Status updates on Facebook help people understand their friends and the people around them--how they're feeling, what they're doing and what they're thinking. In the United States alone, people on Facebook are sharing hundreds of millions of words every day, thousands per second, in status updates. When taken as a whole, these words offer a unique barometer into the issues, world events and thoughts that are connecting people.
In the tradition of year-end lists, we're introducing Facebook Memology. "Memology" refers to the study of how "memes," or new ideas and trends, are spreading on Facebook. For this year's list, the Facebook Data Team mapped the top trending words and phrases in U.S. status updates for 2009.
While significant news events and celebrities made the list, more personal topics like family, religion and even emerging digital slang were as common—no doubt reflecting the way people share their daily lives with friends on Facebook.
To generate the list, we started by looking at how many times each phrase with length from one-to-four words occurred in U.S. Facebook status updates, then we computed the rate at which each phrase occurred in 2009 compared to 2008. Using some data-mining methods detailed here, we analyzed important bursts in activity around words and series of words to find the key trends for the year. All personally identifiable information was removed from the status updates to conduct this analysis, and no one at Facebook read the individual status updates.
Because quite a few words and phrases were related to each other and correlated contextually, we grouped some of them together to form the final list that follows.
1 - Facebook Applications
Specific words: Farmville, Farm Town, Social Living
Facebook has provided a platform for developers to create a number of hugely popular applications, and it is no surprise that people are talking about them. You could almost say that 2009 was the year of the farm in status updates. Since its emergence in June 2009, Farmville became the most talked-about application in status updates and now boasts over 72 million monthly active users. It wasn't alone. Farm Town also ranked highly, as did general discussions with the word "farm."
2 - FML
Specific word: FML
This digital slang became the hottest acronym to enter the Facebook lexicon in 2009. It spread from relatively low usage to become a mainstream word in status updates. FML is used almost exclusively online and in text messages, and its meaning, once very specific, has broadened. People now use it simply to express some frustration with an aspect of their lives. We'll leave the "F" open to your interpretation, but the "M" and L" stand for "My Life."
The beginning of May appeared to be a seriously frustrating time for people, when students were busy with finals and the weather was rainy just before summer. We saw a lull in "FML" in the summer months and, as expected, there was strong weekly periodicity to this term with it appearing most often on Mondays and Tuesdays.
3 - Swine Flu
Specific words: Flu, Swine Flu, H1N1
Swine flu, or H1N1, was probably the biggest ongoing news story of the year. Discussion of H1N1 in status updates reached a peak in the spring—long before the flu itself began affecting many people. When flu season began in the fall, people began discussing the term again, though never with the same frequency as when it first appeared. Another interesting trend is that no one called the virus H1N1 when it first appeared, but by September the effort to disassociate the term "swine" from the illness was fairly successful and "H1N1" occurrences now roughly equal "swine." Surprisingly, the use of the word "flu" over the year consistently peaked during the middle of the week and was at its lowest on Sundays. We're not sure why.
4 - Celebrity Deaths
Specific words: Michael Jackson, Patrick Swayze, Billy Mays
No celebrity death had as immediate of an impact on status updates as Michael Jackson's. Mentions of his name were 10,000 times higher on June 25, the day he died, than the previous day, and no other unexpected news event can compare to the burst we saw on that day. Despite the huge impact of this story, mentions of his name lasted only about a week, with a resurgence during his memorial 12 days later. Rather surprisingly, Patrick Swayze's death was almost as large with about two-thirds as many mentions as Michael Jackson's on the peak day of status updates about Swayze.
5 - Family
Specific words: Family, Mom, Dad, Son, Daughter, Kids
As Facebook becomes more prevalent across demographics, people talk more about "mom," "dad," "son" and "daughter". We saw significant increases in all sorts of family-related words during 2009. Perhaps the most dramatic increase was "kids," a word whose occurrence went up by a factor of five.
