I opened Facebook, on this day after the President’s State of the Union address, to scan the comments of friends and suss out what’s on the minds of my colleagues and peers. The President’s speech wasn’t the best, but surely it was riddled with talking points well worth discussing over the virtual water cooler this morning.
I scanned my page and then laid eyes on the Trending feed, a feature Facebook rolled out two weeks ago. There, in the upper right of my Facebook page, is a list of “popular topics and hashtags,” according to the company’s description of the feature. The promo for Trending goes on to explain:
You’ll see stories from people and Pages who’ve shared them with you or have shared them as Public. From the right side of your homepage, click a topic that’s trending to see what people are saying about it.
I recognize that this is not exactly curated news. Still, it provides some insight into the stories that capture the attention and perhaps imagination of the American public. That’s important to understand because, according to a study from the Pew Research Center in collaboration with the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, 47% of adult Facebook users – or about 30% of the population – “get” there news on the social network. Because Facebook is not a managed news media, I can only assume that by “get,” these adult Americas mean “see something that someone I know thinks is important enough to sharing” since that is, essentially, how Facebook news feeds and the Trending feature work.
So what’s on the mind of America (and by “America,” I mean the 2,300 or so people who are my Facebook friends)?
Budweiser’s Super Bowl ad campaign tops the list, followed by a weather reporter’s perfect shot to the groin of a video-bombing college student, the sad news that Motley Crue is breaking up, Oprah’s 60th birthday, and something about the Seahawks and Skittles. By late morning, the State of the Union address hit the top 10 list at Number Eight, though still not a peep about the deadly snowstorm in the Southeast, a congressman threatening a reporter, a Nobel nomination for Edward Snowden, or even a cruise cut short by a suspected norovirus. Those were the stories at the top of the AP’s list this morning.
Motley Crue, Oprah, and Skittles were no where to be found in the Guardian’s U.S. edition daily headlines, which instead reported a Supreme Court stay of execution, the caught-on-camera threat by Congressman Grimm, the deteriorating relationship between the US and Hamid Karzai, and Snowden’s nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize.
Even CNN, which panders for clicks as much as many social sites, put the Georgia storm and reaction to the President’s address, ahead of an interactive Oscar Awards picker and Justin Bieber’s latest antics.
Which is to say that as American turn away from stuffy old news media, they are gorging themselves on junk news in a social media machine that then propagates empty-calorie stories, promoting them above the nutritional information so important for a healthy democracy.
We have become like children who, when faced with a choice of candy and cake or chicken and broccoli, take the candy every time. If crowd-curated, social stream news is the stuff by which American becomes informed, we risk a culture of information obesity, one in which we are over feed and under nourished.
And that, my friends, is scary stuff.