2013 on Facebook: From the Pope to the Harlem Shake

by Catherine Boyle and Kiran Moodley
The newly elected Pope Francis I appears on the central balcony of St Peter's Basilica on March 13, 2013.
Peter Macdiarmid | Getty Images

It may have started out as a rudimentary way to rate the attractiveness of college undergraduates, but almost a decade later, Facebook is a major tool for sharing and debate online – and increasingly an important means for media sites to generate interest.

With over 1 billion active users across the globe, Facebook revealed in October that the average referral track from the social network to media sites increased 170 percent between September 2012 and 2013.

Facebook drives more traffic than any other social platform, and over double the amount of Twitter referrals, according to SimpleReach, which analyzes social networks across the web.

(Read more: The Facebook obsession)

The secret of what makes the average social network user tick and then click is the holy grail for media sites, and to celebrate the end of 2013 - a year that has been particularly lucrative for Facebook - Mark Zuckerberg's baby has revealed the most talked about topics of the year past.

(Read more: Facebook explores adding 'sympathize' button)

Number one on the list was Pope Francis, elected back in March following the surprise resignation of Pope Benedict XVI, and who has taken a more laid back and likeable approach compared to his rather strict Germanic predecessor.

The former Cardinal Bergoglio turned down the opportunity to live in the official papal residence,and emphasized the importance of serving the poor, with attacks on "unfettered capitalism." He has also won approval from the more liberal wing of the Catholic Church for stating that it had become too focused on issues like contraception, abortion and homosexuality.

Second on the list came not a person nor a single event but the phrase "election." Elections were the top Facebook conversation topics in Argentina, where sitting President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner suffered a setback in midterm elections, as well as Germany, where Angela Merkel won another term in the Bundestag.

(Read more: Facebook vs. Twitter in battle for holiday ad cash)

Another more general term, "flood," came in at number six, with countries including the U.S., Russia Canada, UK, Mexico, Peru, Chile, Bolivia, Germany and Hungary suffering from heavy flooding this year, and their citizens took to Facebook to express shock, offer help or just point out how much water there was.

Third and fourth on the list went to the birth of Prince George of Cambridge on July 22, 2013, and Typhoon Haiyan, also known as Typhoon Yolanda, which hit the Philippines in November. Part of the reason the latter was discussed so much on Facebook was appeals for donations from humanitarian agencies through the social media site.

Robin Thicke and Miley Cyrus perform during the 2013 MTV Video Music Awards.
Theo Wargo | WireImage

Shake & Twerk

While news events have dominated, cultural references have also proved popular on Facebook's list.

The "Harlem Shake" came in at number five, with the viral video phenomenon featuring tens of thousands of different versions, from the Miami Heat team to a grandson with his grandmas uploading video of themselves dancing to the song "Harlem Shake" by U.S. artist Baauer. The 30-second memes usually start with a single person dancing, often in a mask, while being ignored by everyone else in the shot. When the chorus starts, other people suddenly join in.

The sixth most talked about subject on Facebook in 2013 was Miley Cyrus, who did her best to banish memories of her child star days by embracing "twerking" with "Blurred Lines" singer Robin Thicke at the MTV Awards in August. The performance drew the wrath of parent groups – and was one of the most-posted videos on the social network this year.

The storm doesn't seem to have dented sales of her latest album, which sold 270,000 copies in its first week, nearly three times the number of copies sold by her previous record in its first week.

Sport made the list at number nine with the Tour de France. The 100th edition of the cycling event was won by Britain's Chris Froome from Team Sky, and, like many sporting events, followed online by millions of people. Its official Facebook page has more than 1 million Likes.

Boston & Mandela

Completing the list at numbers eight and ten respectively were major news stories: the Boston Marathon bombing and the death of former South African President and anti-Apartheid hero Nelson Mandela.

When the annual marathon at Boston became the site of a terrorist attack which killed three people, it quickly became one of the most discussed topics on Facebook. The subsequent circulation of photos of suspects on social networks; the shooting of one of the alleged perpetrators, Tamerlan Tsarnaev; and the arrest of his brother, Dzhokhar, kept the story circulating for days.

The death of Nelson Mandela, the man who led South Africa out of the Apartheid era - and became a global figure for his long imprisonment - led to an outpouring of grief from around the world. Much of it was via social networks like Facebook and Twitter, as well as more traditional methods like condolence books and flowers.