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Old Media Champions Turn On And Tune In

The third most-shared news article on Facebook this year was a CNN story titled "No, your zodiac sign hasn't changed." It barely bested another CNN piece, "Parents, don't dress your girls like tramps."

That such inconsequential articles are the most popular content on Facebook might seem to confirm stereotypes – idle users are simply looking for entertainment to pass the time.

But while the content of these viral stories may be frivolous, 2011 was the year that music, film and print media companies became serious about using Facebook. Previous inhibitions about engaging with unpredictable, user-generated content were set aside and media companies today are looking for ways to use social networks to find new audiences, increase time spent with their products and make money.

The Washington Post Company was among the most experimental of the old media companies on Facebook this year, launching its Social Reader application. A news aggregator that features Washington Post content, as well as stories from other sites, it suggests stories based on what your friends have read.

"News today is editor-centric, what we've built is a friends-centric reader experience," says Vijay Ravindran, chief digital officer at the Washington Post. "It starts with the simple premise that if you could see what your friends are reading, the news would be more interesting."

Social Reader already has 5m users, with 83 per cent of readers under the age of 35. "It is very different than the audience that comes to WashingtonPost.com," adds Mr Ravindran.

Other social news applications were developed by The Independent, Yahoo News, and the Guardian. Many of the most popular stories viewed via The Independent's application turned out to be from the 1990s, so it has helped to breathe new life into older content.

"Our vision is that every industry has the possibility to be transformed by social," says Dan Rose, Facebook's vice-president of platform marketing. "We started with photos and then games, and now we're starting to see disruption around music and news."

Perhaps the biggest social success story for the media this year came with Spotify, the music streaming service that now requires a Facebook subscription to sign up. With billionaire Sean Parker an investor in both companies, Spotify rose to prominence since it launched in the US earlier this year.

"We believe that music is the most powerful social object and now we believe that there are going to be more serendipitous moments where you discover things about people, like, for example, that I have really crappy 1980s music tastes," Daniel Ek, Spotify chief executive said earlier this year.

Austin Haugen, a product manager at Facebook who works with media companies, says: "They've shifted the mindset of discovering music from this editorial, curated thing of 'here are the top 40 songs right now', to 'here's what your friends are listening to right now'."

Movie and television producers have been slower to embrace Facebook and social media, beyond letting users share links to their products. But some studios began letting Facebook users stream films on the site this year, with blockbusters such as Inception and The Dark Knight available to view for about $3.

This year Netflix allowed users around the world to publish their rental habits on Facebook, except in the US where an arcane law prohibits the sharing of video rental profiles. User-generated content video sites such as YouTube and Vimeo allow their content to be embedded in Facebook users' news feeds.

Facebook is so far unperturbed when it comes to making money from media companies. "Everything outside of games is experimentation when it comes to monetisation," says Mr Rose.

And while Spotify is already making significant money from advertisers, publishers are taking the long view. "There will be a time to think about monetisation, but we made a commitment early on to let this experiment run," says Mr Ravindran.

Yet as companies such as The Washington Post and Spotify show real results by embracing social media, it may not be long before more music, film and news companies begin to embrace Facebook.

"Media is the category we're excited about right now," says Mr Rose. "We're seeing a lot experimentation."

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