This is a guest post kindly written by @digitalmaverick. If you like what he has to say, leave a comment or drop him a line!
If you are a Twitter user and you access it via the Twitter website – which, granted, a lot of people don’t do these days due to the rise of Tweetdeck et al – you may have noticed some changes to the home page recently. So earth-shaking was this event that it even made the news pages of the BBC website! But these changes, what were they? And why should they matter?
Well, anyone who knows me knows that I am an avid Twitterer – I’m an educationalist with a very wide-ranging cast of people that I Follow (c.2,900 at the last count, and over 3,000 follow me), To this end ‘hashtags’ and ‘trending topics’ are becoming a useful way of homing in on certain groups of people to allow me to observe specific events that my Twitterhood are talking about. This keeps me informed and up to date and I have Twitter’s great service to thank for showing me all of this information in realtime.
The recent Twitter home page update showed that Twitter has decided to put a great emphasis on these ‘trending topics’ by devoting over ½ of the new main screen to these topics. However, although it’s nice to see that Twitter Towers are staring to realise the power of the ‘search’ – so much so that I’ve coined the phrase ‘Twitter is my Google’ – I believe that they have gone about this in entirely the wrong way, by placing far too much emphasis on the topics that are supposed to matter.
Yesterday, on a day when, in the UK, Gary McKinnon, David Cameron and the Australian cricketer who used Twitter to say he’d been dropped form the 3rd Ashes squad, Twitter deifinded the TTTT (Ten Top Trending Topics) were: Real Housewives, Sheree, Atlanta, Kandi, Eminem, Beer Summit, Kim, Nene, Harry Potter (and note the capitalisation), LISA. One look at those Topics, all highlighted by Twitter as being THE hottest topics of discussion shows how flawed the system is, due to 4 of theme being female 1st names (and therefore meaningless when out of context) and one being a US TV show.
The Javanese have a phrase ‘Tjotjog’ which means ‘someone else’s opinion agrees with mine’ and it is my assertion that interpretation of Trending Topics is individual and therefore a case where Tjotjog does not apply. In other words Trending Topics only have value to me if taken from MY own Personal Learning Network and not the whole 35million+ Twitterhood.
It is the case that trending Topics can be abused by spammers, something that is already happening with accounts in which posts consist of only trending topics thereby creating an incomprehensible stream of posts designed to sucker people into clicking on a trend and accessing a spam account. In addition, and this REALLY renders Trending Topics tiresome in my case, is the people who create set out to ‘epater le bourgois’, in other words to deliberately shock people with different moral standards to themselves. This was most apparent when a group of Australians attempted to get ‘fisting’ to become the top trending topic, and others have used ‘whats your favourite swearword’. Yet when British acting legend Molly Sugden died, a hashtag used in tribute to her ‘mrsslocombespussy’ was deemed to be offensive by Twitter Towers so that it became ‘hashtag non grata’. This is a particularly good case of Twitter censoring what is deemed valid, and due to their misunderstanding of a foreign cultural issue (as they are based in USA) of censoring what news can trend (but thats another story).
My argument is also that to just show, out of context, a stream of unrelated, and often bizarre words as trends on the main page Twitter have provided the user with an interface as useful as sunglasses made of butter. Their choice to emphasise global trends surely puts the emphasis on topics discussed by the largest user groups. So for example when many users post on the yearly SXSW conference or when a new US TV show airs those easily become trending topics, yet when a huge proportion of MY Twitter stream contains references to conferences like osschools, tmtbett09 or bcl09 none of these make the trending topics despite them taking up proportionally more of MY Twitterstream. And surely that is what is of more use to me as an individual – not whether ‘Kandi’ as a word in isolation is trending today across the whole of Twitter, but that in MY Twitter stream ‘bcl09’ is the most discussed topic? Well I think so.
Twitter have also chosen to illustrate the ‘hours, days and weeks’ with icons which I think are as incomprehensible as MacDonald’s attempts to create their own icons representing nutritional values. They are not intuitive and render trending Topics even harder to understand.
Context is important with Trending Topics, without context it is not clear why ‘JayZ’ is currently a major topic of discussion globally – and clicking on the link is likely to take you to a maelstrom of accounts of people you don’t know interspersed with the sort of spam described earlier. This has no value to me as a Twitter user – it dilutes the potential of Trending Topics to an unusable degree. The system is also flawed because of trends like ‘musicmonday’ and the Flat World nature of a tool like Twitter. To apply definitions like topics of ‘today’ loses sight of the fact that Monday to an American may already be Tuesday to a New Zealander. This US-centric view was best seen when in its first experimentations with trends, Twitter placed a banner on ALL Twitter pages saying ‘Election ’08’ – which arrogantly implied there was no other election of import or value taking place elsewhere in the world. Many non-US users didn’t like that decision and it was clear that this was only the start of poor understanding by Twitter of the importance of TARGETTING trends at the people to whom they matter.
For trends to be of most value to users, Twitter have to realise that they are NOT Tjotjog – different people need to see the topics that are important to THEM. I hope one day soon Twitter will realise this.