Yesterday I was wondering what people actually do on social networks. Now we have an answer, at least a partial one, thanks to a comment from Nnamdi which pointed to this research from North Carolina University on Facebook usage.
For students, who make a up a large part of the Facebook user base apparently:
The most prevalent use of Facebook was as a social activity – students reported using Facebook with friends to view and discuss other people’s profiles. Essentially, Facebook appears to operate primarily as a tool for the facilitation of gossip.
A bit later in the study they describe this as mediated voyeurism:
“…the consumption of revealing images of and information about others’ apparently real and unguarded lives, often yet not always for purposes of entertainment but frequently at the expense of privacy and discourse, through the means of mass media and Internet.”
This is only a partial answer as the study was confined to students.
More on this as and when I get some answers.