6 - Movies
Specific words: New Moon, Transformers, Star Trek, The Hangover, Paranormal Activity and Harry Potter
Whenever a new movie comes out, it creates a big spike in discussion in Facebook status updates. The most-discussed of 2009 was "New Moon." It narrowly edged out the big summer movies "Harry Potter" and "Transformers." Other big movies on Facebook were "Star Trek," "The Hangover" and "Paranormal Activity".
7 - Sports
Specific words: Steelers, Yankees
In February of 2009, the Pittsburgh Steelers won the Super Bowl, and in October the New York Yankees won the World Series. The Steelers reached a higher peak in mentions, but largely because they only played a single football game to garner the top prize. The Yankees were discussed a bit less per day, but the discussion occurred over a longer period of time throughout the multiple games of baseball's World Series. We'll call this one a tie to avoid playing favorites or sparking sports-supremacy debates.
8 - Health Care
Specific words: Health Care, No one should have to…
Since President Barack Obama took office, the discussion of "health care" has risen steadily in status updates. This reached a peak in early September when millions of pro-reform users updated their status with the following message: "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." For two days, millions of people posted this to their profiles in support of health care reform. The meme continued to circulate, gradually declining over the weeks that followed. Even aside from that meme, health care mentions are up 10 times since a year ago.
9 - FB
Specific words: FB, FB Friends, News Feed
Whenever we make a change to the site a lot of people chime in with their opinions. For instance, we see spikes in mentions of "News Feed" on the order of 100-times increases whenever there is a change to the way that feature works or how the home page is laid out. "FB" and "FB Friends," on the other hand, have nothing to do with product changes, but as Facebook has become more prevalent people are shortening our name for convenience. Usage of the word "FB" has increased about 7 fold since the beginning of 2009 and "FB Friends" increased about 10 times over the same period.
10 - Twitter
Specific words: Twitter, RT
Talk about Twitter took off at the beginning of the year. April showed a peak of activity and momentum, though mentions of the word "Twitter" decreased over the past few months. The acronym "RT," standing for "retweet," entered the lexicon along with the word "Twitter" in September of 2008 and has become a common acronym to describe reposting activity.
11 - Years
Specific words: 2008, 2009, 2010
Many status updates are about what people are going to do or have just done, so naturally they often contain dates. While the number of posts containing a date didn't go up dramatically in 2009, the date itself changed to reflect the current and upcoming year.
12 - Lady Gaga
Specific words: Gaga, Poker Face
Lady Gaga was the biggest new performer of 2009 based on status updates from people in the U.S. She was virtually unmentioned until November of 2008 and spiked in mentions of her name in September of 2009 during the MTV Video Music Awards. At the end of September, Christopher Walken's performance of the song "Poker Face" caused a spike in that term, but didn't noticeably impact occurrences of "Lady Gaga."
13 - Yard
Specific word: Yard
This is a trend that nobody would have guessed. The word "yard" seems fairly uncommon, and indeed it barely breaches a rate of five mentions in every 10,000 status updates. When we compare 2009 to 2008, however, we see a huge increase. Have all the hipsters turned to yard work as the latest fad? Probably not. A more likely explanation is that hipsters' moms and dads are also on Facebook, and these folks have yards that require some tending.
14 - Religion
Specific words: Easter, Lord, God
Religious terms increased a significant amount in the last year. In the last 6 months, there was a noticeable upward trend in occurrences of "Lord" and "God." While "Easter" occurs infrequently most of the time, the Easter Sunday spike from 2009 is about 30 percent higher than it was in 2008.
15 - I
Specific words: I, is
Until March of 2009, people updated their status in a box that appeared next to their name on the home page and, consequently, many updates started with the word "is." Once that box no longer was shown next to people's name, the usage of "is" dropped off dramatically and usage of "I" doubled almost overnight. Prior to March of 2009, "is" represented about 9 percent of all words in status updates. With the change in interface, it remained high in absolute terms, but dropped all the way to about 1.5 percent recently while "I" increased from 1 percent to about 2.5 percent.
Lars Backstrom, a data scientist at Facebook, is heading to Iowa to investigate some farms.