With more than 270,000 accounts provincewide, it's more popular than voting
A collective status update for Newfoundland and Labrador: we like Facebook more than voting.
As of Wednesday, 273,960 Newfoundlanders and Labradorians - about 53 per cent of the 514,500 who live here - had Facebook accounts.
That's about 50,000 more than the roughly 222,800 people who cast ballots in October's provincial election.
While that comparison might suggest voter apathy, it also shows Facebook's reach.
"It's huge," says Lyle Wetsch, an associate professor of marketing at Memorial University who specializes in social media.
He obtained Newfoundland and Labrador's Facebook status through the site's advertising page.
He suggests that two things are driving local interest in the social network.
"One is we're a friendly population ... and we're also dealing with a fairly distributed population," Wetsch says, adding that Facebook allows Newfoundlanders and Labradorians to easily connect with friends and family who live or work away.
That's a big reason why MUN student and Carbonear native Jessica Baldwin logs on to facebook.com. She uses it to keep in touch.
Asked how important the site is to her, she replies, "It's not a necessity, but it's important. When I wake every morning, I check my Facebook. If I'm up in the middle of the night, I check my Facebook. I just like to stay informed about the people around me. It's just a fascination, I guess. There's no real meaning behind it. ... It is important in the sense that's it's become part of my life, and if it was taken away, I'd have (withdrawal). Definitely."
Wetsch says high Facebook usage is not unique to Newfoundland and Labrador, and that the Prairies and the other Atlantic provinces also have a large percentage of users.
He says one of the most intriguing stats in this province comes from the west coast - within 50 miles of Corner Brook, there are 40,000 Facebook accounts.
"I say there's probably four people that aren't on Facebook there," Wetsch jokes.
Humour aside, he says the province's large volume of Facebook users packs immense marketing promise for business.
"It has the potential to be huge when you consider the scope of the market that's on there, but you've got to remember that the most important word in social media is social. If you're not going to engage and communicate with people, then there is no sense of having a (business account on Facebook), because it's going to backfire on you."
Wetsch says when Facebook's new timeline layout goes live at the end of March, there is further opportunity for businesses to engage with users.
When he was given the comparison between the number of Facebook users and October's voter turnout, Wetsch searched for the number of Facebook accounts held by Newfoundlanders and Labradorians 18 and over (voting age) to put things in better perspective.
The result, which may surprise those who see social media as a tool for the younger generation, was 261,000.
That's still almost 40,000 more than the number of people who cast ballots.
"I don't think that really surprises me," Baldwin says when told about the comparison.
"It frightens me a little bit because people are becoming more involved with computer technologies and things like that, as opposed to real-life issues within the community."
Baldwin suggests it's time to let people vote online. She thinks security measures can be put in place to make that possible and reliable.
Medium's not the message
Alex Marland is a poli sci prof at MUN.
He sees little significance in the fact that more people are logging onto Facebook than are marking their X.
"From a political science point of view, we would look at this and say it doesn't really tell us anything."
He believes the bigger questions are how many people aren't voting and whether we should be concerned about that.
Marland thinks the numbers speak more to Facebook as being a popular method of communicating than anything else.
"They are not interested in Facebook, they are interested in other human beings," he said.
"They are interested in what Facebook allows them to do, which is connect with other people, so that's really what it is to me. It's not the actual platform. It's what the platform does for them."
Marland suggests a better measure would be how many people on Facebook are discussing politics and liking politicians or parties.
He says the political relevance of Facebook is in how politicians use it to their advantage. He cites U.S. President Barrack Obama's 2008 election as the best usage to date.
"Obama embraced Facebook like nobody had before and still nobody in Canada can match."
Marland adds the site is a fantastic way for political parties to raise funds.
Wetsch says a lot of research has come out of the U.S. about governments or political parties using social media to engage people.
He, too, cites Obama as an example of effective usage.
"It's a lesson to be learned from that side of things that we have to start realizing that everything is becoming social."
And that creates growing concern for Baldwin, who graduates with a degree in communication studies next month. She thinks the way people consume information is changing, and not necessarily for the better.
"We're more likely to rely on what our friends say as (opposed) to actually researching it ourselves," she says.
Wetsch notes that Facebook is globally expected to hit a billion users - representing one in seven people - by the end of 2012.
However, in Newfoundland and Labrador, he doesn't think there is a whole lot of room to grow.
"Unless we get to the point where we find the people who don't have an account and hunt them down to sign up," he said.
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