It’s not hard to look at the list of the 40 most shared articles on Facebook in America this year and draw some conclusions, although I’m not sure those conclusions are necessarily the most flattering about Facebook users: Apparently, if you’re looking for something truly viral to spread through that particular social network, you should be looking for a tragic story about families and dogs, and ignoring news in favor of sentiment.
It’s true, the most shared story of the year is the New York Times‘ Satellite Photos of Japan, Before and After the Quake and Tsunami, but that’s pretty much the exception that proves the rule; of the 40 stories in the list, fourteen of them have some familial connection, with three of those in the top 10 (CNN’s What Teachers Really Want To Tell Parents, CNN’s Parents, Don’t Dress Your Girls Like Tramps and Yahoo’s Father Daughter Dance Medley).
If you include pets as family, that number rises to 17, with two of those in the top 10 (Weirdly enough, they’re both “Aren’t dogs loyal?” stories from Yahoo: At Funeral, Dog Mourns The Death of Navy SEAL Killed In Afghanistan and Dog in Japan Stays By The Side of Ailing Friend in The Rubble. Yahoo, you clearly have a successful niche here—stick with it!). By comparison, there’s only one breaking news story in the list at all—CNN’s report on the death of Steve Jobs—with the news analysis pieces that make it on there predominantly looking at things from the human interest angle.
What’s missing from the list is almost as interesting as what’s on it. With the exception of stories about the death of Steve Jobs (there are three; the CNN obit, a NYT story about his patents and “A Sister’s Eulogy”) and a CNN story about how much you’ll “freak when you see the new Facebook”, there aren’t any tech stories, and outside of the Huffington Post’s Why We Should Stop Celebrating Osama Bin Laden’s Death and the aforementioned story about the soldier who died and the dog that loved him, there’s no mention of war.
Similarly, outside of Obama’s and Bush’s Effects on the Deficit in One Graph and the NYT pleas to Stop Coddling The Super-Rich, the current financial situation is ignored. Occupy Wall Street doesn’t rate a place, neither does the Republican presidential nominee race, surprisingly. But then, the idea that perhaps there should be 13 zodiac signs instead of 12 does get three spots on the list, so maybe that pushed those stories off by accident.
If you’re noticing a recurring theme in terms of the sources for these stories, it’s because the list is dominated by the same sites, over and over again. Yahoo gets 12 stories on the list, CNN has 10, the New York Times has seven, the Huffington Post has six and the Washington Post makes an appearance at the end with two stories. I’m not sure whether this should be counted as a victory for the work of the social media teams for these outlets or whether there’s a previously-unconsidered-yet-potentially-interesting Venn diagram to be made of the Facebook audience and mainstream media demographics. But still: These sites, especially Yahoo and CNN, should feel suitably proud of their rankings on this list. I’ve already made a mental note to try and add the words “Heartwarming” and “Dog” to all Facebook links I’ll be posting from now on, in the hopes of competing.
Maybe I shouldn’t be surprised that Yahoo’s Golden Voiced Homeless Man Captivates Internet takes the #25 spot, while Golden-Voiced Ted Williams Headed Back to Rehab doesn’t rate. What sticks out about the list is that it’s essentially devoid of conflict. Yes, there are sad stories and stories condemning other people’s actions (don’t dress your girls like tramps, remember), but even with those stories, there’s something weirdly comforting about the stories contained on that list, somehow.
In some cases, the comfort comes from a communal sense of sadness or mourning (as in the stories about the Japanese earthquake, or Steve Jobs’ death), and in others, the ability to take solace in how much other people disagree with something as much as you do (Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior), or similarly empathize while tutting (Man Robs Bank to Get Medical Care in Jail). Whether it’s down to the sheer scale of Facebook’s user base or the attitudes of those doing the sharing, the fact is, the most shared articles on Facebook in 2011 are the kinds of stories that, in earlier times, would be clipped from newspapers and sent from parents to their children with notes attached saying “How sad!” “How funny!” or “Did you see this?” as applicable; inoffensive, agreeable and somehow easily ignored, in the grand scheme of things.
The full list is here. Go and see how many stories you have shared with friends and family.
Graeme McMillan is a reporter at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @Graemem or on Facebook at Facebook/Graeme.McMillan. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.