Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Are Twitter Trends Meaningful?

How much value is there in a Twitter trending topic? Does it really represent what is on people's minds?

Since practically everyone on Twitter is both a publisher and a reader, we don't often think the distinction between the two is important. But it is - especially if you want to interpret the meaning of trending topics. And this is simply because trending topics directly measure publishers, not readers.

If you're not sold yet on why the distinction is important, take a quick sidebar to more traditional news sources. Would you consider the headlines of newspapers what is on people's minds? Would you consider them the 'trending topics' (on more of a daily pace)?

Not exactly. Rather, these are the stories that publishers 'think' the population will be interested in. So if publishers are good and do their research well, perhaps the headlines do line up with what is on people's minds. And of course, if what's on your mind is what you just read in the newspaper this morning, we may arrive at the same result - just with the publisher influencing the reader - not the other way around.

So back to Twitter.

Since everyone is a publisher, one might dismiss the notion that we aren't looking at real trends. However, there are two distinct distortions we should not forget about when looking at Twitter trends:

1. Whenever we tweet something, we tweet things that we think will be interesting to our followers. It is the same thing that newspaper publishers do. When we tweet too many things our followers are not interested in, we lose them. And we don't want to lose followers. If we are good, we may know what our followers want. So perhaps it is not a complete disconnect. But even good people will mess up. And how many are that good? We can't forget that the publisher chooses the topic, not the reader.

2. There is a large segment of the Twitter population that is very focused on gaining a large following, without much else driving their activity. How does one gain a large following? Tweet about interesting stuff. Don't know what is interesting? Check out the top 10 trends on Twitter. Tweet about that.
So now there is a segment of the Twitter population that has turned Twitter and it's top trends into an amplifier. One can no longer tell how interested people are in a particular topic because Twitter publishers have picked up the 'trends', tweeted about them and pushed them even higher on the charts.
On a gross scale, we often do get to find out what people are thinking about. But the top 10 trends will always be much higher on the scale than they deserve to be because of this phenomenon.

Are Twitter trends useful? Probably. Just keep in mind their limitations are very much like those of every media outlet that preceded Twitter. Trends are amplified through the 'Twitter amplifier' and they really represent what publishers are thinking about, not necessarily what readers were thinking about before their publisher tweeted the story.

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