Twitter has added popular trending topics to our sidebars, which is a good idea in theory -- but we reckon the feature is actually adding noise
Richard TrenholmFormer Movie and TV Senior Editor
Richard Trenholm was CNET's film and TV editor, covering the big screen, small screen and streaming. A member of the Film Critic's Circle, he's covered technology and culture from London's tech scene to Europe's refugee camps to the Sundance film festival.
If there's one thing Twitter doesn't need, it's more noise. In a recent redesign, Twitter placed a real-time list of popular subjects being discussed in the twitterverse in the right-hand sidebar of tweeters' home pages. At best, these 'trending topics' are a quick way to filter conversations on subjects you're interested in with people you've never encountered before. But at worst, they add more noise than a monkey with a megaphone.
There are two main types of trending topics: with Twitter's search function becoming increasingly clever, it'll automatically pick out common words and phrases from tweets. Or it'll highlight hashtags set by users. The former is usually events or subjects in the real world, such as Eurovision or Memorial Day. Thanks to Twitter, we now know that something called a Kris Allen beat something called an Adam Lambert on something called American Idol.
The second type of topic is the hashtag. These are made up by users to group similarly themed tweets. Now that Twitter's clever search is finding things like events without the event needing its own hashtag, anyone going to, say, the Social Media Breakfast in Minneapolis-St Paul can get away with dropping the preceding hash symbol from #smbmsp. As a result, hashtags are becoming more abstract, grouping Twitter memes that flourish and disappear in brief lifecycles before mutating or disappearing completely.
Probably the most robust meme is #FollowFriday, which tweeters use to suggest to their readers whose tweets are particularly worth a follow. Recently, #firstrecord was popular, with users revealing the first record they bought, while #SaveEarl mobilised fans of doomed sitcom My Name is Earl.
Our favourite memes are more whimsical. #vampirebeatles spawned a torrent of parody Beatles songtitles ('Ticket to Bite', 'She Came In Through the Bathory Window', 'Things We Bled Today') before mutating into such variants as #zombiebeatles, #vampirestones and even #vampireabba. The great thing about topics like this -- and #creditcrunchmovies and #overwrittenfilmtaglines and the rest -- is that, on the level playing field of Twitter, professional funnymakers such as Mitch Benn, Peter Serafinwicz and Chris Addison are tweeting equally with the masses in a great big democracy of hilarity. A hilariocracy, if you will. In fact, a Twilariocracy -- no, that's just silly.
Sounds great, doesn't it? By and large, it is.
Sadly though, we can't always trust the topics are genuine. Putting trending topics on display like this, while a laudable idea, has had a similar effect as putting follower numbers in your profile: some users chase the numbers, attempting to game themselves into the sidebar. On top of that, as clever as the real-time search is, it isn't yet filtered. So on many evenings, 'goodnight' hits the sidebar as US tweeters wish us well as they head for bed.
Even if the topics are genuine, people don't always have clever things to say. We don't want to be all snobby about the recent explosion in popularity, but for some, Twitter has gone the way of your favourite hidden shop or backstreet bar suddenly being overrun by tourists and posers. Spambots have taken to trending topics like especially annoying ducks to particularly stagnant water, cramming popular topics into tweets with no rhyme or reason.
Then there's those hair-trigger tweeters who, instead of taking two seconds to engage their brains or just read some of the other posts to see what the topic is about, apparently think they're adding value to the conversation with tweets such as, "So what's this #monkeys thing about then?", "Why's everyone tweeting about monkeys?" and "LOL at teh #monkeys tweets yo!!!"
The trending topics list is an interesting feature, even if it does frequently need to be taken with a pinch of salt and could do with better filtering. As for the calibre of the memes -- the recent #3wordsduringsex being a particularly barrel-scraping example -- and the quality of tweets, that's up to all of us.
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