people continuing to utilize the social network to communicate among peers.  I wouldn’t expect folks using the network for professional means to use the term “FML,” which is generally used to discuss a negative element of one’s day or existence.
  • It makes sense that people discussed the swine flu, as it was one of the most prominently reported stories of the year.  It also makes sense as the target demographic is young people.  However, according to the post, the use of the word was used the least on Sundays.  There is no indication as to the reason.
  • The only surprising thing about celebrities making the list is how relatively low it is.  I would have guessed it would have been higher than swine flu.  According the post, Patrick Swayze’s death was almost as discussed as Michael Jackson’s.  I would think this is the data’s first indication of an older audience.
  • According to the data, “New Moon” was the most discussed movie.  Personally, I thought it wasn’t very good.  I am also surprised that movie chatter didn’t fare higher on this list.
  • Facebook users discussed the Yankees and Steelers more than any other teams, according to the data presented on the blog.  It makes sense as the Pittsburgh team won the Super Bowl and the Yankees won yet another World Series championship. 
  • Health Care: An interesting trend.  While this issue has consistently been in the news since President Barack Obama’s inauguration in January, it surprised me it made this list.  I would think the social network’s older demographic would have propelled it into such a trending topic.  According to the data, millions of people posted “No one should die because they cannot afford health care, and no one should go broke because they get sick. If you agree, please post this as your status for the rest of the day.” Apparently viral marketing works.  Beyond that, health care mentions are up 10 times since a year ago, according to the data.
  • It didn’t surprise me that people discussed Facebook or Twitter on Facebook.  Social networkers tend to be opinionated.  As for Twitter, many people tie their Twitter accounts with their Facebook equivalent.
  • Frankly, I was shocked to see Lady Gaga in the top mix.  I knew she was huge, but had no idea she was this big.  This is clearly a mark of the younger demographic.
  • Yard took me and Facebook by complete surprise. According to the data, it appears that the newer, older demographic have been updating their friends on the yard work they have been doing. 
  • The mention of religion, according to the data, was up 30 percent over last year.  I would think this is yet another indication of newer, older users who tend to be more in line with God and religion.  It has been my experience that fewer of my teenage and high school friends mention the church or synagogue as often as my older friends do.

According to Facebook, there were almost 100 million words a day posted in status updates at the beginning of the year. That is up by a factor of four in the past year.  No one could dispute that Facebook has become an integral part of our society.  And as such, Facebook offers a unique perspective of what the pulse of our nation, and indeed world, truly is.  While it is far (read: far, far, far, far, far) from perfect, it is one of the best we have.  And as more people sign on to Facebook from more diverse demographics, the more accurate that pulse will become.

Jamie DeLoma

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