Helen Popkin
By
msnbc.com
updated 5/25/2010 4:37:17 PM ET 2010-05-25T20:37:17

There was just one story mainstream media and social media found equally important last year: the Iranian election aftermath of June 15-19, 2009. For those five days, the story took over headlines, blogs, Twitter and YouTube, according to a 29-week study by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism.

During the rest of that study period, social networks followed their bliss, with little similarities between the top news trending on brethren sites, let alone the mainstream media.

These basic results may seem obvious to  anyone who’s ever wasted time at work surfing the Internet, but the Pew study’s results, released this week, offer a valuable window on the rapidly changing way we collect and assimilate news, and what we as individuals consider “important.”

Consider: Over the last year, how many news items have you first learned about on Facebook or Twitter? From Michael Jackson’s death to the earthquake in Haiti, the social news experience — previously limited to the telephone or water cooler — is such a common experience now, we take for granted that we “heard” about big news stories first from our friends. According to the Pew Report:

  • Half of Americans say they rely on the people around themto find out at least some of the news they need to know.
  • Some 44 percent of online news users get news at least a few times a week through e-mails, automatic updates or posts from social networking sites.
  • In 2009, Twitter's monthly audience increasedby 200 percent.

“Each social media platform also seems to have its own personality and function,” the study pointed out.            

  • Blogs relied heavily on stories of emotion, with topics such as group rights and ideological passion.
  • Twitter’s main focus leaned toward technology, with topics often referencing Twitter itself. In other words, people on Twitter tweet a lot about Twitter. The site is generally used to pass along info and links to news stories on sources such as Mashable and CNET.
  • YouTube was well … YouTube. The most popular content was the most visual: Pope Benedict XVI getting knocked over during Mass on Christmas Eve, a Brazilian news anchor getting caught insulting some janitors. And of course, celebrity stuff. (I’m thinkin’ Lady Gaga.)

The extensive stats offered up in the Pew report don’t offer any easy solutions for mainstream media as it grapples with ways to wrest our short attention spans from the rest of the Internet. Case in point, the study found that stories that do gain traction in social media don’t hold our attention spans for long, often leaving the top spot on social networks within hours after arriving.

The study does, however offer an awesome insight into the various ways we navigate the ever-expanding Web. Turns out, we have very different agendas.

What are ya, chicken? Join Helen A.S. Popkin on Facebook or follow her on Twitter. All the kids are doin' it!

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