People spend over 700 billion minutes per month on Facebook. To put that number in perspective, that's roughly how long it would take the every single person living in Tampa, FL (population 335,709 in 2010 according to the U.S. Census Bureau) to earn a standard, four-year bachelor's degree online.
Granted, to rack up those numbers it takes Facebook's 750 million users (or 310 million daily unique users) and assumes that the hypothetical online students are online 24/7, but the point, or rather the question, is: Are people really getting anything out of Facebook? Out of social media, in general?
The short answer is yes. The long answer is so dramatically changing the way we learn and how we get our news that Encyclopedia Britannica is wrapping up its print edition after 244 years and nearly half of all Americans get some form of news online at least three times per week.
Journalism: the decline of print, the reign of online and the rise of social
More dramatic than the move from tangible textbooks to electronic ones has been the move away from traditional print media. According to the 2011 State of the News Media report from the Pew Research Center, only 40 percent of people say they get their news from newspapers, compared to 46 percent who get their news online. The 2012 version of the same study found that nine percent of digital news consumers say they follow news recommendations from social media sources "very often". That said, social media links directly account for nine percent of all traffic to news sites, more than double the amount recorded in 2009.
A 2012 study from AYTM surveyed 400 people and found that more than 1 in 4 regularly get news from social media, and just over half have found out about breaking stories via social media channels before it appeared on official news sources. How does breaking news hit social media outlets before actually being reported on? Here are a few recent examples:
- The ferry passenger who tweeted pics of the 2009 US Airways plane crash in the Hudson river as the boat he was on came to the rescue.
- The annoyed Pakistani who was tweeting about the noisy helicopter in his neighborhood at 1am without realizing he was live-tweeting about the raid on Osama bin Laden's hideout.
- The Egyptian protests that were covered as they were being coordinated on Facebook.
There are many more stories than these three big ones -- and many, many more that turned out to simply not be true. In the past year, for example, both Jackie Chan and Morgan Freeman have been declared dead on Twitter only to issue Mark-Twain-esque statements about the news of their deaths being greatly exaggerated shortly thereafter. Issues like these make it difficult for users to trust everything they see on Facebook and Twitter, which is a major hurdle.
Give the people what they want
News organizations are adapting to give social media lovers what they want, but these markets are as diverse as they are demanding. For those who do get their news from social media sites, there are different desires and formats needed for each demographic/user group, requiring targeted sharing techniques for maximum effect:
- On Facebook, 70 percent get most of their news from friends and family, versus the only 13 percent who get it from news organizations and journalists, 10 percent who get news from non-news organizations and nine percent who aren't sure.
- On Twitter, only 36 percent get news links from friends and family, as opposed to the 27 percent who get it from traditional news orgs and journalists, the 18 percent who get it from non-news organizations and the 19 percent who simply don't know.
The simple truths behind all of this: We are living in the Information Age, and the methods for the dissemination of information are constantly changing and rapidly evolving. With around one in four Americans getting news almost exclusively from mobile devices in the last year, something that wasn't even remotely possible twenty years ago, this evolution has never been more apparent. One can only hope that real news continues to be valued, and that the lowest common denominator doesn't dictate what's news.